George Lucas - Filmmaker, new media mogul

My wife works as a business reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, the sponsoring organization of the Herb Caen lecture series, of which this was a part. Mr. Lucas said plenty of things which are plain untrue of the news media (that no reporters call to fact-check the accuracy of the details of news stories, that papers make up news to sell their papers) and things I strongly believe are not true (that all politicians are corrupt, that citizens should not participate in government because of corruption and frustration, that reporters should not try to entertain with their writing, that newspapers should only report fact and not speculation, that newspapers would be better without advertising money - the money they need to have computers, content and graphics professionals, and to print papers). In his defense, he is a rich superstar of the entertainment world.

I can't defend GL. He has money and experience. He is cynical and disillusioned about his ability to influence politics. He is cynical and disillusioned about modern media. I wonder now if his control of film and digital editing has added to this. He says that he seeks out the truth in filmmaking and when reading/watching media, but tells his audience some lies mixed in with his opinions and asks us to accept this as the truth. In the end, he seems a hypocritical wealthy older man, seeking to shelter his family and himself from the public eye. Nothing wrong with that, unless you're teaching and preaching to viewers.

He's a smart guy with a lot to talk about, but Orville steered away from topics that would have interested me more. And Orville didn't exactly try to skewer GL on any one thing either. Now that would have been a sold-out show worth seeing.

These are notes representing the kernel of the interview, and are not exact quotes. Some of his exact words are here, but it's not 100%. Much is left out, much is mispelled. Anybody interested in hearing or reading the interview should contact the Berkeley School of Journalism for a transcript or recording. At the base of the theater there was a blue-screen tv with his speech coming up as text (I assume for the deaf) so there must be some recording.

UC Berkeley, Zellerbach theater, Feb. 16, 2000

Orville Schell, the head of Cal's School of Journalism, gently probes the maker of Star Wars for his opinions on the media, his political stance, and his motives for buying his way into San Francisco's Presidio.


(enter correct side of the balcony this time, find my seat.)
Provost Carol Cryst (sic.) makes a prodigious introduction, lists the companies George Lucas (GL) founded (ILM / Skywalker Ranch / LucasArts ). Sets him among his film-making peers Spielberg and others. Bills him as a producer of edutainment and entertainment software. Compares GL to Tolkien (legend builder, author of the fantasy novels The Lord of the Rings) and Henry Ford (American car manufaturor and businessman). GL is well received with applause and some cheers. Head of J-School thanks GL for submitting to the interview.

Questions and answers

When you accepted the Falburg award (sic), you said all who make motion pictures are teachers.
Everybody is a teacher. Film makers have louder voices and need to by doubly aware of their influence. Even the way that you conduct your life sends out a message.

There's a moral core in all writing that modern writers tend to eschew.
Ideas put forth are picked up. Certainly you shouldn't say "Kill all the bankers" because someone will pick up on this. Film is a transcendent (ed. - visual and primal, also hypnotic) media, and the audience is prone to suggestion.

Drama is based in conflict, often physical and emotional conflict is violent, or it wouldn't be true to life. We do live in violence. Dealing with violence is real. Killing and torturing for fun is immoral, and it's very Roman. Giving people whatever they want. It's antisocial and encourages aggression. There's no casual violent relationship between film and aggressors, with the exception of people already prone to violence, already unstable.

What kind of parent are you? Do you let your children watch TV, read comics? How are you insulating your kids?
All parents need to watch with your children, have a good relationship with your children, respecting them fosters this. I let them watch videos I select. By the ages of 9-11 I let the kids watch "real" TV. My eldest daughtor abhors violence. My youngest daughter's obssessed with it. She likes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and we watch it and discuss it together. She likes to be frank, needs an adrenaline rush. (Lucas goes on to dismiss the plots of Buffy as fanciful.)

Is this escapism?
Scary stories have been around forever. Vicarious frightening experiences are part of maturation. This doesn't lead to violent behavior. With the exception of group 'psychosis' like a riot, a rally, mob. Group mentality and behavior.

When you were first making Star Wars, you contacted a psychologist (missed the name) about kids needing violence through fairy tales. You aspire to make these films.
When I was in college, I took an introductory class in myth. In Star Wars I researched the whole thing, the social interaction of fairy tales, the transfer of stories and myth from generation to generation. The western United States lost its myths. I wanted to infuse it.

When I was filming Empire, Star Wars is designed as one story. It's too long. Nothing happens in part II. I was just gettin from point A to point B. The film's climax of Vader's confrontation with his son, Vader cuts of his son's right hand. I called on the psychologist to ask, is this healthy for 10 year old boys? Or is this going to destroy the father-child relationship? I was assured that it was OK. Youngsters deal with it, those who can't take it won't, they'll deny it. I was especially worried about the loss of the hand, grisly but very symbolic.

Outwardly, you appear calm and inwardly, are you shy? How can you be a good businessman in a competitive world?
Shy is a psychological state. Business is a different physical state. 50 percent of people are probably shy. (Lucas goes on to enforce and joke at the myth of himself as a psycho Howard Hughs type).

Are you and your work reflected accurately in the media?
No. Definately not. What I read contrasted against my personal experience reveals the news as shallow, erroneous, and sensationalized and fabricated. It's entertainment written just to sell newspapers. News is just whatever sells. That's too bad, it doesn't need to be sensationalized. Entertainment media, infotainment. (GL goes on to express the media's over-extensive coverage of the Clinton affair and the Cuban kid's deportation). What's not written about in the news, that says something too.

Well, where do you find credible media?
I read the New York Times, I watch CNN. I like to go through magazines, I don't read any of them religiously. I subscribe to about 25 magazines.

What prevents truth in news? Its accuracy, timeliness, and credibility?
Apart from PBS, (Orville prompts GL to rate PBS on a 1-10 scale) it's an 8, maybe an 8 point 5. (Orville asks GL to rate the networks) they're fours. Local news coverage is just headlines and then this off-the-wall stuff. (GL critisizes local news for 'hawking' Nightline and other network-owned infotainment media).

What is the answer? Assuming media is not accurate or truthful?
It's the same as with film. Being aware of and not in denial of the fact that everything affects others. You can hurt by exploitation. Fiction is based on real life, it's not a news report or a documentary. It's a story about factual events.

Our Lowell Bergan of Insider fame had a story tweaked like Mike Wallace. Is this legit?
It's legit. A movie is not 60 Minutes though. There's irony that journalists spend their lives destroying other people's lives, then the minute they (reporters) fall apart, there's irony. (I can't remember the context of the following - "Don't hurt feelings with bad manners. -ed)

Are you thick- or thin-skinned?
Thick now, thin before. My relationships with others, people will talk behind my back. (GL narrates some experiences, what that's like).

Are you bottom line driven?
I spent my whole life trying to break that, to avoid control of other people, of the studios. I want to make my own style of movies. American Graffitti, the studios said "It's terrible. There's no story." They said I couldn't intercut 4 stories, they're unrelated. I plugged away got money thanks to Easy Rider. I became successful. Then I was told, "Science fiction is too expensive, the audience too narrow." It can't be done. Children's films are out of vogue. With Grafitti I carried the weight of all my other projects and made films solo, without interference. I was lucky. My advice to you all is to get away from corporations for your creative freedom. Getting as far away as possible is the key. (GL goes on to bash middle management of the film industry and premote personal creative freedom while not going out of business). ILM, the post and sound companies, I needed new (illegible).

Do you enjoy doing business?
My dad used to run his stationary business, he told me, "Making movies, that's rediculous." Sooner or later, you'll end up back here. I told him "I will never go into business."

And now?
I'm head of three big corporations. It's like I tell my kids. You will have to do things you won't like doing. There's always garbage that needs to be taken out. There'll always be "garbage" that needs to be done.

Should we trust our media to the marketplace?
News media, its function is to report facts to people. I've been in enough lawsuits and juries to know facts are interpreted. I'm in entertainment, trying to find truths. Modern media is trying to entertain and speculate and assume. I don't agree with that style of armchair news writing.

Imagine that you're fed up and want to start a media outlet, what would it be like?
I'm not interested in having a network. We're on the cusp of a digital revolution. The fallout of that is going to be more democratic access to information. The news media gate-keepers will lose their grip on corporate news. Some new media will be good and accurate. I hope that the wisdom of people, which I believe in a great deal, will sort the truth from rumor.

Why shouldn't it be that way on the net?
On the Internet, there's no opinions, only echos. One source gets distributed everywhere. It's like a computer virus. (George Lucas goes on to claim there are no fact checkers in news, that nobody calls him or his company to verify information is true. There are only lots of bogus entertainment stories. A bad tendancy just to echo.)

In politics there are two models. Never come out of the the cage, protect. Like Dubya (George W. Bush). Then there's Senator McCain's method of accessability.
Well, this week there were a lot of reports from analysts about who trashed who. Why doesn't the media not report that? Instead of two boys squabbling, turn the focus on running the government and where they stand on issues. Corrupt politicians slinging mud isn't news to us. (Applause at this.)

Are you going to vote with enthusiasm?
Yes, I'm going to vote. No enthusiasm.

I suppose we can't ask for whom?
(unintelligible, assume no since there was no answer.)

You get tons of media coverage as a citizen. How do you see your responsibilities in that regard?
I'm involved with issues going to Washington in the area of education, I put my effort there. As far as my money and time, I prefer to be a private citizen. I don't agree with the patronage and buying of offices. I'd like to see an end to advertising for candidates. Give each candidate an equal space in the paper to make their points. Advertising your way into office like Bush, who had the largest coffer - over 60 million - and he's out and needs more - that isn't democracy. It's been done and it doesn't work.

You never were tempted to pull a Ronal Reagan and go into office?
(Laughing) No.

Your daughter describes your religion as Bhuddist-Methodist.
She put that together. In college I experimented with a lot of religions. I decided that there's no single religion to buy into, and became more self-spritual, those philosophies fit my personality better. I let my kids see churches. They're a valuable social institution, they're a powerful secular tool. They depend on faith, and that's hard to work with in the age we live in. It's hard to change them (to fit our modern needs? -ed).

What's sacred if not religion? In your life.
Life is sacred, but I wouldn't say any life form is sacred. Music. Art. Communication to the emotional and spiritual.

You listen to music?
I love music. It's very powerful. I think everyone should learn to compose with music, chords. And everyone should learn to compose graphics. They're emotional.

Your philanthropy in the field of education shows you think the educational system is broken. How can we fix it?
I believe it will get right. The digital revolution will make it right. After 15 years of multimedia and storytelling and interactivity we'll be able to emulate a day in school. How do I make a great learning tool with technology without destroying the system? Destroy is too harsh a term. I'll take a word from my son, we'll "evolve" it from a Pikachu to something more powerful. It's my 7-year old analogy. Time management is going to return to a pre-industrial age of learning, doing. Not destroying curiousity, but feeding it. Cooperative team learning. Learning how to find and analyze information and decide truth. Apart from that, learning social skills (group skills) is as important as intelligence.

What about local issues? Do you think we need two papers? Does it matter at all? Diversity and competition?
Better no paper than two bad ones.

How do we get a good paper? L.A. has one now near death.
The New York Times has enough news. Get the rest from CNN. (What about local news, George? -ed)

But television (news) is already too weak, too dilute.
I see newspapers as a business, not a civic enterprise. (Talks about the function of advertising in media, how papers cater to advertising). I wish we had a good paper.

So we get the politicians and the media we deserve? Smart people want a smart paper.
We should demand better media. Just because it's always been around, it's always been that way is no reason to be satisfied with that. Look at the Christians being thrown to the lions in Roman times. Nobody says it's a bad idea. Even in entertainment, news, drugs, just giving people what they want. We should strive to elevate, not be counter productive. Avoid greed. Live a life free from the control of greed and cynicism. Become more compassionate. Avoid momentary pleasure.

How important is money to you?
I love movies, and fell into money as a strange by-product of that. I gained my creative freedom, managing to make films like THX-1137 with no money. Don't think money ever means that much to me. It's impossible to make money at it (making films). Fifty percent of the actors in the SAG (Screen Actor's Guild) make less than 25K a year. Directing is a losing proposition too.

You live close to Silicon Valley. Are businessmen our new heros? Are diamondism and wealth our new ideals?
No. We ruined all our heros. We may idolize gold. I don't think people take Bill Gates as a hero, but he made it rich faster than Jesus using draconian but accepted practices. If you don't swim with the sharks, you can't be one.

What's the deal with the Presidio?
That came about from my fetish with architecture and building. When the park was in transition, it became clear that malls and suburbia would invade it. I'm on a crusade to keep it the same, for the city. The city hasn't asked itself yet "what is the park?". I felt the park needed its focus of victorian Army architecture. I want to draw the digerati of arts to one another. I fought the Chronicle and the establishment for the deal, and I got it. The developers didn't get it.

How will digital film affect the industry?
The major advantages of the technology, it gives democratic access to everything - information, entertainment. Digital means cheaper films, more filmmakers, more films, more indies. There's about one thousand indie makers now. In the Star Wars days, there were none in release. Now we have hundreds. Now, advertisements and marketing and making prints make filmmaking cost prohibitive (ed- see El Mariachi (sic.) some time, amazing low budget film.) Digital projection is going to lower the money bar, and raise the quality of the film. There's no scratches or wear on digital media, what you see the first time is the same as hundreds of times later. (ed- what about the potential damage of censorship or post-release editing?)

What one thing do you know now that you didn't know when you were just starting out making film?
My success is really due to my niavete. I wouldn't have tried if I had known all I had to do. Editing documentary films turned into (illegible) and scripts. I hate writing, period. Now my last twenty years have been spent writing. There are certain joys to writing. Before you shoot, you have to write. Contractors, they never share my vision. I always have to write the first draft. You will never be a good director until you're a writer. You must know your story intimately. I can never turn Star Wars over to anyone else. I have to lay the framework.

If you weren't a filmmaker, what would you be?
Unhappy. (Applause). In school, I took psychology and social science classes, anthropology. I was really passionate about illustration, had just gotten into photography. I wanted to go to Art Center. Dad was against that because of the price. "If you want to go, go ahead. I won't stop you. But I won't pay a penny of it. You have to go out and get it." I was lazy. So I called my friends at UCSC and asked what's at SC? My friend says, they have a photo department. It turns out he had confused it with cinema. So I go there, and learn it's like PE, everybody who takes it watches a bunch of films but doesn't do anything with it. It's supposed to be easy, and nobody goes on to make movies. And I was right next to the girl's dorms. So I knew film was for me, after three weeks of seeing and watching movies. I came from a small town that might get "Forbidden Planet", but no real experiences. I thought people went to movies to make out.

But if I had gone to Art Center, I would have done film; illustration would lead to drawing which would lead to animation, I would discover anthropology. I love all these things. Once I discovered film, which includes everything I'm interested in - social and art issues - I was destined to be a film maker by following my heart. Everybody has skills and passions. It might take you a while to discover what they are. But you'll get there. Happiness will ensue. Maybe no money, but satisfaction. (Wraps it up, Orville thanks Sidney Goldstein (sic) and GL).

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