So you wonder what film writer-director Lawrence Kasdan really thinks of George Lucas, creator of the “Star Wars” films? With the release of “Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones,” the newest installment of the Lucas film series, he spoke about Lucas in a telephone interview from Vancouver, British Columbia, where he’s directing Stephen King’s “Dreamcatcher.”
Kasdan rose to fame as the screenwriter for two of Lucasfilm Ltd.'s best films, “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). He is also the writer-director of “Body Heat” and “The Big Chill.” But for clues as to how he feels about Lucas, look at Kasdan’s 1999 movie “Mumford.”
The movie is a delightful comedy about a fellow from West Virginia who picks a picture-book West Coast town in which to start a new life as a psychologist. One of his clients is a billionaire who invented a wildly successful modem.
But our hero isn’t in awe of his friend’s wealth; he’s in awe of the way the man has turned Panda Modem headquarters into a combination campus and personal playground. (Think Lucasfilm Ltd. and Skywalker Ranch, Lucas’ Northern California compound.)
And he’s so convinced of the tycoon’s authentic goodness that he supports his every whim.
Kasdan may have the same affectionate appreciation of Lucas. Working for Lucas three times--on “Empire,” “Raiders” and the script for “Return of the Jedi"--was “never anything but fun,” Kasdan says.
One of the qualities he values most in Lucas is his persistence in going his own way, criticism be damned. It’s not a question of letting Lucas be Lucas, Kasdan says. It’s a question of admiring Lucas for what he wants to do and can do, rather than knocking him for what he doesn’t try to do.
Question: How did you become part of the “Star Wars” saga?
Answer: For me, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came first. Off an outline that George, Steven [Spielberg] and I put together, I had been working on “Raiders” for six months alone and came up to George’s office to give it to him in a very ceremonious way. He threw it on the desk and asked me if I wanted to write “Empire.” Leigh Brackett, the original screenwriter, had died before he could even discuss her first draft with her.
Q: Because “The Empire Strikes Back” has become such a clear-cut favorite among critics and fans, I’ve seen writers give Brackett credit for its dark emotional crosscurrents and humor, because they know Brackett wrote the scripts for “The Big Sleep” and “Rio Bravo.”
A: Look, there’s no question that Leigh Brackett was one of the great screenwriters of all time. But it was an odd job for her, and there’s nothing of that draft left in “Empire.”
Not to say it’s all me. The truth is these movies are all George. I wouldn’t say that of “Raiders,” but I would say that of the “Star Wars” movies. He has the stories in mind and the difference in each film is how they’re executed.
George had hired Leigh the way anyone would--because, oh my God, she’s Leigh Brackett, and because he wanted a Hawksian, goading humor between Han Solo and Princess Leia. But Leigh couldn’t serve George the way he wanted to be served. Out of all our respect for her, she was always going to get a credit for the movie.
Q: I’m intrigued that you think Lucas wanted a Hawksian feeling out of “Big Sleep” or “Rio Bravo” in “Empire” and that’s why he hired Brackett; for years we’ve only thought of him in terms of heroic archetypes out of Joseph Campbell--or comic books.
A: It is a part of what he wanted, whether he could achieve it or not. It was better achieved in “Raiders” [than in other Lucas-produced or directed movies] and better in “Raiders” than in other Spielberg-directed movies....
When they went to cut “Raiders,” they chopped out all sorts of funny character stuff between Harrison Ford and Karen Allen--all of it was sacrificed for speed and momentum, and that’s more the case in the “Star Wars” movies.
Much as George has an interest in Hawksian flavor, I don’t know that he exercises it that much. Who knows--this new one is the first that he’s advertised as a flat-out romance. And now we’re getting the pure George. Of course, it was always really George--with everything he does it’s George.
Q: Then why does he bring in other writers?
A: I think he hates to write. In both “Empire” and “Jedi,” I came in as a fireman--with “Jedi” I had already done “Body Heat,” so it wasn’t an obvious move for me to do another “Star Wars” movie. I just liked working with George and wanted to help him out when he said he was behind the eight ball. He knows there are certain things he wants to get in and somehow curl a story around and it’s not easy--that’s why he gets stuck. I saw him a couple of weeks before he left to shoot “Phantom Menace” ... and the first remark he made to me was, “Hey, do you want to write ‘Phantom Menace’?” I asked, “Aren’t you starting to shoot it?” “Yeah,” he said, “but it would be great if you took a second pass at it.” For George, the movie is bigger than the script....
He doesn’t care about the relationships between people beyond the broad strokes; he’s not interested in the humor that can be wrung from understanding the characters’ eccentricities. If the humor isn’t there in the simple version of a scene he has to do, he’s not interested in it.... He’s always filling out some large scheme, and the people are there in his movies to represent different philosophical [constructs].
Q: Can you give me an example of a philosophical character?
A: Yoda is one of the great creations. How many directors have been interested in Zen masters over the years? Just think of Kurosawa or Hawks or John Sturges. But George created this little creature who did a lot of the same stuff as their heroes, and I wrote him good and he was huge....
A lot came together in “Empire.” [Director Irvin Kershner’s] bleakness--and Frank Oz, who played Yoda [he was the puppeteer and the voice], did great.
So you had the introduction of this incredible character and it really worked. But to me, the first “Star Wars” is the mind-blower--it’s like a Van Gogh or Monet or Picasso that takes everything that came before and uses it in a new way. It was an astounding movie that really blew everyone’s mind. It took genius to do that, I think. It was no accident.
And to do it for $11 million....
Michael Sragow is film critic at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.