(National Medal of) Art Talk with George Lucas
"Failure is another word for experience."---George Lucas
The story starts
a long time ago in a galaxy far far away in 1950s Modesto, California, where a young boy grows up liking to draw and build things. A lot. Thanks to parental disapproval, he studies anthropology not art in college, which isn't exactly the dark side, but also isn't the path you might have charted for the man responsible for such indelible characters as Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and the ophidiophobic Indiana Jones. But as we learned when we spoke with Lucas by telephone---shortly after he was awarded a 2012 National Medal of Arts by President Obama---he didn't even fall in love with the movies until after he'd enrolled in film school. But that's a story we'll let the master storyteller tell himself....
NEA: I want to start by asking what you remember as your earliest experience of the arts?
GEORGE LUCAS: I've always been interested in art ever since I can remember, and I like to draw and do things. I lived in a little town in central California so every once in a while we would go to San Francisco and go to the museums and see things, and so the main art center for me was San Francisco.
NEA: How did you evolve from being a kid who liked to draw things to being a filmmaker?
LUCAS: Well, I started out wanting to be an illustrator, and then I was interested in photography and things like that, but mostly I liked building cars, and I spent a lot of time building things, you know woodworking and things like that when I was little. In high school I was working, basically, building racing cars and things and got in a bad accident and almost got killed, and decided I would reorient my life. And so I went to college and mainly studied social sciences, primarily anthropology. I was there for two years at a junior college, and then I wanted to go on to go to Art Center in Los Angeles to be an illustrator. My father absolutely disapproved and said, "You can do it, but I'm not going to pay for it." So I decided I'd go to San Francisco State and study anthropology and possibly become an anthropologist, whatever that meant.
A friend of mine told me about---he was going to USC, and he said they had a a photography film school down there, so I took the entrance exams with him, which is really what he wanted, just to have somebody come and keep him company while he was taking these entrance exams. So I took them and I got in, and it wasn't a photography school, it was a cinema school. And I didn't even know you could go to college to learn how to make movies. It never even occurred to me. And I wasn't that into movies or anything anyway, but I got there and I discovered very quickly that that was my passion, the thing I was really good at, and took off from there.
NEA: I'm interested that you started out by studying anthropology. Do you think that has informed your work as a filmmaker?
LUCAS: Yes, pretty much everything I do is anthropologically based. All the stories, or a lot of the things I've learned and studied in anthropology I've continued on with because I'm very curious about why humanity is the way it is and why societies are built around the ideas that they're built around and all that sort of thing.
NEA: Your films have obviously inspired lots of filmmakers. Can you talk about some of the films that have inspired you?
LUCAS: Before I went to film school I hadn't seen very many movies. So, it wasn't really until I got into film school that I got to see a wider range of films, and I fell in love with, you know, the French cinema: [Jean-Luc] Godard and [François] Truffaut. My favorite filmmaker was [Akira] Kurosawa and Seven Samurai was my favorite film. I also kind of liked the films of Stanley Kubrick and Richard Lester, who, you know, did the Beatles’ movie [A Hard Day’s Night]. So I especially liked “Help!” And I liked all of Stanley Kubrick's movies… well obviously one of the biggest ones that influenced me was 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that was much later.
NEA: Can you think of specific elements that informed your own work, or was it just kind of a general influence?
LUCAS: Well it's just an influence of, I guess, high quality filmmaking and entertainment, and they were all very entertaining.
NEA: I think it's fair to say that the Star Wars Trilogy, the original, is one of the most iconic suites of films in cinema. I'm curious as to the inspiration behind it.
LUCAS: What happened is I did a film, American Graffiti, which was a kind of anthropological work on a phenomenon unique to the United States which is cruising. And so I did that and it had such a profound effect on the audience I got all kinds of people saying, "You changed my life," and all that sort of thing. I said, "Well this is a good thing, and maybe I'll do another film now for younger people, for twelve-year-olds." I wanted to make it a modern myth, and take old myths, take the psychological motifs from old mythology, and see if they were still functioning in today's world. So I constructed a movie around that, which was touse a contemporary form, which was in this case kind of a space opera, and you know, construct the story out of these old mythological motifs. So, that's really how the whole thing started.
NEA: It’s clear that music and sound are very important elements of your filmmaking. Can you share your thoughts on the relationship between music and narrative?
LUCAS: Well, obviously, the big issue is all art is technological. And as a result, most artists are struggling to fight against the technological ceiling they're facing. Whether it's doing a cave painting with black charcoal and then discovering that you can actually get yellow from a rock and make it black and yellow and then red and then blue, or the invention of the Puccini march [“Scossa Elettrica”]. The difference between frescos and oil paintings, and what that allowed the artists to do. There's always that problem. And it's the same thing with music. Going from the log [as an instrument] to the orchestra is a big technological leap, and it had to be done instrument at a time and idea at a time.
And so, cinema is actually an extremely technological art form, and it actually utilizes all of the basic ideas of the other arts, whether it's writing or painting or music. So they're all integral, key parts of making a movie. And so in order to do that, you really have to know all those things. A musician doesn't have to study art in order to be able to make his music, or even literature. I mean, most people do, most artists sort of avail themselves of the other arts, but it doesn't show up in the work as readily as it does in movies. It does in operas, I guess…. [I]n movies you actually, technically, have to know how those other mediums work in order to be able to make a movie, and obviously I feel very strongly that half of the movie experience is the soundtrack, and sound is very, very important. Not only just music, but the sound effects and obviously the clarity of the dialogue and the nature of the voices and that sort of thing. It's all very, very significant in the experience of seeing a movie.
NEA: I think I read somewhere that you write your screenplays out longhand at first. Is that true? Can you talk about that?
LUCAS: Well I grew up long before computers. I don't think I've even written anything since computers were invented. So I didn't use a typewriter, although my father sold typewriters. That's what he did for a living. I don't know if there was an Oedipus reality going on there or something, but basically I like to draw things, I like to use a pencil. I just like doing it longhand, and it's much more contemplative.
NEA: You’ve been very successful as a filmmaker, but any arts career also has its share of misses as well as hits. Do you have any thoughts about the value of failure in creative work?
LUCAS: Failure? I don't know failure
The failure is obviously much more educational than the success. And so, it's very important. I mean I've had a lot more failures than I've had successes, and you know, one of the things I'm doing now is making my own little movies that I can actually fail at, and not have to worry about the financial consequences, which is part of the movie industry. It is an industry. And it's not like painting, or composing music, or… painting a picture, writing a book, or something. If you're not doing it for some company, you can just fail as much as you want. You can do whatever you want to do and see what happens. But if people are placing bets on you then it's a whole different game. And it sort of makes it more difficult to be really creative if you know that you have to actually, at the end of the day, please somebody.
NEA: I know you chair the George Lucas Educational Foundation, and I'm interested on your take on the value of the arts in education?
LUCAS: Well, those are two big things. The educational foundation has been around for 20 years, and what we do is we take what works best in schools when you have a school that's successful…. We document it with little movies and writing it up and sort of parsing out the things that make it successful. In the beginning we put them on VHS tapes and we had a magazine and books… knowing that eventually there would be a thing called the Internet, and then we would be able to put it on the Internet….. And it's for people who want to improve their schools but don't know how. So when you say, "I want a better school," what do you want? Most people don't know. They'll say, "Well, we want computers in schools." Then we're going to say, "Well, if you get computers, what are you going to do with them? “ So what we're doing is really an exercise in what is the best learning techniques, and what makes kids learn, and makes them, you know, more effective in schools. And we just take what people are doing that seems to have the best results and we put them online so people can share that. That's the educational part of it.
Arts education, being accomplished at something, or you know, having success at something is very fundamental to the learning process…. I look at art and arts education as a form of communication, so to me it should be included in all schools at all time right along with the written word and the spoken word. Graphics, cinema, music, these things are all forms of communications, and we don't really teach them all in school. We only teach one. And I think it's extremely important that we teach all of them, at least the fundamental grammar [of those disciplines], because most kids are exposed to it, and they use non-word forms of communications a lot, and they basically are illiterate and don't know what the rules are. So I think [the arts] should be taught more as a core value in education rather than an add-on. The idea of learning to play a musical instrument, learning to draw a straight line, expressing yourself creatively, are all very valuable, but at the same time I think that the reason that arts education has gotten such a short shrift is people don't realize how incredibly important it is to your daily life.
NEA: What's the best piece of advice you've received regarding your career, and what's the worst?
LUCAS: Well, I would say the best one is to be persistent, and to learn as much as you can about all aspects of what the field is you're working in. Don't just learn one little piece of the puzzle. Try to learn the whole puzzle, and then be very persistent.
I think the worst piece of advice is that you should not make your hobby your business, which is to say if you find your passion, don't make it your business because people will take advantage of you because they know you'll work for free because you love it. But, that wasn't a very good piece of advice. My feeling is that if you find your passion, use it because no matter what, you'll be happy, and you know, it may not financially be the best thing in the world but at the same time, if you're happy you don't need to have the money.
NEA: At the NEA we have a tagline: “Art works”, and we use that to mean the work of art itself, the way art works on people, and also that artists are actual workers who contribute to our economy. So what does that phrase, “art works”, mean to you?
LUCAS: My feelings about that are a little different because I feel an artist is somebody who is trying to communicate on an emotional level with people, and communicate ideas, and if a work is not emotional and doesn't affect people emotionally, than it's not a work of art. What people are trying to do is to tell stories, one way or another, no matter what the form is, that inspire people and move people and… enlighten them to nuances of life that you can't put into a straight set of rules or instructions. And basically to communicate things that can't be communicated in an easy way, can't be communicated intellectually.
So then you end up with the work. And I wouldn't call it art---I would just call it communication. And it's obviously used in all kinds of forms, you know, it's big in everything we do, no matter what it is…. Music pervades everything. Design pervades everything. Using the moving image pervades everything. Telling stories, writing stories, whether it's slogans for an ad campaign or whatever, move people. And so it's a cornerstone of our civilization, and that is one of the definitions of what a society is. [It’s] calibrated by the quality of the artwork, or of the communications, the emotional communications that it produces, which allows the society to be cohesive, and think and become one thing, rather than a whole bunch of disparate things.
So, on that feeling, you know, there is the work itself, be it a design for a car or a movie or a painting, and then you have the fact that people are moved by it, which is the audience, and they are moved in a way that allows them to have a shared experience, a shared emotional experience. And then at the same time, you end up with people making money off that. I don't know whether that has much to do with the art. I mean, especially in fine art. You know, fine art has become nothing more than stock exchange. It's jus tbuying stuff hoping the price will go up and then you can sell it. But most people that work in the field of art are designers and musicians that play in orchestras and all kinds of things. So it mostly contributes to the cohesiveness of a society more than it does in terms of a way of making money. Usually, if someone is trying to make money through art they're never going to be very good at it. Cause it's a talent, it's not a skill.
Liked this interview? Then you might like our Art Talks with National Medal of Arts honorees Herb Alpert and Lin Arison, and our podcast with honoree Joan Myers Brown. You can also visit the National Medal of Arts page on arts.gov for a photo album of pix from the medals presentation at the White House.