Swept away by a force of nature: George Lucas

`Star Wars' creator went his own way

Kasdan went, too

Conversations

May 12, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

So you wonder what film writer-director Lawrence Kasdan really thinks of George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars films? In anticipation of Star Wars: Episode 2 - Attack of the Clones, the newest installment of the Lucas film series, which opens Thursday, he spoke about Lucas in a telephone interview from Vancouver 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 his very own 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' Marin County compound.)

And he's so convinced of the tycoon's authentic goodness that he supports his every whim, even one as outre as trying to create a mechanical female as a love partner.

Kasdan may have the same affectionate appreciation of George Lucas that the protagonist of Mumford has for the modem king. Working for Lucas three times - on Empire, Raiders and the script for Return of the Jedi - was "never anything but fun," says Kasdan.

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.

To see what Kasdan means, try watching Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace with only the music in the background or a foreign language track on the DVD.

Relieved of paying attention to the unspeakable dialogue and the actors going down in defeat before it, you'll see an astounding array of wonders - from zillions of mechanical warriors filling eerie olive-green planes to a capital city that seems, though rooted on the ground, as airy as the cloud metropolis in Empire.

Phantom Menace contains all sorts of material not typical of adolescent-escapist fantasy, like the difficulty of enforcing universal trade agreements, as well as material rarely detailed so obsessively, like the fleshing out of a Zen-warrior philosophy as the road to true power. To Kasdan - and perhaps to others willing to meet a popular artist on his own terms - Lucas is not a panderer to common tastes but an uncommon and uncompromising pursuer of his own vision.

How did you become a part of the "Star Wars" saga?

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.

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."

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, but if you get your hands on her draft you won't find one item that's in the finished film.

George said, "I'm under the gun - we have to start from scratch." And I was pumped up over Raiders and was never going to say no to the second Star Wars movie. I said, "You haven't even read the Raiders script yet!" He said, "If I don't like Raiders, I'll call tonight and take back my offer."

I wrote it very fast to George's outline and tried to bring to it everything I'm capable of bringing to a script. But I was George's tool - and don't get me wrong, that was fun.

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