Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Bob Iger Shares What Happened With George Lucas And The Sequel Trilogy In New Memoir

By: Dominic Jones

Ever since the sequel trilogy films started being made, there have been questions about just how involved (or uninvolved) Star Wars creator George Lucas has been, as well as how Lucas truly feels about the new films.  Well, wonder no more.  Disney CEO Bob Iger recently released a new memoir, titled The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, in which he discusses, in a fair amount of detail, exactly what went down with Lucas' involvement in the new Star Wars films.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following along for the past few years that George Lucas has a complicated relationship with the new Star Wars films.  Despite initially being credited as a "creative consultant", Lucas seemed to distance himself from the new films all the way back in 2015.  During the lead up to The Force Awakens, Lucas described his current relationship with Star Wars as being like he'd broken up with somebody.

So, what caused the break-up?  Lucas has spoken on several occasions about his original plan for the sequel trilogy (which would have involved micro-biotic worlds of whills and midi-chlorians), which he sold to Disney in 2012, along with all of Lucasfilm.  He later stated that Disney had chosen not to use to those story outlines and went in a more fan-friendly direction with The Force Awakens.

Iger addressed Lucas' treatments in his book, writing that, "Alan Horn and I read George’s outlines and decided we needed to buy them, though we made clear in the purchase agreement that we would not be contractually obligated to adhere to the plot lines he’d laid out."

The decision to make it clear in the contract that they didn't have to follow Lucas' outlines wound up being a smart one for Iger, at least in a business sense.  Early on in the development process, the team making Episode VII decided they wanted to go in a different direction

"Kathy [Kennedy], J.J. [Abrams], Alan, and I had discussed the direction in which the saga should go, and we all agreed that it wasn’t what George had outlined," Iger recalls. "George knew we weren’t contractually bound to anything, but he thought that our buying the story treatments was a tacit promise that we’d follow them, and he was disappointed that his story was being discarded."

The creative differences all apparently boiled over during a meeting early on in the Episode VII process, when Iger, Kennedy, Abrams, and screenwriter Michael Arndt visited Lucas at Skywalker Ranch in Northern California, to tell him their idea for the film.  Suffice to say, the meeting did not go well, with Iger writing in his book that, "George immediately got upset as they began to describe the plot and it dawned on him that we weren’t using one of the stories he submitted during the negotiations."

Not all of Lucas' ideas were thrown out, of course.  The idea of the protagonist for the sequel trilogy being a young female Jedi came from Lucas, as did the idea of an exiled Luke Skywalker.  However, those few similarities were not enough to keep Lucas from feeling, as Iger puts it, "betrayed".

For what it's worth, Iger takes the blame for all this.  "I’d been so careful since our first conversation not to mislead him in any way," the CEO writes, "and I didn’t think I had now, but I could have handled it better. I should have prepared him for the meeting with J.J. and Michael and told him about our conversations, that we felt it was better to go in another direction. I could have talked through this with him and possibly avoided angering him by not surprising him."

Iger also confirms that, despite his public statements otherwise, Lucas was disappointed when he first saw The Force Awakens, criticizing the film for not taking enough storytelling risks and criticizing the filmmakers for not making any new technological leaps (something Lucas did on all the Star Wars movies he worked on).  The irony, of course, is that Disney didn't want to do those things with The Force Awakens, focusing on doing the impossible and pleasing Star Wars fans.  "George was criticizing us for the very thing we were trying to do," recalls Iger.

So, what to make of all this?  Obviously, as the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas deserves to be held in the highest regard by Star Wars fans (though they don't always do so), and by anyone who is lucky enough to follow in his footsteps and tell a Star Wars story (be it a film, TV, novel, comic book, game, etc.).  And that makes it difficult to hear about him being so disappointed by what happened after he sold his company (although there are rumblings that Lucas took on a much more active creative consultant role for Episode IX).

That being said, I think it's fair to say that if he had wanted to ensure control over the sequel trilogy he should have held off on selling his company.  I think it's also fair to say that Bob Iger had every right to go in a different direction with the new Star Wars films, and that his first responsibility isn't to George Lucas.  Although it is abundantly clear that he could have and should have handled this process much, much better.  The fact that Lucas felt deceived by Iger shows that the whole situation was a complete mess.

Ever since these excerpts from the books have made their way online, there has been debate over whether or not the reaction to the sequel trilogy would have been better had Disney stuck with Lucas' story ideas. Lucas' obvious disappointment with the sequel trilogy has made him something of a rallying cry for fans who have also been let down by what they've seen in Episodes VII and VIII.

The irony of this, of course, being that Lucas himself used to be the target of fans disappointment during and after the release of his prequel trilogy.  For years "fans" harassed Lucas for "ruining their childhoods" with The Phantom Menace (and its follow-ups).  As recently as 2017, content was still being produced by popular creators decrying the prequels and, by extension, Lucas (although, by then the prequels were going through a much-deserved renaissance and reevaluation and the response to that content was probably not was the creators expected).

There has been an effort by some, especially those looking to sell the narrative that The Last Jedi "ruined" Star Wars, to rewrite history and pretend that the current wave of mainstream(ish) prequel-positivity was always the norm.  But the truth is, the negativity around the prequels was overwhelming for many involved, as well as for those who were positive about them from the beginning.  As nasty as the "debate" (a far too charitable word in this context) has been surrounding The Last Jedi, the nastiness that surrounded the prequels was just as bad.  Let's not forget the fact that Jar Jar Binks actor Ahmed Best considered suicide due to the negativity and harassment that he received following The Phantom Menace

Lucas' own decision to sell Lucasfilm was influenced by his experiences with "fans and the media during the prequels.  In 2012 he told The New York Times, "why would I make any more, when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?"  Back then Lucas was the Star Wars boogeyman, and there were those that felt the series couldn't continue without him at the helm.  Now Rian Johnson fills that role for those people, who now claim they want Lucas back, proving once and for all that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  As Lucas himself might say, "it's like poetry, it rhymes".

All of that is not to say I would not be interested in George Lucas' sequel trilogy, I merely wanted to dispel the notion that everything would have been "fixed" had Lucas made the new trilogy and not Abrams and Johnson.  In fact, I am absolutely fascinated by Lucas' story treatments for Episodes VII, VIII, and IX.  And, honestly, I wish he could have made them.  For six movies, Star Wars was one man's story and I would have liked to have seen that man continue that story.

And, let's be honest, Lucas is right about The Force Awakens.  The movie was very much a celebration of what Star Wars is, rather than something that challenges our notions about the saga (like The Phantom Menace did).  I'm not saying it's a bad movie, I always have one hell of a good time when watching it, but I can't help but wonder how Lucas would have approached continuing his story.  That being said, I do think Rian Johnson took what was done in The Force Awakens and built on it in some very interesting ways that do challenge the audience in a way similar to what Lucas might have done (and I very much applaud him for doing so).

In the end, moving away from Lucas might be what's best for Star Wars in the long term. If the series is going to continue, it's better to have new voices (and, hopefully, more diverse voices) being brought in to put their spin on the saga.  That said, Lucas is such a unique filmmaker, who gave us one of the greatest sagas of all time, so it feels like a major missed opportunity not to let him continue that saga.

Bob Iger's memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, is available now

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