Star Wars Is Forever
written and photographed by Debra Scherer
Though often misapplied, the word “iconic” seems uniquely suited to describing Star Wars. While an unprecedented financial success, the true impact of George Lucas’s galaxy spanning “Space Western” is truly discernable in how deeply it has embedded itself in the public consciousness, becoming an indisputable part of the modern Zeitgeist. After all, when being told of a friend’s departure, “may the force be with you” is as socially acceptable and comprehendible a phrase as “goodbye” and most likely, regardless of whether a person has seen the movies, they know who Luke’s father is. However, while its success is inarguable, it was far from guaranteed.
Ultimately, the heights Star Wars attained are inextricable from the cultural realities at the time of its release. Not only was it a revolution technically, but as a vehicle for political and social commentary it was unlike any seen previously. As briefly mentioned in the episode of The Culture Crush Podcast with Judah Friedlander, in 2005, Debra Scherer took a trip to Skywalker Ranch to photograph and speak to George Lucas about the origins of his aesthetic, but wound up talking about the origins of the Skywalker saga and the making of Star Wars. The following are excerpts from that interview, originally published in L’Uomo Vogue:
"I always wanted to start with Episode Four."
What kind of storyteller starts in the middle, with no references and no information beyond some sketchy text that infamously slid backwards across the screen, setting up a perfectly vague and wonderful stage for a story of good vs. evil, this western in space that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far away? As a concept, most science fantasy would tend to take place sometime in the future, but this story was going to be told by the same man whose first feature, THX 1138, stunned his peers with its bold experimental visual style, and whose second, American Graffiti, delved successfully into the world of non-linear storytelling. Americana, science fiction, westerns in space, experimental technology, impossible visual effects, comparative mythology, East of Eden, all pieces of a very complicated puzzle that somehow altogether helps describe the aesthetics of George Lucas. In documenting his self-styled 'industrial complex', Skywalker Ranch, the juxtaposed sides become evident. The ranch feels like George's own personal chocolate factory, making him Willy Wonka, or Thomas Edison, or some combination of both. It functions as a laboratory of fantasy, keeping massive technological secrets hidden behind barn-like structures and grazing horses.
According to Cinema by the Bay, Sheerly Avni’s definitive work on Northern California filmmakers, "Lucas reinvested the profits from Star Wars into research and development. In 1979, he started the first computer division in the film industry, opening a window on a new world of visual effects: computer generated imagery. He invented the Pixar computer before selling it to Steve Jobs in 1985. Lucasfilm's laser scanner was the first to convert the photochemical filmmaking process to digital. He invented the first digital non-linear editing system, which was the foundation for the now famous Avid system, did the same thing for sound with SoundDroid, and established THX for quality sound in movie theaters. His pioneering spirit eventually, years later made him responsible for the first digitally projected screening of a live action motion picture (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) and the first digitally made live action movie (Star Wars: Attack of the Clones).”
Standing on top of a mountain, one of many on his 6,500 acre property, George Lucas looks out at the awesome landscape, and says "I love the fact that you can stand up here and no matter where you look you would never see any buildings; you can take this picture twenty five years from now and it would be the same." So how is it that one who has such sensitivity to the real analog quality of the Northern Californian landscape devote his world to the development and implementation of all things only imagined, altered, and digital?
"Well," he says, "nothing is real. Nothing is really documentary. You decide what exactly is in and out of frame. Editing is extremely powerful in terms of how you are telling the story. You edit the story the way you want it to be, not the way it really is. Even a photographer like Weegee was shooting particular moments that he himself found fascinating, not what somebody else would find fascinating. That’s what it all comes down to as far as I am concerned. So why not use everything, all technology available to tell the story you want, because there is no 'truth', or if there is a truth it is completely out of our realm of awareness, or even our ability to acquire it other than the artists' ability to sort of get beyond the reality and tell the truth behind the reality, which of course, is seen through their eyes. The artist is telling you the truth, but it’s not THE truth, it’s the artists perception of the truth. That’s all you can get, no matter how you do it, you’re twisting it."
Every building at Skywalker Ranch is partially nestled into the side of a hill, and while the architecture makes you feel like you just stepped back in time into a John Steinbeck epic, what’s going on hidden inside those hills would put you many steps ahead. The two sides of the fantasy world are constantly smashing together as you walk around. Norman Rockwell paintings are placed next to robotic replicas. There is a lot of stained glass and Tiffany lamps and large front porches with wicker rocking chairs leading to secret sound studios with moving walls and all manner of dials and buttons and computers and people working on all of this equipment in the dark, though it feels like no one else is really there.
Back to the aesthetics, you can see all of his references there. What unifies these disparate elements are the shared qualities offering different and important glimpses into the American experience. It’s simple really. Stories that instantly become so a part of the culture are usually based on simple universal experiences. The mythology of Star Wars, famously taken from Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, seems to speak to everyone. The professor who invented comparative mythology showed how a particular, rhythmic storytelling technique was used in almost every ancient and pre-modern culture, depicting protagonists and antagonists with certain consistent motives and character traits, a pattern that transcended boundaries of language and culture. In these classic tales, the hero begins reluctant, yet signs foretell his preordained greatness, he always has a mentor and acquires quirky but faithful companions, explores his own fears and comes out triumphant.
Many have credited the political atmosphere of a disillusioned post-Vietnam American population for the success of Star Wars. Its success implies that people were very receptive to a simplistic, very black and white story of good versus evil with the vague mysticism and spirituality implied by “the force which flows through all things." So when describing the prime motivation behind the writing of Star Wars, George Lucas says, "Ultimately the story was politically based on the Vietnam War. That script was about how a supreme, all-powerful, highly technological society, that is mostly mechanical and robotic, fights this little poor group of Ewoks that have nothing. They are using spears and arrows, but they are fighting for their freedom, for their planet, for their humanity, and for their life, the back story of course was politically much more complicated." As is the political situation that we face today.
“It's a form of mass hysteria. Anyone who comes along and says, ‘I can save you’ will be followed. All you have to do is go ahead and start the Clone Wars and the military-industrial complex has every reason in the world to make sure this will never be solved. They want another Cold War, they want it to go on another 40 or 50 or 100 years. That’s the way they make their money. During the first gulf war they used up all the weapons, they can’t rely on a war every five or ten years to use up all of the weapons. If there is no imminent threat, then they can’t design new weapons. They need an ongoing imminent threat to develop new technology, research and development, better technology...there is an incredible amount of energy spent to make sure there is always a perception of an imminent threat.
Well, I didn’t know this was going to happen when I wrote Star Wars in 1972. You start a war and you gain power and you begin changing the rules so it becomes harder for anyone else to get in there, Bush has been doing that for years. The Republicans have made very subtle procedural changes on so many levels that it has become very difficult for the Democrats to win any election. If they finally lose, then the Democrats will have an enormous amount of power, too much, and they won’t give it up either. They will skewer the Republicans with all of the rules that they made up. Invoke fear, and everyone will want a savior, like Napoleon. But (Star Wars) is really a family story, you know, about fathers and sons and about one generation having to deal with situations created by the one before. It’s now up to our generation to fix the last generations damage. Each generation screws it up then we have to try to move things forward. The whole story was written as one script about the tragedy of Darth Vader. It started with Darth Vader coming in to work, rattling the cage, killing everybody, and then, halfway through the movie you find out that Darth Vader's son is actually the hero and at the end he redeems Darth Vader, brings him back to being a human being again and also destroys the Sith. And that’s it. That’s the story. It’s just about the Skywalker family. It’s the Saga of the Skywalker family.
There was a backstory written at the same time that has all of the: 'where everybody came from?', ‘what was the empire?’, ‘where did it come from?’, ‘what was the republic?’, ‘who were the Jedi?’, ‘who is Darth Vader?’, ‘what was his relationship to his son?’ I had to work all of that stuff out from the beginning, because I always wanted to start with Episode 4. Coming in in the middle, and there was just going to be that episode, that was it. So, you come in at episode 4, see this one episode, you don’t know what happens before, you don’t know what happens after. That’s what our human experience is actually like, when we find ourselves IN the situation, it’s like we can’t see it for what it really is, we are too IN IT. This was the key element to the universality of the fourth episode...and then that got split into three stories and then the tragedy of Darth Vader sort of got lost. He was such a powerful character that the fact that he could be a tragic character never occurred to anybody. He seemed all powerful, he didn’t’ seem like he was tragic. It’s all in there, he is kind of tragic. You know, he has to deal with all of these bureaucrats that sort of push him around. He's not all powerful, he works for the Emperor, who, in the beginning you never even see.
Just like with Ben Kenobi, you get a sense that there is some sort of ulterior motive in what he's doing, but you don’t know what it is. After seeing Revenge of the Sith, you now know that he is tricking the kid, he's sort of guiding the kid on a path to face his father and that’s what you want now, because you know when he walks onto the ship you say, ‘oh, that’s Anakin! And you see Princess Leia and say,’ ‘oh my god! That’s his daughter!’ and they confront each other and then you cut down to Luke and say, ‘Oh my god! That’s his son! They’re gonna go and they’re gonna confront each other!’ They don’t though. They confront each other in the fifth episode. And it’s not Luke that finds out, its Anakin that decides to seduce him; just like everybody else he tried to bring over to the dark side. He tried to do it with Padme, with Obi -Wan, it’s like the whole logic that there are only two Sith because if you get more, then two will gang up on the other one. Most Sith don’t get killed by Jedi, they get killed by each other. They were like gangsters. Like in the days of Al Capone, no one cared if the gangsters shot each other, so there would be two Sith and the bottom one was always trying to recruit somebody. Dooku was always trying to recruit Anakin or Obi-Wan; whoever he thinks is powerful enough to join him and try to bring down the emperor so he could be emperor."
So, what should we do if we find ourselves in our own Episode Four? Is the Force still with us? Where are the Jedi Knights when we need them?
"It’s not just about the Force, it’s about the balance of the Force. There is always going to be good, there is always going to be evil. It’s when one gets out of synch, when there is too much of one that the other side has to bring it back. I would say, today, the evil side is getting unbalanced. I don’t know what cycle we are working with, but I would say the last time it was so unbalanced was during World War II, and it got back in balance again during the forties and fifties, and then you could see the start of the growth of the forces of evil during the Vietnam War. Now, the forces of evil are getting very serious, but something will come to balance it all out. Things do balance themselves out. Trust your feelings. Do what you can. Everyone must apply themselves to the good side of the Force, be compassionate, let go of their greed and their possessiveness, help other people, help us to make a better world out of this, try and make it so we can migrate and adapt, and use your brain! Anything you do that makes you use your brain is a good thing."
follow Debra Scherer @schererforever