Monday, May 28, 2018

Lucas Is Not Your Father

I was looking through The Rolling Stone Film Reader, a collection of film writing from the magazine published in 1996.  It can be interesting to see what people said at the time their films were coming out, rather than looking back much later at triumphs and failure, and acting like they knew how things would turn out all along.

With a new Star Wars film out this week, going into the past of Han Solo, telling us things we never knew (and probably didn't need to know), I was particularly interested in an interview with George Lucas done a month or two after Star Wars opened.  This was a pretty special time for him.  His previous film, American Graffiti, had been a huge hit that no one saw coming.  And now his latest, in a completely different genre, was clearly a blockbuster.  However, even Lucas could have no idea how the film would change everything, including his life.

In later years, Lucas would claim he knew about Darth Vader being Luke's father, but that's nonsense.  Which is what makes his discussion of ideas for a sequel so interesting.  Lucas mentions there are a lot of things, such as Darth Vader's past, that had to be cut from the film.  Paul Scanlon, who wrote the article, asks him what this story is.  Here's what Lucas says:

It's about Ben and Luke's father and Vader when they are young Jedi knights.  But Vader kills Luke's father, then Ben and Vader have a confrontation, just like they have in Star Wars, and Ben almost kills Vader.  As a matter of fact, he falls into a volcanic pit and gets fried and is one destroyed being.  That's why he has to wear a suit with a mask, because it's a breathing mask.  It's like a walking iron lung. His face is all horrible inside.  I was going to shoot a close-up of Vader where you could see the inside of his face, but then we said, no, no, it would destroy the mystique of the whole thing.

Okay.  We got to see Vader's face in the original trilogy, and the volcanic pit in the prequels--neither of which had the impact they might have had.  You know what did have impact?  The idea that Lucas clearly hadn't though of yet.  The Vader would turn out to be Luke's father.

I'm not blaming Lucas for not knowing everything that would happen. He was just trying to get a film made, not plan a whole series of films to the nth degree.  In the original, while he was shooting, he decided to kill off Obi-Wan.  A great idea.  Then, some time between Star Wars' release and the making of the sequel, he decided Vader was Luke's father. Another great idea.

Lucas shouldn't be ashamed he was making it up as he went along.  That's how it often works.

Later in the interview Scanlon talks about the film's merchandising.  Lucas is actually quite into it, noting his love for toys and games was a "motivating factor for doing the film." But also, he figures, it'll give him freedom:

I figured merchandising along with the sequels would give me enough income over a period of time so that I could retire from professional filmmaking and go into making my own kind of movies, my own sort of abstract, weird, experimental stuff.

He made this claim more than once.  He'd do the Star Wars thing, make some money, then go back to the small experimental stuff.  Whether he became a slave to his empire, or just never really wanted to go back, I don't know.   But I wonder when it was that he realized he was never going back?


Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Interesting! Although I didn't read that interview at the time, the backstory of Darth, Luke's father, and Obi-Wan circulated at my school and at science fiction conventions, and I knew it well. (Although I sometimes heard a different variation in which Dart's injuries occured in the fight with Luke's father.)

Nonetheless, I eventually concluded that Lucas had spread this story as a ruse, and always intended that Darth be Luke's father. I based this on the way Obi-Wan hesitates after Luke asks him "How did my father die?", and then slowly gives his false answer -- as if he were trying to tell a lie with as much of the truth in it as possible.

Do you think this is possible? In other words, could Lucas' interview with Scanlon be a ruse? Your wording ("but that's nonsense") seems to dismiss this as 100% impossible.

FWIW, I am 90% convinced that the Luke/Leia sibling idea did not exist when Episode IV was filmed, but it did exist when Episode V was filmed.

On a much less dramatic point, it's interesting that Lucas would use the name "Ben" in his interview. In the original movie, Obi-Wan usually went by "Ben", but once all the sequels and prequels were out, the name "Ben" was mostly cast aside, and now everyone knows him as "Obi-Wan."

4:24 PM, May 28, 2018  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

To clarify: When I wrote "I eventually concluded", that means long after Empire came out! I never once suspected the father thing before that movie.

We stood in line at the Avco in Westwood from 10 PM until 3 AM when Empire premiered, and got into the 3 AM showing. (They were running it round the clock.) When Darth gave his line, I literally jumped out of my seat.

You have to watch this 50-second clip from The Flash, by the way. Try not to read the title if you can avoid it.

4:29 PM, May 28, 2018  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I don't think it's possible. Or, I should say, the odds are so low that it might as well be impossible.

First, I don't think that Lucas, basking in the shocking success of this difficult project, would be lying to interviewers at this point. It wouldn't have occurred to him. I doubt he'd had much time to even think seriously about a sequel, much less plan a ruse. In fact, though he made Vader a fun villain and kept him alive for the sequel, he couldn't have been sure before the fact that the character would be such a hit and everyone would want to know more about him. (Or that there'd be a sequel.)

Second, I've read quite a bit about the development of the first film, and all the blind alleys that Lucas went down, and there's no hint anywhere of the Vader thing. Heck, the name "Skywalker" was only decided at the last second--could have just as easily been "Starkiller." (And some have noted the odd retrofit of hiding a kid so no one can find him, but letting him keep Darth Vader's actual surname.)

Third, the scene with Guinness isn't hard to explain. He's about to tell Luke some tough news, so hesitates. The part of the scene I find hardest to take now is when he says the Jedi ran things for over a thousand generations. I hate when writers make up big numbers to impress you (like George R. R. Martin often does). If they were in charge for over 20,000 years, their downfall (and it was swift and complete--they're in hiding and Han Solo thinks their religion is hokey) must have been caused by dark forces indeed. And then you see the prequel, and the Jedi, so wise and powerful, turn out to be a bunch of easily outwitted doofuses. (Much better is Han bragging he made the Kessel run in 12 parsecs. Whether or not it makes sense, it's the sort of thing you'd expect him to say. I enjoyed the Solo movie, but their need to explain it, and make a big deal of it, rather than it just be another moonshine run for a smuggler, ruins it.)

Fourth, and really, this is the only argument I need so forget the first three, is that people have seen early drafts of Empire, and not only is the Vader plot twist not in it, there are even scenes where Luke meets his dad's ghost.

By the way, and this is a completely true story, I went to see Empire the weekend it opened. However, it had been playing since Wednesday, and some kid in line--I have no idea who it was, but I hate him to this day--mentioned that he'd heard Vader was Luke's father. I immediately knew it was true ("search your feelings, you know it to be true"), so the surprise was denied me, at least during the movie. It's funny in the age before the internet, when it was much easier to keep secrets, was when I most needed a spoiler alert.

8:02 PM, May 28, 2018  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

You have convinced me!

I was very grateful to a friend who was with me in line. He said he had heard a big secret about the movie, but he wouldn't tell us so as not to spoil the suprise. (The word "spoiler" hadn't been invented yet, of course.) I wish the folks in your line had been that considerate!

2:22 PM, May 29, 2018  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

You wrote:

I immediately knew it was true ("search your feelings, you know it to be true")...

In the weeks following the premiere of Empire, a fellow fan kept insisting that Vader's father-claim was false, and the next episode would reveal that Vader was lying. I remember telling him that, regardless of whether the idea that Luke's father was Vader seemed plausible, there's no way that Lucas would retract it in the next episode, because dramatically that would be unbelievably lame.

2:25 PM, May 29, 2018  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another reason it's absurd that Lucas knew all along that Vader was Luke's father, even though this is what he claimed in later years, is the idea that he would know this while making A New Hope yet hold back. You don't have a giant revelation like that and not use it. There's no way Lucas could count on having a giant hit and so save a great reveal for a sequel. Lucas had to cut down on his story to make A New Hope, but you put in all the good stuff you can because it may be your only shot.

3:21 PM, May 29, 2018  
Blogger New England Guy said...

All my friends who were big Stars Wars fans really thought Vader was lying. At the time I believed them. Although I think Empire is the 2d best Stars Wars film (the first was of course Star Wars), I remember being disappointed at the time because it felt like an episode and not a complete film (yes it still bugs me). I thought "big deal" we'll deal with this later. Of course then I went to college a bit off the beaten track and lost interest and didn't see Return until a couple years after it came out.

I definitely think it was made up for Return- Lucas needed something big beyond the special effects to keep things going

4:37 PM, May 29, 2018  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

LAGuy, in your Star Wars-related, have you come across the claim that Darth Vader was modeled on Darkseid (pronounced "dark side", btw!) and/or Doctor Doom?

9:44 PM, May 30, 2018  
Blogger LAGuy said...

In the development of Star Wars, Lucas was constantly changing the heroes and villains. Originally, Lucas just wanted to do a remake of Flash Gordon, but couldn't get the rights, so he came up with something of his own. (So does that make Darth Vader Ming the Merciless?)

Vader was there early on, though it wasn't clear what his place was in the plot, or what was his backstory. (Not even clear if he was a bad guy at first.)

After a couple drafts, Lucas brought in Ralph McQuarrie to do some drawings to give people an idea of what the movie would look like. After Lucas, McQuarrie is probably the most important person in determining the look of the movie. If you see his drawing, there's Vader, looking pretty much like he'll look in on screen.

McQuarrie knew from the script the character was dark and grim and tall. I believe he was the one who added the mask (for space travel) and only later was the backstory about it created. And clearly the helmet is inspired by the Nazis (even as a kid I thought they overdid that).

I don't know how much Lucas or McQuarrie were inspired by comics of the day and I don't recall them mentioning particular antecedents, though if they knew of them (especially Doctor Doom, who was quite well known) they could have been influenced. But a dark figure with a black cape? It's not like you couldn't come up with that by yourself.

11:00 PM, May 30, 2018  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Pajama Guys, do Star Wars topics always get the most comments?

6:04 PM, May 31, 2018  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I suppose they average more comments than most posts, but you never know what people will comment on. Often political stuff gets a lot of comments. I don't even try to guess.

6:38 PM, May 31, 2018  

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