Behind The Camera: The Life Of George Lucas

A director, writer, producer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, George Lucas is one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood. A member of the up-and-coming directors in the 1970s known as the “movie brats,” Lucas made a name for himself with his film American Graffiti in 1973 and established himself as an auteur and Hollywood powerhouse with the creation of Star Wars and the Indiana Jones franchise, alongside Steven Spielberg. Considered to be one of the most significant figures in the New Hollywood movement, more people know the name than the actual man. Take a look into George Lucas’ history, and the ultra-successful life has lived up to this point.

He Wasn’t Always Interested In Filmmaking

Lucas in a race jacket
M. Tran/FilmMagic
M. Tran/FilmMagic

Before George Lucas got involved in the film industry, he had far different dreams and tried his hand at several other careers. According to the Hollywood Reporter, as a teenager, Lucas had his sights set on becoming a professional race car driver.

Unfortunately, a near-death experience in high school while racing put an end to that prospect. Not wanting to take over his father’s office supply company, after graduating from high school he enlisted in the Air Force. However, he was rejected for having received too many speeding tickets.

His Dog Inspired Two Iconic Characters

George Lucas kneeling
URLI/GARCIA/ARNAL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
URLI/GARCIA/ARNAL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Early in his film career, George Lucas had an Alaskan Malamute named Indiana. As a writer on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas was inspired by his dog to create Harrison Ford’s character, Indiana Jones. The pup also influenced the look of Chewbacca in the Star Wars series.

As Lucas said in an interview, “I had an Alaskan Malamute when I was writing the film Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope… A very sweet dog that would always sit next to me when I was writing.” He continued, “A Malamute is a very large dog-like 130 pounds and bigger than a human being and very long-haired.” So it’s clear where the beloved character of Chewbacca came from.

He Started A Film Studio With Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola et George Lucas
ARNAL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
ARNAL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Before establishing his iconic Lucasfilm Ltd. production company, Lucas teamed up with a fellow promising director, Francis Ford Coppola. Although the two hadn’t quite made a name for themselves yet, together, they created Zoetrope Studios, a private film studio.

The name was eventually changed to American Zoetrope, and the films that the studio produced would go on to receive an impressive 15 Academy Awards and 68 nominations. Today, the company is owned by Coppola’s son and daughter Roman and Sofia.

Jar Jar Binks Is His Favorite Star Wars Character

George Lucas promoting the Phantom Menace
Kurita KAKU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Kurita KAKU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

There’s no denying that the Star Wars franchise has introduced some of the most iconic pop culture characters to the world, such as Darth Vader, Han Solo, R2D2, and more. However, it’s widely agreed upon by the Star Wars fandom that the character Jar Jar Binks in the prequel series is easily one of the franchise’s least-likable characters.

When discussing the 20th anniversary of The Phantom Menace, Lucas admitted that the film was one of his favorites in the series, also stating, “and of course, Jar Jar Binks is my favorite character.”

He’s Been Nominated For And Won Razzie Awards

George Lucas at the LA Film Festival
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

The Golden Raspberry Awards, also known as the Razzies, is an annual parody award show that recognizes the failings of various films from that year. Surprisingly, even though Lucas is considered to be one of the most notable directors of all time, he wasn’t safe from criticism at the Razzies.

On top of his numerous Academy Award nominations and other accolades, between 1989 and 2003, Lucas racked up five Razzie nominations and took home the award for the worst screenplay, for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, in 2003.

He Has A Mind For Business

Lucas and Darth Vader
GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images
GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images

When the first Star Wars film was released, it became the highest-grossing film of all time, earning $530 million globally. Incredibly, Lucas only made a small sum of $150,000 for directing it, which may seem like the biggest rip-off in movie history. Yet, that wasn’t the case, thanks to a small clause in Lucas’ contract.

He negotiated that he would have complete ownership of all licensing and merchandise rights to the film, which eventually made him a billionaire. Few studios would ever let something like this ever happen again.

He Doesn’t Have The Greatest Relationship With Disney

GGeorge Lucas at award show
Albert L. Ortega/WireImage)
Albert L. Ortega/WireImage)

When Lucas sold the Star Wars rights to Disney, a part of the deal was that Disney would receive Lucas’ story outlines for a potential sequel series on top of what had already been made. So, Lucas was incredibly angry when someone described the premise of The Force Awakens to him, realizing that Disney had no intention of using his outlines.

Disney CEO Bob Iger commented, “George knew we weren’t contractually bound to anything, but he thought that our buying the story treatments was a tacit promise that we’d follow them, and he was disappointed that his story was being discarded.” In the end, Lucas was not happy.

He Worked As A Camera Operator For The Rolling Stones

George Lucas talking
Michael Hickey/WireImage
Michael Hickey/WireImage

One of Lucas’ earliest jobs in the film industry was working as a camera operator on the Maysles Brothers’ Rolling Stones concert film, Gimme Shelter. Unfortunately, Lucas’ camera jammed early in the shoot, and none of his footage ended up being in the film.

However, that wasn’t the worst part of the show. Filming took place at the disastrous Altamont Free Concert, where an audience member died at the hands of a Hells Angels member and there were three other accidental deaths.

Almost Nobody Was Interested In Star Wars At First

Lucas in front of spaceship
Mike Windle/Getty Images for Disney
Mike Windle/Getty Images for Disney

Although Star Wars has grown to become one of the most successful movie franchises in history, few believed that it had a chance at first, with A New Hope struggling to find any backing.

Lucas claims that the film was turned down by both United Artists and Universal, and that his success with American Graffiti was the only reason that the people at 20th Century Fox had any faith in him. Lucas wasn’t surprised by the lack of interest, stating, “It was crazy-spaceships, and Wookies, and robots. It was just unlike anything that had been seen before.

He Plans On Giving Away Half Of His Wealth

Lucas sitting on a couch
Jim Wilson/New York Times Co./Getty Images
Jim Wilson/New York Times Co./Getty Images

On top of being behind some of the highest-grossing films of all time, Lucas also sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $4 billion, making him incredibly wealthy. A firm believer in improving education, in 2010, Lucas signed The Giving Pledge, which is a promise to donate half of his wealth during his lifetime.

In an editorial for The Hollywood Reporter, Lucas wrote, “I am dedicating the majority of my wealth to improving education…. It is the key to the survival of the human race. We have to plan for our collective future, and the first step begins with the emotional and intellectual tools we provide to our children.”

He Was Surrounded By Fellow Iconic Directors From A Young Age

Spielberg and Lucas
Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images
Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images

While many directors and other notable Hollywood celebrities become acquaintances later on in their careers, that wasn’t the case for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The two met as teenagers while studying cinema at the University of Southern California and became fast friends.

Little did the students know that they would rise to become two of the most prominent directors of their time together. Other friends that Lucas made at school included three-time Oscar-winning sound designer Walter Murch, Apocalypse Now screenwriter John Milius, and Grease director Randal Kleiser, who was Lucas’ roommate.

He Based Han Solo On Francis Ford Coppola

Lucas and Coppola
Jeff Vespa/WireImage
Jeff Vespa/WireImage

In the 1970s, directors such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and others, earned the title of the “movie brats.” These were a new generation of filmmakers that would eventually revolutionize the film industry with their works.

Lucas and Coppola, however, had a particularly close relationship, even starting a movie studio together. Through spending a lot of time with Coppola, Lucas got his idea for the cool-headed, suave character of Han Solo, admitting that he added a few of Coppola’s traits to the character.

He Helped Start Pixar

George Lucas with Woody
DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images
DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images

Back in the 1970s, a group of computer scientists from the New York Institute of Technology was eager to make a completely computer-generated feature film. However, this was an expensive ambition, and they had a difficult time acquiring funding.

When Lucas established The Graphics Group of Lucasfilm, he hired the New York team to explore CG-based animation and special effects. The Graphics Group would then go on to hone their skills, eventually going independent in 1986 and rebranding as Pixar.

He’s Not The Most Prolific Director

Portrait of Lucas
Kurt Krieger/Corbis via Getty Images
Kurt Krieger/Corbis via Getty Images

Since the name George Lucas probably comes to mind when discussing iconic directors, one might assume that he has an impressive collection of films that he’s directed. Yet, in the last fifty years, he’s only directed six films, although there’s no denying that they were groundbreaking in their own right.

These films include THX 1138, American Graffiti, Star Wars, and the three Star Wars prequels. Even though most people assume that Lucas was the primary director for the Star Wars series that made him famous, he only wrote and directed the first film. Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand directed The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, respectively.

American Graffiti Was Made On A Bet

Lucas on the set of American Graffiti
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

George Lucas released the incredibly successful American Graffiti in 1973, four years before he made real waves with Star Wars. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Picture, which seems strange since George Lucas is a master of science fiction, a vastly different genre than American Graffiti.

Well, it turns out that Lucas wrote and directed the film on a dare. While making THX 1138, Francis Ford Coppola challenged him to make a successful mainstream film, which Lucas more than managed to pull off.

The Phantom Menace Was Accused Of Being Racist

George Lucas behind the camera
Keith Hamshere/Getty Images
Keith Hamshere/Getty Images

Many people had their own qualms with The Phantom Menace for various reasons. One of the biggest criticisms about the film was that many of the aliens appeared to be based on racist stereotypes.

Some of the arguments were that Jar Jar Binks and the Gungans speak with exaggerated creole accents, Nute Gunray and the Neimoidians have heavy East Asian accents, and Watto is a portrayal of Jewish stereotypes. Lucas denied these accusations, saying the characters couldn’t be racist because they’re aliens and that those claiming otherwise were the racist ones.

He Tinkered With The Original Star Wars Trilogy

George Lucas speaking
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

While the Star Wars prequels directed by Lucas got plenty of flack, another controversy regarding Lucas’ work was his re-editing of the original three Star Wars, decades after they had been released.

The first Star Wars films have gone down in history for their groundbreaking special effects and for stealing the hearts of millions. So, in 1997, when Lucas began modifying the original movies and adding special effects, fans were up in arms. In fact, today, it’s challenging to find original cuts of the movies.

His Wife Didn’t Like His First Movie

George Lucas on stage
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

George Lucas met film editor Marcia Griffin in 1967, and the two were married shortly after. While they may not have had the most loving relationship in the world, something that caused a major rift in their relationship was Marcia’s opinion on Lucas’ first film, THX 1138.

Marcia went on record to say, “I never cared for THX 1138 because it left me cold. When the studio didn’t like the film, I wasn’t surprised. But George just said to me, I was stupid and knew nothing. Because I was just a Valley Girl, he was the intellectual.” Clearly, someone was a little peeved.

He Experienced A Family Tragedy That Changed Star Wars Forever

Lucas at a film screening
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

While Lucas’ first wife Marcia won an Academy Award for Best Editing for her work on Star Wars, she almost didn’t work on it. While the movie was being shot, Marcia was pregnant with their child, with both of them assuming she would be on maternity leave when it came time to edit.

Unfortunately, Marcia ended up having a miscarriage, and while the couple was devastated, it allowed Marcia to work. She did an incredible job on it, evidenced by her Oscar.

His Divorce Cost Him A Pretty Penny

Picture of George Lucas
Valerie Macon/Getty Images
Valerie Macon/Getty Images

While working on the first three Star Wars films, Lucas put everything he had into them, even succumbing to frequent panic attacks during production. Devoting himself to his work eventually took a toll on his marriage as a result of him being emotionally distant from his wife.

By 1982, Marcia had enough and asked for a divorce shortly before the release of Return of the Jedi. When the smoke had cleared, Marcia walked away with a sizable settlement of $50 million.