Career lessons from George Lucas
The next chapter in the Star Wars saga is here!
To celebrate, here are some some career lessons from the man who started it all: George Lucas.
Mentors are important
We tend to mythologize the idea of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, becoming successful by the sheer force of their will and talent. Many successful people, however, have had someone to show them the ropes. In the case of Lucas, this was Francis Ford Coppola.
As a student, Lucas won a Warner Brothers’ scholarship to watch Coppola film his movie Finian’s Rainbow. He would then work as the director’s assistant, and eventually, as the vice president of Coppola’s production company. Coppola, in turn, would produce Lucas’ first feature film, American Graffiti.
“In film, Francis Coppola became my mentor, and taught me how to write screenplays, taught me how to work with actors,” Lucas would later say.
Fittingly, the Star Wars saga is built on the mentor-mentee relationship, with Yoda and Obi-Wan teaching young Luke Skywalker the importance of belief, determination, and sacrifice. Old, bearded, man-on-a-mountain Luke is now charged with doing the same with Rey.
Not all of us will be lucky to cross paths with the director of the Godfather (or an old Jedi master), but there are always knowledgeable, experienced people willing to offer advice and support. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.
Allies are even more important
Lucas famously screened an early cut of Star Wars: A New Hope to several filmmaker friends, including Steven Spielberg and Brian de Palma. The film did not yet have special effects or John William’s famous score, and in place of dazzling space battles, Lucas had spliced in footage of airplanes from World War II films.
According to the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, when the lights came up, most in attendance were embarrassed for Lucas. Ever the optimist, Spielberg told him it was going to be a massive hit. De Palma, however, had a different opinion.
“The crawl at the beginning looks like it was written on a driveway. It goes on forever. It’s gibberish,” he told Lucas. “The first act? Where are we? Who are these fuzzy guys? Who are these guys dressed up like the Tin Man from Oz? What kind of a movie are you making here? You’ve left the audience out. You’ve vaporized the audience.”
De Palma wasn’t saying this out of spite or jealousy; he was trying to help his friend.
“You have to understand, we used to look at each other’s movies in order to be helpful. We might say some things that weren’t nice,” De Palma has said. “The thing the guys could always count on with me is I would say what I thought. I wasn’t holding back.”
Encouragement and support (Spielberg) is often as important as unflinching honesty (De Palma). With both, you can identify areas of improvement, and have the strength and courage to make changes. How do you develop that? You can start by being as helpful and supportive (and honest) as you can to friends and co-workers. One day, they may return the favour (and maybe act as a reference).
Stick to your vision (even when people don’t get it)
De Palma wasn’t the only one who didn’t get it. Alec Guinness, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first film, also had his doubts. This is what he wrote in a diary entry:
“Apart from the money, which should get me comfortably through the year, I regret having embarked on the film. I like them all well enough, but it’s not an acting job, the dialogue, which is lamentable, keeps being changed and only slightly improved, and I find myself old and out of touch with the young.”
Younger cast mates, however, shared similar misgivings.
“I said to George, ‘You can type this stuff but you can’t say it,”‘ Harrison Ford said. This was, evidently, a common opinion, as much of the crew considered the project a children’s film, which they found unintentional humorous.
Dealing with this kind of thing was par for the course for Lucas. It took him and his partner Gary Kurtz years to develop Star Wars into the story fans today love (initial drafts had Han Solo as a frog-like alien). Throughout that process, studio after studio rejected the weird, nine-part space epic.
Lucas, however, had a vision.
“The reason I’m making Star Wars is that I want to give young people some sort of faraway exotic environment for their imaginations to run around in,” he said. “I have a strong feeling about interesting kids in space exploration. I want them to want it. I want them to get beyond the basic stupidities of the moment and think about colonizing Venus and Mars.”
To achieve this, Lucas spent years studying comic books, science fiction, fairy tales, and mythology, filling notebooks with ideas.
As biographer Dale M. Pollock wrote: “Star Wars was a deeply personal vision, and it consumed him.” Similarly, if you have clear career goals, commit to them, fully and completely, and don’t let anyone throw you off course.
Be open to collaboration
As much as Star Wars was a deeply personal vision for Lucas, getting it to the screen was a team effort. Apart from the aforementioned Gary Kurtz and John Williams, Lucas also counted on the talents of directors Irvin Kershner (Empire Strikes Back) and Richard Marquand (Return of the Jedi), and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote both films).
Without the participation of these people, would Star Wars have become the same phenomenon? Maybe, but given the less than beloved prequels (which Lucas had complete control over), maybe not.
Fittingly, this idea of cooperation and teamwork is one of the main threads running through every Star Wars movie, and it offers an important lesson. From escaping a trash compactor to defeating a clone army, nothing is accomplished without teamwork, even when a princess and a bounty hunter are forced to work together.
Don’t worry about selling out
The success of Star Wars turned Lucas from an indie movie auteur into a kind of CEO, with his own special effects and production companies. It may have also created modern Hollywood’s unhealthy obsession with blockbusters, sequels, and box office numbers.
It’s easy to be snarky about that, but by working within the system, Lucas got what he wanted: control over his creation.
Without his embrace of the dark side, and without the marketing and commercialization of the original trilogy, I’d argue that the culture and community around Star Wars would not exist today. And that sense of community is one of the reasons why grown men and women can still get goosebumps at the sight of one simple phrase: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”