George Lucas Turns 77: 15 Fascinating Facts About the ‘Star Wars’ Filmmaker
Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Dodge
Visionary American Graffiti and Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas turns 77 on May 14. And what a life it’s been so far. Before becoming a world famous filmmaker who created timeless characters and franchises, Lucas was a young film student immersed in, and influenced by, films by Canadian filmmakers. And then, of course, there’s the time in Hawaii he spent building sandcastles on the beach with Steven Spielberg, all the while banging out the initial agreement to collaborate on Indiana Jones. As such, we celebrate his 77th birthday by recounting 15 fascinating facts about Lucas’ life.
1. If Not For a Near-Fatal Car Accident, Lucas May Have Never Become a Filmmaker
One of George Lucas’ first passions was car racing. In fact, he wanted to be a race car driver when he grew up. He didn’t wait, however, to land on the Daytona International Speedway to show off his racing chops. As a teen, he raced on local circuits until, at 18, a crash during one of his races nearly took his life. After the accident he gave up that dream to pursue filmmaking, incorporating his love of auto racing into various films.
2. Star Wars’ Canadian Influence
The Star Wars saga may have taken place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but the filmmaking sensibilities that George Lucas brought to his legendary space opera, as well as his other works, were largely influenced by a trio of Canuck directors. According to a 2005 feature on Lucas in Wired magazine (which boasts the brilliant title “Life After Darth”), one of the courses that resonated most with Lucas in film school was called Filmic Expression, “which focused on the non-narrative aspects of filmmaking — telling stories without words by using light, space, motion, and colour.” And many of the films in that class came courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada. The piece notes that three Canadian filmmakers stood out during that course as major influences on Lucas for their experimentation in film: animator Norman McLaren, documentarian Claude Jutra and director Arthur Lipsett, whose short film 21-87 — which illustrated, “Lipsett’s subversive manipulation of images and sound … even with no plot or character development, 21-87 evoked richly nuanced emotions, from grief to a tenacious kind of hope, all in less than 10 minutes” — had the biggest influence on the young student.
The Wired story adds that:
“Lucas has planted stealth references to 21-87 throughout his films. The events in the student-film version of THX 1138 took place in the year 2187, and the numerical title itself was an homage. In the feature-length version, Duvall’s character makes his run from a subterranean city when he learns that the love of his life was murdered by the authorities on the date ’21/87.’ And in the first Star Wars, when Luke and Han Solo blast into the detention center to rescue Princess Leia, they discover that the stormtroopers are holding her as a prisoner in cell 2187.”
As well, there’s evidence that 21-87 influenced the creation of the Force itself. The story points to a line of dialogue by Canadian filmmaker Roman Kroitor, who co-founded IMAX, that’s sampled in the movie, in which he uses the term “some kind of force” when discussing a “contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things.”
Wired notes that, “Lucas confirms that his use of the term [the Force] in Star Wars was ‘an echo of that phrase in 21-87.’ The idea behind it, however, was universal: ‘Similar phrases have been used extensively by many different people for the last 13,000 years to describe the ‘life force.’’”
3. A Flash Gordon Rejection Led to Star Wars
Lucas grew up as a fan of the Flash Gordon comic strip and tried to option the rights to adapt it into a film. But Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis, who owned the rights, wouldn’t sell them to him, so Lucas set out to create his own space adventure series, which, of course, turned out to be Star Wars.
4. The Script for the First Star Wars Film Didn’t Light the World on Fire
In 1977, Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope debuted, kicking off one of the most successful film franchises in history and subsequently setting the record as the highest grossing film of all time. Its success validated Lucas’ vision while acting as egg on the face of the multiple studios that turned it down. That’s right — no one in Hollywood wanted to make Star Wars. In fact, 20th Century Fox was the only studio willing to take it on, and it was only because studio exec Alan Ladd Jr. was a fan of Lucas’ American Graffiti.
5. Star Wars — The Most Successful Independent Films Ever Made
Thanks the unprecedented box office and merchandising success of the first Star Wars release in 1977, Lucas could afford to bankroll the next five films in the franchise: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Episode VI — Return of the Jedi (1983) and Episode I — The Phantom Menace (1999), Episode II — Attack of the Clones (2002) and Episode III — Revenge of the Sith (2005). As IMDB notes, “With the success of the (first) film and its merchandising, Lucas no longer needed to go to the studios. For Episodes V and VI, he took out bank loans, which he paid off on each films’ earnings. For the prequel trilogy, he no longer needed bank loans, having made enough money to fund each film out of his own personal savings.”
Technically, that makes them independent films, though not everyone sees them as truly fitting that bill. In 1999, Lucas’ biographer Dale Pollack told CNN that, “There is certainly a certain irony there, in being an independent filmmaker who has a corporation worth $4 or $5 billion. It doesn’t really quite make you the Rebel Alliance against the Evil Empire, but it makes you a different empire. So I don’t think he can really say he’s an independent filmmaker and talk as if he’s one of the kids at Sundance trying to get their first feature off the ground.”
6. Han Solo Created The Godfather … Sort of
It’s common for writers to base characters on people they know, and Lucas is no different. The filmmaker reportedly drew on his own life for the inspiration for some of his most famous characters. That includes his dog, Indiana, who served as a visual inspiration for Chewbacca in Star Wars while lending his name to Indiana Jones. He also lent his own teenage nickname “Luke” to Luke Skywalker and used his director pal Francis Ford Coppola as the inspiration for Han Solo.
7. Faster and More Intense!
Lucas is famously a director of few words to begin with, which meant the brief loss of his voice while filming Star Wars: A New Hope didn’t exactly bring production to a stand still. In fact, his direction often consisted of the same few words, like “faster” and “more intense.” In an interview with Newsweek, Carrie Fisher quipped that, following Lucas’ lost voice, “she wanted to put two horns on a board, one for ‘faster,’ another for ‘more intense,’ so he could continue to direct the movie by honking the appropriate horn.
8. George Lucas Dated Linda Ronstadt After She Broke Up With Jim Carrey
Yes, you read that right. In late 1983, singer Linda Ronstadt had broken up with a pre-fame (and much younger than her) Jim Carrey and hooked up with Lucas. According to the Daily Mail, Lucas and Ronstadt met following one of her concerts and he “was warned that Ronstadt had a roving eye and wasn’t interested in settling down.” Nevertheless, the pair reportedly dated for five years and even got engaged, though you wouldn’t know it given they never took photos together or spoke of their relationship publicly. As a result, the Daily Mail quotes the biography George Lucas: A Life, by Brian Jay Jones, as saying that, “Lucas was so low-key that as he trailed along after Ronstadt in a San Anselmo [California] drugstore, the proprietor thought he was her houseboy.”
9. Indiana Jones Began as a Day at the Beach with Steven Spielberg
Filmmaking isn’t exactly a day at the beach, but the Indiana Jones partnership between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg began under the Hawaiian sun with sand between their toes. The pair escaped to Hawaii following the release of the first Star Wars film and in 2008 and Spielberg recounted how Lucas pitched the Indiana Jones concept to him in an interview with Vanity Fair:
“He turned to me, he said, ‘So what are you going to do next?’ And I told him that I wanted to, for the second time, approach [film producer] Cubby Broccoli, who had turned me down the first time, to see if he would change his mind and hire me to do a James Bond movie. And George said, ‘I’ve got something better than that. It’s called Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ He pitched me the story, and I committed on the beach. We started a tradition of building lucky sandcastles. So we used to build sandcastles in Hawaii, and if the sandcastle withstood the first high tide, the film was a hit. If the high tide overran the sandcastle, we were going to have to struggle to make our money back. That was our superstition and that was our tradition.”
10. Lucas Doesn’t Care How Many Thumbs Up You Give His Movies
Movie critics from Roger Ebert to Peter Travers gained fame, in part, because their names appeared on movie posters around the world, alongside their quotes about the respective films. As a result, positive quotes from high-profile critics can lend films a level of credibility that helps, in turn, to propel them to box office success. But according to IMDB, George Lucas doesn’t care about any of that. The site reports that Lucas, “refuses to put ‘critics quotes’ on his movie posters — something that infuriates many critic societies.” Sorry Peter Travers. It’s nothing personal.
11. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Lightsaber
While many of Lucas’ films are centre around sci-fi technology, the filmmaker tends to craft them using a good ol’ pen and paper. IMDB notes that, “when he writes, he does it in longhand in a loose leaf binder rather than on a word processor.” And when Lucas was asked about it directly during an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts in 2013, he replied, “Well I grew up long before computers. I don’t think I’ve even written anything since computers were invented. So I didn’t use a typewriter, although my father sold typewriters. That’s what he did for a living. I don’t know if there was an Oedipus reality going on there or something, but basically I like to draw things, I like to use a pencil. I just like doing it longhand, and it’s much more contemplative.”
12. Lucasfilm Gave Birth to Pixar
In the early 1980s, around the time Lucas was dating Linda Ronstadt, he took the computer animation branch of Lucasfilm, called The Graphics Group,and made it its own independent company in an effort to pursue the group’s goal of creating the first ever computer animated film. Dubbed Pixar, the new company received a $10 million investment from Apple computers co-founder Steve Jobs in 1986 and, in the ensuing years, as the company struggled to survive, Jobs continued to invest more money until he eventually came to own the company. The company continued to lose money, however, until the 1995 animated blockbuster Toy Story turned its fortunes around, kicking off a run of modern classics that includes the Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Incredibles, Cars and Monsters Inc. franchises, as well as stand alone Oscar winners like Inside Out.
13. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg Ruled the Box Office in the 1980s
It’s pretty simple — the numbers don’t lie. And in the 1980s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg dominated the box office, directing or creating six films on the list of the decade’s 10 top-grossing movies.
That list, documented by Wikipedia, includes:
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), $435 million
Return of the Jedi (1983), $309 million
The Empire Strikes Back (1980), $290 million
Batman (1989), $251 million
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), $245 million
Ghostbusters (1984), $238 million
Beverly Hills Cop (1984), $234 million
Back to the Future (1985), $210 million
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), $197 million
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), $179 million
14. It’s Not Just Fanboys Who Want to Preserve Lucas’ Films
Both the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute have recognized Lucas’ films. To start, the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry boasts three Lucas-directed films preserved for posterity — 1967’s Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB (which Lucas made while at USC film school), 1973’s American Graffiti and 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which Lucas produced, were also selected for the National Film Registry. Meanwhile, AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies includes three Lucas-penned films, at numbers 13 (Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope), 62 (American Graffiti) and 66 (Raiders of the Lost Ark) respectively.
15. Oscar Can Wait
George Lucas has been nominated for four Oscars without a win, though he did receive the honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for “creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” However, Lucas has won TWO Daytime Emmy Awards, in 2013 and 2014, both for Outstanding Special Class Animated Program for Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
This story was originally published in 2019.