Funny what you pick up from a car boot sale. Last week, I found myself paying peanuts for a photo-biography of Ernest Hemingway and a copy of The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. The man selling the Star Wars book was heading for a new life in South-East Asia. While I fumbled for a pound–all he was asking–we chatted about the book. He didn’t remember much more than George Lucas having a hard time. In the end, I didn’t have the pound, only a twenty-pound note, and the man gave me the book for free.
I’m a sucker for Star Wars. I was born one year before the film was released, and I was never into the toys overmuch, but I did have the comics, and loved watching it on television. I always thought the first film was pretty good, the second brilliant, and the third competent. The progression of visual effects is particularly marked. Where Star Wars cut corners, edited around problems, and suffered from shots that were obviously model-based, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi show the greater focus of a filmmaker relieved from the burden of simultaneously establishing his world and creating a story.
George Lucas didn’t direct a film for twenty years after Star Wars. Reading this book, it’s easy to see why.
The author, J. W. Rinzler, is an exceptional writer with an eye for detail 1. He works in unapologetically chronological order through Lucas’s early experiences with THX 1138, American Grafitti, and the years of development (particularly of script, but also technology) that preceded Star Wars. He is aided by the discovery of extensive interviews conducted with major crew members and cast several months before the release of the picture, and thus long before anyone had an idea that it would become a cultural phenomenon. In sum, it’s a thorough treatment and an intelligent, measured story. Rinzler is an admirer of Lucas but he is not afraid to criticise.
My focus, though, is on insight into the creative process. What observations can be made from this difficult but successful film-making experience?
Observation One: All You Have To Do Is Just Do It
Here is a quote from Lucas (p. 340), which comes from an interview conducted for the book by Rinzler:
I made seven movies in film school while everybody else was complaining that they couldn’t make movies because they didn’t have cameras, that they didn’t have film. Well, those people are still stuck. They didn’t realise that all you have to do is just do it.
I like this quote a great deal. Partly, I suppose, because it jives with my own experience of writing, and because it is related to the positive, forward-marching aspect of developing any skill. It’s related to the notion real artists ship.
You could view this as simple advice to avoid procrastination, but there is more to it than that. Some behaviours exhibited by creative individuals have the appearance of procrastination but actually disguise the effort of solving a complicated one. A story is, after all, a multifaceted and ill-defined problem, and requires much more time investment to solve than a well-defined problem. The point is that you get better at writing a novel–or composing a symphony, or building a house–by doing it. Time spent writing pointless sentences, buying manuscript paper, or learning to lay bricks is not time well spent unless you are particularly poor at those sub-skills. The greater, more interesting and discriminative problems exist at a higher level. You might write better sentences than Stephen King, but he is better where it counts: at solving high-level writing problems.
Observation Two: Everything Comes Into It
Right after the above quote, Lucas is quoted (p. 341) as saying:
Making a movie is very much like constructing a house. …No matter how you plan it, there are adjustments that have to made along the way, because nobody can envision the finished structure. But that’s essentially what filmmaking tries to do, and of course life gets involved in it when you are shooting. Personalities, weather, nature–everything comes into it and adjusts it. As you bring it to life, and the film becomes a real thing, you see it in a different way.
Again, this advice seems better suited to filmmaking. But it applies equally well to writing. For instance: (i) you cannot write a novel without work on it for months or years, during which the work, your skills, and you will change; (ii) you are limited by your experience, research and intellectual grasp; (iii) interruptions and other life events will shape or scupper the work, and you need to anticipate this.
Observation Three: Nobody Works Alone
I’ve put in this last point to remind myself that any creative endeavour is collaborative. That’s point one. The second point is that collaboration changes a work for the better and for the worse. As the person in charge of the work, it’s up to you to pick the right people for your team. You need to manage them and help them help you. That goes for your beta readers, your editor, your publisher, public relations—whoever.
That’s about it for my marginalia. They are mainly for me, but you might find them useful. You could do worse than read The Making of Star Wars. It’s intense, high-stakes read, even though we know that it was end happily ever after for the stressed-out George Lucas 2.