Titans: George Lucas v. Steven Spielberg (part 1)

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  Three and a half decades after their breakout successes, they remain arguably two of the most potent brand names in American entertainment and understandably so.  Probably more than any other two individuals, they have been – for good or for ill — responsible for a massive reconfiguration of media entertainment, expanding from film into TV, merchandising, and new media, constantly exploring the ability to cross-pollinate all these strains, and sparking a re-thinking of the kinds of movies Hollywood makes and the way they’re made.

Lucas and Spielberg are credited – and sometimes blamed – for launching, expanding, and perfecting the concept of the synergistic, merchandisable blockbuster franchise.  After their commercial breakouts in the late 1970s, their movies regularly dominated the all-time best box office performers list for most of the following decades, and even today, after such recent additions as Avatar (2009), Titanic (1997), The Passion of the Christ (2004), the Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, and the Harry Potter series, as directors and/or producers Lucas’ and Spielberg’s names are still attached to almost one-quarter of the all-time top 100 box office hits (even after adjusting for inflation, Lucas/Spielberg still account for 20 of the top 100 earners).

Even this does not adequately measure their respective commercial muscle, omitting, as it does, the lesser but nevertheless notable movies associated with their production arms, as well as their expansions into animation, TV production, computer and interactive on-line games, and a variety of merchandising lines.  After over three decades at the top of the industry’s commercial pyramid, Lucas and Spielberg remain classic archetypes of the era, and the acknowledged maestros of the blockbuster game.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  It’s nearly impossible to think of one without the other and, again, understandably so.  Colleagues, friends, sometimes collaborators, they are close in age, broke big about the same time, share a somewhat similar sensibility.  They are both “children of television,” much of the work they’ve directed and/or produced being inspired by – if not displaying an outright nostalgic affection for – the monster, science fiction, and war movies, the vintage serials, the cartoons and TV programs they viewed for hours on end as youngsters.  Star Wars (1977), Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Twilight Zone:  The Movie (1983), Poltergeist (1982), 1941 (1979), the Indiana Jones films – just to name a few – all have their roots in the Saturday morning TV viewing of Lucas and Spielberg.  Their handle on popular culture has given them a preternatural instinct for material which will play for the mass audience, as well as the best way to portray that material.

A youthful passion for movies and moviemaking manifested itself as a technical proficiency impressive even at the start of the careers, and which has grown into a technical mastery few current moviemakers can match.  From their earliest days, they have pushed at the limits of moviemaking technology, looking for any new device or technique which can bring their imaginings to credible life on-screen, whether it’s shooting Jaws on location in the open waters off Martha’s Vineyard with an animatronic shark, resurrecting dinosaurs through the magic of CGI (Jurassic Park, 1993), or injecting actors into a wholly alien universe composed almost entirely of computer-generated imagery, and performing side-by-side with an equally unreal computer-manifested co-star (Jar-Jar Binks in Star Wars:  Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, 1999).

They continue to get the kind of media attention few other directors and producers do, and have retained their marquee value longer than most on-screen stars in the business today.  Last year saw announcements for 2011 projects which will continue to demonstrate their on-going commercial potency.  Lucas announced yet another re-release of his Star Wars films, this time all six released in sequence with the – literally – added dimension of having been re-formatted for 3-D.  As for Spielberg, two theatrical features will be released within weeks of each other – War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin:  The Secret of the Unicorn – and the year will also see the debut of two Spielberg-produced TV series, Terra Nova and Falling Skies.

Yet, for all their commonalities, the announcements of their respective 2011 plans illustrate their vast, polar-opposite differences.  For all they share, their careers have followed two distinct, increasingly disparate arcs:  one that of a filmmaker who built on his early successes, and the other that of one seemingly trapped by his.

Lucas, for example, has been strikingly spare in his output.  The final installment in the Star Wars saga – Star Wars:  Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), marked only Lucas’ sixth directorial credit, four of them Star Wars episodes.  As a producer, Lucas’ name has been attached to only 20 theatrical titles in 30 years, with most of them – other than the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films – box office flops.  When Lucas received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, in light of his slim body of work the recognition was generally considered to be for Lucas’ technological contributions to moviemaking, and the impact of the Star Wars series.

Spielberg, on the other hand, seems to barely finish one project before he’s on to the next, having directed 25 features between 1974 and the present, and acted in some sort of producer’s role on several dozen more.  His production entities – Amblin and Dreamworks SKG – have turned out still more pictures on which he served no direct role, a wildly eclectic canon including the Shrek movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), the Back to the Future series, The Bridges of Madison County (1995), American Beauty (1999), Gladiator (2000), Cast Away (2002), Road to Perdition (2002), and House of Sand and Fog (2003).

The difference between the filmographies of the two men is not only the striking one of quantity, or even quality, but of breadth, and therein, perhaps, is the true measure of the creative difference between them.

George Lucas attended the film program at the University of Southern California with the goal of becoming “…a documentary filmmaker, cameraman, and editor…”  He was not interested in mainstream commercial cinema, wanting, instead, to concentrate on more abstract fare while professing little concern for making money in the business.  He came under the mentoring wing of Francis Ford Coppola who engineered Lucas’ first professional directorial assignment, an expansion of an award-winning short Lucas had shot at USC which would evolve into the feature THX 1138 (1971), a film which, in every frame, reflected the serious, near-abstract art house work Lucas had explored as a student.  Set in a dehumanizing, emotionally-constrained future, THX 1138 is deliberately opaque, brooding, constructed more poetically than along linear dramatic lines.  It is also as emotionally aloof as its striking, icy, white-on-white visuals, and, unsurprisingly, failed to connect with the mainstream audience.

The commercial failure of THX 1138 pushed Lucas to look for a more accessible, and, hopefully, commercial project.  He drew on his own teenage experiences to come up with American Graffiti (1973).  As warm-hearted as THX 1138 is cold, as bubbly with youthful experience as THX is deliberate and restrained, Graffiti easily connected with a young audience who – after years of Vietnam and Watergate – eagerly lapped up its loving portrait of a more innocent time, and simpler pleasures and pains.  Graffiti became a huge hit ($21.3 million domestic against a budget of $775,000), kicked off a national craze for 1950s nostalgia, and opened the door to Lucas for his first major production:  Star Wars (later re-dubbed, Star Wars:  Episode IV – A New Hope).

A record-breaking hit at the time ($215.5 million domestic against a $13 million budget), Star Wars not only cemented Lucas’ entrée into Hollywood’s major leagues, but his profits from the movie and the merchandising (for which he’d shrewdly retained control) bought him complete independence from Hollywood.  He self-financed The Empire Strikes Back (1980, although he turned the directorial chores over to Irvin Kershner), and afterward built a full-service, state-of-the-art production facility — dubbed Skywalker Ranch — far removed from Hollywood in northern California, set up his own production company (Lucasfilm), as well as Industrial Light and Magic, a special effects house which remains one of the premier movie technology laboratories today.  But, having done so, Lucas seemed at a loss of what to do with his newfound independence.

He walked away from directing claiming, “I’m never going to direct another establishment-type movie again,” although the one-time aspiring experimental filmmaker now found himself presiding over a production facility which seemed expressly designed for just that kind of work.  As a producer, he has, occasionally, husbanded the kind of serious moviemaking he aspired to as a student:  he acted as executive producer for the American release of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic Kagemusha (1980), as well as for the collage-like documentary Powaqqatsi (1988), and was also an uncredited producer on the noir homage Body Heat (1981) which marked the directorial debut of Lawrence Kasdan who had worked on the screenplays for Lucas’ The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  But, other than the Star Wars and Indiana Jones titles, much of Lucasfilm’s scanty producer’s filmography consists of misfires like Willow (1988), Howard the Duck (1986), and The Radioland Murders (1994), along with mushy children’s fare like Twice Upon a Time (1983) and The Land Before Time (1988).

When Lucas did return to directing after an absence of 21 years, it was not to helm some against-the-commercial-grain individualistic effort, but yet another “establishment-type movie” – in fact, a series of them as he began turning out the second Star Wars trilogy.  Despite impressive box office, critics – and many fans of the original trilogy – considered them an artistic disappointment.

Lucas has often seemed uncomfortable with the more human elements of cinema, preferring, evidently, to immerse himself in the wonders of moviemaking technology, going as far as to remark, at times, that “actors are irrelevant.”  On the original Star Wars, the joke among the cast was how Lucas’ direction rarely went beyond, “Faster and more intense!”  To that point, critics generally consider The Empire Strikes Back as the most dramatically rewarding of the original three movies; a movie which Lucas neither directed nor wrote.  Even on the character-driven American Graffiti, Lucas seemed at a loss as to how to deal with his large ensemble cast, hiring a dialogue coach to work with the performers while he busied himself with camera set-ups.  When the second Star Wars trilogy began to hit screens, beginning with Star Wars:  Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), it appeared that all of his penchants – weakness with character and drama, technical mastery – had grown only more entrenched.  The New York Times’ A. O. Scott shared a common reviewers’ opinion in its judgment of Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) as a feature-length “action-figure commercial,” and that it was “…not really much of a movie at all, if by movie you mean a work of visual storytelling about the dramatic actions of a group of interesting characters.”

Attack of the Clones, while one of the top box office earners of 2002, would be the first Star Wars entry not to take the box office crown during its theatrical release, that honor going to the better reviewed, comparatively more flesh-and-blood Spider-Man.

Much of Lucas’ ancillary works are marked by an incessant recycling and merchandising of his limited core of films i.e.  two TV movies and a series featuring the Ewoks, the cuddle-toy cute creatures introduced in Star Wars:  Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), two TV series based around a young Indiana Jones, Star Wars-based videogames, a long-running animated series, Star Wars:  The Clone Wars, and the constant re-releasing – in theaters and in various home entertainment formats – of the movie series.

Spielberg, on the other hand, for all his technical flash and embrace of effects technology, has always been a more humanistic filmmaker.

Spielberg had been attending California State College at Long Beach in the late 1960s when Sidney Sheinberg, then head of Universal’s television division, saw a short Spielberg had made and offered the 21-year-old student a directing contract.  The following year, Spielberg made his directing debut with the middle segment of a Twilight Zone-ish TV movie triptych penned by Rod Serling:  Night Gallery (1969).

In this, his maiden professional effort, Spielberg’s immediately recognizable visual fluency is every bit equaled by his ability to give emotional heat to the performance pas de deux between two veterans of mogul-era Hollywood which comprises the bulk of the piece:  Joan Crawford’s bitterly vindictive and selfish blind magnate willing to stop at nothing for the chance of a few hours sight, and noble but defeated Barry Sullivan, the doctor she blackmails into performing an illicit eye operation.

As Spielberg’s career advanced and his directorial projects became more elaborate and their settings more fantastic, Spielberg never let his technological mastery eclipse the human elements in his movies.  On Jaws, he had the original screenplay by the novel’s author Peter Benchley run through one set of rewriter’s hands after another for the major purpose of enriching the characters.  He tangled with screenwriter Paul Schrader over the first draft of the script which would evolve into Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the same reason, looking to see his sci fi fantasy populated with recognizably everyday characters.

Spielberg also knew how to get those carefully etched characters off the page and onto the screen:  nine performers have received Oscar nominations for their work in Spielberg’s movies as of this writing (vs. Lucas’ one).

And, where all but one title in Lucas’ slim filmography is set in a Never-Never Land of futuristic fantasy, much of Spielberg’s work – including his fantasies – is grounded in an amiable, recognizable, middle-class suburbia much like the neighborhoods in which the filmmaker spent his childhood.  Some of his most effective early works – Close Encounters, E.T.:  The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Poltergeist (which he produced but did not direct) – gain their power from cross-pollinating childhood fantasies of ghosts under the bed and alien visitors with equally vivid recreations of a comfortably familiar and banal suburban milieu.

- Next (part 2)

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By Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is a produced screenwriter and playwright, and a published author of fiction and nonfiction, including Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema. He spent 27 years with pay-TV giant Home Box Office, and now teaches at several universities in his native New Jersey.

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One Response to Titans: George Lucas v. Steven Spielberg (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Titans: George Lucas v. Steven Spielberg (part 2) | Sound On Sight

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