Strange Magic, the new animated film from Lucasfilm and Touchstone, carries the credit “story by George Lucas.” Following a screening at Skywalker Ranch, Lucas fielded questions from a group of 24 bloggers.
The project began about 15 years ago, according to Lucas; “I just got the idea that it would be fun. I mean, I love to do musicals, I love to do musicals using my favorite music, so it kinda harkens back to my pre-Star Wars days,” he explained, noting that his previous film, American Graffiti, was basically a musical, in that the story was partly told through the use of music.
Part of the reason for making this film, which he expects will be more popular with girls, is that there aren’t a lot of films like it; the market is largely dominated by films like the Hunger Games. “The idea of an upbeat, fun, simple, movie just appealed to me.”
The theme of the film is, as Lucas says, “the difference between being infatuated and being truly in love. And, since being infatuated ultimately is about surface values, surface issues, and being really in love is about interior issues, I wanted to make a movie about that, which is that, in the end, it’s very easy to be infatuated with somebody. And of course people are infatuated with boy bands and beautiful people and all the things you read in the magazines, all that kind of stuff, but in the end, from experience, you don’t really wanna be married to somebody like that, you really don’t wanna spend the rest of your life like that, and you really aren’t gonna have a serious, deep relationship with somebody like that. You know, they have a tendency to be with somebody else like that, which means that they usually don’t… it doesn’t last very long. But as a result, it was just to play with that and say, and especially, again, for young girls who are prone to infatuations, to say, you know, it’s not always the cutest guy in class that you really wanna be out with.”
As the film developed over the years, it became more personal for him; he had been married years ago, but then was divorced and was a bachelor for several years, raising his adopted children alone and assuming he would remain single. “I was the old cranky Bog King,” he said, comparing himself to the bitter antagonist played by Alan Cumming.
“No, it’s never gonna happen to me, I just will never find anybody… and I found somebody who doesn’t look at all like me, you know, I’m a 60s radical, government-unhappy, Wall Street-hating, person from San Francisco, and I ended up meeting a woman who’s a head of a big investment management firm, who’s on Wall Street, who is the last person you would figure would fall in love with the Bog King, or I’d fall in love with her since I am not into princesses. Now I’ve got a princess and I’ve got a little princess, and my other princesses who have gone on to bigger and better things. So as time went on it became more meaningful to me because I realized that in the end, like with my wife and stuff, we fell in love because we were exactly alike inside.” Lucas referenced the relationship that builds between the fairy princess Marianne and the Bog King, saying “you realize that you have so much in common that you would never have thought of on the surface.”
“You know that story has been told over and over and over again, but at the same time, it needs to be retold,” he said, likening it to the mythic motifs that run through the Star Wars films.”To me, adolescence is a key period in a child’s life, and to make movies that say ‘look, these are the issues, maybe your parents have told you about this, maybe they haven’t, but you need to know the story of why you have friendships, and what a friendship means, why there are things in the world that are bigger than you are, why your complicated feelings with your parents and all these kinds of things are not unusual; they’re not just you, this is something that everybody goes through.’ And so this is kind of the same thing; I won’t call it a myth, because I beat that one to death with Star Wars but this is a fairytale. Same thing only much sweeter.”
Another important message in Strange Magic, according to Lucas, was to portray the princesses as brave. “That’s a key element; we don’t beat on it here, but the princesses are great, especially Marianne, I mean she goes from being a princess who’s afraid of the dark forest and everything, to somebody who is actually facing things that are scary, and getting through them.”
Aside from the philosophical messages about love and life, the real appeal of making the film was the music. “I love music, music’s a huge part of my life, I love all kinds of music, and obviously I listen to music every day, on the radio, top 40 and all that kinda stuff, but I also listen to a lot of other kinds of music,” he said, “but with this, one of the inspirations for this was, I wonder if I could tell a love story using love songs? I could just take them and string them all together so they actually told the story.”
Originally, the film included almost a hundred songs, though that eventually was reduced to around 25, partly to reduce the film to a reasonable length. “There were great sequences with great songs, but ultimately there’s a thing called discipline; I could make a five-hour musical, it’s like American Graffiti, I could sit and listen to it all day.” Ultimately, story demands determined what songs made the final cut. “A lot of the songs were my favorite songs, but a lot of them really had to do with trying to tell the story, trying to say ‘I need them to say this and that thing, let’s find a song where they say that.” Lucas credited music director Marius de Vries (Moulin Rouge) for making it all work, stitching together songs from different eras and genres into a cohesive soundtrack. “He’s a genius at doing that.”
Although some songs were cut due to time, others were eliminated due to budget, specifically songs by the Beatles. “You could go to the Beatles catalog and anything that’s got love in the title is something we had in there. All You Need Is Love, you know? But again, there’s a real world and in that real world, this is a relatively inexpensive movie, small, very small, and just like American Graffiti, I couldn’t afford to put Elvis Presley in there, and so I didn’t, but I survived. It’s like everything else, you have to kinda be strong, be brave and sometimes trim some of the things you really love.”
Discussing the look of the film, Lucas explains that animation is supposed to be stylized, saying “some people have made mistakes in animation by trying to say ‘we want this to look realistic,’ which, one, isn’t really possible and two, is not very bright. Because the whole idea of animation, the art of animation, is to create a style that is different from shooting a live action movie. It’s the style that is part of the art of it. In some feature films in live action you use a style that’s very distinctive, but animation sort of demands it, ’cause if you’re gonna make it look realistic why not just shoot it? Use actors and shoot the thing.”
“A computer can’t act,” he says, “only a human being can act. It’s just computers aren’t crazy enough, and that magical thing called talent, which is what an actor uses to create empathy, to create character, that’s something you can’t do. I mean, we can make copies of people, but they can’t be human. You need a human being behind them to be the voice, and that’s why, when we go and you put a camera on the actor, you wanna capture the magic of that actor. An animator can do it, and that’s part of the art of animation, but it helps an animator if he’s got something to work with.” He describes the animator as a co-actor with the voice performer, enhancing the gestures and facial expressions that the performer made while recording the role “locked in a room, five feet by five feet, and all green and dark.” He dismisses the notion that digital technology will someday eliminate the need for actors, saying “it takes twice as many actors to do an animated film as it does to do a [live-action] one; it’s not something that people do to save money or for whatever other reason, they do it because ultimately in this particular case you’re using a style, a particular style, and in this case I wanted the style to be very realistic, much more realistic. The idea was that you could go out in your backyard and these guys all live out there somewhere.”
The first song Lucas chose for the film ended up being the first one heard in the film, and also became the final song at the end, “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” “I grew up under the tutelage of Elvis, and my wife says I still have my pompous pompadour, but, at the same time, it’s been recorded several times, each time it’s recorded it’s better and better, and it to me was the inspiration to say this is what this movie’s about. You know, ‘wise men say only fools fall in love.’ And, in my experience with love, as I was dating for those 20 years, I had some girlfriends who I knew weren’t right, I knew were, I would say high maintenance, difficult, all the things you don’t want. Yet I fell in love with them. And ultimately the only thing I can say is there’s no accounting for love, it’s just no matter how rational you think you’re being, you say ‘well I’ll never do that,’ you do it.”