It’s hard to say where old Hollywood ended and new Hollywood began. People in the industry don’t think of themselves as making history, they are just going to work. But the day in 1967 that Jack Warner cleaned out his desk at Warner Bros. studio, George Lucas and Frances Ford Coppola arrived on the lot.
The two young filmmakers were very different in demeanor. Coppola a legend at UCLA film school was 27, a loud boisterous mixture of mogul and marxist, who prided himself in dressing like Fidel Castro. He impressed film executives at first with his bravado, but later would upset them with his reckless overspending. Five years younger, Lucas, who went to USC, was quiet and introspective. The only guys at Warners who were below 30 and wore beards, they hit it off instantly with Coppola taking the mentor role. Lucas had made a thirteen minute science fiction film project called THX 1138, a dark look at a computer controlled future. Coppola convinced his protégé to extend it into a full-length film and talked Warner Bros. into financing it.
Over the next few months the wily Coppola played both sides. “I’m telling you this kid Lucas is making a great film.” Coppola told the Warner brass. “Don’t put pressure on yourself, they don’t expect anything,” He reassured Lucas. When they saw the completed THX 1138 the Suits were furious. “Francis what is this?” “I don’t know, I’ve never seen it.” replied the bewildered producer. To Lucas’s dismay the studio cut out parts from THX 1138 before they released it. “They’re cutting the fingers off my baby.”
THX failed at the box office and Coppola was held financially liable for $300,000, but the two filmmakers were given another chance to make a low budget movie at Universal. Impressed by the success of Easy Rider (1969) the old guard at the studio was reaching out to new talent, once again Coppola would produce and Lucas would direct. Lucas was encouraged by his wife Marsha to make the second project more positive. At USC he had studied anthropology learning that the American male has a unique mating ritual, he drives around in cars trying to pick up girls. Lucas combined this observation, with his own love of classic cars, his small town upbringing in Modesto, CA and his appreciation for top 40 songs played on the radio by disc jockeys like Wolfman Jack. The result: American Graffiti (1973).
The now beloved film got off to a rocky start. It was previewed in San Francisco to young crowd who adored it. After the show Lucas and Coppola waited for the Universal executives to come and congratulate them. Instead they were shocked by angry accusations that they had planted their friends in the crowd and American Graffiti was not releasable. True to their personas Coppola argued and Lucas stood quiet. Once again George saw his film taken away and cut up by what was in his view an interfering, know nothing studio. But there was one difference between THX-1138 and Graffiti; Graffiti was a hit, a highly profitable film that made Lucas a millionaire.
Now Lucas decided to return to science fiction, this time wanting to do a more positive story than THX. After failing to acquire the rights to Flash Gordon, he sat down to write his own screenplay. Influenced by the writings of Carlos Castaneda and the mythology of King Arthur, he based the characters on familiar figures. Luke Skywalker’s personality came from George Lucas himself, young, adventurous, and quiet from a small town, with a love of racing cars, or in this case space pods. Han Solo was based on Francis Ford Coppola. He was loud, cocky, reckless, always in debt, going through a love-hate relationship with the younger Skywalker. And the empire was actually the Hollywood studios. George Lucas striving for his creative freedom as a filmmaker would parallel Luke Skywalker’s journey to win liberty from the empire, and both would achieve it thanks to Star Wars.