George Lucas on making 'Star Wars': 'It helps to be nuts'

Road Trip 2010: CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman was just one of thousands who flocked to see the "Star Wars" creator talk about the history of the mega-hit sci-fi franchise. Lucas was joined onstage by Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and interviewer Jon Stewart.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

'Star Wars' creator George Lucas sits with two of the stars of the original films, Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, and Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia. The three were on stage at Celebration V in Orlando Saturday, and were interviewed by 'Daily Show' host Jon Stewart. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

ORLANDO, Fla.--You'd think, with all the resources at his disposal, "Star Wars" creator George Lucas would be pleased, if not all that impressed, to see the flood of life-size and (nearly) fully functional droids that fans of his films have created over the years.

In fact, though, Lucas sees those droids--which were out in force at Celebration V, the huge "Star Wars" fan fest here this week--as a bit of a "tragic" reminder of the struggles he and his team had trying to get their own R2-D2s to work properly back when they were shooting "A New Hope," the first film in the monumentally popular saga, back in the 1970s.

Indeed, Lucas told a capacity crowd of several thousand here Saturday, he labored for eight years trying to get the group of R2-D2s his production had to work with to go in a straight line, and in the end, he said, they had to fashion a sort of fiberglass model, put it on sticks and use wagon wheels to achieve their goal.

"Here, they have the most beautiful R2 units you can possibly imagine," Lucas said, adding, to a huge cheer, "They're magnificent. If only I could make another 'Star Wars.'"

Click here for a full photo gallery of Jon Stewart's interview with George Lucas.

George Lucas, Luke, and Leia rock Orlando (photos)

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It was a wistful beginning to what turned out to be a fun, and funny, hour-long discussion onstage between Lucas, certainly one of the most successful filmmakers of all time, and "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart.

Billed as the "Main Event" of Celebration V, there's no doubt that the conversation kept the thousands on hand entertained--and educated. Stewart demonstrated his bona fides as a well-informed "Star Wars" fan, and Lucas didn't disappoint with his illuminating answers, and willingness to fill in some gaps in the 33-year-old "Star Wars" universe. The often stolid Lucas even opened up and laughed several times, cracked a few jokes, and showed a relaxed, human side he doesn't always display in public appearances.

And, committed to keeping the audience interested, Lucas and Stewart sprinkled a series of surprises throughout the hour, including unexpected appearances by Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, who played Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, respectively, in the original three "Star Wars" films. Plus, Lucas excited the crowd of true believers by announcing that all six of the series' live-action films would be released on Blu-ray in 2011.

The origin of the names
I was fortunate enough to be sitting in the front row for the Lucas-Stewart tete-a-tete, and for me, it was a fun and fitting last bit of reporting on Road Trip 2010. Having traveled up and down the Northeast, and flown to Orlando for Celebration V, this was a big-league end to more than six weeks of interesting, educational, and often exciting destinations to write about and photograph.

If I'd had the unbelievably rare chance to be the one interviewing Lucas onstage, I'm not sure what I would have asked him. Stewart got around that conundrum by catering to the crowd and asking many fan-submitted questions, and simply following up with his own inquiries.

As any "Star Wars" fan knows, the saga is filled to brimming with a collection of creative names for characters, races, planets, starships, and more. Stewart asked where those names came from, and whether Lucas had a process for coming up with them.

A group of Stormtroopers guards the stage as Lucas and Stewart prepare to arrive for their interview. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Lucas joked that he often would come up with those names during the long parts of his work days when he was avoiding the task of writing, but eventually allowed that many of them, such as "ewoks," were derived from the name of elements in his life, such as the Miwok Indians, who had lived in the area of Northern California where Lucas resides. Asked where Darth Vader's name came from, Lucas said it was a term that, loosely, means "dark father" in Dutch.

Stewart then asked about what must have been difficult days while Lucas and his crew were making "Star Wars," when money was tight, when believers in his vision were few, and when the technical challenges were daunting.

"Well, it helps to be nuts," Lucas replied.

"I think we've just written the title to your autobiography," Stewart responded.

In all seriousness, though, Lucas said that the real secret to overcoming those long odds was a combination of a fondness for building things, an obsession for not letting others get in the way of his goals, and an unwillingness to care what the rest of the world thinks.

Even after the success of the first "Star Wars" film, "Episode IV," Lucas said, things were difficult as he prepared to make "The Empire Strikes Back." Many times, he said, it looked like the film wouldn't happen, and in the end, it may only have been because Lucas was firmly committed to the project, and remote from Hollywood--he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and shot the movie in England--that he was able to move forward successfully.

Looking back at the struggles of making the original "Star Wars," Lucas said it may not have happened without the help of Alan Ladd, Jr., a producer who didn't really understand what Lucas was trying to get at with his odd space opera, but who believed in Lucas after the success of his previous film, "American Graffiti."

But even with Ladd's stewardship, Lucas said, he still had problems making "Star Wars." He ran out of money, and had to dispense with a Jabba the Hutt scene and some of the special effects he wanted, both of which were added to the film when Lucas put out the new editions of the three original movies in the late 1990s.

The first act In the beginning, Lucas told Stewart, he had planned on making one big movie that spanned much of what eventually became the entire six-film saga. But "it was too big," he said, and "I couldn't do it."

That's why "Star Wars" started as a single movie, released in 1977. Lucas called that film "the first act."

Part of the problem was that much of the back story he wanted to tell wasn't filmable at the time, given that the biggest technical achievement in "Empire Strikes Back," he said, was creating Yoda as a muppet that people believed, and wasn't "just a sock."

But again, Lucas believed in his project, and because he was in control of the rights to make a second, and third film, he decided to make his story into a trilogy, rather than attempt to jam everything into a single film. "If the studio had owned the property, it would never have happened," Lucas said.

He also talked about the deal he made with the studio, the deal that could go down as one of the best in movie history--at least for Lucas. Because he knew he wanted to make a sequel--and that the studio wouldn't--Lucas offered to give up his salary on "Star Wars" in exchange for the rights to any sequels. The studio, believing it was a good way to save money on the first movie--and that there wouldn't be a sequel anyway, agreed. Billions of dollars later, it's clear who got the last laugh on that one.

A misconception?
Because this is a fan convention, Lucas addressed one of the most interesting dynamics of "Star Wars" and its ecosystem: the fans, and the fact that new generations continue to flock to the universe Lucas created.

Lucas said he sees an odd dichotomy: Those 40 years old and over love the original three movies but hate the prequels. And those 30 and under don't like the original three movies and love the prequels. More to the point, he said, those under 30 "love" Jar Jar Binks, that character everyone seems to love to hate.

To which many in the audience yelled out, with love, but forcefully: "No we don't!"

Since June 23, Geek Gestalt has been on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the Southeast over the last four years, I've been looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation, and more throughout the American northeast. You can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.