It’s a storyline we celebrate every Oscar season: the uncompromising film director, locked in constant battle with the movie studios and sometimes the public itself, heroically wrestles his or her undiluted vision onto the silver screen.
We’ve seen it play out many times since the motion picture medium’s inception. Sometimes the director triumphs: Orson Welles faced down William Randolph Hearst to get Citizen Kane released. Sometimes “the suits” win: Welles saw his subsequent picture, The Magnificent Ambersons, reedited by the studio against his will.
In more recent times, directors have occasionally lost the battle but won the war: both Ridley Scott and Terry Gilliam were pressured into releasing compromised theatrical edits of their masterworks (Blade Runner and Brazil, respectively) only to ultimately prevail years later by getting their “director’s cuts” into theaters and the home video/DVD market.
The cumulative effect of all these epic tales of art vs. commerce is that we now think of the very best movies as singular expressions of their directors. We think in terms of Hitchcock, Godard, Fellini, Huston, Coppola, Scorsese, Tarantino, Allen. French film critics coined a name for this idea: “auteur theory.” It holds that the director is the author of a film as surely as the novelist is author of a book. Consequently, the director’s vision is considered sacrosanct.
At first glace, George Lucas would appear to be the embodiment of the auteur ideal. He graduated from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts steeped in the auteur mythology—a mindset reinforced by his strong friendships with classmate John Milius and fellow directors Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.
And, indeed, his first two feature films—the dystopian THX 1138 and the sweetly nostalgic American Graffiti—did seem to display a singular vision. Critics compared Lucas favorably to the European filmmakers he so revered. But it was 1977’s Star Wars that made George Lucas a household name, and it was the spectacular success of that film that solidified the idea in his mind that the director is always right.
The movie had endured a difficult shoot, with the studio, cast, crew, and even Lucas’s close friends questioning the filmmaker’s judgment. Ultimately, Lucas triumphed: his vision resulted in one of the most lucrative movie releases in motion picture history. For the next several years, he could do no wrong: Star Wars‘s two sequels cleaned up at the box office, as did all three films in the Indiana Jones trilogy, his collaboration with Steven Spielberg.
Restoring Sense of Fun
The 1970s are often portrayed as the true golden age of American filmmaking, a time when independently minded directors and maverick writers routed the once-powerful studio system. The big critical hits of the era—The Godfather, Mean Streets, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now—all began as passion projects. Yet these were also dark, dour affairs. With the exceptions of Enter the Dragon and a few semi-okay James Bond flicks, the concept of fun vanished almost entirely from the silver screen during the first half of the ’70s—a deficiency Lucas recognized and exploited. By tapping into the simpler “good vs. evil” themes of an earlier period of storytelling, the young director delivered an enticing alternative to the emotionally draining films of his friends, and, in so doing, captured the imagination of a generation.
This is where Lucas’s problems began. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
A Collective Dream
Star Wars may have been the first movie I ever saw. Awareness of the Star Wars universe—the film, the action figures, the comic books—predates both my ability to read and, quite possibly, form complete sentences. While I don’t actually remember the first time I saw it, I would go on to view the film many, many times over the next several years via theatrical re-releases and, finally, on network television in 1984. CBS simulcasted the latter event—the “network television premiere”—on FM radio. (Prior to stereo television and home theaters, broadcasters used this method, which involved viewers tuning their stereos to the designated station while watching the program on their TVs, to effectively deliver a surround-sound experience.) My family didn’t own a VCR at the time, but we purchased some blank cassette tapes so I could record the simulcast. For the next couple of years, I listened to those Star Wars tapes incessantly. By the time I finally tired of doing so, I must have memorized every line of the movie.
I was not alone in taking the Star Wars world to heart. Millions of people who came of age during those years remain conversant in its characters and mythology. And this was a very specific version of Star Wars: the 1977 model.
I’ve recently been exploring the idea that limitations are an essential component of the creative process. The Beatles made the expansive Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on a 4-track tape machine; the band Guided by Voices, recording decades later, used even more primitive technology; George R. R. Martin writes his Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) saga on an obsolete DOS computer; and so on. Obstacles—whether imposed intentionally or by the constraints of the period—are like gasoline for the creative engine.
In the case of the original Star Wars saga, the special effects team pulled off all manner of Herculean feats to bring Lucas’s complex universe into being. Lacking our modern CGI technology, they utilized matte paintings, painstakingly crafted models, rubber costumes, and puppets to get the desired results. Some barriers proved impossible to surmount: There was just no way, due to budget limitations, for the team to get as many exotic-looking aliens into the movie as Lucas wanted. This resulted in a world that appeared slightly more familiar to audiences of the 1970s than the one Lucas had put down on paper. When the aliens do appear, as in the famous “cantina scene,” they make quite an impression.
This “compromised” (in Lucas’s view) version of Star Wars was the only one available for two decades. It’s the version that got hard-coded into my generation’s collective consciousness.
In 1997, Lucas released the Star Wars Special Edition, which he claimed was a more complete realization of his original vision. To be fair, a number of Lucas’s cosmetic changes could reasonably be considered improvements. These included touch-ups to the colors, more impressive explosions, richer sound effects, and crisper definition. But other changes are more radical in nature. Scenes I remember as being populated by human beings now include a bunch of computer-generated critters scurrying through every available space.
Also, now the smuggler Han Solo kills the bounty hunter Greedo in self-defense rather than shooting first—a seemingly minor alteration that transforms a character I remember as a scoundrel into, well, just a decent guy caught up in a difficult situation. Moreover, there’s an added scene that doesn’t make much sense: Han confronts the crime boss Jabba the Hut and, in his parting words, refers to the slug-like alien as a “wonderful human being.” This bit of dialogue awkwardly reminds us that the unaltered cut of this scene (filmed but never included in the theatrical release of Star Wars) featured a distinctly non-alien Jabba. Shoehorned into the Special Edition, it does nothing to further the plot—a common characteristic of Lucas’s insertions.
For many fans of the original releases, watching the Special Editions can be a disorienting experience. So much of the material looks familiar but . . . wait . . . that’s not right at all . . . that wasn’t there before . . . he didn’t say that . . . that’s not how it happened . . . am I remembering this wrong?
This reaction has proven so widespread that it resulted in a 2010 documentary titled The People Vs. George Lucas which painstakingly outlines fans’ grievances against their onetime idol. In the documentary, one female fan exclaims, “George Lucas raped my childhood!”—a rather extreme assertion which nevertheless went on to become both a popular catchphrase and the basis for a song.
Artist As Evil Empire
On one level, that sort of hyperbole highlights the out-of-touch nature of much sci-fi fandom. But on another, the fans’ ire invites some intriguing questions: At what point does a creative work become public property? Does the creator lose the right to alter his or her creation if the creation becomes hugely popular? And if the creator persists in outraging the paying audience by continuing to alter the work anyway, can that creator be forcibly brought into line or, barring that, replaced like some errant head of state?
This is auteur theory turned on its head. In this scenario the auteur—Lucas—becomes a symbol not of splendidly unfettered creative expression but of absolute power corrupting absolutely. He has, in fact, become the Evil Empire to the fans’ Rebel Alliance.
Perhaps a primary cause of the quagmire Lucas eventually found himself in was his refusal to make the unaltered versions of the first three Star Wars movies available in a proper DVD release, a decision that gives the purist fan no choice but to live with the new versions or cling to their aging VHS copies. (In the documentary, one fan describes how, in a kind of religious ritual, he lovingly dusts off his VHS tapes once a year and rewatches the movies.)
Lucas’s reaction to this sort of pushback has been to wrap himself in the protective cloak of the auteur. “There will be only one [version of the film],” he told American Cinematographer magazine.
And it won’t be what I call the ‘rough cut,’ it’ll be the ‘final cut.’ The other one will be some sort of interesting artifact that people will look at and say, ‘There was an earlier draft of this. . . .’ What ends up being important in my mind is what the DVD version is going to look like, because that’s what everybody is going to remember. The other version will disappear. Even the 35 million [tape] copies of Star Wars out there won’t last more than 30 or 40 years. I think it’s the director’s prerogative, not the studio’s, to go back and reinvent a movie.
There were, of course, three more Star Wars films made (actually more, if you count the made-for-TV movies and the animated feature, but why add insult to injury?): a “prequel” trilogy beginning with The Phantom Menace in 1999. These were true auteur productions: Lucas took complete control over all aspects of the process, from writing and directing on down. At last, advances in computer generated imaging allowed him to feature all of the alien hordes and spectacular vistas he wanted!
This should have been the triumph of auteur theory: a big-budget personal statement completely unencumbered by studio oversight. Instead, the films got savaged by critics and fans alike. David Grant of Salon.com cut to the heart of the problem when he wrote, “Perhaps the absolute creative freedom director George Lucas enjoyed while dreaming up the flick’s ‘comic’ relief—with no studio execs and not many an independently minded actor involved—is a path to the dark side.”
Whose Film Was This, Anyway?
Such assessments prompted a reevaluation of the original films. Perhaps they had not been quite the auteur productions they had once seemed. Obviously, Lucas still deserves the lion’s share of credit for dreaming up the whole thing, but The Empire Strikes Back, in particular, benefits from the contributions of a number of strong-willed collaborators: screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, director Irvin Kerschner, and producer Gary Kurtz in particular. The actors, including Harrison Ford (who portrayed Han Solo) and Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) exercised input on characterization. And although Lucas wrote the original story, he had less involvement with the day-to-day aspects of this production than with the other films in the series. Is it a coincidence that critics and fans regard The Empire Strikes Back as the best Star Wars movie?
For me, the downward slide of the Star Wars franchise casts doubt not only on Lucas’s standalone abilities but on the auteur theory as well. The popular comparison between film directors and novelists has always seemed to me a strained one. In many cases, novelists truly do express a singular vision, their only oversight coming from editors. But it takes a small army of collaborators, including writers, cast, composer, cinematographer, stunt coordinators, and an effects team, to bring a movie to life. True auteurs do exist; few would doubt that Woody Allen is the master of his movies. But such instances are rare.
More common is the case of Christopher Nolan—a director who is sometimes termed an auteur due to the striking originality of his films, but who ought to be more accurately considered the ringleader of a talented creative team that includes co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, composer Hans Zimmer, and actor Michael Caine, among others.
For Lucas, the allure of the auteur ideal may have been his downfall. The more control he took over his product, the less satisfying that product became. Had be been content simply to remain a visionary working in collaboration with other creative people—benefiting from the checks and balances of such an arrangement—he might have gone on and on with increasing artistic success.
A New Hope?
When it comes to a hugely popular ongoing series like Star Wars, there is an additional collaborator whose importance should not be discounted: the audience. The surprising outcome of the tug of war between “the people” and George Lucas is that, in this case, the people seem to have won. In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm Ltd. and signed up several of the original Star Wars cast members for a new movie set thirty years after the conclusion of the original trilogy. Back into the fold came Lawrence Kasdan, composer John Williams, and the skilled craftspeople who designed the sets and models for the first three films. (The producers of the new installment have signaled a deemphasis on computer-generated effects in an effort to maintain an aesthetic consistency with the earlier films).
Notably absent from all this is Lucas himself, though according to at least one interview he apparently realized he needed outside input if the series were to continue and had begun courting Kasdan and others before turning over the reins. Most tellingly, Disney’s promotional merchandise celebrates the look and feel of the original trilogy while all but ignoring the Lucas-helmed prequels.
There has even been a widely circulated rumor that the company plans to rerelease the original theatrical cuts of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi prior to the new film’s release in December 2015. Given the other fan-conciliatory actions the company has taken, I’d be willing to bet that this will come to pass.
It remains to be seen whether the upcoming Star Wars movies will be quality entertainments or simply exercises in nostalgia, but one thing is abundantly clear: Lucas’s creation has taken on a life of its own. Like his character Darth Vader, he might want to cry out, “No, I am your father!” But at this point no one is listening. The auteur has been deposed.