Mark Radcliffe learned that the Star Wars movies reflect the life of the man behind them, and when he lost something important, so did they.
One of the hardest things for a man of ambition to keep in check is the balance he strikes between his career and his personal life.
One person whose life I find particularly illuminating on this subject is legendary filmmaker George Lucas.
Like most boys who grew up in the 70s and 80s, I was a huge Star Wars fan. Still am. Those movies were my personal bible for how to go boldly forth and chase your dreams.
However, let’s be clear: I’m talking about first three Star Wars films, not the last three. Those broke my heart.
If you’ve seen the documentary The People vs George Lucas, you know how many of his original fans feel the same way.
There might be some debate, but I think most would agree that the “prequels” (Episodes 1, 2 and 3, released from 1999-2005) were unilaterally devoid of any real character development or emotional engagement. They were technically masterful and visually amazing, but in the end, you didn’t care about any of the characters. That would never have been said about the first three. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were characters that some of us wanted to base our whole lives on. Hell, even R2-D2—a robot!—had so much personality I dressed up as him for Halloween one year.
So what the hell happened? How could a filmmaker be so masterful with story and character at one part in his career but then be so far gone as to create someone like Jar Jar Binks in the latter? What happened to our hero George Lucas to explain the difference between the two trilogies?
Not long ago, I stumbled across a number of pieces online that talked about his then-wife, Marcia Lucas, and her role in the first three films: an article about the three ways Marcia helped save Star Wars, an interview with Mark Hamill, and an essay from Michael Kaminski’s site on “The Secret History of Star Wars.” All seem to assert that, as the woman who helped guide George’s scripts and as the primary editor in the trilogy, she had a huge impact on the storylines and tone. She was the one he bounced ideas off of, the one who challenged him, the one who said, “uh-uh” when his first draft of Star Wars didn’t have any women in it. (Leia was only added after her comments.) It was also Marcia’s idea to kill off Obi-Wan. When you look at a lot of the finer points of the story, Marcia’s input was crucial.
To be clear, I still believe in the notion of George the inspired filmmaker. But it appears his secret weapon was his now-estranged wife. By many reports, Lucas’s scripts and editing instincts always leaned toward the cold and unemotional (THX 11238, anyone?), whereas it was always his wife Marcia who constantly challenged him to involve the audience more. She fought for him to add a bit more humor, more humanity, and more lighthearted moments: like Princess Leia kissing Luke “for luck” just before they evaded the stormtroopers by swinging across a trench on a suspension line. It appears that she was the lone “no” person in George’s life, constantly pushing back and saying it wasn’t good enough, yet.
Some time after all of the success, all the millions, George and Marcia grew apart, and eventually divorced. Soon they weren’t even speaking anymore. For the entire last three movies—the prequels—Marcia wasn’t even in the picture. She wasn’t there to offer notes on the “unearned” romance between Anakin and Queen Amadala. She wasn’t there to veto Qui Gon Jinn’s infamous “midi-chlorians” line that reduced the Force to a genetic gift, not something a person can develop and master through conscientious effort and will. What we got in the final trilogy was pure, unadulterated George—the stories that he got as far as he could before Marcia added the humanity and emotion they needed.
What happened to cause them to drift apart? Had George simply gotten too rich? Too isolated from real human experience? Too “successful” to deal with the countless revisions it takes to turn an “okay” story into an amazing one?
After a happy early marriage, and a collusion of artistic vision that led them to join forces, and then the success of the first trilogy, Marcia wanted to take their success and millions, and relax and enjoy life a bit. She’d been working hard for years, and now wanted to be a mom before it was too late. But George wanted to plow ahead, delving into the other films and building the all-encompassing Skywalker Ranch, his commitments to which would eventually distance him both physically and emotionally from his wife.
Perhaps it was a need to create a safety net, but he ironically went about creating the type of massive studio that they both railed against in the early part of their careers. With George never around, and seemingly more committed to building his empire than to her, Marcia fell in love with another man, and eventually filed for divorce. The ultimate rub? The man who she fell for with was the man George hired to be one of the principal interior designers of Skywalker Ranch—whose job it was to work with his wife on the designs all day. He practically pushed her into another man’s arms.
The very ambition that drove George to build his legendary film career appears to have led to the isolation that impaired his filmmaking and left him alone with his riches and fame. Alas, he never remarried.
When filmmakers give long thank-yous at the Oscars, there’s a reason for it; if you don’t value the input of others, your work can only get so far. It takes a village to raise a film.
But now George was very much alone, without the sage perspective of Marcia as his sounding board. Having built his own studio empire, Lucas had so much money he could fire anyone who questioned him, and even issued a policy that most employees were not to speak to him directly. He deprived himself of the important critical feedback that complex projects require. If the President has a cabinet of advisors, why shouldn’t the rest of us?
In the end, George Lucas’ tale is a familiar one that reminds us of another film icon—Citizen Kane, a film suggesting the life of William Randolph Hearst, a man who won the world but lost his soul. Lucas himself perhaps suffered the same fate.
At the end of The People Vs George Lucas, George admits in an interview that he has become Darth Vader himself, in a sense, in his quest to build his filmmaking empire.
If there’s anything to learn from George’s cautionary tale, it’s to be careful of how single-mindedly you pursue your career. You might do it so well you lose everything that got you there in the first place. And who wants to retire with a boatload of cash, but no one to share it with and the knowledge that all your old friends have deserted you?
Don’t run from the one person in your life who challenges you most. Embrace them. When pride tempts us to kick them to the curb as if they’re getting in the way of our becoming our better selves, consider that they might actually be the one thing that’s most essential to us unlocking our true potential.
I remember when recording my last album in LA 2 years ago, how many times I wanted to punch my producer for the ways in which he challenged me, told me it wasn’t good enough, and questioned my instincts. But in the end, I realize his confrontational criticism was exactly what I needed to get to a new, more evolved place. I can only dream of having a career as successful as George Lucas some day. I just hope I won’t ever be so blinded by success that I fail to realize what helped me get there.
So here’s to the “no” people in our lives. Long may we keep them around.