A couple of excellent articles have been posted in the last couple of days regarding the 40th anniversary of Industrial Light and Magic and Kathleen Kennedy’s approach to making the new Star Wars movies. Both are worth reading in full, but here I want to focus on the comments about the prequel trilogy.
Kennedy brings it all back to one simple fact: love them or hate them, the prequels were absolutely personal films for George Lucas:
And George, you know, his increasing need to use politics as a way to express some of his frustration with what was going on in the world is what comes through in the Star Wars [prequels]. And, you know, fans can look at that and determine whether or not they connected with that or not, but certainly George did. That was really important to him. And, you know, that was his prerogative. It was his story. He was using that in a way that was personally meaningful to him.
In part, then, the prequels were almost a political manifesto. It’s interesting to note that they were released during a turning point in American politics, with The Phantom Menace released in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, Attack of the Clones in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and Revenge of the Sith as the Iraq invasion continued to spiral out of control. The political subtext of the last prequel was perhaps one reason why it resonated with critics at the time, having already endured four years of post-9/11 rhetoric. Lucas noted the parallels at the time:
Lucas said he patterned his story after historical transformations from freedom to fascism, never figuring when he started his prequel trilogy in the late 1990s that current events might parallel his space fantasy.
“As you go through history, I didn’t think it was going to get quite this close. So it’s just one of those recurring things,” Lucas said at a Cannes news conference. “I hope this doesn’t come true in our country.
“Maybe the film will waken people to the situation,” Lucas joked.
“When I wrote [the prequel backstory], Iraq didn’t exist,” Lucas said, laughing.
“We were just funding Saddam Hussein and giving him weapons of mass destruction. We didn’t think of him as an enemy at that time. We were going after Iran and using him as our surrogate, just as we were doing in Vietnam. … The parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we’re doing in Iraq now are unbelievable.”
But it wasn’t the political climate that brought Lucas back to a galaxy far, far away in the mid ’90s—it was the digital revolution taking place at ILM after the technical successes of films such as The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and (most notably) Jurassic Park, all released in a five year span between 1989 and 1993.
Says on Lucas on the importance of digital effects to the creation of the prequels:
I never thought I’d do the Star Wars prequels, because there was no real way I could get Yoda to fight. There was no way I could go over Coruscant, this giant city-planet. But once you had digital, there was no end to what you could do. […] By the third prequel, almost all of the environments and everything were all done on the computer.
Ironically, it was Lawrence Kasdan, the man in part leading the shift back to practical effects for The Force Awakens, who must have unwittingly planted the seed of Yoda’s fighting skills in Lucas’ mind. From one of the Return of the Jedi story conferences, as transcribed in J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Return of the Jedi:
Lawrence Kasdan: The Force was available to anyone who could hook into it?
George Lucas: Yes, everybody can do it.
Kasdan: Not just the Jedi?
Lucas: It’s just the Jedi who take the time to do it.
Richard Marquand: They use it as a technique.
Lucas: Like yoga. If you want to take the time to do it, you can do it; but the ones that really want to do it are the ones who are into that kind of thing. Also like karate. Also another misconception is that Yoda teaches Jedi, but he is like a guru; he doesn’t go out and fight anybody.
Kasdan: A Jedi Master is a Jedi isn’t he?
Lucas: Well, he is a teacher, not a real Jedi. Understand that?
Kasdan: I understand what you’re saying, but I can’t believe it; I am in shock.
Lucas: It’s true, absolutely true, not that it makes any difference to the story.
Kasdan: You mean he wouldn’t be any good in a fight?
Lucas: Not with Darth Vader he wouldn’t.
Kasdan: I accept it, but I don’t like it.
So Lucas’ conception of Yoda evolved as the technology evolved in the 20 years between writing Jedi and Clones, as his whole understanding of what was possible opened up.
The kind of research and development that ILM did for the prequels was the springboard that moved us into the fantasy-rich modern blockbuster. “The work [Lucas] did on the prequels enabled a kind of filmmaking that has kept the industry alive,” notes ILM COO John Knoll.
Now, however, it’s time to merge the digital and physical worlds more effectively. That’s where the new frontier lies. Says Kasdan on making The Force Awakens, “There was a feeling, even I think when George was still there, that we wanted to have more of a slightly retro feeling—more tactile and less C.G.-oriented.” Everything old is new again.
And maybe this time it’ll be Kasdan’s turn to change his mind. Could we perhaps see a Jedi-like guru in the new film who doesn’t do backflips in their spare time?
December is not that far away.