Alexandre Philippe Talks THE PEOPLE VERSUS GEORGE LUCAS

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
[This interview initially ran leading up to SXSW 2010. With the film now nearing a domestic DVD release - it is now available for order here - we take the opportunity to present it again.]

Of the documentary selections for the 2010 SXSW Film Festival one of the most immediately intriguing is Alexandre Philippe's The People Vs George Lucas.  A look into the world of the man who created Star Wars and the people who both love him and love to hate him the appeal around these parts should be immediately obvious.  Philippe was good enough to answer a few of our questions about his film.

TB: When did George Lucas first make you love him?
 
Like most kids from my generation, I think it's safe to say that George had me at "hello". For me, it was The Empire Strikes Back. I was a little too young to watch Star Wars in 1977, but I had all the toys in 1978, and I'm not really sure how the obsession started, because I didn¹t actually see a Star Wars movie until ESB came out. At least, I didn't have to endure the agony of having to fill out an empty box certificate to receive action figures, like most kids in the US did. When you're five years-old, and you're told to wait six months for the toys to be released, that's a tenth of the time you've spent on Earth!
 
While ESB isn't a George Lucas film, it certainly has his fingerprints all over it, and the moment that truly did it for me was the iconic "Luke, I am your father" scene. I saw the film in a theater in Geneva, Switzerland (my home town), and I distinctly remember standing up in the theater, devastated. In retrospect, the best period of my Star Wars fandom was the wait between ESB and ROTJ, because the cliffhanger and the toys were so great that I spent three years making up all those stories in my head. And Jedi certainly didn't disappoint. When you're ten years-old, Ewoks are pretty fun, actually.
 
TB:  When did George Lucas first make you hate him?
 
First of all, I don't hate George Lucas. I have no reason to hate him. But like so many people from my generation, he often frustrates me. I'm not even talking about The Phantom Menace. We could talk all day long about the movie's dramatic and structural flaws. But ultimately, that's still subjective. What's less excusable, however, is his continued refusal to properly restore and release the Original Trilogy as it was released theatrically in 1977. The best commercially available version out there is still the substandard 1993 laserdisc set, and he's made it very clear that he has no intention, now or in the future, to restore those earlier versions with the technology available today. Does it really matter, you might ask?
That depends. Is Star Wars only a movie, or can it be considered part of our cultural heritage? This is a very complex and exciting debate, and one that we've gone to great lengths to represent and deconstruct in the film.
 
TB:  What do you think it is about Lucas and Star Wars, in particular, that has spawned such an immense and enduring worldwide following?
 
Jonathan London (Geekscape.net) says it best in the doc: "In 1977, you had a perfect storm of socio-economic pressure forcing people to go to the theater and escape for two hours." George foresaw our craving for sweeping, optimistic storytelling at a time when movies were dark and contemplative. He gave society what society needed. And he packaged it in a way that blew people away. At the time, no one had ever seen anything like Star Wars.
Nobody knew that movies could be so visually exciting. Right now, we're seeing something similar with Avatar, but there's still a precedent of visual effects that makes it somehow less groundbreaking in our day than Star Wars was back in 1977. Everybody's talking about Avatar breaking the two billion dollar mark worldwide; but the true test is the number of tickets sold, and by that standard, Avatar falls down to 26th place (currently), with less than half of SW's (ranked number two behind Gone With The Wind). So Star Wars is still very much the standard, and I think it will remain up there for a long, long time. But George truly sealed the deal with The Empire Strikes Back. It was the perfect sequel, and from that day forward, people were expecting any film with the name "Lucas" on it to be a perfect movie. I don't care how good you are, nobody can live up to such expectations. George didn't, and I think more than anything, his fans resented to find out he was only human. Look what's happening with Tiger Woods now. Same exact thing. How quickly we forget what they gave us in the first place.
 
TB: Did you approach Lucasfilm at all during the production?  What was their response?
 
Yes, we originally approached Lucasfilm when we launched our website, and again when we released our first teaser trailer. We did invite them to participate, but they respectfully declined. That said, we interviewed a number of people who worked closely with George Lucas, most notably Gary Kurtz and David Prowse, as well as a number of original Star Wars crew members.
 
TB:  George is known for being very hands on and protective of the Star Wars legacy ... how concerned have you been throughout this process at how he may react to your film?  Have you tried to get a copy to him?
 
You know, this isn't a fan film. As a documentary filmmaker, there's a very specific story that I wanted to bring to the screen, and my objective was to tell it with all the respect and admiration I have for George. But this doesn't mean that I had to let him off the hook. The same applies to the fans. I think they go too far sometimes, and I'm not afraid to call them on it. So what we ended up creating is a no-holds-barred investigative piece, and I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't care whether George likes it or not. I hope he does. I'd love to meet the man and ask him some of the questions that we've asked our interviewees. But I'm also acutely aware of the fact that he didn't like Dale Pollock¹s SKYWALKING, and I don't really understand his reaction to the book, because I think it's a very endearing biography. So as happy as I would be if George actually watched our film and liked it, I'm not going to change it if he doesn't. My responsibility is to tell the story that I believe needs to be told, and that our contributors brought to us, and I hope to have achieved that. And no, we haven't sent him a copy yet. I don't think it's the appropriate thing to do at this point. We first need to show the film to the audience that is ready and waiting to see it. It's their film, after all.
 
TB:  What were the most extreme examples of fandom you encountered while filming?
 
You know, fans will be fans. And no matter how worked up they get, I've never had a conversation with a fan that made me think they were psychotic, or genuinely hateful. I know they're out there, but I think they're a very small minority. Most fans like to voice their opinions, and they love to argue about Star Wars; but I think they all profoundly love and respect George. Deep down inside, I think they're all rooting for him to come back with another movie - not necessarily a Star Wars movie - and blow them away. I think they miss the young, revolutionary filmmaker who took incredible chances on films that barely anyone believed in, and forever changed the cinematic landscape. That filmmaker may not be around anymore, but it's still the same guy. And I think he deserves plenty of respect.
 
TB: The general argument from fans angry with Lucas is that, though he created the original films, they have almost become public property thanks to the scope of their impact and that, as a consequence, Lucas has some sort of obligation to preserve the original films (and thereby the memories people have of them) for the fans. It's an interesting idea but what do you think, as a creator? What sort of obligation do you have to your audience?
 
That's a very difficult question to answer, and it is very much the central question of our documentary. If there were a short answer to this, I wouldn't have chosen to make a feature doc about it. In a nutshell, let me just say that I think we need to consider the impact of Star Wars on the medium of film, and on popular culture. It's very difficult to argue that Star Wars is only a movie. Is the London Bridge only a bridge? Is Guernica only a painting? Star Wars is a cultural milestone, and I think you could make the argument that it no longer belongs to George Lucas. Sure, he is the copyright owner; but the film certainly belongs to the ages. Lucas himself saw the film inducted into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress -- which at a basic level means it belongs to the people. But then, as an artist, he decides to change and withdraw his work years later, adding the statement that he'll never restore the version that was embraced around the world as a masterpiece. How are people supposed to react to that? From my perspective, George Lucas may not owe anything to his fans (although that's debatable as well), but he certainly owes it to film history to restore those films. Again, this particular debate is explored in-depth in our documentary, and I'm very curious to see how audiences will react to some of the facts we've uncovered.

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