George Lucas was recently honored by the San Francisco Museum of Art’s Modern Art Council with the museum’s 14th annual Bay Area Treasure Award, an annual lifetime-achievement award recognizing Bay Area—based artists and cultural leaders who continually redefine the field of visual art.
Jacqueline Sacks, George Lucas, Neal Benezra, Candace Cavanaugh
John Lasseter, Chris Columbus
This year’s soiree, helmed by Event Chair Jacqueline Sacks, drew the biggest crowd in the history of the award, with some 400 museum supporters gathering at the Four Season Hotel San Francisco to celebrate the legendary director, who attended with his wife, Mellody Hobson.
George Lucas, Mellody Hobson – David Sacks, Jacqueline Sacks
Among the many distinguished guests were: SFMOMA Trustee Alka Agrawal and husband Ravin; Sloan and Roger Barnett; Stephen Belefonte and Mel Brown (Spice girl Mel B); MAC President Candace Cavanaugh and husband Mario Rodighiero; screenwriter Chris Columbus; SFMOMA Trustee Dolly Chammas and husband George; Mario Diaz (Wells Fargo); Courtney and Seth Dallaire; Sharon and Steve Edelman; SFMOMA Board President Bob Fisher and wife Randi; Nancy and Ross Goldstein; Matt Gonzalez; director Philip Kaufman; Pixar’s John Lasseter; Nellie Levchin; Charlot and Greg Malin; Nion McEvoy; Christine Suppes with friends Kate and Laura Mulleavy (Rodarte); Mary Pang; Shirley Parks; Stephanie Pugash; Joni Binder Shwarts and husband Robert Shwarts; Claire and Rob Slaymaker; Candy and Vince Sollitto (Yelp); Joan Stracquadanio; Maria Tenaglia Watson; and Katie and Todd Traina, among others.
George Lucas, Joni Binder Shwarts – Christine Suppes, Laura Mulleavy
Festivities began with an intimate reception in the Veranda Room, where guests enjoyed an introduction to Lucas’s life and work by his official biographer Jonathan Rinzler, and toasted the filmmaker’s extraordinary career with libations courtesy Austin Cocktails and bubbly by champagne sponsors Jennifer and Courtney Benham.
After SFMOMA director Neal Benezra kicked off the evening’s program with warm words for the night’s honoree, Lucas himself took the stage for a conversation with SFMOMA Curator of Media Arts Rudolf Frieling and Dominic Willsdon, the Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs at SFMOMA.
Following the talk, Jacqueline Sacks surprised Lucas with a framed limited-edition print from 1967 by renowned artist Bruce Conner (1933—2008), who was an influence on Lucas, and whose wife, Jean Conner, was among the evening’s guests. “I am thrilled that this year’s honoree is George Lucas, one of the greatest filmmakers and creative innovators of our time,” Sacks said.
Lucas’s 30-minute conversation provided a fascinating overview of his career and his artistic interests. Here are some of the highlights.
Raised in Modesto
“Growing up in the Central Valley is like the Midwest, except I was able to come here to San Francisco on the weekends, and see concerts and the ballet, and go to museums, and see baseball. So, that was important to me. The actual core of where I grew up was very country, middle class. Very simple. Agricultural. We lived by a walnut ranch. And when I went to Junior College, I got very fascinated by anthropology, so that became my obsession.”
University of Southern California Study
“I liked photography. I wanted to be an artist and go to Art Center in LA, but my father said, ‘No way are we having an artist in the family. That’s no way to make a living. You can go if you want, but you’re going to have to pay for it yourself.’ So, I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine, I’ll just go to San Francisco State and study anthropology.’ Which I was on my way to doing, until I got sidetracked.
My best friend was going to USC and he said they’ve got a school down there that has photography. And so I went down there and discovered it wasn’t a school for photography, it was a school for cinema, and they made movies. I said, ‘You actually go to school to make movies? This is insane.’ But the first semester I was there, I realized that I loved it.”
Early Cinematic Influences
“I never had much experience with film before. The only thing I really did was come up here to San Francisco and watch a lot of Ken Cinema movies, and it was kind of the underground world of Bruce Conner and Stan Brakhage and Bruce Bailey and all the guys who grew up here at that point. That I thought was really great. I loved that kind of cinema. It was very different than anything I had seen in the movie theatre. So, I went to school to try to learn how to do that.”
1960s Cinema Verite
“It was an exciting time in the movie business. When you went to a film school, nobody went to a film school. There was hardly anybody in school at all because it was a hopeless exercise in futility… So we were there. It was just a group of crazy guys, and a few girls, who just loved movies. That’s all we did, was love movies.
Cinema Verite was just starting in France, and the Canadian Film Board, so I became very fascinated and loved them, and still wanted to make avant garde, abstract movies. And basically that’s what I did in school. I had no interest at all in going into the film business, because I figured it was hopeless, and why even think about it. So, my plan was to come back here, get a job as a cameraman and editor, and make cinema verite movies, and also some avant garde movies.”
Starting his Career
Everything has to do with kind of being in the right place at the right time. The studios had started in 1910, and old people had started them. This was the 1960s, and they were all 70 and 80 years old, so they were dying off and selling the studios. Suddenly, corporations were coming in and saying, ‘We own a studio. What are we going to do? We’ll go to a college and find students that know how to do these.’ The industry never did that, ever.
So, suddenly we had access [to studios]. I had no interest in having access. I won a bunch of scholarships in school because I had made a lot of movies and won a lot of film festivals and won a lot of things, so I kept winning these scholarships, sort of work-study things for three months or six months. So, I said, ‘What the heck.’ The Vietnam war was going on. There was a lot of pressure to stay in school. So, I just said, ‘I’ll take these scholarships and see what the movie industry is all about.'”
Friendship with Francis Ford Coppola
“There was another film student who had made it, who was five years older than I am, Francis Coppola, who was the only film student who ever made it into a studio. And he did it by way of Canada. But we were the only guys who were on staff [at Warner Bros.] who were under 30 years old and had beards and long hair, and obviously became friends. He finished the movie he was doing there, and he said, ‘I hate Hollywood,’ and I said, ‘Well, I hate Hollywood, too.’ And so he had this plan to do a film, ‘The Rain People,’ on the road, and he was trying to put it together with 12 people, and so he needed an assistant everything…. So, I got paid $10,000 to do this film as an assistant.”
Founding American Zoetrope in 1969
“We came here to San Francisco, and I introduced Francis to John Korty, who was the only other local filmmaker, and we just said, ‘This is it. This is what we’re going to do.’ We started American Zoetrope here, and did my first film here, which was “THX 1138”, which was kind of my transition from the kind of films I wanted to make, which were avant garde films, and a regular movie.
And I said, ‘This is the only time I’m going to be able to do this because we’re up here and the studios not going to know what’s going on, and once the film comes out I’ll never work again. So, let’s just do it now and get it over with.’ So, I did. I made it, and sure enough the studio hated it. American Zoetrope went broke. The studio banned me, and it was quite an experience. But I did get my movie made.
They did, at the end, re-edit it and take five minutes out of it. A movie like “THX”, you take five minutes out, it’s not going to make any difference. It’s pretty incomprehensible to begin with.”
Early Career Innovations
“For me it was an innovation in story telling because I was trying to push the boundary and do things. So, that’s what I got out of film school. We were trying to do all these new things. And at the same time, we were bringing innovation in the technology, which was a new technology. We had Eclair cameras, we had portable tape recorders, we had synch sound, we had all kinds of things they didn’t have before, which is what really started the whole thing of cinema verite, where you could actually follow people around with a camera.
So, there was a lot of innovation going around with very small camera, quiet cameras. And large advances in sound, because before you had to record the sound on film, and you had to have a big truck to do it in. Now you could just have a little tape recorder and do it.
So, all those things really loosened up the filmmaker to do whatever they wanted to do. And so “THX” and “American Graffiti” are both kind of Super 16 mm movies, which nobody did for feature films.”
“All Art is Technology”
“All art is technology. And in my definition of art, art is the ability to communicate emotions to other people, using technology. Because whether you’re a caveman and you’re using charcoal and you discover a yellow rock and say, ‘Hey, I can put yellow in this,’ the artist has always been pushing the boundaries of the technology he’s working with to make a better picture.
And it goes to all the arts, whether it’s music, whether it’s painting, whether it’s theatre. Shakespeare was famous in his own period for being able to change scenes on a theatre on the round, which is a hard thing to do. But then they invented the proscenium arch and made it much easier and you could do all kinds of things, you could change scenery and all kinds of stuff.
And so it was the same thing with film, which is a very highly technological art form to begin with, like photography. But no matter how you do it, you’re always sort of banging your head against the last technological wall.”
Technology of Hollywood
“I equate it to the difference between doing frescoes on a ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with a crew of, you know, there are five red guys, five blue guys, there’s the scaffolding guys, and everybody’s working to do this — it’s like a giant Hollywood movie.
But I wanted to be able to go out and paint pictures outside, where I could see the light, where I could do things, where I could paint light instead of figures. That’s where oil painting and that idea came about, which is where the paint doesn’t dry, you could keep doing it. In the end, it was more than the oil paint, it was the tube that came in that was the real innovation, that changed art at that point.”
“As you go forward, you’re always trying to do technological things that you can’t normally do. Film is the same thing, especially when you get into special visual effects. It was very crude. There were just camera tricks, basically. That was the whole visual effects business.
And in order to do “Star Wars,” because I didn’t know what I was doing — I mean, I had been in animation, I started out in animation and I kind of knew animation, so we really just took an animation camera and turned it on its side and put models in front of it.
But it was a big leap forward for everybody because, up to that point, the biggest, best, most technically perfect science fiction ever made was “2001,” but it still was very slow. You couldn’t really pan with the ships. All matte paintings. Everything had to be static. And I said, ‘I want to be able to move with my ships. I want the movie to be kinetic. I want it to move and have all kinds of things, and have it be very exciting.’ But you couldn’t do that. You just literally could not shoot an airplane in space and pan with it.
The idea of motion control meant you could suddenly start panning with things, and it opened up a whole new idea of how you could work with visual effects.”
Computers and Filmmaking
“The real change came when we moved to digital. We used computers and everything to move the cameras around, but at the same time there were people like John Whitten and stuff that were working in pure computer graphics, but they were just design things. And Scott Bartlett, here, was working on using video to do the same thing, and create effects that way.
But what I did is I invested a whole lot of money and time and started a computer division, and that was to take the movie industry out of analog and into the digital world. And that’s what we did. We invented the editing machines, the cameras, the projectors and visual effects, in order to create images that were more interesting and more realistic than we did before.”
New Era in Visual Effects
“When we did “Jurrasic Park,” that was like the milestone where we could make real living creatures digitally, completely in a computer, that looked so realistic you couldn’t tell how it was done. And from that point it liberated everything.
Because when I did “Star Wars,” the movie was cut into three parts, and each one had a little technical problem that I had to overcome. The first one was panning with spaceships. That was all I had to deal with. The second one, it was how to create a character that’s only two feet high that actually looks like a real person or a real creature. Those are things that seem very simple, but at the time they were huge breakthroughs.
Well, I then quit because I knew that the back story — which is the only possible way to go with this is to tell the back story about how Dark Vader got there — I knew I couldn’t do that at the time, so I said, ‘Well, that’s over with. I can’t really go any further.’ I can’t build large landscapes. They had to be built with models. So, you’d have a model the size of this room, it would cost a fortune. I couldn’t get Yoda to walk, let alone sword fight or anything. I mean, the hand!
So, you had so many limitations, but finally with digital, I could do these things, and everybody else could do it.”
“Faster, Easier, Cheaper.”
“What’s happening now [in visual effects] is it’s just getting better and better. It’s getting faster, easier, cheaper…. Even when I did “American Grafitti,” Francis kept saying, ‘This is fantastic. We made this for nothing. We’re going to have a whole new film industry where kids can go out and afford to make a movie that will go out and make $100 million.’
And that’s basically what’s happened now. You don’t see many films like that, but there are some out there, and it’s possible now. You could make “Star Wars” for $1 million. Use a little still Canon camera and do it on your Macintosh. You have to spend a lot of time doing it, and you have to have a lot of talent and a lot of patience, but you could actually get through the whole thing. Whereas before it was unheard of. You just couldn’t event think about doing that.
But if you’ve got a $3,000 camera and it looks as good as a $100,000 camera, you’re really onto something.”
Returning to his Artistic Roots
“In the beginning I was going off into this avant garde world, and I wasn’t going into the movie business. It was really Francis who derailed me. ‘Well here’s an opportunity to make a film. I’ll never get to do this again. I’ll just do it, and that will be the end of that.’ And I kept going on, and got really successful at it, and I got kind of trapped on the tar baby. And I loved it. It was fun. I was making the movies I wanted to make because I was in San Francisco and I was able to finance my own movies, and I said, ‘Keep away from me. I’m going to do this, and I’ll love or die by what it is that I do.’
So, then as I went on, all my friends kept saying. ‘When are you making art films? When are you going to do the little avant garde films you keep talking about all the time? When are you going to do that?’ Everybody — Steven, Francis, Marty, everybody. Because at that point, when I met all those guys I was like the king of the weird movie guy. And I was very different than the rest of them.
But now I’m retired, and as I say, while my friends went out and bought yachts, I decided to take the money I would use to buy the yacht, and I’d put it into a bank account and I’d just waste it making movies that are completely experimental in nature, nobody will ever see them, I don’t have to do it for an audience, I don’t have to do it for the industry, I don’t have to do it for anybody except myself and show my friends.”
New Projects in the Future
“I’ve got about five projects I’m thinking about, and I’m going to start writing one of them in January . Right now my project is I’ve got a three-month old daughter, and that’s a good project to have.”
After the Modern Art Council President Candace Cavanaugh closed the program with her own heartfelt words of appreciation on behalf of the museum, guests capped off a perfect night with mingling in the dessert lounge with conversation buzzing about the news of new Lucas productions in the works. Ah, if only to be invited to one of his private screenings!
Roger Barnett, Mellody Hobson, Sloan Barnett – Katie Traina, Todd Traina, Alison Pincus
Karen Richardson, Jacqueline Sacks, John Rubinstein – Nellie Levchin, Bob Fisher
Michael Birch, Xochi Birch – Thomas Liu, Jessica Hon
Katherine Simon, Nina Stanford – Robert Shwarts, Joni Binder Shwarts
John Green, Micaela van Zwoll – Philip Kaufman, Kelly Sultan
George Lucas, Mellody Hobson, Kate Mulleavy, Laura Mulleavy – Jacqueline Sacks, Marilyn Tortorice
Chris Columbis, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman – Garry McGuire, Nathalie DelRue McGuire
Major support for the event was proved by Wells Fargo. The lead sponsor was Ferrari. And additional support was provided by Sotheby’s International Realty, C Magazine, Lahlouh, Martin Ray Winery, and champagne sponsor Jennifer and Courtney Benham.