It's fair to say George Lucas is a person who has had a lot of attention paid to him.
Largely because of his creation of the Star Wars universe (though he also co-wrote the story of Raiders Of The Lost Ark), Lucas is a figure of enormous pop-cultural weight. When he sat down to talk with Stephen Colbert as part of the Tribeca Talks series at the Tribeca Film Festival, expectations were high. The challenge, however, is that in terms of hearing him tell stories, the majority of the people who want to hear him talk want to hear about Star Wars, and at this point, almost 40 years on, Lucas doesn't have all that much to say about Star Wars that he hasn't already said.
He remains polite and noncommittal about the upcoming Star Wars films in which he isn't involved: he hopes they're great, he's excited to see them. He remembers showing the film to a bunch of his friends at the time — and regardless of who was at this actual screening, his friends included your Marty Scorsese, your Brian De Palma, your Steve Spielberg, that kind of thing — and only Spielberg believed Star Wars would be successful. Brian De Palma, for the record, didn't get what "The Force" was. Almost nobody got it. Almost nobody believed in it. This is the story as he tells it.
In some ways, the revelations about Star Wars came from Colbert, who opened by explaining that as a 13-year-old, he won tickets to an advance screening of the film, knowing essentially nothing about what it was. He said that as he and a couple of his friends arrived, they were given two things: a blue ticket that was taken at the door and a button that said "May The Force Be With You." Colbert still has the button, and he insisted that on the way out of the theater, he and his friends were so profoundly affected that they already knew they'd want those tickets as souvenirs, so they asked for them back. No dice: already gone.
This is what the Star Wars story is now — it's less the story of how a movie that's been exhaustively documented was made, and more the story of the extraordinary cultural force that it created. This entire thing has largely gotten away from George Lucas, not just in that he no longer helms the movies in the franchise, but in that Star Wars is now culturally — though certainly not legally — in a sort of public domain space. It's mashed up and remembered and used as a marker: for Colbert, as he explained it, this was the moment when everything became different. At an event after he became a celebrity himself, Colbert said he was so unprepared when someone suggested "George" wanted to meet him that he asked, "George who?" This could not, he assumed, mean George Lucas.
Lucas has settled into the life of the restless gazillionaire dabbler, or at least into the narrative of one: he himself told the audience he's "retired," "just screwing around in [his] garage," and devoted to making little experimental films — something he's been saying for years. He told Colbert he doesn't like celebrity. In fact, when Colbert opened by asking him, "What's it like to be George Lucas? Is it good?" Lucas answered, "It's ... OK."
This is what George Lucas does now: He talks about the importance of creatives and the terrible people who interfere with them, he talks about the meaninglessness of criticism that doesn't come from his friends who are directors (in fact, he says there should be no such thing as negative reviews; it should be as he claims it is in Europe, where critics who don't like things simply say nothing at all), and he gently brags about having, at this point in his life, what we might call "get-lost money": the money to ignore other people with money because you have plenty of your own and can do what you want.
That's why the most enjoyable moment of the talk might have been when Lucas unleashed a wonderfully shriek-y sneeze. I've heard so much about George Lucas, I've heard him talk about Star Wars, I know about his passion for sound, I know about his early movies, I know about his director friends. But I've never heard him sneeze before.
But for all the ways in which Lucas can seem like old business that doesn't change, the spell he still casts on people is remarkable. During the audience Q&A at the end of the event, a young man stood up and told his story: He's 21 years old. When he was young, his now-deceased grandfather got him started with Moleskin notebooks, in which he began writing down ideas. He now has 10 notebooks full of ideas, and here was his question: maybe he could help George Lucas somehow?
This is the hold Lucas still has over people's imaginations. This is what it still means, decades later, to be in a room with the guy who made Star Wars. There is a uniquely 21-year-old quality to this story — it's the time in your life when you still believe that with adequate chutzpah, with the ability to stand up and tell George Lucas right to his face that you are a writer and you can help him, you can skip over the boring parts like pitching your projects to people who can fund them. This is what George Lucas told him, really. Not "Let's have lunch!" Not "Meet me out back; I'd like to read your stuff." Not "Give my assistant your name and I'll call you next week." None of the things one suspects he may have hoped for. George Lucas told him to do the work. Go try to make deals.
Colbert offered, not unkindly, to translate: "Go to Hollywood and suffer."
A few other items of note:
- Colbert is warming up to take over David Letterman's 11:35 p.m. slot at CBS, and he proved — out of "Stephen Colbert" character — to be a solid and warm interviewer.
- Lucas said his favorite compliment is that a film is a "cult classic," because that means a small number of people love a movie so much that they carry it on their backs to that status. "Even Howard The Duck is a cult classic," he said, before predicting that Marvel would remake it now that they can use, as he put it, "a digital duck."
- Unlike some directors, George Lucas isn't offended if you want to watch his movies on your phone. They're made for big screens, he said, and they're best seen in a big theater with a good sound system and a lot of other people. But ultimately, it's up to you: "If you want to see it on a cell phone, that's fine with me. You just won't get the same experience."