The next time you feel like giving up on something you’re passionate about, think about a young filmmaker named George.
He struck gold in Hollywood when he co-wrote and directed a movie called “American Graffiti” that became a huge hit in 1973. The coming-of-age story set in Modesto, Calif. in the early 60s celebrated the cruising and early rock ‘n’ roll culture of his teenage years and introduced us to actors who would become gigantic stars like Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams and Suzanne Somers.
Produced on a budget of $777,000, the film grossed well over $200 million and earned a nomination for Best Picture in the ‘74 Academy Awards.
Despite creating one of the most profitable films ever, George failed to obtain the rights to adapt an adventure serial from his childhood that had stirred his imagination called “Flash Gordon”. Undeterred, he set out to create his own epic saga set in outer space that he initially titled “Adventures of the Starkiller.”
He researched the source material for the original comic strips in newspapers, inspired by the “John Carter on Mars” books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, better known as the author of “Tarzan”. Burroughs had himself taken inspiration from an earlier science fantasy called “Gulliver on Mars.”
All but one studio rejected his script, lacking the vision to see that George was refining a story that injected more depth than the cheesy serials that inspired the project. He hired artist Ralph McQuarrie to create visuals to convey what was in his imagination.
The war in Vietnam and corruption of Nixon influenced the story, as they did many movies of the 1970s. However, he paired the fantastical with the universal with a simple story of youthful longing for something more and adventure on the top. He also incorporated elements from Samurai films, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” books and Joseph Conrad’s writings about mythologies.
In a world before “Star Wars”, it’s pretty easy to imagine studio bosses in their three-piece disco suits taking one look at the script by George Lucas and dismissing it as an inevitable flop.
“Science fiction wasn’t popular in the mid-’70s,” George later said. “What seems to be the case generally is that the studio executives are looking for what was popular last year, rather than trying to look forward to what might be popular next year…”
Alan Ladd Jr., the head of 20th Century Fox, did not grasp the project but he believed in George’s talent enough to green light it for $8 million. George had the foresight to negotiate sequel rights and most of the merchandising profits up front.
A monumental task laid before him, requiring the creation of a dedicated visual effects company. There were also unpleasant clashes with executives questioning George’s creative choices, problems with heat and weather at the locations and lots of attitude from pretentious British extras who resented the young American for trying to make a silly science fiction movie on their hallowed grounds. Sir Alec Guinness must have felt ridiculous acting alongside a tall guy in a monkey costume.
All of the actors felt alienated by the shy director who offered them little in the way of feedback and whose writing was difficult to speak. George became so stressed and depressed by the weight of it all that the actors reportedly tried to make him laugh or smile because they were concerned he might have a heart attack.
George had to cut a lot of corners to save money, yet he still went over $3 million over budget and the release date had to be pushed back.
Who wouldn’t feel like a huge failure at that point with naysayers in every direction and the whole thing seemingly hanging by a thread?
Early rough cuts were so disastrous that the original editor was fired and George’s wife took a stab at cutting it. Strategic choices and reshoots greatly improved the storytelling, the special effects turned out amazing and composer John Williams added an incredible symphonic score that truly made it all feel epic in scale.
Only 37 theaters ordered the film to be shown and the studio had to tie it to an adaptation of a Sidney Sheldon novel to get it in a wider release. Expecting a disaster that would soon be forgotten, the actors instead became instant household names. Decades later, the film and TV franchise has generated revenues of more than $10 billion.
My point being that we, as artists, often lose faith in our passion projects and ourselves. We doubt whether anyone will appreciate what we make and if we’ll walk away from it embarrassed, full of regrets. Sometimes the best case scenario in a bad outcome is the loss of only time and money without a permanent hit on our reputations.
George had good fortune with “Amerian Grafitti” and wisely leveraged that to position his next move. As a famous photographer once said, “You’re only as good as your most recent success.” In an alternate universe, George Lucas probably stayed conservative and had a moderately successful career doing a competent job on projects unlikely to fail commercially.
We should always listen to our guts and adapt aspects that aren’t working, as George did. We should also take inspiration from the structures and the creativity of that which came before us. Very rarely is anything a wholly unique creation anymore, and there’s a magic in taking what has already been done and transcending it with fresh eyes and our generational perspectives.
Whenever I feel down about creating something, I remember how bleak George must have felt all those years ago, gambling his time, money and reputation on a project that his collaborators openly ridiculed. That could have been it for him and “Star Wars” if he had given up during the darkest hours, convinced that he was going to fail monumentally.
Instead, he persisted, as all artists should when we feel inspired to create something. Even if it doesn’t make complete sense to other people who can’t envision the nuances that build the final output.
Success often comes to those who take personal risk and recognize what can be when others can’t yet see it.
The next time you are filled with doubt and convinced you are doomed to fail, you should look deep inside and critically assess whether such beliefs have real merit or if you still believe in the beauty of what you imagine. Also, find joy in your process because this story goes to show that a missing element here or there might have doomed “Star Wars” to commercial failure and obscurity.
George Lucas never lost sight of the most important thing: to create a universe that would be fun to inhabit for 121 minutes and offer much-needed escapism for a country still bitter and traumatized by Nixon and Vietnam.
“My main reason for making it was to give young people an honest, wholesome fantasy life, the kind my generation had. We had Westerns, pirate movies, all kinds of great things. Now they have “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Kojak”. Where are the romance, the adventure, and the fun that used to be in practically every movie made?”
In the wake of his creation, our society gained something that has inspired moviegoers around the world and shared the wisdom of the importance of ordinary people recognizing evil hidden behind a mask of benevolence and fighting tyranny because it’s never really vanquished forever. It builds slowly over years and repeats itself across the generations as facts fade into mythology.
We are fortunate to have gotten something far greater than just another “Flash Gordon” adaptation, which is what we would have settled for if George Lucas gave up instead of finding a way to realize his vision while facing adversity.
I think it is an incredible statement that in the conclusion of “Star Wars: A New Hope”, Luke Skywalker triumphs on the side of good over evil by rejecting the trappings of technology in favor of trusting his human instincts. That’s quite a profound contradiction when you consider that the plot of the story revolves around protecting the stolen plans to a secret battle station, a technological terror, and the film itself was a monumental technical achievement in visual effects.
What core theme or premise runs through your work? Why does the world need your vision?