This article was first published in The Town Courier.
New York Times bestselling author Brian Jay Jones and his latest biography, “George Lucas: A Life,” are coming to our galaxy on April 19. Hosted by the Gaithersburg Book Festival, Politics & Prose, and Johns Hopkins University, the free event, “An Evening with Brian Jay Jones,” will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. on Hopkins’ Montgomery County campus in Gilchrist Hall Auditorium at 9601 Medical Center Drive, Rockville.
Ask Jones for two words to summarize his tome about Lucas and he’ll quote the succinct review from People magazine, “Whiz bang.” “I will tell you that the phrase elevated me right out of my chair. For someone like me who is a comic book fan, that is the highest praise that you can give me,” Jones said. “I was turning 10 the summer ‘Star Wars’ came out, so Lucas is my version of pop culture for my entire life.”
Pop culture icons are no strangers to Jones’ writing repertoire. The last book he penned was about Muppets creator and children’s television legend Jim Henson who worked with Lucas on the 1986 film “Labyrinth.”
For Jones, the real challenge with Lucas was to tell “the comprehensive story because the public generally thinks of him in silos as the Star Wars guy, the Indiana Jones guy or the digital cinema guy. No one has ever actually put all those narratives together before … to bundle them and see how they relate to each other,” he said. “Biographers are repressed actors. We love sliding into the shoes of the other person and playing out that part while we’re writing the story. You have a new appreciation for their life if you’re looking at it through that prism of their work as well.”
Lucas declined to be interviewed for the biography, but Jones said that made it a better book and kept the biography in his control. “Biography gets to be really exciting when you can put people in the here and now. So, actually getting his voice at age 32 as opposed to age 72 I think makes the book that much more exciting. One of the traps you run into as a biographer is memory can skew things over the years. People do this reflective thing where everything came out as it should have and everything happened on purpose. It’s what I call ‘retroactive continuity.’”
Without access to Lucas, his files or archives, Jones began to decipher the plethora of information published about him. He found the filmmaker’s voice through archival newspaper articles from the 1970s, particularly within smaller publications that printed entire interviews where Jones found there was “just tons of great info hidden in plain sight in these tiny newspapers.” As a biographer in residence at the University of Mary Washington, Jones is the associate director for the Great Lives program and he, along with fellow biographers, coordinates the lecture series. He said another bonus of his position is access to the university’s library and reference and humanities librarian Jack Bales for great resources beyond his computer.
While researching “Star Wars,” Jones discovered a 1976 interview by a Los Angeles Times reporter where Lucas is “bemoaning his fate and griping about 20th Century Fox abandoning him by not providing the money he needed. So, we’re watching George Lucas at 31 tie himself into a pretzel over the belief that the studio has completely abandoned him and he’s got this spectacularly expensive bomb on his hands. … It’s almost like he’s trying to get out in front of it to explain why this movie’s going to fail so terribly, and I think what’s really fun for readers now is we actually know how that turns out,” noted Jones.
Jones said that Lucas found his talent for filmmaking when he was in college at the University of Southern California (USC) studying cinematography and he became influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai.” He liked “esoteric, artsy, sort of avant-garde films like Arthur Lipsett’s ‘21-87’ with abstract images and an interesting sound track. It’s the kind of film Lucas says even to this day he aspires to.”
Jones noted that Lucas was a fan of comic books, particularly Tommy Tomorrow, an intergalactic policeman, and Uncle Scrooge McDuck. Like Steven Spielberg, Lucas was part of the first generation influenced by television and its fast pace.
Jones said Star Wars’ DNA began when, as a kid in Modesto, Cal., Lucas watched the old Flash Gordon serials. “That’s sort of culturally what’s influencing Lucas, but he was always looking for big brother figures most of his life,” Jones observed, “and his first big brother figure that really influenced him was Francis Ford Coppola.” Lucas worked as Coppola’s right-hand man and together they formed the independent film company American Zoetrope.
“Coppola says to Lucas, ‘You’re never going to be taken seriously as a director unless you can learn how to write a script.’ So Lucas, who hates writing and can’t spell very well and actually writes these scripts out even to this day in pencil, in longhand on yellow pads, chains himself to the desk to write the scripts for THX and drafts of American Graffiti, and these long, kind of boring, really detailed backdrafts of what becomes Star Wars,” Jones said. “Who knew that Indiana Jones started in his notebooks in 1975 because he was trying not to write ‘Star Wars’?”
With Lucas’ conservative, “almost nerdy” appearance, his risk-taking was a surprise to Jones. “He looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, but the guy is a gunslinger. The take-away about Lucas is this guy believed absolutely in pursuing his own projects and that his work had value. … He wanted to run the table. People forget (in addition to Lucasfilm Ltd.) that he started Pixar and when he did American Graffiti and before that THX1, both Warner Bros. and Universal, at the very end of the game, took those films away from him and edited them the way they thought they should be edited.
“Lucas never forgave the studios for that … that the suits should have any right to tell the artist what to do with their art, but that moment right there is the birth of Skywalker Ranch where he built his creative freedom. Lucas said, ‘No one is going to tell George Lucas how to edit films except George Lucas,’” explained Jones.
“Biographers,” he added, “have to pick their subject somewhat carefully because you’re living with that person for so long and getting to know them and their ups and downs. … They can actually creep into you every once in a while.”
“The Cat in the Hat” is currently prowling around Jones’ writing desk as he works on his next biography about pop culture icon Dr. Seuss. For more information, visit www.gaithersburgbookfestival.org or www.brianjayjones.com. View the Gaithersburg Book Festival on CultureSpotMC here.