Master Filmmaker Stirs Up Strange Magic
by Brad Balfour
When director/writer/producer George Lucas was pitching the concept of Star Wars after he had a hit with American Graffiti, his nostalgic paean to boys in cars, the studios didn’t want to hear of it, let alone produce and release his space adventure. Boy, did those who passed on his idea get it wrong. But that was in the mid ’70s. In this day and age, Lucas was not only prescient but canny – and now a multi-billionaire, maybe the richest filmmaker ever.
This Modesto, California native not only had his mega-smash with Star Wars (later known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) but he created a mythology for generations to come. In turn, became a billionaire, both in bucks and audiences, reaching billions of fans and collectors globally.
Though he’s had Oscar nominations and many other accolades, his biggest success may be in selling his LucasFilms company to The Walt Disney Company. He doubled his multi-billion dollar stake and furthered his opportunity to create what he wants when he wants to do it.
As a result, the 70-year-old cinematic legend finally finished his long simmering (and developing) passion project, Strange Magic – an animated fairytale/musical inspired by both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Beauty And The Beast. With its beautiful graphics and simple-but-heartfelt storyline, this film may spur the next huge franchise and become another cultural beacon. Or not. For Lucas it’s all about the love of filmmaking and telling a story he believes in.
Employing pop songs from over the last six decades, this madcap adventure tells of two unlikely love stories in a world of goblins, elves, fairies and imps.
One of the movie’s biggest inspirations was that early LucasFilm production, American Graffiti, and its iconic rock soundtrack. For Lucas, revisiting his first mega-hit through this music not only brings his filmmaking full circle, but it gives him a chance to offer these sounds to a new generation of fans and continue his legacy.
Recently, the master fantasist answered questions about this film and its connection to his overall career before a small room of fans and film journalists in New York’s Loews Regency Hotel just before Strange Magic‘s release.
Is this the first time you have heroes who get the girl that aren’t conventionally handsome? Where did you come up with that?
The story is about the difference between infatuation and real love. Real love is on the inside. It’s somebody you have common ground with. It’s someone you share the same values with. Common interests, the same sense of humor. You share the things that will last you the rest of your lives. What the person looks like will not. That’s the point. If you fall in love with a boy band, it’s not going to last. If you fall in love with a football star, that’s not going to last.
It’s for young kids to say, “lets get beyond the cover of the book.” It’s a story that has been told over and over and over again. In that case it’s like Star Wars, except instead of [being] mythology-based, it’s about fairytales or the ugly duckling. How kids need to be told this every generation so they can understand that that’s really the way it works, with a slight ’60s/’70s twist that true love and happiness is not with the pretty boy or girl.
Is that why you made the movie?
I made the movie because I wanted to have fun and to make a movie that had a whole bunch of music in it I could listen to all day long. I don’t have to say, “well I’ve got to go back to work, I’ve got to stop listening.” I’ve got to keep listening and go to work.
How did you pick the soundtrack to this film – which hopefully will introduce another generation to great rock and pop songs? And what’s the connection to your rock music-based early film American Graffiti?
It’s the same collection, or archive, I should say. The issue ultimately has to do with wanting to tell a story using lyrics from existing songs. The first ten years were spent developing the characters and getting the animation to do what we wanted it to do and weave all this stuff together. The last five years is when [director] Gary Rydstorm, [sound designer] Marius De Vries, and [music supervisor] Steve Gizicki and all the other guys came on.
Then we took a shot at casting. The driving force was, “Can the lyrics tell the story?” Obviously what the story was was determined by the scene between the Bog King [Alan Cumming] and Marianne [Evan Rachel Wood]. Then it was really Marius who said, “Let’s do this as a duet and put them both together.” He put the whole thing together, I just sat back and said, “This is impossible, you figure it out.”
Was there anything from American Graffiti used here?
I love rock and roll music, what can I say? I have a big archive of music, I’ve kept everything since I was ten years old. This is part of it. Steve came in a little later and added more music. A lot of it was trying to make the lyrics tell the story. For me, to the frustration of Steve, I wanted it to have music I liked, not music that somebody else liked.
Was there a challenge to finding the right song to fit the scenes? Was it like a jigsaw puzzle?
It was awful. It was more like a Rubik’s Cube than a jigsaw puzzle. When I went through it I had a million songs and had to narrow it down, then as the years went on we kept narrowing it down. Then when we started doing storyboards and putting things together and Steve and Vries came in, we recorded a lot of music that didn’t end up being in the movie. When you pull one song out you have to pull out another and then another. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube. It would not stop and it was very hard to actually make it connect.
Originally I wanted it to be all music, like an opera. With no talking. Then when we got to that phase everyone beat on me real hard and said. “You can’t do this. It’s not going to work. 70% of it is music, but we need to tell the story and what you do in 15 minutes we can now do in two minutes. We’ve got to get this down.” The problem with me, or any filmmaker, is that the film I made was way too long. It’s like the three-hour American Graffiti. There’s a three-hour Strange Magic and we can’t do it.
Why did you turn down directing Star Wars to do what has been described as a passion project?
I had two daughters and Star Wars was a movie for 12-year-old boys, so I thought I’d make a movie for 12 year old girls. The 12-year-old boy one worked for everyone from eight months to 88 years, boys, girls, dogs, whatever. It really worked. I thought maybe I could do one like this, but make it more female-centric.
It’s a story that will hopefully work for everyone. I just wanted to have fun. I was directing Star Wars while I was doing these. I’d go out and shoot and put this on the shelf for a while and I had a little group of guys and girls working on this thing.
Has this been influenced by anyone in your family?
It’s a project I’ve been doing for a long time. When it came time to sell the company I realized I wasn’t completely finished. But I said I still want to retire, I don’t want to wait this out. Time is more important than money, so I just did it in hope that Cathy and everyone that was working on it would follow through and Disney would put up the money to finish it.
It was mostly done, so it wasn’t like they had to turn up a whole bunch of money to finish it. It turned out extremely well. It’s what I envisioned. I know it’s been maybe two years since I sold the company, but time moves very slow in animation.
What was the casting process?
The only cast member I actually knew was Elijah Kelley because I worked with him before. (ed. note: on the film Red Tails) I kind of knew, when we started casting, which was way into it, that I wanted Elijah to play Sunny. But I knew I had a lot of other people that had to sign on to the casting sessions. I pushed him along while other people said he might not work.
The other ones, it was a different thing. My part of the casting was mainly listening to the actors, then listening to them sing. Out of that we picked the best actors and the best singers. Some of them, like Alan Cumming, I just met 15 minutes ago but we’ve been together for two years. It was purely on talent and their ability to do the job. I think they did a fantastic job beyond anything I could have hoped for.
What’s the influence for your seemingly villainous Bog King and the gloomy Bog World? Is it truly the Dark Side visualized?
Obviously there’s always a dark world and a light world. In this, instead of the Dark Side of the Force and the Light Side of the Force it has to do with the faeries and happiness and that kind of stuff, and the mean and the unhappy. Because if you’re mean you’re unhappy in the first place.
I wanted the Bog King to be as ugly as I can make him, so we took a praying mantis and a cockroach. That was when I said we’re not going to use a real animal, we’re going to use a made up one that’s the ugliest thing possible. Then everyone went berserk and said how can you do this? There was a lot of skepticism about whether or not this idea would work at all. For me, it comes together thanks to Gary.
There was a controversy also around whether they should kiss at the end. So far nobody has jumped up and said “this is disgusting.” It works. We made the most disgusting person we could create be lovable and have her kiss him without people saying “well that’s not even credible.”
But it is credible. You know why they love each other. You know why they’re together. It wasn’t as hard with Sunny [Elijah Kelley] and Dawn [Meredith Anne Bull], but those things you stretch. When you look at it from the beginning everyone says “wait a minute, you’re not really going to have this cute little girl fall in love with this ugly old man?”
For me, having gone through an experience in life where I got married, got divorced, adopted a bunch of kids, raised a bunch of kids, moved on, then was a bachelor for 20 years…. I wanted to get married again, but I knew the kind of people I was going out with weren’t the type to get married. I thought I’d never find that person. I literally gave up and said it’ll never happen. There’s no way I can find that person.
Then I found my wife [Mellody Hobson] who is completely opposite of me in every possible way, but inside we’re exactly the same. It’s eerie we’re so much the same. Part of it is, I was quite a way down the road – this was eight years ago – but it did influence things, to say love is strange. It’s is. It’s this funny thing that happens. At this point I was way beyond the infatuation stage, because I was like 60. Suddenly things were just clearer. I found someone that could read with me, have the same moral values, have the same interests, we could finish each other’s sentences. She’s a great pal. That idea is what you’re really looking for.
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 22, 2015.
Photos ©2015 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.