Those of you who only see the Star Wars fans playing dress-up at premieres and conventions are only seeing one half of the story. A whole generation has grown up, but while they still remain loyal they have a few beefs with the man responsible for framing their childhood. Alexandre O. Philippe's documentary, The People vs. George Lucas, takes a look at the fans behind the masks and why they are so angry. Before the film has its world premiere at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival, Alexandre answered a few questions for this loyalist over the years.
Cinematical: What was the straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back moment that inspired the genesis of this project?
PHILIPPE: I first had the idea of making this film approximately five years ago, but it really came to life during the summer of 2007 while we were in Texas working on several other projects with our crew. Robert Muratore (our Director of Photography and one of our Producers) seemed really enthusiastic about making it, and he's the one who convinced me to move forward with it.
The concept was a no-brainer. Put two Star Wars fans in a room together, and they'll start arguing about the Special Editions, the prequels, who shot first, whether or not George Lucas owes them a DVD release of the restored Original Trilogy... they'll even talk about Indy 4, Howard the Duck, you name it! Fans love to debate and vent about George Lucas. Here's a fun little experiment, which I first attempted when we were developing our film, and tried again today. I just Googled "I hate Gene Roddenberry", and got 61 hits. Then, I Googled "I hate George Lucas", and 112,000 hits came up!
[continued] That's a staggering stat; but how does one explain it? As one of my interviewers pointed out, you'll get practically the same amount of hits for "I hate Jar Jar Binks" and "I hate Hitler"; but that's another story. On the one hand, I think it's the fans' way of expressing their passion for a franchise that really means something to them, and a universe that has defined (or redefined) their childhood's mythos. That said, I think it's also their way of reacting to what George Lucas has come to represent. There's definitely a sense out there that Lucasfilm has turned into a kind of "evil empire", and, while I don't believe that to be true, I think that George Lucas has given the fans plenty of reasons to complain over the years, and it's a unique and fascinating pop culture phenomenon that simply isn't going away. Just look at George's recent interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. The dynamic between George and his fans is truly unique in pop culture, and I thought it needed to be explored in a documentary, because it's significant and singular in the history of film. We were passionate about exploring both sides of the argument and understanding how this dysfunctional love story came to be, and why it evolved the way it did. It's very complex, actually. It goes far beyond fan discontent toward The Phantom Menace and whether Han or Greedo shot first. And I think that's what will surprise people when they watch our film-how deep down the rabbit hole we end up taking them.
Cinematical: Star Wars fans have had complaints going all the way back to Return of the Jedi from the Ewoks to Darth's old white man behind the mask and on to "Greedo shot first" and so on. What do you feel is the greatest problem with the films themselves in the post-Empire era and what is the most ludicrous criticism you have heard from a fan or a critic?
PHILIPPE: You know, with Star Wars being under so much scrutiny for so long, I think it was inevitable that the fans would go back and eventually start criticizing a number of story and character details that they probably didn't have issues with in the first place. Kids didn't seem to mind Ewoks back in 1983; but now, you have a Society for the Extermination of Ewoks. These "Revisionist Jedi Haters", who were named thus by staunch George Lucas supporters, call their critics "Star Wars Apologists". The finger-pointing gets pretty intense.
As Todd Hanson (writer for The Onion) puts it in our doc, "it's not Rwanda"; and yet, Star Wars fans have been at war with each other and with George for decades. Look, I understand how important these movies are for our generation, and I certainly wouldn't have made this doc if I didn't profoundly believe that they're important, and, arguably, more than just movies; but when I take a step back to look at this from a cultural standpoint, a lot of the criticism directed at George appears terribly nitpicky and ludicrous. As a fan, I understand it; and it makes me mad that George would even consider tampering with the Han/Greedo cantina scene in the first place. As a documentary filmmaker, I've had to question the validity of those feelings many times. So it's a tough question to answer, because I can empathize with the fans and with George equally. That's why I really wanted to make an objective film, and showing both sides of the story was very important to me.
Cinematical: Do you feel that the breakdown of fans between the Jedi of 1983 and the Menace of 1999 comes more from a certain portion of the fanbase just simply growing up? It is not like A New Hope doesn't have its share of wincing dialogue or wooden performances. So were the detractors just suffering from revisiting a childhood favorite with now two decades of reverence boosting up their expectations?
PHILIPPE: There's no question that the original fans tend to put Star Wars (which I still refuse to call 'A New Hope', by the way) on a pedestal, and literally refuse to see its flaws for what they are, because they've embraced those flaws as integral elements to a quasi-sacred text. And one can certainly argue that the flaws resulting from this extraordinarily complex production gave the film its inimitable style, and should be embraced. So nostalgia is a part of it; but I think people recognized the extraordinary effort and genuine belief that George Lucas put into this one film back in 1976, and that's part of the reason why the original Star Wars continues to be celebrated on this scale.
I could go on and on about the differences between the original and prequel trilogies. Nostalgia set aside, they're very different movies; and from my perspective, revolutionary filmmaking ultimately gave way to complacency. The flaws in Phantom Menace are very distinct from the flaws in the original Star Wars. The recent 70-minute review of Episode One that was released on YouTube by RedLetterMedia is brilliant in its analysis of the film's flaws, and a must-see. Ultimately, of course, it's a matter of opinion. But you know, my background is in Dramatic Writing; and to be perfectly candid, I don't find too many redeeming qualities in the prequel trilogy in terms of storytelling, structure, character development, dialogue, etc. But I'll never tell the people who enjoy those films that it's wrong to enjoy them. At the end of the day, it's all subjective; and that's probably why we'll keep talking about this until we're in retirement homes.
Cinematical: How many versions of the original trilogy on VHS, laserdisc and DVD did you purchase before you said enough was enough?
PHILIPPE: Actually, I only own the 2004 DVD set, and I'm now patiently waiting for the Blu-Ray box. But I'm not holding my breath for the restored theatrical versions of the original trilogy. George has made it pretty clear that he has no intention, now or in the future, to restore those earlier versions. This is a huge sticking point for the fans, and one that we explore in depth in our documentary.
Cinematical: George Lucas naturally is synonymous with Star Wars. But he is also instrumental in creating Indiana Jones. Do you see the same streak of tinkering throughout the progression of that series with elements for the kiddies and extra doses of humor that hurt it over time? And does your film tap into that franchise as well?
PHILIPPE: Yes, he's certainly been heavily criticized for Indy 4; but what's interesting to me is the fact that George got the brunt of it-not Steven Spielberg. One of our French interviewees recalled the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and told us that someone stood up at the end of the screening, and shouted: "George, you've got to stop hurting us!" This is telling, I think, of George's perception nowadays. No matter what he does, he's going to be criticized for it. People even criticize him for Transformers 2! So yes, the fans turned against Indy 4 the way they turned against Phantom Menace; and yet, it was still a box office success. So the fans are sending mixed signals to George, aren't they?
I can't tell you how many fans I talked to who saw those films over and over again, just because they couldn't believe how bad they were and wanted to find reasons to like them. The fans are trapped by Star Wars, and they're trapped by Indiana Jones. And George Lucas himself appears to be trapped, because he apparently can't break free to make the experimental movies he said many times he really wants to make. It's a terribly messy situation. Add to this equation the fact that George no longer appears to like what his original fans liked about his films in the first place, continually tinkering with them as a result, and what you have is a very complicated, tortured relationship.
Cinematical: Fans of any character, series or franchise seem destined to be left cold or find something to grumble about. The Matrix sequels have been reviled. Everyone jerks their knee to dismiss The Godfather Part III. Even The Return of the King couldn't escape for daring to have an epilogue that wrapped up many of the characters' stories. Can they just never be pleased or do they fall into the age-old pattern of propping up the next coming only to knock it down when they have grown tired of it or the next flavor of the month comes along? What do you feel is the worst third entry of any series after a superior second one? Are we being setup for disappointment with films like Toy Story 3 and the eventual third film in Christopher Nolan's Batman series?
PHILIPPE: Certainly, George isn't the only filmmaker who gets criticized out there. Our culture has become increasingly critical, cynical, and even vicious these days. Look at politics. With the internet, people feel entitled to say anything they please; and because the rules of society don't apply to cyberspace, humanity has devolved into some kind of an avatar society of trolls. But it's important to point out that this isn't a global phenomenon. In Japan, for instance, they have a hard time understanding why anyone would even be compelled to lash out at a movie or a filmmaker. I think they're much more respectful of the process of filmmaking. As sci-fi author David Brin states in our documentary, "we're the first civilization that made fun important"; but we've all become critics as a result. If most people knew what it takes to make a film-even a mediocre one-I'd like to think that they wouldn't be so quick to judge.
Film has become such an integral part of our culture that we've come to take it for granted, and learned to consume it like a bag of popcorn. That said, there are a lot of sequels out there that fail because the obvious intent was to capitalize on the success of the original. For my money, Blair Witch 2 was a catastrophe. And I certainly wasn't a fan of New Moon. Granted, it's meant to be a popcorn movie; but it bugged me how obvious it was that they rushed through the process, when it's clear that they could have made something decent with it. Do we all really believe that Twihards wouldn't have waited another six months for the sequel with an equal amount of anticipation? When I was a kid, we had to wait three years for The Empire Strikes Back. That made it a massive event. Nowadays, teens apparently can't even wait a whole year for a sequel. Don't I sound like a cranky, old man? I'm only 37! But that's why it's so difficult for the younger generation to really understand what Star Wars meant to us then, and why it still means so much to us now. It was a huge deal when it came out. Avatar doesn't even come close. Look at the adjusted box office chart, and you'll see that Avatar falls far short of Star Wars's accomplishments. As for Christopher Nolan, I simply can't imagine him making a bad film. He only seems to get better as a filmmaker, and I have nothing but respect for him. So if he makes a third Batman, I have to admit that my expectations will be very high. But then again... we all thought that The Phantom Menace was going to be a masterpiece, didn't we..?
Cinematical: How would you rank the following trilogies? (Star Wars (IV, V, VI), Star Wars (I, II, III), Bourne, The Godfather, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean)
PHILIPPE: From favorite to least favorite, I'd have to go with Star Wars (IV, V, VI), The Godfather, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Bourne, Star Wars (I, II, III).
Cinematical: What are you looking forward to most during your time at this year's South By Southwest and how do you convince people to attend your film over all the choices at the festival?
PHILIPPE: After almost three years of intense production, I'm really looking forward to finally sharing the film and discussing it with audiences. I'm already practically booked solid with interviews for the length of the festival, so I'm sure it's going to be a very busy time; but it's the culmination of many years of hard work, and we're going to enjoy every minute of it. But this is only the beginning. We've already been invited by a number of important film festivals (details to be announced on our website in the weeks and months to come), and we're working very hard to ensure the widest possible release. There are a lot of fans out there who can't wait to watch the film, and have been campaigning for it (many of them have emailed to let us know that they intend to come from out of state to watch the film); so I don't necessarily think we'll have too much convincing to do. It's a unique doc with a standout title; but, most importantly, I have a lot of faith in the film, and I believe it will speak for itself.