Lucas vs. Spielberg
The worst best friends in Hollywood.
Click here to read more from Slate's Summer Movies.
It's not the first time that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have released movies in the same year, but it is the first time they've launched summer blockbusters into each other's airspace, and so similarly bellicose of theme—Lucas'Revenge of the Sith opened on May 18, while Spielberg's War of the Worlds arrives in time for July 4. It is a battle that, in terms of the box office, Spielberg is expected to lose— Revenge of the Sith has already taken in $400 million in just over three weeks, while War of the Worlds' top projections stop short of $300 million. But the two box-office titans have nonetheless been busy perfecting their impression of two pals helping each other out in the backyard.
Spielberg—it was revealed—had lent a helping hand to the climactic light-saber duels in Sith. "George gets stuck sometimes," said producer Rick McCallum, as if the Star Wars saga were a particularly stubborn patch of lawn. "He never asks for help, but you can feel it when he needs it. With Steven he got encouragement from a directing peer and a good friend." Meanwhile, Spielberg hired the same pre-viz-effects supervisor sent to him by Lucas to help with his aliens for War of the Worlds, much as you or I might borrow a trowel or Rotavator. "We've always helped each other," said Lucas when approached by the cable network A&E about a documentary detailing the rivalry between the two directors. "[Spielberg] and I have never had an argument in our lives. ... I want DreamWorks to succeed. They want me to succeed. And we're going to help each other succeed." So, there you have it: just two successful movie titans succeeding, side by side, successfully. Rivalry may not be quite the right word for the relationship that exists between Lucas and Spielberg. What they have is far more subtle: something more like the impacted, covert, passive-aggressive version of rivalry practiced by siblings—wherein any hint of hostility is buried in a bear hug and conflict covered with a smile. Theirs is a battle fought out in box-office millions and backhanded compliments, blockbusters, and casual slights. "He's taught me a lot about creative compromise," Spielberg once said of Lucas, with a straight face. And when Spielberg repeatedly begged to direct one of the new Star Wars episodes, Lucas reported the story with the glee of a child keeping his favorite toy just out of reach. "I was getting ready to shoot in Australia," Lucas told reporters, "and Steven was whining on the phone all the time, 'Oooh, I'm sitting here by the pool, and poor me, I don't have a movie to direct ... ' "The two men first met in 1967, when an 18-year-old Spielberg saw Lucas' debut feature THX 1138 at a student film festival at UCLA. Spielberg had been rejected from UCLA because of poor grades and had enrolled instead in the rudimentary film course at California State College at Long Beach. Entering the hallowed UCLA campus, Spielberg felt like he'd stumbled into an auteur cloning factory—"I realized that there was an entire generation coming out of NYU, USC and UCLA."THX 1138, he said, made him "jealous to the marrow of my bones. I was 18 years old and had directed 15 short films by that time, and this little movie was better than all of my movies combined." Lucas, for his part, had seen Spielberg's short film Amblin' when it was presented at USC and thought it "saccharine." The 20-year-old Lucas ignored his new fan until 1971, when he caught a screening of Spielberg's TV movie Duel at Francis Ford Coppola's house: "Since I'd met Steven, I was curious about the movie and thought I'd sneak upstairs and catch 10 or 15 minutes. Once I started watching I couldn't tear myself away. ... I thought, This guy is really sharp. I've got to get to know him better."Of the two, Spielberg was the one willing to assume the submissive position, mostly in the form of overzealous praise for his friend. "I was most jealous of George," he says, "because I thought and still do to this day, I just thought American Graffiti was the best American film I'd seen." He would later call Lucas "the best moviemaker of his generation," adding, "I was admiring and jealous of his style and proximity to audiences." But he also teased Lucas about his technique—Lucas' static camera positions, in particular, used to amuse Spielberg, whose sinuously gliding camerawork was fast becoming legendary. "George makes his visuals come to life through montage," he said. "That makes him unique in our generation, since most of us do it instead with composition and camera placement." A superb bit of faint praise—like one painter praising another for his "unique" method of applying paint with his knuckles, rather than the more traditional brush. Spielberg regarded Star Wars with a mixture of full-throated admiration and anxious envy. On the one hand, he was the only one to defend Star Wars when Lucas screened an early cut for friends at his house in San Anselmo in March 1977. Lucas' wife, Marcia, had burst into tears, saying, "It's the At Long Last Love of science-fiction. It's awful," while Brian DePalma picked at it mercilessly. Only Spielberg thought Star Wars would make any money. "That movie is going to make $100 million," he told the assembled. "And I'll tell you why. It has a marvelous innocence and naivety to it, which is George, and people will love it."Privately, however, Spielberg was wounded. He had offered to shoot second-unit for his friend's movie but was turned down. "George wouldn't let me," he said later. "He was always more competitive with me than I was with him. He kept saying, 'I'm sure Star Wars is going to beat Jaws [then history's highest-grossing film] at some point.' ... He didn't want my fingerprints anywhere near Star Wars." As Spielberg put the finishing touches on his Close Encounters of the Third Kind for release later that fall, he began to despair. "Star Wars was our rival," said producer Michael Phillips. "Steven felt really upset about the fact that they were coming out ahead of us." When Lucas phoned him to play him the finished score for Star Wars, Spielberg was crushed—it had been he who first recommended that Lucas use John Williams in the first place, and he was now convinced Lucas had gotten all of Williams' best stuff. When Spielberg joined Lucas in Hawaii the weekend Star Wars opened, it was clear whose hour it was. Spielberg found Lucas in a "state of euphoria," bursting with news of Star Wars' first-weekend grosses. On the beach outside their hotel, Lucas built a sandcastle—to wish his film luck—while Spielberg and he fell to talking about their dream movie projects. "I said I wanted to do a James Bond film," said Spielberg. "Then George said he had a film that was even better than a James Bond. It was called Raiders of the Lost Ark and it was about this archaeologist adventurer who goes searching for the Ark of the Covenant. When he mentioned that it would be like the old serials, and that the guy would wear a soft fedora and carry a bullwhip, I was completely hooked. George said, 'Are you interested?' and I said, 'I want to direct it,' and he said, 'It's yours.' "It's a beguiling image: two young men, carving out movie empires for themselves as they build sandcastles on the beach. The important thing to remember, though, is how sad and unbalanced their relationship was at the time: Lucas was very much the top dog, with Spielberg the humble amanuensis, gratefully accepting scraps from the master's table. When Star Wars did as Lucas predicted and stole the top spot from Jaws, Spielberg responded with a show of magnanimity, taking out an ad in Variety featuring the inscription: "Wear it well. Your pal, Steven."At the time, it was Spielberg's career that seemed checkered. Both Jaws and Close Encounters had gone wildly over budget, as did his elephantine World War II farce, 1941—Spielberg's first flop—so that by the time he got around to Raiders, if anyone resembled a man trying to outrun a giant runaway boulder, it was he. Lucas, as executive producer, had a hard time convincing studio heads that Spielberg was the right director for Raiders. "We took it to every single studio in town and got turned down by everybody," says Lucas, "except Michael Eisner, and Eisner got a lot of heat for it, because of the $20 million budget." Lucas assured Eisner that Spielberg would bring the picture in under budget and on schedule. "Don't try to make the greatest movie in the world," he told Spielberg, who had been storyboarding Raiders like a David Lean epic, with shadows 30 feet long crawling across vast halls. "Just get the story told one chapter at a time. Think of this as a B-movie."On 1941, Spielberg's average number of takes per shot had been 20; on Raiders, with Lucas looking over his shoulder, it was four. "George is a great influence on me in terms of economics and budgets and schedules," said Spielberg of their collaboration. Indiana Jones was a Lucas creation, to be sure, although in Lucas' original conception he was an altogether more airbrushed creature: a chiseled playboy, living a James Bond lifestyle "with all these girls and these fancy cars and furs and stuff," which he financed with his archaeological digs. But Spielberg felt "a tuxedo is a uniform, and it's hard to reach through a uniform to a personality," and transformed Indy into a rumpled bum in the tradition of Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Which is what we got. Lucas had helped curb Spielberg's tendency toward financial excess, but Spielberg would rightly take credit for Raiders' artistry. When Nazis shoot up a casket of liquor, Karen Allen stops briefly to grab a mouthful before getting on with the fight. Lucas would never have shot that, or if he did he would have cut it, but for Spielberg, such touches are, you feel, almost the reason for shooting the film; for while speed excites Lucas—precisely because it seals him off from what blurs past, like Luke Skywalker in his X-wing cockpit—it seems almost to relax Spielberg, loosening him up for dabs of characterization and his goosiest, off-the-cuff humor.
His confidence restored with Raiders, Spielberg would move on to even greater triumph with E.T., which quickly became the highest-grossing film of all time. This time it was Lucas' turn to take out the congratulatory ad in Variety. Lucas, meanwhile, would retreat into Lucasfilm, tending to the effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic and micromanaging the Star Wars sequels from above. As Martin Scorsese put it: "Lucas became so powerful that he didn't have to direct. But directing is what Steven has to do." If directors' careers are essentially conversations with an audience, then Spielberg's has been ongoing, attentive, endlessly responsive, and curious—after the bold shock of Jaws, the beatifically soothing Close Encounters, after the bloat of 1941, the clean economy of Raiders. Lucas is rather more like the man at the dinner party who says one bold, brilliant thing and then shuts up—in his case for 22 years. Their personalities began to diverge. "[Y]ou never get the feeling with Steven that it's my way or the highway," says Scott Ross, former president of Industrial Light & Magic. "It's 'what do you think, what do you think, what do you think...' and he'll go, 'Wow that's a great idea.' Unbelievable exuberance and incredibly collaborative." Lucas had become resentful, even hermitlike. "You have to remember that George is a guy who came out of school and wound up being a superstar and amassing a fortune very, very quickly," says Ross. "He is incredibly shy. He's not a very people person. He had this real distrust of lawyers, a real distrust of accountants and management executives, and one of the reasons he wound up staying in the Bay Area was to get away from all of that." Ross continues, "And also to an extent that's the reason he started Pixar"—the studio that made Toy Story—"so he could make movies with a limited amount of people—literally put himself in a dark room, and direct and edit the whole thing by himself."
A decade later, Spielberg would coax Lucas back out of his cave, for it was Jurassic Park that lit the fire beneath Lucas' tail and spurred him to direct again. When Spielberg showed Lucas Industrial Light & Magic's test reel of a computer-generated T. rex, Lucas' eyes filled with tears—he hadn't quite realized how advanced his own company's effects had become. "It was like one of those moments in history, like the invention of the light bulb or the first telephone call," Lucas said later. "I'd been working with ILM from the time we finished Star Wars to get to this point. We started a whole computer division and pushed them into the digital age, and we did a lot of research in order to get to what ultimately became the seminal event, which was Jurassic Park."Lucas would re-release the original Star Wars in 1997 and, to his delight, the record crowds returned his film to the top spot in the box-office hierarchy. This time, Spielberg took out the Variety ad. He also reiterated, in full submissive-dog mode, his desire to direct one of the new Star Wars episodes and was again rebuffed by Lucas. "He won't let me do one," Spielberg told interviewers. "I understand why— Star Wars is George's baby. It's his cottage industry and it's his fingerprints. He knows I've got Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark. But George has Star Wars, and I don't think he feels inclined to share any of it with me."In the last few months, Spielberg has played the dutiful friend, raving about Revenge of the Sith on British radio—"I saw it about a week ago, and it's absolutely amazing"—although you can't help but feel that the praise might come a little harder if the film were actually any good; and that the real source of Spielberg's magnanimity is sheer relief that the gulf between him and Lucas has finally assumed the dimensions it has. These days he sounds very much like the older brother protecting the kid who can't defend himself. The contest between the two men now looks very close to being a rout. Even if you put aside the Oscars that Spielberg has won for his more "adult" work, like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, and compare the two men solely in terms of their contributions to blockbuster cinema—in terms of pure popcorn—it is clear that Lucas' much-vaunted connection to the audience, which Spielberg once so feared, looks a little rocky. Lucas' career rests precariously on a single film, directed back in 1977. Everything else of his has failed, except Raiders, which Spielberg directed. And so Lucas has been drawn back to Star Wars with an air of glum fatalism, while Spielberg puts on ever more ambidextrous displays of reach and range. Lucas may well win the box-office battle this summer, but Spielberg looks like he's won the war.
Tom Shone is film critic of Intelligent Life and the author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Summer
Illustration by Charlie Powell. Photos courtesy the Everett Collection.