Though it doesn’t quite beat a certain 125-page story conference transcript, I’ve managed to get my hands on what I think can rightfully be called a Lucas-rarity. It’s been referenced in a couple of books on Lucas (Page 47 of The Cinema of George Lucas and several places in Droidmaker), but isn’t to my knowledge generally available, though it should hold the interest of anyone interested in THX 1138, American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and filmmaking in general in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Allow me to first give it some context (or skip to goods):
The Early Years of George Lucas
Despite whatever sour feelings his (so-called) fans may hold for his work today, George Lucas was nothing if not a driven and extremely talented filmmaker from day one, best exemplified in his 1967 pièce de résistance student short THX 1138 4EB (I would be remis to not mention it: The linage to Lucas’ inspiration, Arthur Lipsett’s 1963 abstract Canadian short 21-87, is distinct, down to music, editing, individual stylistic elements and even the robot-like arms manipulating the flasks, which would become the cyborg manufacuring plant in the feature film version of THX 1138. Furthermore, I found this 1968 Time Magazine mention of the short intriguing, as it mentions things not referenced in the film, like erosbods and clinicbods…), though the rest of his USC output from the late sixties, including his first ever film, the Time Magazine picture montage animation effort, A Look at Life (Oddly, I just found out that there are two versions of Look at Life, this one, which is from the American Zoetrope documentary from the THX 1138 disc, and another one, which is 50 seconds, has different titles and opens on a womans face with the words ‘kinestasic (I think) project’ and ‘by George Lucas’ printed on it and a second face of a black man afterwards, besides which it says ‘animation 44B USC’. This doesn’t have the man looking through the net. Otherwise they’re the same… I would venture the guess that one was the hand-in, another was for competitions), the car-centric visual tone-poem 1:42.08 and the politically charged Freiheit (Speaking of ‘rare on the internet’, this is a clip only, though the entire short was up on Youtube for a short stint before it was taken down due to a copyright claim from Cinema 16 who owns the publishing rights) all show signs of the themes and aesthetics that have ended up defining him as a filmmaker ever since.
Lucas was known as a student to watch at USC, and around spring of 1967, Charles Lippincott, who would later work for Lucas as the marketing director on Star Wars (and whose interviews form the basis for the amazing The Making of Star Wars), dropped out of a sponsorship to go to Arizona for three months and shoot a ‘making of’ short for McKenna’s Gold; at Lippincott’s suggestion, Lucas took his place. Once there however, the experience confirmed Lucas’ growing suspicion that Hollywood was a wasteful and corrupt lumbering monstrosity of old, out of touch with the world around it and incapable of making films that were even remotely personal or relevant.
He finished on June 18, 1967 and aptly named it: 6.18.67.
Remember that for a moment.
Afterwards, at the end of his tenure at USC, in 1968, Lucas won a scholarship which granted him a six-month internship at Warners-Seven Arts (which would a few years later revert back to their old name, Warner Bros). Here he struck up a friendship with Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Finian’s Rainbow, who while being almost diametrically opposite of Lucas, personality-wise, was like him, young, graduated from a film school (UCLA) and full-bearded, setting them apart from the rest of the fifties and up-crew. During the editing of Finian’s Rainbow, the two men bonded and the rest is history.
In 1969, they went on the road for Coppola’s next film, The Rain People, a made-on-the-move film based off of the same principles American Zoetrope (American Zoetrope got its name from a zoetrope gifted to Coppola from the collection of antique projection devices at Lanterna, an independent Danish studio which did commercials, the occasional feature film and softcore porn) would soon be founded upon. During The Rain People, Lucas made a documentary simply called Filmmaker (This is the revised version, running 32 minutes. Skywalking (page 280) lists an ‘original version’ running 64 minutes), which is a fascinating look at how Coppola (and by proxy Lucas), was fighting the rigidity of the old system and its cumbersome, expensive ways. It also shows a 29-year-old beardless Coppola remarking “the world is filled with guys who said: ‘First I’ll make the money, then I’ll go off and make the personal films I’ve always wanted to make’, yet they never get around to doing it”, a curious parallel to what has since happened to Lucas, which, since it’s Lucas’ documentary, makes it poignantly fitting in retrospect.
Up until this point Lucas had always wanted to be a documentarian more than a feature film director, but as the idea of American Zoetrope started taking shape, he nonetheless went to work on THX 1138, the feature-length adaptation of his student short, expanding it into an abstract sci-fi masterpiece, which at once echoes both vaguely and at times very specifically, everything from his USC influences, like 21-87, to his own short films and even foreshadowing his coming obsession with pulp adventures in the odd Buck Rogers intro (For a super-quick rundown of Star Wars influences, check this out). As it so happens, Lucas even found the time to direct a short documentary about THX 1138 called Bald.
THX 1138 was a major milestone for Lucas not because of its scope, but because no sooner had he finished the film, than Warner Bros took it away from him and recut it without his consent (I wrote a small piece about this alternate version a little while back). Adding insult to injury, they considered the film such a failure, they cancelled the seven-picture deal they had with American Zoetrope, forcing Coppola into doing The Godfather.
And so forth.
And this is where we come to the heart of the matter.
It is 1971, THX 1138 was released on March 11, American Zoetrope is spiraling towards certain doom, Lucas has become even more disillusioned with Hollywood than he was during his stint on McKenna’s Gold, and where exactly things go from here for the upstart and its members is all up in the air. And while American Zoetrope and Coppola had slowly started to cause waves — mostly due to THX’s failure as it were, though also because Coppola wasn’t afraid of touting American Zoetrope a state-of-the-art facility which could outmatch Hollywood, and that the company (and thus himself) was the future of filmmaking — Lucas was little more than a promising student who had made an obscure sci-fi film which opened small and died fast.
During the summer of ’71, as all of this is happening, Gene Youngblood interviewed the then 27-year-old Lucas for a Los Angeles-based educational TV station, KCET in an hour-long program called George Lucas: Maker of Films.
(The sound is slightly out of sync on the embedded video, I suggest downloading the full thing instead).
How this has managed preservation until now is a small media miracle in my book. It offers rare insight into both Lucas as well as American Zoetrope’s position following THX’s release. And remember, this is before Lucas goes on to make American Graffiti and later Star Wars, and the fact that this at the time relative nobody is interviewed at all, is probably because of Gene Youngblood himself was at the forefront of film, though in a journalistic capacity, and thus in touch with what was coming out of student films and also what was going on with this prodigious young filmmaker.
The rarity of any footage of Lucas from this period makes this amazing in itself, but more than that, this is also very soon after Lucas had his first film taken away from him, something which would happen again on American Graffiti, and one of the prime reasons that Lucasfilm came into existence at all. Had things fallen out differently, he may well have continued working with Coppola at American Zoetrope.
Furthermore, Lucas’ hatred for the studio system is really on display here, him going so far as to say that he isn’t sure studio executives think at all, and that he has no idea how beautiful films get made under these conditions. Most striking to me on a personal level, and what brought me to this interview to begin with, is this quote, which was also printed in page 47 of The Cinema of George Lucas:
Making film is an art. Selling film is a business, the trouble is they don’t know how to sell films. As a result, they try to make you make films that people will go to without them having to be sold. This is the real key to the problem. If they can’t put a film in a theater and have people rush to the door, they’re not interested.
That the people with money hold the power (and the will) to control the artists frustrates Lucas to no end, as he is nothing if not a man of his own ideals. To gain independence from the gatekeepers of Hollywood was at the forefront even then.
Of personal interest is a passing comment that USC had renamed THX 1138 EB, his student short, to Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB for copyright reasons as well as Lucas talking about how American Zoetrope is planning on entering the educational and industrial markets, where there’s good money to be made; something which thankfully never came to pass.
The last third of the interview belongs more to Gene Youngblood than Lucas, but it is an interesting one nonetheless, hailing the arrival of the video cassette as the democratization of film, something which was perhaps before its time and a little oversold, but still surprisingly relevant today, what with the internet ‘n’ all. Yet micro-monetization still isn’t where it needs to be to make this work, so the ’10 years from now’ forecast was perhaps a bit hasty.
I imagine this was the sole source of the original THX 1138 4EB for many years, and adding bliss to joy, Lucas’ short, 6.18.67, which he shot while on location with McKenna’s Gold (remember I told you to hold that thought?), is a part of the program. I’m not entirely sure, but this at least the first time I’ve seen it in the wild, which makes this program all the more wonderful.
And There You Have It
Despite whatever flaws I might find in his later work, George Lucas is a tremendously captivating individual whose work has had a profound impact on my life. His integrity to his original vision and the choices he’s made along the way have remained seemingly unaltered since he first set foot on USC, which is truly remarkable, considering how much I myself waver, turn back on and constantly reevaluate my own choices and whatever vision I have for myself and my dreams.
I can’t decide whether to feel depressed or uplifted when I look in the mirror and think to myself: “When George Lucas was 31 he had directed two fantastic feature films and was in the middle of writing Star Wars. And what am I doing with my life?”
Further Reading and Watching
The DVD for THX 1138 has a documentary on it called A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope, which chronicles exactly what the name implies. The American Graffiti DVD has a making of which naturally picks up just after THX 1138. For biographical information on Lucas before and after this period, I recommend Skywalking by Dale Pollock and The Cinema of George Lucas by Marcus Hearn.
Thank you pufnstuf for supplying me with this fantastic find, makes me hope there might be more of these out there, waiting to be unearthed.