Q: What famous storyteller had to write a new story for himself after a near-fatal crash crushed his dream of becoming a race car driver?
A: George Lucas
Director, writer and producer George Lucas was raised on a walnut ranch in Modesto, CA. He originally set sights on becoming a race car driver, but a near-death car accident just before high school graduation radically changed his views on life. The force was definitely with him that day–the car rolled and the racing harness snapped, throwing him from the car. Had he not been thrown he would’ve been crushed to death by the steering column when the car smashed into a walnut tree, uprooting the tree.
While earning his associates degree from a local community college he channeled his love for racing into a new passion–cinematography. After transferring to the University of Southern California he produced several short films including a futuristic Sci-Fi film called THX-1138, which won a student award and later became his first full-length film. Shortly thereafter he was awarded a scholarship by Warner Brothers where he met Francis Ford Coppola. They became fast friends.
Lucas drifted a bit after getting his bachelor’s degree in 1966. He was turned down by the Air Force because of his many speeding tickets (you can take the girl out of the city!), then had to drop out of the Army after being diagnosed with diabetes. In 1967 he re-enrolled in USC’s graduate film production program.
His suburban upbringing and early love for motor racing served as inspiration for American Graffiti, released in 1973, receiving Academy Award nominations in five categories. Lucas is probably best known for his Star Wars series which was inspired by Flash Gordon and Planet of the Apes. Surprisingly, it was turned down by every major Hollywood studio. 20th Century Fox finally gave him a chance, even though they thought it’d flop, after he agreed to waive his directing salary in exchange for 40% of the box-office sales and all merchandising rights. According to Lucas, he didn’t take control over the merchandising to get rich but, rather, as a commitment to safety and quality. He didn’t want the name ‘Star Wars’ to end up on a piece of junk. It paid off–the movie broke all box office records, earned seven Academy Awards and Lucas became rich almost overnight.
Despite the stellar success of the Star Wars trilogy, Lucas resorted to making money doing TV commercials until Jurassic Park came into the picture. The technological advances renewed a spark to create three new Star Wars prequels. Lucas also wrote and produced the Indiana Jones films–all huge box office hits. He got the idea while vacationing with friend Steven Spielberg in Hawaii.
On the personal side, Lucas has always been passionate about kids. He gained custody of his adopted daughter, Amanda, after he divorced in 1983 and has since adopted two more kids–Katie and Jett. All three appeared in his Star Wars prequels. In 1999 Lucas told a NY Times reporter, “Children are the whole point of life.”
Although George Lucas writes in longhand in a loose leaf binder, his name is synonymous with technology and innovation. In 1975 he created a state-of-the-art special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and a sound studio, Skywalker Sound, so he had more control over the finished product. His THX System revolutionized the movie theatre experience. Lucas received a medal from President George Bush for outstanding achievements in movie technology and in 2005 was recognized with The American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Today, George Lucas’s moviemaking empire, where he routinely makes technological magic, sits serenely in the midst of 3,000 acres in the hills of Marin Country, CA. The complex includes a baseball field, vineyard, three restaurants and a fire station.
Lucas’s storytelling skills are legendary. Here are just a few highlights of where his inspiration came from and how he shared parts of his personal story on film:
THX-1138, the name of this first real movie, appears in many films. The license plate number on Milner’s deuce coupe in American Graffiti was THX 138. A battle droid had 1138 written on his back. Luke Skywalker said, referring to Chewbacca, “Prisoner transfer from cell clock 1138.”
The character Han Solo was based on Francis Ford Coppola.
His nickname in high school was Luke which became the name of his Star Wars hero, Luke Skywalker.
His wife was upset when Lucas failed to use their dog, Indiana, in the night scene in American Graffiti (he wanted a white dog).
He agreed to put Indiana’s spirit in the next movie which is where the Wookee, Chewbacca, got his good looks. He was also the inspiration for the name of the Indiana Jones character.
He sold Lucasfilm’s Computer Graphics Division to Steve Jobs and it later became Pixar Studio
According to special-effects wizard Lucas, “A special effect is a tool, a means of telling a story. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”
Lesson: Never underestimate the power of the story. People want to be entertained and your story is the perfect way to connect with them on an emotional level. Don’t be afraid to include quirky little pieces or yourself in everything you do. Be authentic–that’s all the differentiation you need.