George Lucas is frank, reflective and still energized four days after receiving the AFI Life Achievement Award on June 9 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. (The ceremony airs at 9 p.m. tomorrow on the USA network.)
Over the phone from his home in Marin County in Northern California, the creator of American Graffiti, the Indiana Jones movies and Star Wars sounds eager to embark on his own second career of directing experimental movies.
The Star Wars movies are over - Lucas says the idea that there would be three trilogies stems from a joke that he once made about doing a sequel when he and his first cast (Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill) were 70 or 80.
At age 61, the man friends and critics call "a born moviemaker" wants to look forward. But sprawling adventures are not entirely out of the picture at Lucasfilm. Lucas will still produce the fourth Indiana Jones movie; Steven Spielberg, as usual, will direct.
Q: Since you just received an American Film Institute award, let's start with education. Are you concerned about changes in film schools like your alma mater, USC, which turned out revolutionary talents in the 1960s?
A: No, I'm not. Obviously, the only people who went to film school when I did were people who loved movies, because they had no chance of working in the business - most of USC's graduates went on to teach. Then, between 1965 and 1975, we broke through. But there wasn't anything amazing about that. We were just in the right place when the reigning generation in the business was ready to give way to a new one.
You did a half-dozen experimental shorts and documentaries at USC. Is that the source of your experimental bent?
It's the desire to use the moving image to tell stories. Commercials, industrial films, documentaries - I would do anything just to see if I could do it. Really, it was Francis Coppola's influence that sent me into theatrical films - his prodding me to work with actors and become a writer and do things that weren't in my nature. I didn't expect to keep doing it for 30 years.
With student documentaries, you got used to shooting tons of footage and finding the film in the cutting room. Your advances in digital production allow you to do that now with special-effects features. But before you achieved total independence with Star Wars, is that what got you in trouble with the studios?
Definitely. I can't do a floor plan and follow instructions. I like to work with the medium itself and create as I go. It's an exercise in moving images - not an exercise in putting words together and then shooting people saying those words. I'm not into cinema as a recording medium. I come out of editing; to me, that's where you create a movie. My focus has been to make the editorial process more malleable, easier to work with.
THX-1138 (1971) was fascinating both as an anti-corporate anti-utopia, and as a melding of an imaginary future with contemporary locations. Was that an early obsession with you?
The thing of it is, when I started out I was doing street films - underground, very low-budgety, almost like large student films.
Don't I see the influence of Fellini's I Vitelloni (1953) on your next street film, American Graffiti (1973)?
When I saw Fellini's film, I thought that's probably the way Italian kids grew up - I believed it. So he had an influence. I was trying to be as truthful as he was about the way things were. Rebel Without a Cause and all those juvenile delinquent movies were nice movies, but they were Hollywood movies. American Graffiti was a movie for all the kids who weren't juvenile delinquents: just regular kids on their way out of high school.
I was interested in documenting the mating rituals of American kids, which happened uniquely in cars from the 1920s and 1930s through the early 1960s. Instead of strolling through the town square, they were driving around town. There was also my fascination with 1962 as a pivotal year before the escalation of the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, and the invasion of the Beatles. So it was about accepting change and making the most of it. Yoda's "train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose" applies to American Graffiti and THX 1138 as well as Star Wars.
Why the leap to Star Wars?
I wanted to try something on a stage - to build sets and have costumes that you actually design and have made for you. I wanted to be able to say, "I made a movie like that once." My matrix for the storytelling and the way it was put together was what you'd see in a 1935 Saturday-matinee serial, along with other stuff from the 1930s and 1940s, whether it was John Ford, William Wyler, or Billy Wilder. I was trying to be slightly melodramatic in terms of dialogue and acting and even conservative visually.
But when people first saw Star Wars: Episode IV , they commented on its fast pace or complained there was so much information you couldn't follow it. That's because most other science-fiction movies say, "You're not familiar with this environment, and we spent so much money on this matte painting or this set, we're going to make sure you see it." So you end up with a movie that's like a travelogue of the future.
I said, "We're not going to do that with Star Wars. We're going to present it as an environment we're all familiar with." That seems to give you an incredible pace. But if you watch Episode IV today, everything is familiar and it moves pretty slow. To be perfectly honest, it's not a fast-paced movie at all.
In Episodes IV, V  and VI , I didn't have the budget or the technology, so I kept the action to the backwater, the outer rim of the galaxy. I could shove an alien in here or there but it had to be in a rubber mask and I was barely able to make that work. But in Episodes I , II  and III , we were able to go to the center of the universe, all these different places where all these different aliens are.
Now I had to deal with the cultures of highly populated areas. And I wanted to fill everything up so the frames would be just as complicated as those of a contemporary movie.
You look at, say, Mr. and Mrs. Smith - you'll see the frames are cluttered. But you're familiar with everything in each frame, so it takes you a brief moment to see everything. You're not saying, wait, I don't understand what any of this stuff is. Star Wars frames seem cluttered because you're not familiar with anything and therefore you want to see what it all is - and I'm not letting you!
I created these films for kids 12 or under, and they don't question what they see. They don't know what's strange and what's not strange; everything's kind of strange to them.
Young people focus more on the story, then go back and focus more on the stuff going on around it. They take it in piecemeal. Adults want to know everything that exists in the frame when they see it; they get confused because they just refuse to let anything go.
When Star Wars first came out, its use of fable seemed refreshing to people fed up with the topicality of pop culture. Now that you've finished the story, are you surprised that everyone's commenting on how pertinent it is?
The motif of the fall of a democracy and the fall of a good person was at the heart of the whole thing. The dramatic idea was always to turn an empire back to being a democracy and to turn a fallen father around to being the hero he was destined to be. If I had done that in one film, it would have been much clearer!
Originally it was just one movie: Star Wars: A New Hope. It was about Darth Vader. He starts out as this menacing monster - and halfway through you realize he's not a monster, he's a man, and not only is he a man, he's also the father of the hero. Then the monster turns into a hero, inspired by his son. The problem was in order to write that, I had to answer, Who are these people? Where did they come from? And in this case, I was purposely starting in Episode IV, because I like to start in the middle.
So the first thing I did was write the back story and the second thing I did was write the movie and I ended up with a 200-page script. If you took maybe half of Episodes IV, V and VI combined, that's what the first script was - impossible. So I cut it into thirds; there were three acts, and each had arcs. Once I bit that bullet, I said it was always meant to be three movies. I wasn't going to lose a year's work with all this other stuff in it. Then, I wasn't going to lose the Tragedy of Darth Vader: That's the six-part story. Everyone now is saying, "Gee, it's really great how everything ties up." But that was easy - I thought that up before anything else.
I conceived Star Wars and Indiana Jones at the same time, with similar Saturday-matinee-serial motifs - though not exactly the same ones - and the idea of starting in the middle. What kind of train track would I choose: Flash Gordon or Don Winslow of the Navy? That selection was key. Everything else got built on top of that.
And what about the next Indiana Jones?
Well, that's what I should be working on right now.