Over next two weeks, we'll be covering the Tribeca Film Festival 2015. Check back as we serve up essays and interviews on the festival's films, stars, and directors, and give you access to everything, from the red carpet to the after-parties.
On Friday afternoon, I stood in a tight line of more than 300 people at the Tribeca Film Festival. However, I wasn't there to watch the latest obscure indie film—I was there to see an independent filmmaker you're definitely familiar with: George Lucas.
I say independent, because the Star Wars billionaire self-funds all of his films today. Lucas may have created the Rebel Alliance, but in reality he sees himself as a huge rebel fighting against the film establishment. And in his conversation with Stephen Colbert on the Tribeca Film Festival stage, his iconoclasticism was soaring. To hear George Lucas tell it, he's not a media mogul. Instead, he's an under-appreciated experimental filmmaker who bleeds for his art more than you can possibly imagine.
Sporting a shock-white beard, the "new" Stephen Colbert opened the talk by telling George Lucas, "I'm gonna tear you a new one! How dare you entertain me so well." But over the length of the hour, Colbert was mostly kind and his jokes were almost never at Lucas's expense. Jar-Jar Binks was never mentioned and Colbert's biggest dig at Lucas's infamous tinkering with the original Star Wars films was mostly summed up when he said, "I think I've got 14 different versions of your movies."
Instead, the conversation between one of the funniest men in America and one of the most successful filmmakers of all time was largely a series of reminiscences. Colbert, about his childhood fandom for Star Wars, and Lucas, about his early days as a filmmaker.
In chronicling his early successes, Lucas spoke like a weary solider who had been called in to fight certain battles, specifically with the comedy American Graffiti. "It was the most successful movie of all time at that point," Lucas said with a certain amount of surprising bitterness, "because it was made for so little money… something like $750,000 total." It was also a film he said he'd been encouraged to write by his longtime friend and comrade-in-arms, Francis Ford Coppola. Regarding Coppola, Lucas insinuated that he believed that Coppola only made the Godfather as a kind of favor to Paramount and because it "had Italians in it."
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Still, Coppola was integral to Lucas making American Graffiti in the first place. "He came to me and said, 'No more of these experimental science-fiction robot movies"—a reference to Lucas's THX-1138—"'I dare you to do a comedy.' I thought, I can do a comedy. I can do anything!"
At this, Colbert cut Lucas off: "So you wrote one of the greatest American comedies as a dare. And he did perhaps the greatest film of the 20th century, just pinched it out as like a favor." Lucas smiled tightly and nodded, as though he and all his famous friends are personifications of humblebrags.
In Lucas's view, he's an experimental filmmaker who was sort of forced into creating more conventional films with what Colbert called "actual recognizable plots." It seems Lucas partially blames this on the pressure of his friends (like Coppola), but primarily he takes issue with "the creative industrial complex that actually tries to screw the creative people." A studio executive nearly didn't let Lucas put out American Graffiti, and if it weren't for Coppola's intervention, it may have never been released. And as Colbert probed Lucas about the early days of Star Wars, the scenario was similar; a board of directors nearly didn't approve the release of the movie. Because, in Lucas's words, "they just didn't like it."
"Did they ask any 13-year-old boys?" Colbert said, before launching into hypothetical reasons why someone in a focus group wouldn't like Star Wars. "Why does the kid move stuff with his mind? Why doesn't he just pick it up? Why does the tall black guy have asthma?"
Lucas also revealed that around the same time in 1976, his core group of filmmaker friends—including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma—mostly objected to the movie.
"Brian said, 'What the hell is the Force?'" Lucas recalled, laughing, "And I said, 'Brian, this isn't one of your movies… But Steven jumped up and said, 'This is going to be the greatest movie of all time!'"
Stephen Colbert certainly agreed that Star Wars changed his life and told Lucas a heartwarming story of winning tickets to see Star Wars in 1977 from a local radio station in North Carolina.
"When the title came on that screen," he said, "it was a life-changing experience. Now, I know this isn't breaking news here— Star Wars had a big impact."
"Well, you're very credible," Lucas replied in a rare moment of genuine humor from a guy who seems, in person, so much less interesting than his epic, world-changing Star Wars films.
Lucas says he doesn't know much about the new Star Wars movie and is looking forward to working on experimental movies that he thinks "no one will want to see." But he claims to be looking forward to seeing the new J. J. Abrams-directed Star Wars: Episode VII because he thinks he could actually enjoy it.
"When I saw the first one in the theater finally, and the big ship came down, I was like, 'Ho Hum.' I've seen this a million times. I made this… This time I can be excited."
Sporting a Walter White-esque windbreaker, white sneakers, and a rumpled plaid shirt, George Lucas is decidedly not cool looking. Colbert sarcastically described Lucas's fashion sense as "glitzy," and Lucas claimed he'd had the sneakers he's been wearing since high school. It's as though George Lucas has actually lived for his films and only his films entirely. Everything else about him is perfunctory. He is like the Jedi master Yoda, a true artist that maybe we shouldn't judge by his Dad jeans.
In mentioning his childhood experience of seeing Star Wars, Colbert asserted that he and his young friends had no idea how to talk to their peers at school the next day. Colbert wanted his classmates to know that "the world had changed," because prior to Star Wars, there hadn't been "space movies" that connected in quite the same way.
Colbert then asked Lucas what he felt like he "changed" about the world of filmmaking and Lucas said the thought that "all art is technology… and only humans have the ability to create an emotional connection through art… Star Wars is essentially a silent movie."
"So is the sound not important?" Colbert asked.
"No," Lucas responded, and then, acting like some kind of rock star who doesn't care about his lyrics, he explained, "sound is 50 percent of a movie. But not the dialogue. I don't care about the dialogue. I know I'm famous for wooden dialogue."
"George," Steven Colbert replied, lovingly, "that dialogue is hand-crafted."
Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can't Read and Other Geeky Truths forthcoming from Plume (Penguin Random House) on November 24, 2015. He's written for the New York Times,_ Electric Literature, the Awl, Tor.com, and elsewhere. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter._