One of the most highly anticipated films at SXSW 2010 is The People vs. George Lucas, a documentary that looks to be a raw and honest examination of the relationship between George Lucas and his fans who adore, abhor or sometimes share both feelings for the filmmaker and his treatment of the Star Wars saga. Director Alexandre Philippe’s passion for the subject has only been matched by his commitment to the project that was spawned from the idea, and we were lucky enough to get to chat with him as he prepares for the world premiere at Austin’s SXSW Film and Music Festival.
Film School Rejects: First off, congratulations on the film’s acceptance into SXSW. It took you two and a half years to make this film and you had six hundred and thirty-four hours of footage to go through. At any point did you just hit the wall?
Alexandre Philippe: Thank you. That’s a good question. I hit the wall many times. (Laughs.) When you spend, on average, fifteen hours a day working on a film dedicated to George Lucas. Well, it’s about him, it’s not dedicated to him, but you’re dealing with all this fan footage and you start to go crazy. There’s so much stuff and there’s a structure you have in your mind that you have to stick to. The real challenge is that I’ve always made it a point to personally review everything that came in, and I did. I mean, technically, I am still viewing footage right now that likely won’t make the SXSW cut but eventually it may make a later cut or will be on the Blu-Ray special feature. So yeah, you do hit a wall. When I say I work fifteen hours a day, that’s seven days a week. I took a two day vacation six months ago and that was the only one I’ve taken in the past three years. So, it’s pretty brutal but at the same time there is a drive and passion to tell this story, and we have to tell it the right way. It is obviously a delicate subjects. It inflames people’s passion for or against George and I think we created a balanced debate. We don’t let George off the hook when we thought we shouldn’t and we don’t let the fans off the hook when we thought we shouldn’t. That was a real challenge.
Definitely. Why is SXSW the perfect venue for The People vs. George Lucas to premiere?
Well it’s this sort of convergence that is film and music interactive. It really reflects the participatory nature of our documentary. The idea of convergence is really important because we’ve received participation from fans, musicians, facts and support off the internet. To me, SXSW is the perfect reflection of what we’ve been doing with this documentary. I’m very grateful that they saw that. In fact, from the very beginning when I was talking to Janet Pearson, the Director of the Festival, she immediately got it. She thought it would be a perfect fit and I’m glad she felt that way after seeing the film.
What were you expecting to get from the process of making the film and how did it meet or change your expectations along the way?
The one thing that kept me alive was the support and enthusiasm of the fans. I anticipated that it would be a hard documentary to make but I didn’t anticipate that it would be that hard. The scope and things we have had to struggle with were huge. George Lucas is a very powerful man. Even people who get what we were trying to do with this documentary were afraid to talk to us. That’s been the frustrating thing. There were a lot of people who we wanted to be in the film that we couldn’t get, so we had to find our evidence elsewhere. At the same time, it really pushed us to dig deeper. As a result, we found some pretty amazing things.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers but the debate around the Special Editions and whether George Lucas owes fans a fully restored version of the film gets intense. We got a big break by interviewing Anthony Slide. He is one of the foremost experts on film preservation and a former Resident Historian for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. My frustration as a film lover is that what George Lucas continues to do with his films is somewhat of a taboo subject. There are numbers of film preservation groups who talked to me on the phone and said the fact that Lucas won’t give a restored original version of the films is a tragedy. Yet they’re unwilling to give us an interview. I think that’s problematic because it goes back to the notion that George Lucas is so powerful that he is feared and people think there could be repercussions as a result of simply speaking up. There’s something very dangerous and fundamentally wrong about this. As a documentarian who is asking simple questions, there is no reason those questions shouldn’t be answered by organizations that have concerns about those same questions. That is probably the biggest sticking point in our film. You’ll have to decide when you see it but I think we make a strong argument. But we’re lucky Anthony Slide spoke with us because there are many people who weren’t willing to talk about this topic.
It’s unfortunate that people are scared because what Lucas has brought with the Star Wars saga should be reflected on positively, but also realistically.
Absolutely. It’s an irony to me when Martin Scorsese is talking about the importance of film preservation at The Golden Globes and George is sitting right there in front of him. What drives me nuts is that Lucas understands it. He’s a scholar and film lover. He understands the need to preserve the past. He’s the only director out there who is refusing to put out several versions of his films. Of course, every time he puts a new version out it’s different. But he refuses to use the resources, which are minimal compared to what he has, to restore the original versions of Star Wars in order to make the fans happy. Look at Blade Runner. There are five different versions of that movie and nobody complains. But Lucas goes a step further and says the original version of Star Wars, which he calls the mutilated version, will disappear. He’s made that point. I’m sorry but that’s not okay.
My theory is that he has a soft spot for Hayden Christensen and just wants to keep giving him work.
(Laughs.) I just hope that our film stirs up something in people and helps Lucas realize that it is important to the fans. There were seventy eight thousand confirmed signatures from fans asking him to bring the original versions back.
Who are your favorite characters in the Star Wars saga?
You can’t go wrong with Darth Vader, and I don’t mean Anakin Skywalker. I mean the original Vader from the original trilogy. I am a huge collector of Darth Vader memorabilia. I’d have to go with C-3P0, R2-D2 and Chewbacca. When you compare the two trilogies, there are so many memorable characters in the original. Even on an archetypal level they are memorable. The prequels didn’t allow me to connect to the characters.
You mean Poggle the Lesser didn’t move you?
(Laughs.) Not as much.
So is the film in the can?
No, not completely. We will probably do a few tweaks after the festival.
Maybe you will get to do a sequel called Jar Jar Strikes Back.
What do you want people to know going into this film?
I think it’s really important for people to know that we’re not bitter fans. We love the movies George Lucas has made and I deeply care about film preservation. This film is a really balanced debate. There is a lot of love, there is a lot of frustration and we’re just ultimately trying to understand that from a cultural perspective.
The world premiere of The People vs. George Lucas is Saturday, March 13th @ 6:30 p.m. at the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse, followed by an after-party at The Highball. There are also screenings on Tuesday, March 16th @ 3:30 in the Paramount Theater and Thursday, March the 18th @ 9:45 p.m. in the G-Tech Theater.