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Stephen Colbert and George Lucas talk Star Wars, wooden dialogue and Howard the Duck

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Friday afternoon, Stephen Colbert sat down with George Lucas for a hour-long interview about the director's life and career. The event was a part of 2015's Tribeca Film Festival, one of a series of talks were film luminaries brought together with one of their biggest celebrity fans. Colbert wasted no time in establishing his credibility: He was among the first members of the public to ever see Star Wars in 1977 at the age of 13.

He'd won four tickets to an early promotional screening of the movie in a radio contest, but since none of his friends could drive yet, he was only able to invite two: The final ticket had to be reserved for a friend's mother, who fell asleep in the theater. Colbert and his friends had quite a different reaction.

Colbert: As soon as [the trumpet kick] came on and 'Star Wars' appeared, we knew that everything was different. From the moment that those words appeared on screen and then the scroll came, and when the whole thing was over — we got to school on Monday ... we couldn't explain to anyone how the world was different now! There was no way to convey a fresh representation of what sci-fi battles were, or what a space epic was. There wasn't a word for that, for us, we had no vocabulary for what you showed us.

And though he promised that he wouldn't ask more about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars film to be made without George Lucas' direct input, Colbert couldn't help but ask how Lucas felt about the idea of being able to simply watch a Star Wars film. "This time," the director said, "it'll be very thrilling, because they're doing kind of a different story, and so I don't know what the story is. I don't know anything about it."

"Are you going to dress up as your favorite character?" Colbert quipped, and the interview was truly on. Here are some highlights from the hour. All quotations are from Lucas unless otherwise indicated.

The Car Accident That Lead to Star Wars

[Lucas confessed that unlike many of his film-maker friends, he'd only started making movies in college. As a teenager, he was much more interested in cars, and driving them very fast, at least until he was 18.]

I had a really bad accident, which sort of knocked some sense into me. I almost died, and I sort of relooked at the whole. I was only 18. And I looked at things and said 'Maybe this isn't the career path for me ...'

... I was just driving — I was racing home after going to the library to do my term paper — which was a week late, and it was a week before I was going to graduate — and I made a left-hand turn into a marble driveway, which was a road about half a miles long. And some guy plowed into me at about 90 miles an hour, and by all rights I should have been killed, but I wasn't. So I said 'Well, maybe there's a reason that I was saved. And maybe I'll go back to school.'

You mean you can go to college to learn to make movies? This is insane!

And once I got to college I found social sciences, I found anthropology and psychology and a bunch of things that I was really interested in. So I went that route — again, no interest in film. I wanted to go to Art Center [College] in LA and become an illustrator or a photographer. I was doing a lot of photography after my accident, with my friends who were racing cars.

A friend of mine — this was junior college, so I had to go on to a real college. I was going to go to San Francisco State, study anthropology. And he was going to USC. This was a friend I'd grown up with since I was three years old. He was going to business school and said 'Oh, come on, come to USC.' [I said] 'What will I do?' and he said 'Well they've got a photography school ... you'll love it. It's easier than PE.'

And I said 'OK' and I got down there and it wasn't a photography school, it was cinematography school. But it wasn't actually a cinematography school, it was a cinema school. And I said 'What! You mean you can go to college to learn to make movies? This is insane!'

A Vast Change in Film Culture ...

It's very, very different today than it was then. You've got to remember: If you wanted to see old movies, you couldn't. They didn't exist. Yes, you could see movies on TV at two o'clock in the morning, old movies and things. But that was it, that was the only place. And they were not the best movies. Being curated by the TV stations, we got a lot of Robert Corman films. Which were interesting. And that's what we all grew up on. But at school they showed old movies. Old foreign films, old classics of all kinds.

... And Being at the Center of It

The film industry, as it turned out, was started — the studios actually started to come into their own around 1920 — and I was in film school in the mid-60s. So all those guys, the Warners, the Zukors, all the people who built the industry and owned the studios. If you weren't related to them, or knew them somehow or knew somebody that knew them, you were never going to get in. It just wasn't going to happen. So film students had no chance at all. But as it turned out by the time we graduated they were all 80 years old, and they started selling the studios.

Sound is extremely important, but the dialogue is not.

I happened to be standing there with a little Aeroflex camera, and the corporations said 'Well who are we going to get to make these movies?' And they said 'Well, there's film schools. We go to law schools, we go to medical schools, why don't we go to a film school and get some filmmakers?' And so the whole industry was thrown into a big upheaval in the late 60s. And a lot of us, my gang, the people that I went to school with [Martin Scorcese, Brian de Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg] we were there because we loved movies. We didn't care whether we had a future.

The Technological Nature of Art

The thing about art is that it's based on technology. If you go to the first caveman that picked up a stick from the fire and started drawing on the cave, that's technology. Only humans can do that. You can teach an ape to do it, but he won't do it on his own. And if you say 'Draw something that is emotionally and spiritually significant to us; the clan,' there's nobody but humans who can do that. Humans are the only ones that can actually transfer emotion from a work of art to other people. They feel the same thing.

They saw [Star Wars and said] 'Poor George. What were you thinking?'

So as you go through [time], when you get to film, at that point ... even American Graffiti and [THX 1138] are ... based on the art of movement. When you get to Star Wars, it's really a silent movie. And it really lies in the world of movement.

The greatest science fiction film ever made using the old technology is 2001. But you couldn't pan, you couldn't — the ships just go through very slowly. And the panning can be very, very slow and make it work. But I wanted something that was fast, kinetic, so I had very short cuts. [Stanley Kubrick] had cuts that are 643 frames, I wanted cuts that were 12 frames. And in order to do that, to get the foreground and the backgrounds to lineup and to figure out a way of actually creating pans in space, we spent a lot of time, developed a lot of new technology. Just so I could do that. Just so I could make it be kinetic. The thing about Star Wars is, it is kinetic.

On Sound and Dialogue

Lucas: [Star Wars is] like a silent movie, you could be two years old and not understand anything that's being said, but you understand the movie. Or you could be 85 and not understand the movie and still understand the movie.

You can't put a dwarf in a duck suit and make it work.

Colbert: Do you think it's necessary for a great movie that you still understand the emotion with the sound off?

Lucas: No. I believe half a movie is the sound. The sound is extremely important, but the dialogue is not. That's not where the issue is. I'm notorious for wooden dialogue, but at the same time ... It's like [points ahead and above himself] 'Here comes another one!' You've got to say that. But what it does is ... it's part of the sound track. It's like singing. Obviously you can do it a capella, you can, it's beautiful, but ultimately when you have a big symphony orchestra, you have a lot of stuff. And the singing is in there, the choir and everything. It's all one big sound track.

The Unexpected Success of Star Wars

Star Wars 1977

Lucas: I showed it to my friend Steven [Spielberg], Brian de Palma, Marty [Scorcese], I had a giant group there, maybe 20 people. They saw it and ... Yeah, 'Poor George. What were you thinking?' Steven jumped up and said 'This is going to be the biggest movie of all time!' And of course everybody looked at Steven and said 'Poor Steven.'

But they're really good friends, so the first thing [they said was] 'You've got to first look at that 45 minute roll up in the beginning. You've got to get that cut down to a reasonable length. I'll help you do it.' So we sat and we rewrote the thing. So they all helped me, but they didn't have any faith in it either. And the [studio] board didn't have any faith in it.

The night it opened I was mixing [the mono-sound version of the film], and I was going to leave the next day to go to Hawaii. And [a friend] calls me and says 'It's a fantastic hit! Every single theater, there's lines around the block, you can't believe this!' I said 'Calm down. It's a science fiction film. Science fiction films get this little group of sci-fi fans. They'll come to anything in the first week. Just wait. Wait for a couple weeks and you'll see what it's really going to do.'

Colbert: You had completed Star Wars and you went 'Mm. I don't know?"

Lucas: Well. Nobody liked it. And it hadn't been shown to a real audience. And then they called and said 'It's a big hit.' and I said 'Well, let's just not get too excited here.'

I was working all night. I finished the mix that morning, first thing in the morning. I got on a plane, flew to Hawaii. Which is what I do, I don't read the reviews, I don't do anything, I just go and lie on a beach, it's great. Steven was there, some other friends of mine were there, and we just vegetated.

And I got a call from [my friend], about a week in, after the first week, it was really in the middle of the week. And he called and said 'George. Turn on the news.' I said 'What?' He said 'Turn on CBS. Turn on the news. Walter Kronkite.' Because I was in Hawaii, he said 'You've got to see it.' ... So I turned on the news and they did this huge story on the sensation of Star Wars and the lines around the block. Everybody was going berserk about. That was the first time that I understood that it was a big hit.

Howard the Duck, The First Marvel Movie

Howard the Duck

[While on the subject of "cult favorites," Lucas mentioned his ill-fated stint as executive producer on 1986's Howard the Duck.]

I have a feeling that Marvel's gonna redo it. Because with the technology we have today, I mean, I told the producer and writer 'You can't — this won't work.' 'But George, you're our best friend and we worked for you and everything, you've got to help us do this.' I said, 'OK, but it's not going to work.' You can't put a dwarf in a duck suit and make it work. When you have a digital duck you can do anything. And you can make it act.

A Return to Experimental Film

[What's next for the director now that he'll never return to Star Wars?]

I keep saying, 'Well, after I finish this, I'll [go back to making experimental film]. After I finish Star Wars, then I'll do it.' ... I'm going to take the money that I would use to build the yacht [my friends keep telling me to build], and I'm gonna put it in a vault, and I am just going to waste it making movies that will never make any money, which may never even be released. Because the whole key to an experimental film is you don't know what's going to happen. And that's the allure of doing it, because in the movie business it has to work. You cannot screw around and do things that you know aren't going to work. I'm just going to make what I think might be the interesting project.

A Changed Trilogy

Jabba the Hutt LucasFilm

I only changed it once for the Special Edition, and mostly it was technological. The Jabba the Hutt was supposed to be a stop-motion Jabba the Hutt, it was planned, we had a guy standing in for Jabba the Hutt and everything, but when it came down to the crunch — and there was a whole drama around the finish of the movie, we were in a serious problem with ILM about getting things done — I just had to cut the Jabba the Hutt scene out. I said 'OK, I'm not going to kill you guys. I'll come close, but I'm not going to actually kill you. So we won't worry about that.'

You have to make a lot of sacrifices when you're making a movie. Some of them for length and it just doesn't work and you love that scene but you can't have it. And some for finance, you just don't have the money to do it, some for time, you don't have enough time to do it. So I figured, after the film was a success, and they were going to come out with a special edition, which was just a cleaner version of the movie, I said look, I want to fix some things. Because we have a lot of bad visual effects in some of the movies.

And everybody said 'Well we like it, it's funky.' I'm the guy that made the movie, I don't really like funky stuff, I like it to look good. I don't like seeing matte lines, and if I can get rid of the matte lines, then I'll get rid of them. It's more interesting. Because those matte lines are going to become more disturbing as time goes on and most people don't know what a bad movie looks like with matte lines and bad compositing and that sort of stuff.

And I put the Jabba the Hutt scene back in. All the things I wanted to do but I had to give up. You cut, and you're in Mos Eisley, and you drive up the bar of that set. I wanted to have a little driving through the crazy place. Creatures, and all the kind of stuff to set that up. So I did all that stuff.

And Finally: An Unexpected Discussion of The Daily Show

[Despite his best efforts to play the fan, Stephen Colbert's own celebrity did intrude a small amount after a fan asked him about taking over Jon Stewart's seat on The Daily Show. Lucas, however, had his own answer to the question.]

Lucas: The perfect choice to replace that Jon Stewart fellow would have been you. You just say 'I'm taking over the crown.'

Colbert: I don't want to be the guy to take over from Jon Stewart. I worked for Jon Stewart at that show, my memories will always be of him being the keenest, most intelligent, most beautifully deconstructive mind. The clearest thinker I've ever worked with or for, and I would never, however successful I'd be, get underneath his shadow.

Lucas: But you don't have to get under his shadow. You just get down there, you start jumping on his body and saying 'I won! I won! I won!'

"Sure," Colbert laughed, "I'll try that!"

Lucas also admitted that he hasn't yet watched the latest trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

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