George Lucas, Star Wars & the changing state of its sequels

Feature Ryan Lambie 1 May 2014 - 06:22

As the casting's announced for Episode VII, Ryan looks back at George Lucas' changing ideas for the Star Wars sequel trilogy...

For its legion fans, the Star Wars saga remains enduringly popular. But if his statements in interviews are to be believed, creator George Lucas' attitude to the universe he created in 1977 has changed repeatedly over the past 37 years.

Time Magazine contributor Denise Worrell, for example, found Lucas at a particularly low ebb in 1983. "I am burned out and I am burned out, period," Lucas said, apparently slumped in a couch and notably drained. "Star Wars has dominated my life, sort of grabbed it and taken it over against my will. I've got to get my life back again before it's too late. The sacrifices that had to make it this point are greater than what I wanted to make, ultimately."

Lucas had completed work on Return Of The Jedi not long before, and when Worrell wrote her profile, entitled The Dark Side Of Lucas for a book called Icons: Intimate Portraits, the directorhad little appetite for expanding the Star Wars trilogy further. "I am afraid that if I did another Star Wars movie now," Lucas said, "I'd be straying from my path. To me that would be like being seduced by the dark side..."

Return of the Jedi

It's not hard to see how the success of Star Wars could be a double-edged sword for a young filmmaker. Lucas was still in his early 30s when Star Wars appeared in cinemas in 1977, and its success was overwhelming - surprising not only 20th Century Fox, who'd expressed its doubt over the sci-fi fantasy's chances, but everyone involved. Lucas, having created Star Wars as a wide-eyed homage to the matinee serials he loved as a child, was suddenly in possession of a potentially sprawling space opera series of his own.

George Lucas handed the directorial reins over to other directors for The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, yet he remained closely - perhaps even obsessively - involved in the finer details of story and production from beginning to end. Whether he was writing the scripts with Lawrence Kasdan, advising director Richard Marquand over just how Carrie Fisher should stand while dressed in her Boushh disguise in Return Of The Jedi, or sitting in with the effects wizards at ILM and poring over every action sequence, Lucas kept a constant handle on how the Star Wars cinematic universe expanded over each film. As he later said, "I hate compromise. It really depresses me."

The stresses of conceiving and making the Star Wars films might be why, over the past 37 years, Lucas' statements about prequels and sequels have repeatedly changed. By the time he'd finished the prequels in 2006, Lucas seemed utterly opposed to returning to the franchise.

"Can this really be the end of the Star Wars saga?" a reporter from Merge Digital asked the director.

"Yes," Lucas replied. "The series starts with Darth Vader as a young lad and ends with him dying. So I don't know where else I can take it."

"Wasn't there talk at one time of three trilogies?" Merge asked.

"That was created by the media, not me," Lucas said.

The curious thing is, the talk of a Star Wars sequel trilogy, which would follow on after the events of Return Of The Jedi, was by no means a media construction. Lucas actually spoke several times - and often with great enthusiasm - about the possibility of Episodes VII, VIII and IX.

Even when Star Wars was in its conceptual infancy in the mid 1970s, Lucas had a wealth of ideas that simply couldn't fit into a single feature. Many of these existed merely as notes or as thoughts in Lucas' head, but the phenomenal success of Star Wars in the summer of 1977 suddenly made all these concepts a possible basis for future sequels - and back then, Lucas had a vague notion that he might make a staggering 12 Star Wars films in total. 

Although Lucas had ideas for two direct sequels to Star Wars, he also had concepts in mind for what we'd now call a series of spin-off movies. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he mentioned the possibility of a film about Obi-Wan Kenobi's early years. In a 1980 issue of Prevue magazine - as reported by Michael Kaminski in his fantastically exhaustive The Secret History Of Star Wars - Lucas talked about spin-off movies focusing solely on Wookies or maybe robots.

"I came up with some ideas for a film about robots, with no humans in it," Lucas said. "When I got to working on the Wookiee, I thought of a film just about Wookiees, nothing else. So, for a time, I had a couple of odd movies with just those characters. Then, I had the other films, which were essentially split into three parts each, two trilogies."

Lucas would later pare back the total number of planned Star Wars films to nine, discarding his spin-off ideas and focus on the original trilogy, a trio of prequels, and a final three sequels, all making up one operatic story. "I've eliminated the odd movies, because they really don't have anything to do with the Star Wars saga," Lucas told Prevue in 1980. "It gets confusing trying to explain the whole thing, but if I ever do the odd movies about the robots or the Wookiees, it'll be just about them, not necessarily about Chewbacca or Threepio - just about Wookiees and robots. It's the genre that I'm intrigued with, not necessarily the characters."

Around the time The Empire Strikes Back was in production, Lucas was clear on where the franchise was going, with his description of a prequel trilogy exploring Obi-Wan's early years matching what we'd eventually see in 1999's The Phantom Menace and the films which followed it.

As for the sequel trilogy, Lucas was a little less certain, but he appeared to have certain themes in place - it was, according to Time Magazine, about "moral choices and the wisdom needed to distinguish right from wrong". The sequels would catch up with Luke Skywalker, now in his 60s as Obi-Wan was in A New Hope, and, once again, the stories would be told through the eyes of R2-D2 and C-3P0.

In 1983, Lucas said that the sequel would be about "Jedi knighthood, justice, confrontation, and passing on what you've learned" - echoing the last words of a dying Yoda in Return Of The Jedi.

Gary Kurtz, producer of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, spoke in 1999 of the early plans for the third trilogy, which would have dealt with "Luke's life as a Jedi", while Episode VIII would be about a long-lost sister of Luke's - not Leia, we should point out - whom Luke would train to become a Jedi master. According to TheForce.net, Episode IX would have seen "the first appearance of the Emperor."

The idea of Luke having a sister was originally seeded in The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda portentously says, "No, there is another." That 'another' would, according to Lucas in a 1980 interview with Rolling Stone, have been explained in a future film.

"There is another, and has been for a long time," Lucas said. "You have to remember, we're starting in the middle of this whole story. There are six hours' worth of events before Star Wars, and in those six hours, the 'Other' becomes apparent, and after the third film, the 'Other' becomes apparent quite a bit."

Star Wars

As late as 1988, Lucas was still giving journalists hints about a sequel trilogy. When Starlog asked Lucas why Luke Skywalker had never been given a love interest in the original films, Lucas simply responded, "You haven't seen the last three yet."

By the early 2000s, however, Lucas seemed doubtful about making the sequels, and was once again talking about the amount of time and energy each instalment took to make. In 2008, Lucas seemed absolutely decided: no more sequels, either by him or by any other filmmaker. "I've left pretty explicit instructions for there not to be any more features," he told Total Film in 2008. There will definitely be no Episodes VII-IX. That's because there isn't any story."

We now know, of course, that Episodes VII-IX are very much a reality. And while Lucas' publically-stated ideas for the sequels were always vague in terms of detail, it seems that the form they'll be taking is close to what he had in mind back in the 1970s and 1980s: Mark Hamill will return as Luke Skywalker, along with other key members of the original cast, including Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Peter Mayhew.

They're joined by a new young cast - John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Issac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson - joined by the charismatic acting veteran Max von Sydow. We can only guess at what roles most of these will fill, but it's not unreasonable to suspect that they'll all be connected to the original roster of characters. If the sequels are indeed about "passing on what you've learned", it's easy to imagine Luke Skywalker passing on his Jedi training to a younger padewan. And with Adam Diver said to be playing a Darth Vader-like, wouldn't Max von Sydow be perfect as his elder Sith Lord, like Palpatine before him?

One final bit of conjecture: it's been widely suggested that John Boyega - best known as Moses in Attack The Block - will play the young lead in Episode VII, or that Domhnall Gleeson, due to his passing resemblance to Mark Hamill - might be the new film's new hero. But what if the central protagonist was played by the largely unknown Daisy Ridley? It's a bit of a push, admittedly, but it would be a brave move on the part of the filmmakers. That Ridley's been so carefully hidden from the media - her Twitter account was deleted shortly after her casting announcement, as was a showreel on Vimeo - might suggest that the role she's set to play is far more pivotal than some have dared imagine.

Whatever happens in the sequel trilogy, Lucas will remain closely connected to it. "I mostly say, 'You can't do this. You can do that," Lucas told Businessweek. "You know, 'The cars don't have wheels. They fly with antigravity.' There are a million little pieces. Or I can say, 'He doesn't have the power to do that, or he has to do this.' I know all that stuff."

What's interesting is that, not only will there now be a new trilogy of Star Wars films, but there'll also be a series of stand-alone, spin-off movies - not unlike the ones he'd talked about more than 30 years ago. Lucas' ideas for the Star Wars franchise may have changed repeatedly over the years - but for now, it seems as though the series has circled back to his earlier grand vision. 

As producer Rick McCallum said in a BBC Omnibus documentary 15 years ago, "It's one big saga. A saga about a family that happens to live in a galaxy far, far away."

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