George Lucas was nobody.
He was sleeping on his friend’s couch, trying to hustle a pair of movies to any film studio that would hear him out. But there were no takers.
The 27-year-old USC film grad did have a new picture under his belt, 1971’s dystopian thriller THX 1138, but nobody really wanted that either. The Cannes Film Festival had allowed it into its line-up, so that was something. He was getting ready to jet to the French Riviera (on his own dime, not that he had a lot of dimes).
“I came as a poor, destitute film student,” Lucas told me in 2007, sitting in the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, just a few floors away and down the hall from where he struck the deal that would change his life – and spark the creation of a whole other galaxy.
On the anniversary of the theatrical debut of Star Wars on May 24, 1977, this is the story of its birth.
But we’re getting ahead of things. First came the hard times.
His more experienced friend, the one with the couch, had pulled some strings and gotten THX 1138 a distributor, but now that same friend was in anguish while struggling to make his own film, a period gangster drama that wasn’t going well. The studio kept threatening to fire him at any moment.
If George Lucas was going to make a deal for his next project, he wouldn’t be able to rely on Francis Ford Coppola. The troubled production of The Godfather was ruining Coppola’s reputation at the studio, and he feared it would end his career before he ever really got started.
But he did have the couch. That he could offer to his buddy George.
THE ONLY LIVING JEDI IN NEW YORK
Lucas had already exhausted his options in Los Angeles, but while staying at Coppola’s home, he set up meetings in New York with anyone in the film business willing to sit down for a few minutes.
He had one big chance, a longshot: United Artists CEO David Picker, the man credited with making the deal for the 007 movies, the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and for forging a partnership with Woody Allen in his prime.
Picker agreed to the sit-down with Lucas but quickly brushed him off. “I pitched it to him there in New York, and he said, ‘Well, in a week or so I’m going to the Cannes Film Festival…'” The implication was simple: Picker would be making a lot of deals there, so he wasn’t about to crack open the piggy bank just yet. He had a buying spree planned and said he was sure young Lucas understood.
George did understand, perfectly. “I said, ‘I’m going, too! I have a movie there.'” This piqued Picker’s interest. “He said, ‘Okay, come and see me there,'” Lucas recalled. “Then I came and saw him and he’d been thinking about it.”
Suddenly, amid the buying frenzy of the Cannes Film Festival, Picker actually was interested.
But Star Wars wasn’t even a top priority for Lucas. The main project he was trying to sell was a coming-of-age story set in the California car culture during the early 1960s — American Graffiti.
“So I pitched it to him, and he said, ‘Okay, we’ll do it. Or at least, we’ll give you the $10 to write the script,” Lucas recalled. “Then he said, ‘Do you have any other films?’ I said, ‘Well, I have this sort of space opera thing. It’s sort of an action-adventure film in space.'”
Sales pitch of the year.
But Picker went for it. “He said, ‘Okay, we’ll make a deal for that, too,'” Lucas told me, snapping his fingers. “Just like that.”
What changed after so much disinterest? Was it the French wine? The jet lag? The “Directors’ Fortnight” screening of THX 1138 in the Cannes festival’s indie section? Something sparked interest in his ideas that wasn’t there before.
Lucas was never sure, even years later. He guessed Picker was just in a gambling mood. In the book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor, Picker is quoted saying he doesn’t even remember striking the bargain at the Carlton with a young nobody named George Lucas. “You can imagine how many meetings I had on that terrace,” he said.
ALTERING THE DEAL
Lucas told me it was a low-stakes investment, an easy “risk” for Picker to take. But without it, Lucas might never have pursued either film.
“It was for nothing. It was like $10,000 to write a screenplay,” Lucas said. And the offer for the “space opera”? That was more of a reflex than genuine interest.
“All studios, whenever you made a commitment, they said, ‘Can we sign you up for 10 movies?'” Lucas explained. “Because if it happens, if that’s a hit, they want to be able to have everything else.”
So Lucas went to work on his car culture comedy … and when Picker got the script, that interest he once felt had completely dissipated. “As it turned out in this particular case, David didn’t like American Graffiti. So they didn’t do it,” Lucas said.
He was then free to shop it around. Universal took up the car picture, which Lucas made on a shoestring budget, but when he finally turned his focus to the space movie, his reputation was toxic. Buzz was bad.
So Picker punted on Star Wars, too.
“When I had to go back to Star Wars, American Graffiti hadn’t come out yet. And the rumors around Hollywood were that it was unfit to show an audience, they were going to release it on television, and it was a disaster,” Lucas said.
“So I had THX, which was artistic but not very popular, I had this second movie, a little tiny, tiny, tiny movie — a hotrod movie that everyone thought was a disaster. So they passed on [Star Wars], too.”
But one executive came to the rescue: Alan Ladd Jr., who was head of creative at 20th Century Fox. “He had actually seen American Graffiti,” Lucas explained. And he liked it. “So he said, ‘Whatever you want …’ When they all passed on Star Wars, he said: ‘Okay.'”
Okay. That’s what sealed the deal on the galaxy.
Only one person was unhappy with the arrangement: George’s father, George Sr.
VADER KNOWS BEST
“He wanted me to go into his business,” Lucas told me. “I said I’m absolutely not going to do it.”
George Sr. had toiled his whole life to build a small but successful business in Modesto, California, selling copy machines, paper, desk equipment, and other office supplies. But this was not the life his son wanted.
“I said I will never go to work every day doing the same thing day in and day out,” the filmmaker recalled. “But that was his life. He worked very hard at it. He started out as an errand boy and he ended up owning the company, and it was a big deal to him.”
At this point in the interview, something became clear: Join me, my son, and together we will rule the office supply galaxy …
Star Wars was directly about rebelling against his father. DARTH VADER REALLY WAS HIS FATHER.
Maybe Lucas didn’t even realize it at the time, but by the time we spoke about this for a USA Today story in 2007, he couldn’t really deny the connection. “Both Steven and I do that,” Lucas, of his Indiana Jones colleague, Steven Spielberg. “Almost all of our films are about fathers and sons. Whether it’s Darth Vader or E.T… I don’t think you could look at any of our movies and not find that.”
So Lucas rebelled against his father and struck out on his own to make motion pictures. “Making movies was not something he thought was respectable. He thought I was going to fail,” Lucas said, adding with a shrug: “Which was reasonable.”
George Sr.’s objection actually provided some useful guidance: “My father said don’t ever go into business with your hobby because you’ll be taken advantage of and you’ll be doing stupid things, and doing things for love instead of money,” Lucas said. “And he was right.”
So he heeded his father’s words, even if he used them to defy the old man’s wishes. “With that bit of advice in my holster, I did something that I loved, that I was passionate about, but I always kept my dad’s little slogan next to me which is, ‘You love this but just because you love it don’t let somebody come and say you’ll work for free.'”
Eventually, just as Luke (a.k.a. Lucas, get it?) and Vader (a.k.a. “the Dark Father”) came to a reconciliation, the filmmaker and his copy-machine selling dad also reached an understanding, well before George Sr.’s death in 1991.
“He lived to see me finally go from a worthless, as he would call ‘late-bloomer’ to actually being successful,” Lucas said. “He was extremely happy. I gave him the one thing every parent wants — to have your kid be safe and be able to take care of himself, be safe and healthy. So I did. I succeeded at something and was able to support myself. That was all he really wanted, and that’s what he got — only much more than he expected.”
To quote Darth Vader’s final words from Return of the Jedi:
You were right …