Movies Are My Life

Blows against the empire? Star Wars creator George Lucas finds himself on trial in Houston

Blows against the empire? Star Wars creator George Lucas finds himself on trial in Houston

People vs. George Lucas
George Lucas finds himself on trial by Star Wars fans.
George Lucas director
Director Alexandre O. Philippe
Jar Jar Binks
To say Jar Jar Binks is a flashpoint is quite the understatement.
People vs. George Lucas
George Lucas director
Jar Jar Binks

The prosecution states: George Lucas has betrayed his fans and sullied the Star Wars heritage by producing an inferior trilogy of prequels, by revising the first three films and then refusing to make the original versions available, by withholding The Star Wars Holiday Special from fervent fans — and, oh yeah, by giving us Jar Jar Binks.

The defense objects: The prequels were gratefully savored, and maybe even preferred, by audiences too young to have seen the first Star Wars films in first-run theatrical release. And they’re hardly universally loathed by older fans. And, hey, it’s not like Lucasfilm has kept fans from making their own amateur homage movies. And Jar Jar Binks is one funny dude.

 "I don’t see how we can interpret this in any way other than, they’re basically lying to the fans. And you wonder why, because the fans have been so loyal to the franchise for so long. They’ve made George a billionaire." 

Such is the argument that rages throughout The People vs. George Lucas, filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe’s richly amusing, bountifully entertaining and unexpectedly affecting documentary that will have a one-night-only screening Monday at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Katy.

(Full disclosure: I appear fleetingly in the film — and, even more fleetingly, in its on-line trailer — as a talking head, and will introduce the 7:30 p.m. Monday showing at the Alamo Mason Park.)

I caught up with Philippe on his cell phone late last week as he drove from LA to San Francisco. And while the connection was sporadically spotty, The Force remained strong long enough for us to exchange a few questions and comments about George Lucas in particular — whom Philippe invariably refers to as “George,” even though they’ve never met and the director declined to be interviewed for the documentary — and the enduring Star Wars phenomenon in general.

CultureMap: After devoting four years of your life to making this documentary about a man and his movies — what do you think George Lucas is really like?

Alexandre O. Philippe: It seems to me that on the one hand, George is better than anyone, I think, in film history at somehow understanding the pulse of a generation, an entire generation of people. And somehow creating work that will resonate on a grand scale with people. And yet, he seems to not understand what it is about those films that he created that actually resonate with people in the first place.

It’s like he has the magical golden touch. But the moment after the magic happens, he doesn’t quite understand what there is about it that people like so much.

CM: You’ve described The People vs. George Lucas as a “participatory documentary.” Can you elaborate on that?

AP: When we started the project about four years ago, just by the nature of it, being a topic that people around the world and across cultures are very passionate about — it became obvious to me early on that we wouldn’t be able to interview all the people that we wanted to. Even if we had the budget, there was no possible way to go to all of the places we wanted to go.

And we really felt it was important to give fans everywhere around the world — even fans who had access only to a small digital camera, or a webcam, the opportunity to participate in the project in one way, shape or form. If they had anything to say about George — either for the defense or the prosecution, as it were — I felt that was very important.

So we designed our original website — which, of course, has changed a great deal since then — to provide guidelines for fans to participate in the film in any way that they wanted. Of course, as you might imagine, some sent us rants. I think the longest rant we had was seven and a half hours. Really intense stuff.

CM: If Star Wars really is a religion, as some people in your film claim, then you must feel a bit like Martin Luther nailing your theses on the door of Castle Church — right?

AP: [Laughs] That’s actually an interesting question. Because on the one hand, I’m very much a Star Wars fan, from the original generation. And as a Star Wars fan — if you were a certain age at a certain time, I think the love/hate relationship with George is ingrained. I think it’s part of you. It’s just a given. Actually, I think hate may be a strong word. There’s definitely a lot of love and admiration. But also a lot of frustration. So I naturally understood the need for this documentary to be.

On the other hand, I’m first and foremost a documentary filmmaker, with a particular interest in pop culture. And this really unique dynamic between a creator and his fans really, really intrigued me. You hear that catchphrase over and over again: “George Lucas raped my childhood.” It’s so over the top — but it gives you some idea of his influence.

You wouldn’t hear someone say, “Steven Spielberg raped my childhood.” Or, “James Cameron raped my childhood.” I really feel this dynamic between the creator and his fans is unlike any other in pop culture. And that’s what really drew me to make this film.

CM: It seems as though Star Wars fans are divided into two seemingly disparate  but probably overlapping groups. On one hand, you’ve got people who feel entitled to make their own homage films — many of which you excerpt in your documentary — using everything from sock pockets to fairly sophisticated special effects. And yet, on the other hand, you have people who insist that George Lucas should not have the liberty to revise his own films — at least, not if the revised versions are the only ones available.

AP: And that’s what makes this, in a sense, such a complex issue. I can sort of see and understand all of these different positions. I think this desire to preserve Star Wars — that opens up all kinds of questions. I don’t think anybody has an issue with George making different versions of Star Wars, or changing it. I think the issue — which I think is unique to this debate — is that George has refused to restore the original versions of the films. Now we’re really getting into a very sticky subject of cultural heritage.

I mean, Star Wars is in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, among the most culturally significant films of all time. And rightfully so. They’re very, very important films. And when Lucasfilm releases a statement saying that they permanently altered the original negatives — you’ve got to call the bullshit. I don’t believe that for one minute.

And Anthony Slide who’s obviously one of the most important experts in film preservation doesn’t believe it for one minute. In fact, the fact that Lucasfilm has changed their tune a bit since then makes you believe that that’s not the case. Now Lucasfilm’s argument is that it would cost too much money to restore the original films. Which is also preposterous. That argument wouldn’t even exist if they had indeed permanently altered the negative.

I don’t see how we can interpret this in any way other than, they’re basically lying to the fans. And you wonder why, because the fans have been so loyal to the franchise for so long. They’ve made George a billionaire.  And they’re due a certain respect.

Really, when you get into the issue of who really owns those films on a moral level — that a very, very complicated question. On the other hand, you get into the whole idea of the Star Wars universe as a sandbox — and who gets to play in it.

CM: You make it very clear in your documentary that George Lucas has come to view fan-created content in a rather benign manner. That — and this really surprised me — he actually sponsors a contest for the fan homage movies, and even provides on-line resources for them.

AP: Well, I think for George and Lucasfilm, it’s very much in their interest to make the fans feel like they can play in the sandbox as well. I think giving fans that opportunity has been very beneficial and lucrative to Lucasfilm.

CM: OK, to wrap up: Was Jar Jar Binks really that bad? And was the Star Wars Christmas Special really that good?

AP: [Laughs] Yeah, I think Jar Jar Binks was that bad. Absolutely. I’m not going to say that’s a universal truism, because there’s no such thing. But there are very few people from my generation at least who’d disagree with that. I think that the problem with Jar Jar, one of the main issues, is that it introduced slapstick to the Star Wars universe. And there really was no slapstick before. I mean, yes, there was a lot of corny humor in the original trilogy with C-3PO and R2-D2 and Chewbacca.

But at least it was evenly spread. There was a little bit of humor here, a little bit of humor there. But, you know, Episode One is a very, very serious movie in terms of tone, and then you have all the humor condensed into this one slapstick character who’s completely out of place. So, yes, I think Jar Jar was that bad.

And I think the Holiday Special is that good in retrospect — in an Ed Wood sort of way. I mean, it’s a train wreck, of course. But it’s kind of fun to watch, because there’s an element of nostalgia to it. Yes, of course, it’s terrible. But it’s one of those things that make you wonder: “What was George thinking to green-light something like this at the time?”