Stranger Than He Dreamt It: George Lucas talks his new animated film ‘Strange Magic’
“No questions about Star Wars, please” – that is the mandate we’re repeatedly reminded of. George Lucas is here to discuss Strange Magic and Strange Magic alone.
It is a Thursday morning and reporters are gathered in the screening room at the Sandcrawler building, Lucasfilm’s Singapore headquarters. Following a screening of the film, Lucas, Rydstrom and producer Mark S. Miller enter the screening room to field questions from the press, with F*** in attendance. Lucas is clad in his signature chequered shirt and jeans and it is certainly a thrill for many in the room, this writer included, to see the Star Wars creator in person.
Strange Magic, directed by Gary Rydstrom and executive-produced by Lucas, is the first feature film created predominantly at the studio’s Singapore facility. An animated comedy musical, the film takes place in a fantastical realm populated by fairies, goblins, elves and assorted enchanted creatures. Alan Cumming voices the Bog King, a tyrant who despite his best efforts, is eventually overcome by love. Evan Rachel Wood voices Marianne, a headstrong fairy who opposes her father’s intent for her to marry the vain prince Roland. A “jukebox musical”, Strange Magic has its characters singing a number of pop hits such as “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, “Love Is Strange”, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and, of course, “Strange Magic”.
With Strange Magic, Lucas has set out to make a family movie geared more towards an adolescent female demographic, as opposed to the adolescent male demographic targeted by Star Wars. Lucas shares about the long journey the film took from concept to fruition, how his own relationship with his daughters and his wife are reflected in the story, the decision not to cast marquee names, the competition with other more established animation studios and comments on the marked resemblance that the Fairy King in the film shares with himself.
What was it like making the film in Singapore?
It’s great to be here. I share this with a few other people, especially the few people that have been here for the entire run of us coming to Singapore. We started in a very small, humble abode, out by the airport, training people. They’ve had experience with cel animation or experience with computers, but we didn’t have anybody who’s had experience with both. We’ve come a long way, this film is the final goal we were trying to reach. I’ve said in a few press conferences like this from time to time, “we will make a feature film here”, and now we’ve done it and I’m very proud of the film that got made. It’s better than I had hoped it would be. The only other time I had this experience really was on Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark, where everything came out better than I hoped it would come out.
This has been a long journey, this is a testament to the great talent that’s been assembled here in Singapore. I’d like to thank the Media Development Authority and the government for bringing us here in the first place. It’s been a hugely successful experience for us. I just went through a tour with all the people who worked on this film and some of them have been here the 8 or 9 years we’ve been here. We’ve really come a long way and done a film that everybody can be proud of. Now we just have to wait for the results. It’s like an election. On Friday we’ll find out whether anybody voted for us but that does not have anything to do with whether the film is good or not because the film is brilliant. Gary and Mark, the producer and the director, came in at the end here, the last few years, and used it to make this film. They have nothing but wonderful things to say about the crews here and the work that’s been done. I think it’s the best.
I’m sure, you know, we do have some competitors, even within the same company; some started with me in the same company and then they moved on and got bought by the same company. Three different animation companies in the same corporate shell and we’re the junior one, but I think we’ve surpassed anything the other guys have done. That’s the one thing I grew up with in film school which is what I call the “Steven Spielberg-Martin Scorsese syndrome”, which is when we all try and outdo each other. I think at least for the moment, we’re ahead.
The Fairy King looks vaguely familiar. Knowing that you have a few daughters, how much has your life as a father influenced the story?
My life as a father influenced it a lot because I had two daughters when we started and I have three daughters now. A part of it was that I decided Star Wars was a mythological adventure for 12-year-old boys, although it appealed to everybody from eight months to 80, as well as girls; not so much as popular with girls as it was with boys. I thought “maybe I’ll make a fairy tale adventure for adolescent, 12-year-old girls”. I hope that boys will go and see it, it’s got adventure, monsters, sword-fighting, that type of thing; I figured I’d do the same thing again. Obviously, a little bit more upbeat and funny and magical in a way than Star Wars was, but I was doing it primarily for my daughters.
I used to read The Wizard of Oz to my daughter every night for years and she also thought the king looked a lot like me. Gary was a little upset about that, I think Mark was more upset. They didn’t realise in the beginning that…this has gone on for 15 years, so there have been a lot of people involved over a long period of time. These guys came in as the last ones, we’re at the Alamo and it’s all over, and they are the cavalry that came to the rescue. Fortunately, nobody died in the process, saved us all! They kept making him fatter and fatter; I got upset about it. The joke is that he can’t fly; that’s the reason he can’t fly, because he’s so fat. I said “same thing happened to me. I started out skinny.” [Chuckles] Whether it really is me is a mystery. Somebody along the line designed him [to look like me] and it stuck.
What was the original idea behind the film?
The original idea was that I wanted to do a fairy tale for girls. On top of that, I had so much fun making American Graffiti that I wanted to put music in it; I love to make musicals. So, I said “well maybe I can tell a complete story using the lyrics from existing songs.” So it started that way and I needed a MacGuffin, something that starts the whole thing off and makes it work, which was love dust, which is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It worked there, so I figured it would work anywhere. With the love dust, the music and wanting it to be about fairies and trolls, it moved from there to tell the story.
I ultimately wanted the story to be about the difference between infatuation and true love. Infatuation is like love dust, it’s like a disease. You kind of get it, you go crazy for an amount of time, then you wake up and go “who’s this, why am I with this person?” or they leave you and you have a heartache that comes out of that. So I said “you should focus on what’s behind that, what’s in the book, not the cover.” It’s an old story, it’s been told over and over again, but my feeling is that you can never tell these stories too often because each generation must have it told in their own language, so this is that story told for this generation. It’s like Star Wars, there’s nothing new in it, it’s just done in a different way.
Was this intended as a spiritual successor to fantasy films from the 80s like Labyrinth, Willow and Dark Crystal?
I’ve always loved fairy tales, I’ve always loved music. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, it’s like Labyrinth, Willow or any of the other things I’ve done. It’s something I like and I started it when I came up with the idea, saying “maybe I’ll do a little fairy tale.” I was doing it on the side, I had a group of about half a dozen people. We started doing stuff, designing stuff and I was really doing Star Wars, but I was doing this on the side because again, we’ve been doing this for 15 years. It’s something I was just doing for the fun of it, for my own enjoyment.
How did you go about picking the music?
This was started a long time ago and this was started because I just wanted to have fun and what I did was I went into my music archives, which is the same archives I went into for American Graffiti, and started finding music that I liked. Part of the development process was listening to the music, listening to the lyrics, trying to design the story where you could fit songs in it to tell the story. This went forever because we were constantly changing stories, taking music out because it was too expensive, or we had to shorten the film which meant we had to put in a new piece of music to sort of cover the glitch when we jumped from A to C instead of B. This is just movie music that I like. This is just my own personal favourite music. The real defining factor was the lyrics to tell the story and did I like the music, is it a nice song that I like to listen to? Part of it was as we work on it, I like to listen to it. Like Gary thinks the same way, it’s much more fun to be able to tap your toes while you’re working.
What is your favourite song in the movie?
[Groans] That’s terrible! This is my top 25! Apart from the top 25 that were in American Graffiti. The first song that got picked was the opening song…uh, “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. To me, that summed up the whole movie when I was starting. That was the inspiration, this is the kind of thing it should start with to tell you what the movie’s about. There’s a lot of other songs in there that also sum up the movie – “Strange Magic” is one of them, of course. It’s fun to be able to do this when you have songs that say what you’re trying to say. That was the original idea. Popular music, especially about love, goes into the categories of “disappointment, sorrow, heartbreak, unhappiness” and that’s two-thirds of it and one-third of it is the happiness of falling in love and having a great time. Obviously, there’s a lot more spent on the more tragic side of love than the happy side of the love and the movie kind of reflects that.
Have your daughters been waiting for this film and what did they think when they watched it?
Only one daughter’s seen it. She saw it at a press screening in Los Angeles yesterday and she loved it. So, that’s one out of three. The other one is married and just has a three-month-old baby so it’s going to be a little while [before she can see it]. She doesn’t live in L.A. like my other daughter, she lives in Las Vegas so she won’t be able to see it until this weekend. And then my other daughter, she’s only 18 months old, she has not seen it yet but I’m sure she’ll love it when she grows up.
Which part did your daughter who’s seen the movie like the most?
Well, she fancies herself as Marianne. Well, she liked the part about the king and his daughter. Listen, she’s 26 so we’re still at that same phase. She’s struggling to take over the kingdom [laughs]. That’s the part she liked the most. She liked the idea, the idea that real love is more than skin-deep and the way people think and what they feel about other people, the things they have in common are more important than what they look like.
Do you think the movie is a reflection of your own romantic relationships?
Well, in a way it is. I didn’t know it at the time, let’s put it that way, but it grew into it as we came along. I had gotten married, got divorced and never thought that I would ever find someone to love again. I was 40, I was a bachelor, I was raising one child by myself and then I had two more. For 20 years, obviously I wanted to get married again but I couldn’t find anybody. I had outgrown the infatuation part, which is another way of saying “actors, singers, models” [All laugh]. So, I had basically just given up. I just said “it’s never going to happen”. And then, I met somebody who was very different from me, looked very different, was in a different business, a child of the 60s, anti-government, anti-Wall Street, anti-everything, so I met a woman from Chicago and I’m from California, we’re from different countries [all laugh]. She’s from the financial business and I didn’t think we would have anything in common but as we got to know each other, I realised we had everything in common. We were just soulmates. That happened to me at 60. I just never thought it would, and it did. It’s just one of those miracles. No pixie dust was involved [all laugh].
Lucasfilm has always been on the forefront of filmmaking technology. Were there things in this film that you were able to bring in that you weren’t able to do about 10 years ago?
Well, what we did was when I started 15 years ago, I had this little group of people who were designers. They designed the characters and environments and things, and we had another little group that started working on technology because I wanted to do a lot of things that couldn’t be done. So, we were working at that point with ILM to develop new technology to be able to create the movie that I wanted to make within financial reason. They worked on that at the same time and that took a long time; that’s where a lot of the work was. I knew we couldn’t do it at that time and about 10 years was spent doing that stuff. In the last 5 years, we were able to take advantage of that and even over the last year we were improving things.
We tested it basically on a TV series we did here in Singapore, which was The Clone Wars. It was technically very advanced for a TV show; we were doing things with lighting, characters and all kinds of esoteric technical things that couldn’t have been done before. We were testing things out on that show, as I like to say. That went on with The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, [through] Episodes I, II and III of Star Wars, of developing technology so we could go to the next level.
Do you think modern cinema achieves the same magic associated with films like Star Wars, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Back to the Future? If not, why not?
Well, the magic you’re talking about is very hard to come by. You couldn’t just “do” it. It takes a very magical situation of creative talent, resources and all kinds of things to make something like that happen. It doesn’t happen very often. Otherwise, you’d see 20 or 30 of those movies every year. For somebody like me, I’m not looking to make a hit movie. I’m just doing something that I want to do for my own reasons. Some of them are hits, people like them, some of them aren’t. That’s not the real thing, for me, the real thing is doing it, and experimenting and doing things. That’s where I’m moving now, making experimental films. They won’t even be released because people will say “why did he do that, I didn’t like that.” I don’t really care, I just want to do it for myself and find out what happens when I do things and not worry about it.
Obviously, I’ve done some films that haven’t worked and I’ve done a lot of films that have worked. You never know…I have absolutely no idea how this movie will be received. I love it. I’ll always be happy with it. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the world is going to like it. I’ve had a lot of films that I really liked that nobody liked and I’ve seen a lot of films that I didn’t think were that special but everybody seems to like them. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of that part. You’ve got several groups that are going to come in and make decisions: the audience, in the form of now bloggers, the audience in the form of people who actually go to see the movie, then you’ve got the press and people who write about it. They all have different things about everything. There’s never any way to know what people are going to like. My worst-reviewed movie was Star Wars [Episode IV] and it seems to be the best [all laugh].
Voice acting is a key component of animated films. Did you envision Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming as your voice actors when you first conceptualised the project and at which point did you settle on them voicing Marianne and the Bog King respectively? Dreamworks goes after a lot of big names to put on their posters, why did you pick these two actors?
The casting was done back when, I did casting by tape. I was looking for a good singer, I was looking for a good actor, I was looking for people who could be the characters. I was just listening to tapes to pick the cast and obviously, Elijah Kelley had worked with me on Red Tails and I knew I wanted him to be Sunny, the elf.
Gary Rydstrom: In Alan Cumming’s case, what I’m really amazed by is that character in this movie has to go from a scary, bad guy character to somebody you want to see fall in love and that you actually can stand to see being kissed. Alan Cumming is a great actor and so he brought a lot of emotional weight to this character; he could change from being a scary bad guy to a gentlemanly, heartfelt person you want to see fall in love by the end. Great actors as well as great singers, that’s what the casting for this film is about. Elijah Kelley was one of George’s first picks for this movie because Elijah Kelley is a force of nature and makes Sunny a force of nature. Casting is a pretty key element in an animated film. It’s more important that they create a character you remember. It’s not important, for me, that they’re famous names. The combination of the voices and the great animation makes it come alive in a way that really is magical.
George Lucas: I don’t believe in movie stars. I’ve never put a movie star in my movie, except for Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Other than that, anybody who’s in my movie who becomes a movie star, I’ve never hired a movie star to promote the movie and I don’t know why you need movie stars, except some of them are really great actors, why you need them in an animated film. In the beginning of animated films, they didn’t have a lot of money to get people like that and this is a reasonably low-budget picture. As a result, we had to use our wits to do it. In the beginning, there were a lot of challenges put in there by me, because I wanted to see if it would work; slightly experimental. One of them which was the love story, the first thing everybody said when they saw the designs was “she’s not going to actually kiss him, is she?” I said “yeah, they fall in love, they get married, they have kids, but we won’t go into that.” Everybody said we couldn’t do it, it wouldn’t work. People would go “ew” and I said “then, we didn’t do our job.” Our job is to say “everybody needs to be loved. Everybody deserves to be loved.” That was a big challenge that these guys pick up and that we’ve been fighting the whole time.
The other one was that I’ve been using this delicate line between photo-real and animation. I had a photo-real background but animated characters that are stylised like animation characters should be. I didn’t want it to look like Final Fantasy [The Spirits Within]. They’re slightly animated characters but they live in a real world, to not have that be jarring. Technically, trying to do that, bringing it up to being realistic and making it match was a huge challenge and the guys here in Singapore did a fantastic job in blending that to a point where it all works together.
It kind of looks like what you would find in your own backyard, which is one of the original concepts is if you’re seven years old, you could go out and see a butterfly, see a cockroach or praying mantis or something and look and it and say “I wonder if that’s really a fairy or a goblin?” It brings a sense of reality or as [Akira] Kurosawa said, “a great movie is made out of immaculate reality”. I turned that into Star Wars, which had that. It’s completely fanciful, there’s nothing real in it. But I managed to make it feel real and am trying to do the same thing here, which is trying to make something that’s completely concocted and animated feel like it’s a real place with real people, even though they’re bugs.
Is there a sequel being planned?
I started this when I was just playing around by myself and now it’s being owned by Disney, so it’s their decision about whether there’s a sequel or not. The big thing is if it does well, then they’ll start talking about things like that. If it doesn’t, they won’t.
Strange Magic opens in Singapore cinemas on 29 January 2015.
– Jedd Jong