Trevor Hogg profiles the career of legendary filmmaker George Lucas in the fourth of a six part feature… read parts one, two and three.
For over a decade filmmaker George Lucas had been developing a project which was a gender reversal of the Biblical story about Moses being hidden as a baby in the bulrushes. When asked to describe Willow (1988), Lucas called it “an adventure fantasy that takes place a long time ago in a mythical land.” Cast as the title character who becomes the guardian and defender of the wayward baby from an evil sorceress was Warwick Davis who made a name for himself playing the Ewok known as Wicket. “I was on holiday in southwest England when I got a call from George to come to Elstree – one of the major British studios – and audition for the part,” remembers Davis. “Actually, I did four auditions altogether; three in England and one in America.” The actor was competing against a lot of familiar faces. “There’s not all that much work for short people. Many of us worked for George as Ewoks in Return of the Jedi . So we knew each other. To this day I still run into blokes who say, ‘You know, I tried out for that bloody party!’”
Given the responsibility to helm Willow was an actor turned director to whom George Lucas has a working relationship comparable to the one he has with Steven Spielberg (War Horse). “The only other person I’m that close to aesthetically is Ron Howard,” stated the native of Modesto, California. “With those two, we can almost finish each other’s sentences. Francis [Ford Coppola] and I are great friends, but creatively we see things very differently.” Even though he was present during the principle photography, the partnership between the two men was an amiable one. “George let Ron direct the picture,” remarked Warwick Davis, “but he was there to help when asked. He had Willow’s entire world swirling around in his head, and he could answer any question posed by the script. Also, he was accustomed to working with special effects, and he had certain shots in mind. I believe he directed some action sequences shot by the second unit too.”
Starring in the $36 million production are Val Kilmer (Tombstone), Joanne Whaley (Scandal), Warwick Davis, Jean Marsh (Frenzy), Patricia Hayes (A Fish Called Wanda), Billy Barty (Legend), Pat Roach (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Gavan O’Herlihy (Never Say Never Again), Rick Overton (The Informant!) and Kevin Pollack (The Usual Suspects). Chosen to play the role of the warrior Madmartigan who assists Willow on his quest was Val Kilmer. “Well Val came in to read,” stated Warwick Davis, “he looked rather scruffy – open-toed sandals, long hair, baggy shirt, that sort of thing. He certainly had the quality George was looking for. [You] could tell that as soon as he read the lines.” The cinematic performance of Kilmer was influenced by one of his co-stars. “While on location,” explained Davis, “Joanne [Whalley] was to be staying in a hotel room next to mine. Val, as part of his contract, was given a nice little house in which to live. As shooting progressed, she spent less time in her room and more time in his house, so everybody knew they were getting on. In fact, Ron actually reshot some of the scenes they had together. The sexual chemistry between them was so much stronger as we got further along, and he thought it would punch up those scenes if he redid them. He was right. The new stuff was better.”
“It certainly was a very physical movie,” admitted Warwick Davis. “We had to shoot around some very cold, snowy weather. We were transporting cast, crew, and equipment by helicopter. Do you recall that scene which takes place at the crossroads? We shot that one in below-freezing temperatures. I also had to do quite a lot of running, which is difficult for me. Painful too, after a while. And I didn’t enjoy spending so much time on the horse. I’m rather afraid of them to begin with, and the one I rode in the film was a particularly stubborn beast. It was hard to get him going, but once he got moving he didn’t want to stop!” Not all of the hard work appeared in the final product. “When [Willow] leaves for the island, he climbs into the boat bone-dry. There there’s a wipe, and he’s seen landing and climbing out, somewhat bedraggled and with wet hair. In between those two shots he’s caught in a violent storm, tossed overboard, and very nearly drowned after being attacked by a sea serpent of sorts. That bit took us a good two weeks to shoot. We did it in the huge water tanks at the Pinewood Studios, and I had tons of water dumped on me.” The actor was not the only one being tested creatively. Dennis Muren (Hulk), who served as the special effects supervisor, stated that the film was “an awful lot of work under the most difficult possible conditions, which is doing effects work in daylight instead of dark or nighttime. It’s three times harder. There was this two headed dragon at the end, and there were these Brownies [9-inch mischief makers portrayed by Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton] that had to be all over the place.” As for the transformation scene where a sorceress breaks the spell that has been cast upon her, Muren remarked, “George said he didn’t care what happened in between, but he knew the scene started with a goat and ended up with a woman.”
“At the Royal Film Premiere in London, I watched it while sitting next Prince Charles and Princess Diana,” remembered Warwick Davis. “That was a tremendous thrill for me. And then, of course, I did the media tour to promote the film. Being so widely recognized was nice. It’s still nice.” Willow grossed $57 million domestically and received Oscar nominations for Best Sound Editing, and Best Visual Effects. At the Razzie Awards, the adventure fantasy contended for Worst Screenplay and Worst Supporting Actor (Billy Barty). “George had an idea for a sequel. But Willow was only moderately successful on that first go-around at the box office and I think there was some concern that the returns wouldn’t justify the cost of filming.”
“I thought it was the best project Francis had ever been involved in,” said George Lucas as to the biopic Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. “It’s about the life an entrepreneur and the fate of creativity in a modern, financially oriented America.” Coppola could relate to the struggles of Preston Tucker who “developed plans for a car way ahead of its time in terms of engineering; yet the auto industry at large stubbornly resisted his innovative ideas.” The project floundered until Lucas intervened and secured the necessary financing. “No studio in town would touch it; they all said it was too expensive,” stated Lucas. “They all wanted $15 million Three Men and a Baby  movies or Crocodile Dundee, Part 73 sequels.” However, the filmmaker could understand the reluctance of the Hollywood studios to get involved with the $24 million production. “Francis can get so esoteric it can be hard for an audience to relate to him. He needs someone to pull him back. With The Godfather , it was Mario Puzo; with Tucker, it was me.” Starring in the picture are Jeff Bridges (Blown Away), Martin Landau (Ed Wood), Joan Allen (The Bourne Supremacy), Frederic Forrest (The Two Jakes), Elias Koteas (Zodiac), Christian Slater (Broken Arrow), Nina Siemaszko (Jakob the Liar), Dean Stockwell (Married to the Mob), Lloyd Bridges (Airplane!) and Peter Donat (The Game).
“I wanted to make an uplifting experience that showed some of the problems of corporate America, and Francis didn’t resist,” said George Lucas whose cinematic vision did not entirely match with those of his colleague. “I’d lost some of my confidence,” revealed Francis Ford Coppola who had to financially reorganize his production company Zoetrope Studios. “I knew George had the marketing sense of what the people might want. He wanted to candy-apple it up a bit, make it a Disney film. He was at the height of his success and I was at the height of my failure.” Tucker: The Man and His Dream earned $20 million domestically and received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Martin Landau), Best Art Direction & Set Decoration and Best Costume Design; it also contended for Best Supporting Actor (Martin Landau) at the Golden Globes and was lauded with the BAFTA Award for Best Production Design. “I think it’s a good movie,” reflected Coppola. “It’s eccentric, a little wacky, like the Tucker car – but it’s not the movie I would have made at the height of my power.”
“Steve had an idea about baby dinosaurs and he wanted me to executive produce with him,” explained George Lucas about his involvement with The Land Before Time (1988) an animation project that was being developing by Steven Spielberg and former Disney animator Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH). “Animation is a completely different process from live action,” observed producer Kathleen Kennedy (The Sixth Sense) “You formulate the script as you go through a certain amount of production. As the project begins to come to life, you have more ideas. It unlocks the door to imagination because you can do anything.” Kennedy viewed the film as having universal appeal. “The empowerment of children is a real central theme. Littlefoot is empowered. That’s the theme, basically, in E.T.  as well. And the theme of abandonment runs through a lot of fairy tales. Bettleheim said the fear of abandonment is the universal primal fear of most children. When those themes are explored in movies, they conjure up real feelings, even in adults, though you may not understand why.” The animated tale had a dramatic impact on audience members. “One woman wrote us that she’d had a hard time trying to explain to her little girl about the death of her father. She found that Land Before Time allowed her to explain, in much the same way that I suppose Bambi  can help.”
“Steven and I have very similar tastes so it’s very easy for us to work together,” remarked George Lucas who collaborated with Steven Spielberg on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). If we disagree about something we both instantly defer to the other, but 90 percent of the time we agree on everything. And half the time we don’t even have to talk about decisions.” Spielberg is equally complimentary about Lucas. “[George] is smarter than I am about a lot of stuff. George is a better storyteller than I am. He loves to collaborate, and he collaborated all the way with me on the Indy pictures. He was very much involved in the editing on all three. If I’m getting into a project with or without George, I’ll ask him to read the script, and I’ll say, ‘George, what do you think about this? What am I getting myself into?’ He’s my most generous friend.” The director of the third installment of the Indiana Jones franchise amusingly adds, “We think so much alike that there were rumours that we were the same person. At a science fiction convention somebody said that we were never seen in the same place at the same time. There was a rumour that we were one alien being, who could change form.”
“There’s a certain discipline that is established when you get into sequels,” stated Lucas. “It’s like a sonnet or haiku. There are things you’re obliged to do or you’re not doing what people want. I don’t like working with an established form. I prefer to roam around, creatively. But once you develop a certain style and genre, you have to be faithful to it. I think I took both those genres, the Star Wars and Indiana Jones pieces, much further than one would expect. But to go beyond that is very difficult.” Lucas proposed an idea of adapting a Chinese legend and placing the Monkey King in Africa. Locations were scouted as Christopher Columbus (Home Alone) wrote the script. “I salvaged the whole haunted-castle-in-Scotland idea because it wasn’t used in the second film. We took it and made it the opening of the third film – but it got kiboshed a second time. It really came down to the issue of the supernatural, with Steven and I going back and forth about how believable it would have to be. The Monkey King had a lot of supernatural powers. Finally we just gave up and started over again. It was a really good screenplay. It was just a little less realistic than what we were used to.”An older concept was revisited. “The Holy Grail had been an early idea as one of the artifacts,” said Lucas. “I think it was one of the original ideas around Temple of Doom , but Steven didn’t like it. I brought it up before The Monkey King, but again he said, ‘I just don’t get it.’ I had given the Grail some supernatural powers – healing and the fountain-of-youth powers – and those ideas were put into The Monkey King scripts.” With the initial script by Menno Meyjes (Martian Child) considered to be unsatisfactory; a replacement screenwriter was recruited. “Jeff Boam had done two of the Lethal Weapon movies, and Steven had heard of him,” remarked George Lucas. “When he brought him up, I said, ‘Well, he sounds like a good one.’”
Starring in the $55 million action-adventure are Harrison Ford (Blade Runner), Sean Connery (The Untouchables), Denholm Elliott (Trading Places), Alison Doody (A View to Kill), John Rhys-Davies (The King Maker), River Phoenix (Stand by Me), and Julian Glover (For Your Eyes Only). The creator of the movie franchise had reservations about casting Sean Connery as the father of the swashbuckling professor of archeology as he “thought his presence would unbalance the movie,” as well his vision of the character was different. “I had imagined an older gentleman, kind of a crazy, eccentric guy…more of a British Laurence Oliver, Obi-Wan Kenobi type.” Connery had his doubts too. “Sean at first resisted the idea of playing my father, because he’s only 12 years older than I,” revealed Harrison Ford. “He also felt that the character was too thinly drawn. It turns out that Sean is a great student of history, so he brought a lot of ideas that were incorporated into his character. He ended up less Yoda-like than originally intended and became quite a match to his son, including the fact that we both had a physical relationship with the leading lady.” The altered father-son dynamics brought a much needed element to the tale. “We were able to twist that particular idea into something funny and make it humorous rather than serious,” said Lucas. “I thought it would be fun to open the film with Indy as a young man. Steven was a bit reluctant, but we explored the idea and he agreed it might give the story more depth.”
Having Henry Jones, Senior (Sean Connery) shot by the Nazi collaborator Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) was considered to be a risky decision. “It was a little tricky, and we were a little nervous about that aspect of the story,” admitted George Lucas. “It kept evolving, but it seemed very logical to connect it that way and have the extra pressure of Indy having to get the Grail in order to save his father.” When it came to the sequence of the underground tomb and an onslaught of fleeing rodents, Harrison Ford was well prepared. “Happily, rats don’t bother me very much,” said the actor. “When I was a teenager I was a nature counselor, and, coincidentally, I did have as pets black hooded rats.” Alison Doody, who plays the femme fatale Elsa Schneider, found the Venice action sequence to be an emotionally tense experience. “I’m running in high heels and my shoes are giving away at this stage,” said Doody. “They’re very wet and I’m jumping onto a wet boat – cannot tell you how scared I was.” Sean Connery was glad to be apart of the production. “Each film I’ve made has its own kind of place,” remarked Connery. “But there are certain films that have a better taste, a better experience and souvenir. Others would be better forgotten. Indiana Jones is up there with the best of the films.” Steven Spielberg enjoyed working with River Phoenix who later died tragically from a drug overdose. “He very seriously studied Harrison in all of his films, his vocal inflection and his physical style,” remembered Spielberg. “He made the part his own, but incorporated enough of Harrison that you could really see a young Indiana Jones underneath the Boy Scout uniform.”
“When I realized that the movie had become more of a chase movie,” stated Steven Spielberg, “I felt it needed more action. So we thought up a good scene with the motorcycle sidecar, which we filmed near San Francisco, in the Bay Area, near where George lives.” The sequence where Harrison Ford has to cross a gorge to obtain the Holy Grail was overseen by ILM visual effects supervisor Michael McAlister. “The leap-of-faith shot was probably the single most challenging concept in the movie,” said McAlister. “Nobody knew how to do it. It was a combination of matte painting with a miniature set of the physical bridge. But the bridge blended into the background and was essentially invisible – then as soon as the camera would slide off axis, the illusion was revealed.” George Lucas was pleased with the creative individuals working behind the scenes. “We had an extraordinary talented group of people,” enthused Lucas. “From Dougie [Slocombe] in the camera crew, Ben Burtt in sound effects, to the art department. Michael Kahn is one of the most brilliant editors around, and obviously Johnny Williams. It goes on and on. And it’s always a thrill to see Harrison in that outfit. He becomes that character. You walk on the set and there he is. It’s such an iconic image.” Movie audiences were also happy to see Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones as the action-adventure grossed $474 million worldwide; it won Best Sound Effects Editing at the Oscars and received nominations for Best Original Score and Best Sound. At the BAFTAs, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade competed for Best Supporting Actor (Sean Connery), Best Sound and Best Special Effects. Sean Connery contended for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes.
Lucasfilm delved into the world of television series production with Manic Mansion (Family Chanel, 1990) and the Emmy-winning The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (ABC, 1992 to 93). “We were working on an idea called A Walk Through Early Twentieth Century: History with Indiana Jones and it turned into a TV series,” explained George Lucas who was honoured with the Irving G. Thalberg Award at the 1992 Academy Awards. “It’s a series of ideas, as well as action. I think people need to be exposed to all kinds of information, hopefully in entertaining form, so they’ll have an opportunity to understand the large world of ideas.” The small screen show had big screen production values. “On the Young Indy TV series – which was a period show with horses, carriages, completely different landscapes, and costumes – we had exactly the same kinds of production values as The Age of Innocence but we did it for 10 percent of the cost, thanks to digital technology. We used the computer to make crowd scenes, when we only had a handful of actors, and to replicate backgrounds that weren’t really there.” The one hour episodes were helmed by the likes of Terry Jones (Monty Python’s Life of Brian), Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout), Deepa Mehta (Water), and Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) while screenwriters included Carrie Fisher (Postcards from the Edge), Jonathan Hensleigh (Kill the Irishman), and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption). Corey Carrier (Nixon) plays Indy at age 9, Sean Patrick Flanery (The Boondock Saints) portrays him at age 16 and George Hall (Red) embodies the elderly title character. Among the guest actors are Harrison Ford, Catherine Zeta-Jones (Blue Juice), Daniel Craig (Cowboys & Aliens), Christopher Lee (Hugo Cabret), Timothy Spall (The Damned United), Jeffery Wright (Casino Royale), Elizabeth Hurley (Serving Sara), Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End), Ian McDiarmid (Restoration), Max von Sydow (Minority Report), Terry Jones (Erik the Viking), and Michael Gough (The Fourth Protocol). The 24 shows where Indy looks back on his adventures which started back in 1908 were shot in countries such as Britain, Kenya, and India. “I haven’t has so much fun working on anything since Raiders,” declared Lucas who, upon the cancellation of the television series, released four The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones TV movies.
With his special effects company Industrial Light & Magic developing breakthrough computer generated effects such as the alien water tentacle in The Abyss (1989) and the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993), George Lucas sold the computerized analogue non-linear editing system Editdroid to Avid Technology. “I am not focused on computers in my life, interestingly enough,” confessed Lucas. “I have a laptop and a Mac, but I’m not a computer person at all. I have computer scientists who work for me who are the best in the world.”
Completing the three picture deal he had signed with Universal to make his sophomore effort, George Lucas co-produced the black comedy mystery Radioland Murders (1994). “This project grew out of American Graffiti, which was another radio listener’s fantasy-themed movie,” explained Lucas. “We didn’t get a television until I was 10 years old, so many of my early years were spent sitting and listening to radio dramas. I liked being able to fill in the blanks with my imagination and hearing the story.” A writer who tries to solve a series of killings at a new radio network becomes the prime suspect. “It’s the kind of movie I like to make – it’s frantic and crazy and fun – but it’s difficult to get a movie like this made because it doesn’t fit in any of the categories the studios like. This is a really wacko, offbeat comedy, set in 1939 – and it doesn’t have any movie stars.” Cast in the $10 million picture are Brian Benben (Dark Angel), Mary Stuart Masterson (Fried Green Tomatoes), Scott Michael Campbell (Hart’s War), Michael Lerner (Barton Fink), Ned Beatty (Network), Brion James (The Fifth Element), Corbin Bensen (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future), Candy Clark (Blue Thunder), George Burns (Oh, God!), Bo Hopkins (Midnight Express), and Rosemary Clooney (Here Come the Girls).
“It was one of my favourite projects, but I just didn’t have any time to actually do it,” remarked George Lucas who recruited a director responsible for a movie he had enjoyed. “I liked The Tall Guy . I thought it was funny and in talking to Mel [Smith] he seemed to understand the material very well. As these things always are, it’s a matter of two minds coming together on an idea and agreeing on what should happen.” Over a 100 visual effects were used including computer generated sets. Lucas stated that Radioland Murders “was an experiment for us in that we applied the cost-saving technology we learned on bringing [The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles] TV series to the big screen.” Grossing $1 million domestically, the picture did not impress Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert who wrote, “The slapstick starts so soon and lasts for so long that we don’t have the opportunity to meet or care about the characters in a way that would make their actions funny.”
As he was drafting the scripts of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, George Lucas and Lucasfilm established the official Star Wars website in 1996. A year later the original films were rereleased theatrically as special editions featuring altered and additional scenes. Producer Gary Kurtz, who was involved with the making of the first two installments, was not so keen on the idea. “To go back years later and change them, I think was probably the wrong philosophy,” reflected Kurtz. “In the case of Star Wars  it had to be restored anyway, because the negative was screwed up.”
With the pre-production commencing on the prequels, George Lucas decided to step behind the camera for the first time since 1977.
Continue to part five.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.