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By Kevin Nelson · May 2, 2022
Like millions of people around the world, Star Wars expanded the creative boundaries of my imagination as a child. I found the roots of my love for storytelling in the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han, staging elaborate battle scenes with Star Wars action figures using tan couch pillows to mimic the sands of Tatooine.
Showing a child Star Wars has become a right of passage, a fundamental experience one must go through on their way through adolescence. This incredible universe crafted by George Lucas has become an iconic staple in our culture and a defining example of the science fiction genre. Let’s take a look at how the director got his start and how he managed to create the most iconic science fiction tale ever told.
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From an early age, George Lucas looked to the sky and wondered what could be. As a child growing up in the 1950s, he was naturally intrigued by all of the science fiction comic books and television serials depicting worlds and visitors from galaxies far, far away…
Like the podracers from his later films, George Lucas dreamed of being a race car driver — but a near-fatal accident in high school left him searching for new horizons. He attended Modesto Junior College, where he found a love for film with his friend John Plummer when they attended Canyon Cinema, an underground screening event that would show the 16mm work of avant-garde filmmakers.
Plummer encouraged Lucas to transfer to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. In 1967, Lucas’ short film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB screened at the National Student Film Festival in New York (this is also where he met fellow filmmaker Steven Spielberg for the first time). His film went on to win first prize in its category which included a Warner Bros. student scholarship to shadow any production of his choosing. He chose to learn from Francis Ford Coppola during the filming of 1968’s Finian’s Rainbow.
After graduating college, Lucas and Coppola co-founded American Zoetrope as a means to escape the confines of the studio system. They adapted Lucas’s short film into a feature, THX 1138. Although the film was well-received by critics, it was considered a failure at the box office.
Following his directorial debut THX 1138, George Lucas sought to acquire the rights to sci-fi adventurer Flash Gordon but was denied. Francis Ford Coppola recalled that Lucas came back feeling down about it but ultimately decided, “I’ll just have to invent my own.”
So, he created his own company Lucasfilm, Ltd., and set out on a course of discovery to find original source material for inspiration. Alex Raymond, the original author of the Flash Gordon comic strip, was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was the author of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. Lucas then found out that Burroughs was inspired by Edwin Arnold’s 1905 science-fiction fantasy Gulliver on Mars.
Lucas said, “A whole new genre developed from that idea.”
Lucas managed to secure a two-picture deal with United Artists, but they rejected both his script for American Graffiti and his concept for an epic space opera. Universal Pictures agreed to co-produce American Graffiti and Lucas spent the next two years thinking about the stars when he wasn’t toiling away on set.
After completing his final cut for American Graffiti in December of 1972, Lucas quickly shifted back into hyperdrive, working on his epic space opera as if were a 9-5 job — but getting his spaceship off the ground wouldn’t be easy.
In his in-universe book, Journal of the Whills, he began to explore this new universe, coming up with odd names, and strange locations — most of which hit the cutting room floor but many were used in subsequent additions to The Skywalker Saga.
Drawing inspiration from Akira Kurosawa films such as The Hidden Fortress and the hero’s journey in Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Lucas wrote a 13-page treatment in April of 1973.
Both United Artists and Universal Studios turned Lucas down. In fact, nearly every studio rejected him. No one could wrap their heads around Lucas’s infinite vision. Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz were determined to find a studio to fund their epic adventure and would find their launch pad at 20th Century Fox with Alan Ladd Jr., who might not have understood the technical aspects of the story but trusted Lucas’s talent after seeing American Graffiti.
They reached a deal by the summer of 1974, which paid Lucas a lower upfront amount in exchange for sequel and merchandising rights — which would be a fortuitous decision on his part. Almost a year later in May of 1974, Lucas completed a rough draft of what would be the foundation that he’d build off of over the course of four drafts and two more years.
His July 1974 first draft only seemed to expand so he decided to divide the story into a trilogy. The January 1975 second draft titled The Adventures of The Starkiller, introduced many elements we know and love today like Lord Vader being Luke’s father, the force, and a Jedi turning to the dark side.
His third draft was finished on August 1st, 1975. Much of the third draft survived in the fourth, and final draft which was delivered just before production in March of 1976.
George Lucas put everything he had into making his dream a reality. During post-production, he was experiencing chest pains to the point that he feared was having a heart attack. Turned out that he was suffering from hypertension and fatigue from overworking himself. He’d also test the limits of his personal relationships. He had tunnel vision.
Perhaps the influence that Star Wars had on millions of lives was worth it. Although it took a heavy personal toll on Lucas, the film changed the course of history.Download the script
After the success of the original Star Wars, the cast made appearances on a number of variety shows. CBS approached the newly founded Star Wars Corporation, a branch of Lucasfilm, Ltd. charged with the massive merchandising boom garnered from the film, about making a TV special. Lucas was too busy moving his company into a new facility and planning a sequel, so he and producer Gary Kurtz left it up to the television execs.
Kurtz said the special started with a better script and they offered their ideas, including Lucas’s insistence on centering the action on Chewbacca’s family. The Star Wars Holiday Special is notoriously over the top and goofy. Perhaps it’s better suited for 4/20 than the Winter Holidays.
A fun bit of trivia: The Holiday Special features the first animated segment of Star Wars canon as well as the first appearance of everyone’s favorite bounty hunter turned kingpin, Boba Fett.Download the script
Not many sequels are considered better than the original, but with the addition of Lawrence Kasdan, The Empire Strikes Back helped prove that A New Hope wasn’t a fluke and the franchise had staying power. Not to mention, it is just a phenomenal movie.
After the massive success of A New Hope, Lucas was prepared to expand the story but was reluctant to return to the director’s chair because of the negative effect the stress had on him.
As Lucas told Empire Online:
“At first I was contemplating selling the whole thing to Fox… I’d just take my percentage and go home and never think about Star Wars again. But the truth of it is, I got captivated by the thing… And I can’t help but get upset or excited when something isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. I can see that world. I know the way the characters live and breathe.”
He knew he couldn’t give up creative control. He felt that if he could pull off a sequel larger in scope and darker in tone, there’s no telling where this saga could go. He didn’t want to make the sequel as good as the original, but better.
So he hired screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who had co-written The Big Sleep. Lucas was drawn to her ability to write quick-witted dialogue. Unfortunately, tragedy would befall her. Two weeks after delivering her first draft, Brackett sadly passed away from cancer.
With production looming, Lucas worked on his own draft but knew he was in over his head. So he sought the opinion of Lawrence Kasdan, who had recently been hired by Lucas to write Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Over the next couple of months, Kasdan and Lucas worked together to rewrite Brackett’s script, building suspenseful turns and an iconic twist into one of the greatest sequels ever.Download the script
Lucas found that he preferred producing and sought a director rather quickly after Empire Strikes Back wrapped. Two Davids, Lynch and Cronenberg, declined and Lucas selected relative newcomer Richard Marquand. The screenplay was written by Lawrence Kasdan with uncredited work by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven), and Marquand.
The screenwriting went late into pre-production planning. In the meantime, art departments used Lucas’s outlines to start work on their designs. To get the script into shooting shape, Lucas, Kasdan, Marquand, and producer Howard Kazanjian hunkered down for two weeks to discuss ideas. Kasdan then used transcripts of the discussion to formulate the script.Download the script
While writing A New Hope, Lucas quickly realized that his story was much bigger than just one film. Originally, he signed on to make two sequels to complete the trilogy. As he got further into the mythos of his world, he began to amass quite a bit of backstory to aid in his writing.
After finishing the original trilogy, Lucas canned the idea of a sequel trilogy until the early 1990s, when interest in Star Wars was rekindled in adaptations of comics and novels. Seeing that there was still a large audience for his creation and computer animation technology had caught up with his vision, Lucas returned to his 13-page treatment for the original film where he highlighted the backstory of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.
The increased budget and fanfare allowed Lucas to expand the Star Wars Universe on a more epic scale — how he always imagined it. He revisited locations as well as themes such as the balance between powers, between apprentices and their mentors, teachers and students, fathers and sons — passing on The Force to a younger generation.
The film became one of the most hyped returns to a franchise ever. Yet, it was also the beginning of the saga, so he needed time to develop and establish characters and storylines. When viewers found themselves knee-deep in politics and character development instead of the swashbuckling blaster battles they were used to, maybe it was inevitably going to disappoint some die-hard fans.Download the script
If The Phantom Menace seemed too slow for some viewers, then Attack of the Clones provides plenty of dizzying and elaborate action scenes between droids and clones with flipping Jedi caught in the middle of a coup.
The mixed reviews for The Phantom Menace seemed to cause Lucas to procrastinate on working on the writing for Episode II. Three months before production was to begin, he finally finished a rough draft and went to work on two more drafts before enlisting screenwriter Jonathan Hales to help with the third and final draft. Hales worked with Lucas before, writing several episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, but this was his first feature credit.
The final script was in the can a week before production began, and its working title was Jar Jar’s Big Adventure to poke fun at the infamously annoying character from Episode I. Critics could chew on that. For Lucas, Episode II was meant to be redemption and could become the cornerstone for future reveals and franchises in the Disney+ expansion, as many plot points remain open.
The animated series The Clone Wars explores the years between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Some of this may be explored in the upcoming Ahsoka series.Download the script
George Lucas began writing Episode III – Revenge of the Sith before Attack of the Clones was even released. Lucas initially intended to continue and close up some of the storylines of the Clone Wars but felt the plot was too convoluted. The story was really about Anakin’s turn to the dark side. He drew inspiration from a passage from the Return of the Jedi novelization by James Kahn where Obi-Wan discusses his final climactic lightsaber duel with Anakin.
In order to shift the narrative from a broader war to the internal war of Anakin, Lucas had to leave a lot of plot points from Attack of the Clones unanswered.
I have a crawling suspicion that we’ll see some of those questions answered on some of the live-action and animated series being produced by Disney+ as the Star Wars universe continues to expand with new and original stories.Download the script
Despite pursuing Lucasfilm, Ltd. for nearly two years, the Disney acquisition came as a surprise to many. His son Jett told The Guardian that his father was torn about letting go of the series, having written outlines for future films and spinoffs.
George Lucas said in a statement:
“For the past 35 years, one of my greatest pleasures has been to see Star Wars passed from one generation to the next. It’s now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers.”
Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy would oversee the expansion of Disney’s brand while Lucas remained available as a consultant. The deal was worth four billion dollars.
Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) was hired to write the screenplay and worked on it for eight months. On a tight schedule, he felt like he needed more time to get it right. He left the project and director J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan worked on the rewrites. Kasdan speaks fondly of this time.
Although they were working under tough time restraints, they collaborated with ease as they’d discuss the story over long walks in various cities around the world. Abrams would record the conversations on his phone. They finished the script in six weeks and worked through the holidays because they were so energized.
As with any fandom, there’s a certain level of toxicity that exists regarding the sequel and prequel series.
Regardless of your personal views, The Skywalker Saga is a pinnacle milestone in artistic achievement and helped establish an entire universe of creative spirits with a single big bang.Download the script
Like the Big Bang, the Star Wars universe continues to expand with the success of series like The Mandolorian and its spinoff The Book of Boba Fett. Through the use of digital technology, the new series have been able to link past events and characters in remarkable ways.
As more canonical storylines make their way onto the screen both for theatrical releases and Disney+’s streaming service, the universe will continue to reach future generations. The possibilities for what’s to be born in the great beyond seem infinite.
Lawrence Kasdan told the Los Angeles Times:
“The movies have always been about generations and families and passing on knowledge and what can be transferred and what is inherent in the universe. The Force has always been around from George’s first idea of it, and this philosophical thing mixed in with the excitement of the action — that’s a very powerful soup.”
The Force is all around us.
It’s within us to create worlds and universes unfathomable for most.
Our intellect, creativity, and sheer presence are capable of moving impenetrable obstacles and swaying the emotions and minds of the stubborn.
Our art is our force.
May the force be with you.