“And That’s How I Got To Be Rich”: George Lucas and Stephen Colbert on the New ‘Star Wars,’ Critics, and Those Special Editions

Okay, first things first: George Lucas has not yet seen the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer that we all lost our minds over this week. But, as with that brief tempest-in-a-teapot over not seeing the last one, it’s not a question of snubbing, but of trailer-viewing preference. “I just saw it on CBS, but I’m gonna try to look at it,” he told Stephen Colbert at a Tribeca Film Festival “Tribeca Talks” conversation Friday afternoon, explaining, “I want to see it on the big screen.”

“I’ve got it on my phone,” Colbert interjected, taking out his device helpfully.

This came in the midst of a wide-ranging discussion of Lucas’s career, but most of the choice moments were, unsurprisingly, about the multi-billion-dollar franchise that he’s inextricably connected to — in spite of not being directly connected to the new films. Of them, he had this to say: “I hope it’s successful, I hope they do a great job… I’m excited to see them — because they didn’t use my stories, I’m excited to see what they’re doing.” There was a slight edge to that “they didn’t use my stories” thing, but earlier in the conversation, he said that he’s looking forward to having, for the first time, the experience that we’ve all had of just seeing a Star Wars movie. “Y’know, when the big ship came over and everything, I was, y’know, ho-hum, I’ve seen this a hundred times.”

“Spoiler alert: I made this,” Colbert joked.

Stephen Colbert and George Lucas at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Colbert came to the event as a superfan, fondly recalling first seeing Star Wars at a promotional radio-sponsored screening in North Carolina a couple of weeks before its release, 13 years old, mind blown. “We went to school on Monday,” he recalled, “and we couldn’t explain to anyone how the world was different now!” As such a fan, he seemed loathe to interrupt (or at times, even get a word in edgewise) Mr. Lucas, whose lengthy discourses on his college years and entrance into the industry seemed less like a conversation than a monologue, and an oft-told one at that.

That said, it was fun to hear him relay such now-legendary tales of his friend Coppola’s resistance to making The Godfather, which he made while Lucas wrote American Graffiti as a challenge from Coppola to write a comedy (“So you wrote one of the greatest comedies of the last seventy years as a dare, and he did perhaps the greatest film of the 20th century, just like pinched it out as a favor?” Colbert quipped); how, when no one figured Star Wars would be a hit, he retained sequel and merchandising rights, “and that’s how I got to be rich” (“I’m gonna write that down,” Colbert said, as he pantomimed dictating, “Own everything of the most successful franchise in history”); how even he knew Howard the Duck would tank (“I told the producer and writer, ‘This won’t work… you can’t put a dwarf in a duck suit and make it work.” “They said it couldn’t be done,” Colbert laughed, “and they were right“).

And while Colbert kept the questions decidedly softball, a few of Lucas’s recurring controversies came up. On the topic of criticism — which he received far more of for the lousy prequels than his original trilogy — Lucas insisted, “Constructive criticism comes from, like, my friends, who I respect, they’re professional filmmakers, they can actually say something that is actually worthwhile, I can use it and make things better. Obviously with movies, like a lot of other things, you have a lot critics, and can say whatever they want… Art is in the eye of the beholder. If you don’t like something, what’s the point in going around and trashing it? Y’know, in Europe, France especially, they don’t do that. They don’t even do the review. Bad reviews, they just don’t say anything. Nobody talks about it. They only talk about the good films. I think it’s much better system.” That’s a demonstrably false premise, but I’m sure he does think it’s a better system!

Stephen Colbert and George Lucas at the Tribeca Film Festival.

He did, however, address one of the most frequently criticized elements of his films: “I’m notorious for wooden dialogue.” Colbert came to his defense: “It’s not wooden, George, it’s hand-carved dialogue.” But Lucas explained, “It’s part of the soundtrack. It’s like singing. Obviously, you can do it a cappella, and it’s beautiful. But also you can hear it with a big symphony orchestra, you can have a lot of stuff, and the singing is in there, the choir and everything, it’s all one big soundtrack… The sound is extremely important. But the dialogue is not.”

Fair enough, and everyone sort of rolled with that. That said, the room got a little frosty towards the end, as the filmmaker went into his defensive crouch on the subject of his much-derided “special editions.” “I only changed it once for the special editions,” he claimed (again, demonstrably false!). “I said, look, I wanna fix some things, because we have a lot of bad visual effects in some of the movies. And people said, ‘Well, we like it, it’s funky.’ Well, as the guy who made the movie, I don’t like ‘funky’ stuff. I like it to look good. And who cares, really?”

So, yes, Mr. Lucas remains a conundrum: a savvy businessman, the imaginative force behind one of the most iconic pop culture phenomenon, and unmovable on the most frustrating footnotes to that phenomenon. He remains uniquely himself, and in a way, Colbert sat across from him Friday as the stand-in for us all, still holding on (in spite of all that’s come after) to the feeling of being that awestruck 13-year-old in the movie theater, gobsmacked by Lucas’s vision. When the conversation ended and the applause faded, Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” played over the PA. Maybe it was just a random selection. Or maybe not.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 26. Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire.