Disney CEO Bob Iger has done an incredible job of growing the Walt Disney brand, and he put that story and wisdom learned into a new book, released today, entitled “The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company”.
I haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet, but some other outlets picked up some quotes from Iger on the Lucasfilm acquisition and George Lucas’s reaction to the process – and to The Force Awakens.
Iger explained that Lucas told him about the completed outlines for three new movies that Lucas had completed, which he sent to Iger, Walt Disney Studios boss Alan Horn, and Walt Disney Company Senior Executive VP Alan Braverman. Upon reading the outlines that Lucas had put together, Horn and Iger decided that they had to buy them, but made it clear that they were under no obligation to actually use them. Iger also explained that it was hard for Lucas to give up creative control and become a consultant in the transition.
But then it came time for a meeting between George Lucas and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, TFA director and writer J.J. Abrams, and TFA screenwriter Michael Arndt at Skywalker Ranch at the invitation of Kennedy. The meeting was to discuss the plans for the film, but it apparently didn’t go too well. According to Iger (as posted by a helpful user on the StarWarsLeaks subreddit):
“Early on, Kathy brought J.J. and Michael Arndt up to Northern California to meet with George at his ranch and talk about their ideas for the film. George immediately got upset as they began to describe the plot and it dawned on him that we weren’t using one of the stories he submitted during the negotiations.
“The truth was, Kathy, J.J., Alan, and I had discussed the direction in which the saga should go, and we all agreed that it wasn’t what George had outlined. George knew we weren’t contractually bound to anything, but he thought that our buying the story treatments was a tacit promise that we’d follow them, and he was disappointed that his story was being discarded. I’d been so careful since our first conversation not to mislead him in any way, and I didn’t think I had now, but I could have handled it better. I should have prepared him for the meeting with J.J. and Michael and told him about our conversations, that we felt it was better to go in another direction. I could have talked through this with him and possibly avoided angering him by not surprising him. Now, in the first meeting with him about the future of Star Wars, George felt betrayed, and while this whole process would never have been easy for him, we’d gotten off to an unnecessarily rocky start.”
One of the mysteries of the sequel trilogy development for many fans has been to what extent Lucasfilm used George Lucas’s ideas for the films, and there has been some conflicting information to that extent. It sounds like they did indeed keep some of the main story beats – for example, the main hero was always going to be a female Jedi – but that they may have done away with many elements too. That is backed up by Iger’s words here, as at least in the initial conversation about it, Lucas was upset that they weren’t following his ideas. Whether or not that changed any in the process (because J.J. tends to change things on the go) remains to be seen, and I bet we’ll get more info once the sequel trilogy is completed, but it makes sense why Lucas would be initially upset upon hearing that they weren’t following his ideas.
I’ve long thought of just how hard it had to have been for Lucas to watch other people making Star Wars films without him and without his ideas and without his creative oversight, and I’m sure that would have been just as difficult if they had used his outlines. In fact, I wonder if it would have been harder, as he’d have to watch someone else executing his vision, whereas here he was just watching someone use his characters and universe. But either way, I can’t imagine it was easy for Lucas, and I appreciate Iger recognizing that he probably didn’t handle it the best in helping Lucas along the way.
When Lucas saw the completed product of The Force Awakens, he wasn’t thrilled. Writes Iger:
“Just prior to the global release, Kathy screened The Force Awakens for George. He didn’t hide his disappointment. “There’s nothing new,” he said. In each of the films in the original trilogy, it was important to him to present new worlds, new stories, new characters, and new technologies. In this one, he said, “There weren’t enough visual or technical leaps forward.” He wasn’t wrong, but he also wasn’t appreciating the pressure we were under to give ardent fans a film that felt quintessentially Star Wars. We’d intentionally created a world that was visually and tonally connected to the earlier films, to not stray too far from what people loved and expected, and George was criticizing us for the very thing we were trying to do. Looking back with the perspective of several years and a few more Star Wars films, I believe J.J. achieved the near-impossible, creating a perfect bridge between what had been and what was to come.”
Again, I don’t think anything here should be surprising. Lucas wasn’t a fan of TFA, and his reasoning was that there was nothing new. That’s the same complaint that some fans had of the film, too, because it shares many similarities to A New Hope. But while that is true, I have long said that I think Disney wanted it this way to bring fans back to Star Wars. That seems to be exactly what they were going for, as Iger explains why it was similar, acknowledging that Lucas was right in his assessment while praising TFA and J.J. Abrams. Furthermore, though, it makes sense why George Lucas liked Rogue One and The Last Jedi, as those were distinct yet still had that Star Wars feel.
It seems that Lucas disliked TFA enough that he didn’t even want to attend the premiere. Iger wrote that it was important for Lucas to be there, so Kathy Kennedy and Mellody Hobson (Lucas’s now wife) convinced the maker to attend. Iger also mentioned that Disney had negotiated a non-disparagement clause with Lucas in the deal, but Lucas assured Iger that as a big shareholder in the Walt Disney Company he wouldn’t, so Iger believed him. To date, we really haven’t heard much negative at all about the new Star Wars from Lucas.
I really appreciate Iger’s openness in discussing this. From these quotes we didn’t really learn much new that we didn’t already know or infer, but now it’s coming from Iger’s point of view, and I give him a lot of credit for humbly disclosing what happened – both the good and the bad.
So anyway, as for my take on all of it? Like I said, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for George Lucas to let go of Star Wars, and I’m sure that no matter what the product was there was always going to be those feelings. But it didn’t help that he was surprised upon finding out they hadn’t taken all of his ideas, nor did it help that he viewed TFA as doing nothing new. That’s an accurate assessment, and perhaps the most interesting new revelation is the implication that Lucas disliked TFA enough that he didn’t even want to attend the premiere.
But I also want to defend Disney here a bit. Remember, George Lucas sold Lucasfilm in large part because he was tired of dealing with angry, entitled Star Wars fans… the same ones who throw fits when they don’t get their way still today. It’s not like fans would immediately love George Lucas’s ideas for the sequels either – I mean, they certainly didn’t for the prequels. For whatever reason, it’s impossible to make every Star Wars fan actually like Star Wars. So Disney is literally in an impossible situation (just like Lucas was before them), and their approach to TFA was to play it safe and attempt to draw upon that nostalgia of the original trilogy to bring fans in and establish excitement for the sequel trilogy – and it worked marvelously! Plus, while we don’t know to what extend, we do know that Lucasfilm did take some of Lucas’s ideas, just not all of them. So while angry people on the internet will be angry at this (shocker!), I think it’s more of a situation where it’s hard for both sides and both were trying to move forward in this new era as they thought best.
I just really appreciate Iger’s honesty in discussing some of that in his book.