Brian Jay Jones talks Star Wars, George Lucas and the art of the biography

You might have noticed that the world has gone a little bit Star Wars crazy these last couple of months. There’s been novels, movies – just released – memoirs by stars, and now a biography of the creator, the man behind it all – George Lucas.

George Lucas: A Life is the new biography from the New York Times bestselling author Brian Jay Jones, who also wrote the acclaimed biography of Lucas collaborator Jim Henson. Following the release of the new book we had a chat with Jones about all things George Lucas and Star Wars. Not to mention how you set about writing and researching a biography in the first place.

Why George Lucas? What was it that first drew you to him as the subject of a biography?

It’s an interesting situation; I’m a pop culture junkie, there’s no hiding that. So, writing a biography of the creator of Star Wars – arguably THE biggest thing in pop culture to my generation – would seem a natural subject for me. Weirdly, though, I didn’t find George; in a manner of speaking, he found me. Shortly after the publication of my biography of Jim Henson, my editor at Random House called me to tell me they’d either received a note or heard word back from George Lucas – they publish the Star Wars books, so apparently they have some contact with him – anyway, they told me they’d heard that Lucas had read my biography and, as a friend of Jim’s, had really liked the book.

Well. I thought that was my opening. I wrote a long letter to him, suggesting it was time for him to work with a biographer on his story – he had just remarried, sold his company, and essentially retired – so I thought perhaps he might want to get his story down. Turns out not so much.

It took about three weeks, but I eventually heard back that it wasn’t something he was interested in doing. But I had been doing so much reading and researching while waiting for his answer, and by the time I heard back, I was already hooked on him as a subject. He was just too good to let go of, and there were so many raw materials there to dig into. And for someone like me – who turned ten the summer Star Wars premiered – it really was a dream subject.

Still, when you’re a biographer, there’s a lot that goes into deciding on the subject of your next book. Can you live with this person – their work, their quirks, their personality – for the two or three years it takes to write and research a biography? The best way for me to decide that was to do a lot of reading and then write a long proposal – essentially a detailed description of how I viewed my subject, what was interesting about it, how I planned to organize the story, and so on. It was at that point I knew I had to do this. And make no mistake: it is a HUGE subject. There’s so much wonderful material out there – books on Star Wars are practically a cottage industry in themselves — but it had never really been plumbed before to tell George Lucas’s story in its wonderful, sometimes messy, entirety.

What was your starting point for the book? Your entry point into Lucas’s story? Obviously Star Wars is a huge part of that story, but it’s not everything.

You’re absolutely right – Star Wars is NOT everything. And that’s one of the things I really wanted people to take away from his biography: the man is about so much more than Star Wars.

Still, rather than throw readers right into unfamiliar territory right at the beginning, I decided to write an opening prologue that puts you on comfortable ground: he’s filming Star Wars in 1976, but nothing is going right. He’s in Tunisia, his droids don’t work, poor Anthony Daniels is being cut to pieces by his Threepio costume, and Lucas is apoplectic that 20th Century Fox is being tightfisted with the money. The studio, he feels, is forcing him to compromise his vision for the film. He feels he’s lost control of his own movie – and that’s a theme we’re going to revisit over and over throughout his life – his absolute need to feel in control of his work.

If you’re asking where did I personally first come into Lucas’s story, it was in 1977. I was nine years old when I saw the previews for Star Wars in the movie theater. I can’t actually remember where I saw the movie for the first time, but I’ll never forget seeing that trailer. Even at nine, I knew this was something different – the ships were dirty, the robots fell over, and there was a guy who looked like an evil robot all in black. It was purely visceral response to Lucas’s images. It just flat out worked.

Now, oddly enough, I found out later I was actually familiar with his earlier film American Graffiti, because my parents were both big fans of it, and were always laughing about the moment the axle gets pulled off the police car. So, I was definitely aware of American Graffiti, but I didn’t put two and two together for a long time and realize it was a George Lucas film.

What is your process when writing a book like this? And has that process changed over time?

While I consider myself fairly tech-savvy, I have to admit that when it comes to writing and research, I’m horribly analog. I do a lot of archival research, and I still like to make hard copies of everything – whether it’s an interview Lucas did with Starlog in 1980, an article about the SIGGRAPH conference in 1985, or even a Kenner Star Wars toy ad. Then I three-hole-punch the papers and file everything in black binders in my office, usually organized chronologically, though sometimes I do it by topic.

While I’m researching, I type my notes on the laptop, but I still write my chapter outlines in longhand. And then, when I finally write that particular chapter, I write the outline up on a gigantic white dry-erase board so I can see the entire thing, move pieces around, or note other areas I want to make sure I cover.

My process hasn’t really changed all that much over the last decade. It’s horribly messy, I know, and many of my fellow biographers swear by electronic organizers or programs like Scrivener, but it all feels like a forced extra step to me. But as I always tell anyone who’ll listen, the right way to organize your research is the way that works best for you.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in the course of writing this book?

Just how alarmingly and charmingly reckless the man can be. You look at Lucas and he looks like the ultimate conservative – and, indeed, he was raised in that vein by his father, who ran a stationery store in Modesto, California. He taught Lucas conservative American values: “Never run up a debt. Always pay your bills.” And Lucas could have taken the easy way out early on: his father was holding the doors of the family business open for him. All Lucas had to do was walk through them.

Instead, he and his father have this big blowout, with father and son literally shouting in each other’s faces, and Lucas vowing – VOWING! – that he’ll go do his own thing and be a millionaire before he’s thirty. And he actually does it, several years in advance.

Anyway, Lucas turns his back on the easy way and goes to film school where he discovers his talent, and also develops a quick disregard for the rules. From almost day one, he’s determined to never compromise his own artistic vision, if he can help it – and this is where that recklessness comes into play, because it’s almost always in the name of investing in yourself, and in your own vision. Lucas makes a lot of money off of American Graffiti, for example, and immediately pours it into developing Star Wars, a film no one understands, and very few people believe in. He and his wife are nearly broke – she’s taking jobs as a film editor to support them –but Lucas is determined to make this Star Wars thing work. And, as we know, it does.

But once he has that money in hand, he invests everything AGAIN, putting it all back in himself and his own company. He’s using his own money –mostly from merchandising at this point – to develop The Empire Strikes Back, but more importantly, he’s investing in Skywalker Ranch, his ticket to his own creative freedom. And he tells Irvin Kershner, his director for Empire, “If this doesn’t work, we’re finished.” And it was true. Again, as we know, it all worked out. But Lucas does this time and again – he invests all of his own money in the prequels, for example – and every time it pays off. But it’s completely the antithesis of the way he was raised.

How much access did you have to Lucas? Was he an amenable subject?

I had no access to Lucas, or to Lucasfilm, whatsoever. Still, from everything I could determine from my in-depth research, he certainly seems an amenable subject.

You’ve written about Jim Henson and now George Lucas, two heavyweights of 20th century American popular culture and storytelling. In doing your research for both of these books, did you notice any similarities between the two?

Jim and George are actually incredibly similar, cut from much the same creative cloth both in art and commerce. Both were forward thinkers and innovators, unfazed by the word ‘no’ and absolutely committed to doing whatever it took to get the vision of the artist up on the television or movie screen. Both loved gadgets and technology – and both loved the idea that technology could make it possible for anyone to make a movie with something as common as a phone.

The two of them actually fed off of each other in the 1980s, when Lucas tapped Jim to lend a hand with Yoda for The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas – who’d really struggled with the best way to bring Yoda to the screen – eventually decided he needed a puppet and a puppeteer, and decided to hire the best guy in the business, which was Jim. And for Jim’s part, he was looking to figure out how to build more lifelike puppets that could be moved with remote control and had tiny parts to open eyes and puff cheeks. Yoda was really a bit of what we call ‘technology transfer’ between Jim and George, and they really grew to respect each other. There’s good reason Jim asked Lucas to produce Labyrinth for him several years later.

As businessmen, both are fiercely, defiantly independent. It was critical to both of them that they own their own work. Jim insisted early that his agent ‘never sell anything I own,’ and Lucas went even one better, completely running the table when it came to the financing, special effects, editing, and creative control of his films. Both of them took their merchandising seriously, maintaining final say over what could and couldn’t be manufactured or merchandised. They’re both very controlling – very protective – of their own creative content.

Interestingly, too, when it came time to take the yoke of the daily grind of running a company off of their backs, both of them turned to the Walt Disney Company to carry on with their legacies and manage their icons. It’s easy to be cynical about Disney, but both of these men clearly trusted the company to take good care of characters that they really had to come to think of as their creative offspring.

What do you think are the ingredients for a great biography?

You need a great subject, naturally. But a great biography doesn’t necessarily have to be about a big, iconic figure. Many times biographers can take lesser known figures and, through their hard work, make them iconic. Look at Unbroken or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. These are figures that great writers brought to our attention, and reintroduced us to their place and importance in history. That’s two great writers having an inherent feel for the greatness and tangible importance of their subjects.

Great biography also requires great research. For many of us, the research is the fun part – the equivalent of digging your hands into the dirt and turning it over in your hands. Archives and libraries and interviews are our mainstays, of course, but you’ll also find biographers going to great lengths to try to understand their subjects better. We visit their houses and look out their bedroom windows, trying to see the view as they would have seen it. We read the same books they read, watch the same movies, listen to the same music. We walk or drive their routes to work and back home again, looking for those intangibles that help us empathize and connect with our subjects.

And finally, you need a great narrative, which can demand great organization of your materials. I often tell aspiring biographers that it’s not just what materials you use, but how you use them. Can you present them in an interesting or dramatic fashion? You don’t want your book to be a textbook or a recitation of facts – that’s a user’s manual, not a biography. What’s the drama in your subject’s life? The humor? The compassion? What did you learn, and how much of yourself will you inject into the narrative? These are all the questions we deal with as we wrestle with telling someone else’s story.

Who would be your ideal subject to write about?

A reviewer once remarked that I seem to have a preference for “slightly off-center American geniuses,” which is a description I like very much – and, so far, that’s held true. I tend to like what we call the ‘mad dreamers,’ and I really like writing about their creative process. What made Washington Irving write “Rip van Winkle” in one fevered all-night writing session? What’s it like for George Lucas, who compares writing to ‘bleeding on the page,’ to sit down and stare at that blank page and try to get down on paper all these ideas he has for his ‘Flash Gordon thing’?

So, I guess my ideal subject would be a slightly off-center genius, a mad dreamer, most likely a creative sort. It would probably be a pop culture figure – someone in TV, film, literature, or music – but doesn’t have to be. Are there any mad dreamer presidents or scientists? You tell me. I’m still looking!

What’s next for Brian Jay Jones?

Actually, I DO have another mad dreamer that I’m circling, and very excited about. With some luck and a bit of work, I’m hoping I can let you know something early in 2017.

George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones is available now through Hachette Australia / Headline