Strange Magic is the latest film from George Lucas, and instead of Jedi and stormtroopers, he sets his sights on faeries and goblins.
Like most stories George Lucas has come up, this one is firmly rooted in classic mythology and aims to offer a tale to help us distinguish between actual love and mere infatuation. Through music and some of the most gorgeous animation to hit the big screen (courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic), Strange Magic carefully weaves its tale. Taking cues from past Lucas collaborations ranging from Labyrinth and American Graffiti to Willow and even The Clone Wars, it tells the story of a faerie named Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) in a world beset by an evil Bog King (Alan Cumming) who has outlawed the use of love potions.
It blends the themes and ideas of Shakespeare, specifically Midsummer Night's Dream, into a form palatable for kids and adults of ages and does it in a very classic "Lucas" way.
To mark the release of the film, I spoke to the man responsible for the story of this film, George Lucas himself. We spoke of Strange Magic, Star Wars, and where his career as a filmmaker goes from here.
Bryan Young: It's taken you 15 years to get this film together and out, I'm wondering why you tinkered with it for as long as you did before deciding now was the time.
George Lucas: I stick with things a long time. That's my nature. I started a long time ago. Thinking about the fact I made a mythical adventure for 12-year-old boys that everybody loved, girls, old people, and maybe if I made a faerie tale for 12-year-old girls it would also appeal to boys and adults. So, I started working on this and one of the ideas I had was to be able to tell the story using the lyrics of old rock and roll songs. And, then, out of that, came up with a plot inspired by Midsummer's Nights Dream; a love potion that makes odd couplings of people and creates a lot of chaos. That was really where it was born. It was a labor of love. It was something I knew, because I loved the music. I loved the things, and I loved working on that. I just did it for the fun of it. It sat on my bench for 15 years.
I had a little group of twelve people working on designing characters, sort of advancing the technology of animation so I could do some of the things I wanted to do. But, I was doing other movies too. I was doing the other Star Wars movies and things at the same time so whenever I had some free time I would come and work on this.
That's what happened for the first ten years. And after that I started hiring a lot of people, Marius [De Vries, Moulin Rouge] for the music, the director, writers, those people, and we started working. What I had was three hours and it needed to get cut down to about 90 minutes and I had to lose a lot of my songs that I loved but I couldn't afford them. The story was way too big, so we mashed it down, worked on it, massaged it, then finally got it to the point where we were starting to finish it, then I sold the company. So I was very happy that Disney decided that they would finish it, they paid for finishing it and the cost of the people, like, Gary Rydstrom and people who had been working for me for 30 years and they knew my wishes, and we were able to finish it. So it just got finished.
BY: How did people react when you came to them with the idea: "I want marry sort of a Willow with American Graffiti, and techniques I've learned between?
GL: When I started that was a lot of my movies and everyone said it was impossible.
Ultimately, it has to do with infatuation as opposed to real love, and infatuation is appearances and pixie dust, and real love is when you come to a gathering of your minds, when you agree about a lot of things, same values, same interests, and likes, dislikes, and you really meld with somebody's personality and their mind and it's a much deeper kind of love and it doesn't have much to do with the way people look, it's the way they are.
So, in doing that, when we started designing the characters, and when we started designing the characters we started designing the Bog King, and said, "Well, you know, I'm going to have the princess marry the Bog King in the end." And everybody said, "That won't happen. You could never make it work where a cute little girl marries this scraggly old cockroach." And I said, "Well, that's a challenge, that's something I want to do." It's like the music. They said you can't, we couldn't get the music to work. And in some cases we had to pull some of the music out and let them have dialogue, but, I like challenges, I like trying to tell stories differently, that's a lot of what happened, but there was definitely quite a lot of people saying, "This isn't going to work".
But I was doing it by myself; it doesn't make any difference because I was paying for it.
BY: How did your experience working with this animated feature differ from the other animated features that you've produced over the years?
GL: This is the most sophisticated and I was the most involved in this in terms of I created it from scratch. You know, whether it's Land Before Time, or the other movies, I was there and helping and working on them, but I wasn't actually invested. The director has more to say about it. I was just helping them along. This, I was much more involved.
BY: With Gary Rydstrom taking the directing credit, what was that relationship like with him and what made you feel like he was the right person to put there?
GL: Well, Gary has worked for me for 30 years. He's won a lot of Academy Awards for Best Sound, he was the key mixer in the sound department and sound editor and I've known him forever. He went to USC. I got him right out of college. So we had a very close, long relationship. He wanted to direct, so we sent him over to Pixar and he worked there for a few years. And then, he came back. These are people that I've worked with for a long time. By that time, I trusted him. He did the work ultimately with recording the actors and the music and over seeing that part when we got there. We had already done about five recordings of the music before that because we were changing it all the time. The final version, he was responsible for.
BY: The film feels like a culmination, technically, of the things your able to put together, a lot of the animation and lighting effects came out of teams that worked on The Clone Wars and the audio tapestry of the film is incredibly rich. It sounds like that's a lot of Rydstrom's influence. Did it feel like you were putting everything together to end up with this? And where do you see yourself going as a filmmaker now that this is out of your system?
GL: This is left over from a previous era. I did it because it was fun. I did it on the side while I was working on Star Wars, it was something to do that I enjoyed. I finally got it finished and I'm happy. It turned out better than I would have hoped it would. That sort of finishes that. That was the one thing left over for my retirement. But now I'm sort of working more on experimental films, building museums, and raising my daughter.
BY: All good things. I'm wondering, what sort of inspiration you brought from the world of faerie tales, if there were any faerie tales that inspired you specifically to bring this story about? Faerie tales are universal through your work, whether that's Star Wars, or Willow...
GL: I like faerie tales, I always have. Part of that is I collect illustrated art and children's art. So I have a lot of faerie tale paintings and things. Those are the kinds of things, along with the music and everything, I said, "Yeah, I want to do this; this will be fun."
Sometimes I didn't have any time frame and I didn't know if it was going to get released or not. I just did whatever I wanted and had a good time with it. On Labyrinth, we did the story and David Bowie did the music afterwards. I wondered if I could do it this way where I reversed all that and used existing music. They sing the scenes and it's just like you wrote the music but it's actually existed before that. Those kinds of challenges, to see if I could make it work, fascinated me. I felt it's a good story to be told for young people in adolescence who go through a lot of difficult times with infatuations and to know that that's a normal thing, just put it in perspective. That's not what makes its work.
And again, this story has been told, over and over and over again. But it's a story that needs to be told over and over again because for every group of kids, it's fresh.
BY: It sounds like when you put the music together - I know when you were working on the script for American Graffiti you would have the tracks of music you wanted to use. Was that something you got even deeper into with this? It was the lyrics and things you were putting in the script for this picture?
GL: This picture, the challenge was trying to tell the story using the lyrics. So, finding the lyrics, knowing where the story wanted to go, then trying to find the lyrics that would do that. It was a much bigger challenge. It was like a big Rubix Cube. And then when Marius [De Vries] and the others came into it, we had to cut it down and everything; it was a very difficult thing for us. Like a giant puzzle that had to be solved.
BY: Marius De Vries, he did a lot of work with Baz Lurhman, so bringing him in, where he has experience with things like Moulin Rouge, that was a natural fit. What was that process like, going through song after song after song?
GL: That's why I hired Marius. Baz is a good friend of mine from forever. When I started this I said, "Marius is the only guy I know who could actually pull this off." But when you do it with a lot of songs, I think there's twenty-five in there, you're really depending on them to tell the story. It's tough. We weren't writing anything, the words. Its just a challenge. But it's a puzzle. It's a fun thing to do.
BY: Of all the music that you used, what were you most surprised clicked with you, that ended up in the film? The music is incredibly diverse.
GL: Yes. Well, the reason it's diverse is because we were going for the lyrics and we did have Marius saying, "We can't put those two songs together." Or, "You're not going to follow that song with that song, it just won't work." We would have to deal with all those things, but you really have to find a lot of songs to be able to tell all the story. I just really used music that I liked. That I already had in my archives. We would go over and over. People would suggest songs and I was there and could say, well, I don't really like song. We'd finally get to a point where we'd find something that would fit perfect, it would work and we'd put it in there. But it's a very tricky and complicated way to make a movie.
BY: That seems like your director's thumbprint, as it were.
GL: Pretty much. I like the challenge of, one, doing things that hadn't been done before, telling stories in ways other people haven't thought of before, having interesting combinations of things that are seemingly impossible, but making them work. Then, on top of that, being able to tell a story in a very entertaining way.
BY: It certainly sounds like it was an incredible challenge. Would you try to build a movie like this from the ground up that way again?
GL: Well, I'm doing experimental films. They're very much the same kind of challenges, but not the same kind of movies. They're more the kind of movies I made when I was in film school. The kind of movies I've produced a few of, like Powaqqatsi and Koyaanisqatsi. But I'm trying to do this one dramatically. I'm looking forward to them.
BY: I can tell that you I think the world needs more films like THX-1138 and Powaqqatsi and Koyaanisqatsi.
GL: I believe in that kind of filmmaking. I'm not sure I'll be able to release them, but I'll at least be able to make them.
BY: I hope they find a release. I would be terribly excited to see them myself. Even if it's just me. You can release them to me and I'll enjoy them.
Strange Magic comes out January 23, 2015.
Bryan Young is the author of "A Children's Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination" and "The Serpent's Head," the editor-in-chief of the nerd news and review site Big Shiny Robot!, and is the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, "Full of Sith."