We interviewed Paul Duncan, the author of both volumes of The Star Wars Archives, on the occasion of the publication of the prequel trilogy book in late 2020. He talked about his first day at Skywalker Ranch, the origins of the modern myth and what he learnt from his meetings with George Lucas.
Z. S.: How did you become a film historian? What are the questions that you seek answers to when you process a topic?
P. D.: I used to watch science fiction movies on television when I was a child: The Incredible Shrinking Man, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, The Day of the Triffids, King Kong… These were all monumental films when I was growing up. When I was 13, I saw Star Wars, was fascinated by it and started to pick up magazines like Starlog and Starburst that showed how these films were made. I remember leaving school at lunchtime and finding that in the local bookstore there was a Making of Alien book with images by Moebius and H.R. Giger. I begged my parents for these things and then I started to make my own little magazines. I used to say, “I like that image,” “I like that article,” and began assembling my own fanzines. I also love comics and I combined everything into one magazine called Arken Sword, which became ARK. I published it for 10 years and it grew so it was distributed around the world. I interviewed comics artists and writers like Moebius, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Alan Moore, Ron Smith, Dave Gibbons, David Lloyd, Alan Davis, and many more, doing long interviews about their careers and how they made comics.
From when I was 15 to now, everything I do is about stuff that I’m personally interested in. I want to know: how did they do that? And why did they do that? My day job was technical authoring; I wrote technical documents and “how-to” manuals for computer software and equipment. As a freelancer, I would travel around and when I got home, I worked through the night on my magazines. I became interested in noir writers from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, like Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, Frederick Brown, and Gerald Kersh, so I started a magazine called Crime Time. For that, I interviewed novelists like James Ellroy and Patricia Cornwell. And then I started my own series of books about films, called Pocket Essentials. I love Hitchcock and Kubrick and Scorsese. This gave me an excuse to watch all the movies and then write about them. That work led me to being noticed by Benedikt Taschen at Taschen, the publishing company, for whom I’ve made film books for almost 20 years. I’m still a freelancer, working on projects where and when I can.
My work has always been about trying to find out what actually happened rather than what somebody said happened. And luckily enough, for the past 20 years, I’ve been able to get access to original materials and to the people. Although I work on these books with very talented colleagues, I spend a lot of time on my own, doing the text and image research, writing, and selecting the images for the layouts.
Was there any difference between Star Wars and the topics of your previous books e.g., James Bond, Chaplin or Ingmar Bergman?
I always go in with a completely blank slate. I never know what I’m going to do. I dive into the pool without knowing how to swim. I don’t know how deep it is. And I don’t know whether I’m going to get to the other side. It’s exciting and scary at the same time because the pressure is on me to produce, assemble, find a story—something that’s marketable—and also something that is meaningful for me. Because who wants to spend two years of their life doing something they’re not interested in? I have to be engaged by it.
How did you start your research?
On the very first day of the research in the Star Wars archives, where they have all the models that they used for concept and design, I just photographed everything in order to collect as much material as I could. In the end, not a single image of them was used in the book, but it gave me an introduction to the working processes used in the movies. Then I turned to the artwork drawers. For most drawers, they know what’s in them. But there were drawers, especially for the prequels, where they’d literally taken the drawers of Iain McCaig, Ryan Church, Erik Tiemens and Derek Thompson after the movies wrapped, and just put them into the archives and never sorted through them. The very first drawer I opened was Erik Tiemens’. There was this artwork about the rough storyline “seven battles on seven planets” for the original beginning of Episode III and I thought, “This is going in the book. That’s two pages done. Just 598 to go.” But I didn’t know how that was going to fit into the story.
Was it always clear that you make two books?
No. The original plan was to include all six episodes in one book. I started looking through the materials and I felt there are two books here and I don’t want to choose between the materials. I’m an editor, so I’m supposed to reduce this to size, but don’t make me do this. I then had to talk to both Lucasfilm and to Taschen to persuade them both that it would be a good idea to make two books. Luckily, they both said yes. Then I knew that I could split up the research and use more material for both trilogies.
What was the point when you realized that digital transformation will be the main arranging topic of the prequel book?
It was after I’d done the first book on Episodes IV to VI. I knew that I wanted to do it that way but I didn’t know how I was going to cover it because quite frankly, it meant a lot of scary research into a very big field. Luckily, I picked up a book called Droidmaker and the first book on ILM (Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects). That was the beginning. When I first talked to George the project was still at the stage where it was going to be one book for all six movies. But after it had been split, I sent a letter to George.
I wrote that I think we should do a book about the onset of digital technology and the fact that he was behind a lot of that development in terms of pushing it forward.
And I’m not just talking about CG. I’m talking about the editing, the camera, the production process—many things now used every day in movie production. We are doing this interview via Skype face to face. They were doing that as George was either on set or at the Ranch editing. They would do that with the VFX people at ILM and he could review their material. The technology is not just what you can see on the screen, but it’s everything behind it. And once I realized how wide-ranging that was, I wrote this letter to George and he said exactly the same thing, that that’s where you should drive it. And then he gave me a list of people that I should talk to.
Who were on that list?
Doug Chiang, Erik Tiemens, Ryan Church, Rick McCallum, John Knoll and Dennis Muren, among others. On my next visit to the Presidio in San Francisco, when Lucasfilm and ILM are based, I met all of them. One day I had an interview with Rick, and George was there too and it was basically three hours of George talking, and Rick adding information—it was fun to see them reliving everything. Afterwards, I went with Rick to do a separate interview.
These conversations led to the other aspect of the second book. In Episodes IV, V and VI I felt there were a few people like Ben Burtt, John Barry, Dennis Muren, John Dykstra, John Williams and others at ILM et cetera who really got Star Wars. These were people who understood it and gave 110, 120, 250% commitment to George. But in Episodes I-III Rick McCallum had brought together such a fantastic team—like Fred Myers and Mike Blanchard on the technical side, and everyone from the camera people to the VFX and costume/makeup/model making, every aspect of filmmaking, and you felt that everybody in the team was behind George on these. George was giving them the opportunity to go for it, the freedom to explore their own ideas. I think this aspect is really underrated about those movies.
George wasn’t remaking Episodes IV, V and VI. He was making something completely new in the same galaxy.
I noticed the story when George instructed the concept artists to make a design and after a few rounds, he pulled out a reference that he always had in mind.
He wants to see where people will go and then he will pick up what he likes. It’s an iterative process. But it’s also an iterative process for George in the writing—he’s working in the same way. He’s seen what they’re doing and that feeds back into the story and into the visuals because he’s also got to visualize it for himself. Sometimes he will have an idea but he wants the artists to reach it on their own. They find their path to the same place. Sometimes they go off a completely different way and he decides “well, that is the better way.” He’s completely open and free. And I think that’s very underestimated in terms of the creative process. There is this idea outside the film and television industry that you start with a fixed idea and then you carry out that vision to the end. In other words, there is no development or change. But my understanding of the creative process, from my investigations in multiple areas of expertise and creativity, is that people may have an idea at the beginning but the idea at the end is often different. This is because between then and now they’ve developed as people, as individuals. They have new influences, new ideas and they know more about the subject at the end of the process than they did at the beginning. And what George did as part of these processes, especially on Episodes I to III, is that he opened up that creative process so that you can change and develop as you go through the three movies in order to make the best version of it. If at the end it just takes a day of blue screen work or another VFX effect or a slightly different cut that will give the movie a better meaning then let’s go with it.
Could you tell us an example?
It turned out during the first cut of Episode III that it was getting too long, especially its middle section where Anakin turns to the dark side. They cut out all the things that were not directly related to Anakin. And then George realized that there was something not scripted but understood from the editing: the idea of Anakin and Padme being apart and that these are changing points for both of them. Once they realized that they changed the idea of the whole middle section. They took a few more shots of Padmé looking out the window from left to right and Anakin looking from right to the left in the Jedi Temple, as though they’re physically opposite. I think that’s brilliant because it’s a key moment and was not a fixed one but a moment that was discovered. And this discovery, this evolution, is all part of the creative process.
Within the book, I show the visual evolution within the plot of the movie. And through the text, I’m showing a different evolution of ideas and storytelling.
Some people complain that the text doesn’t line up with the images and that’s true. They represent more than one story. You’ve got the visual story. The story within the captions is different. The story within the quotes along the top of the pages is also different. And then you’ve got the story of the text. And I have interspersed this text with the “Yoda lectures” from George. I realized that some of the things George was saying just didn’t fit within a timeline. They were complete within themselves, revolving around the core concepts of Star Wars.
How did you get George Lucas involved so deeply in the book?
After about a year of research I was scared because there are people like you who have read everything about Star Wars and if I delivered a book that has no new information, people will think it’s not worth buying this book just for some nice visuals. I also had in my mind the thing that I’m always interested in: “what did the creator think?” So, I had to try and get George Lucas involved.
George had already agreed to give me access to his materials and to his papers which was great. But then asking for his time, that’s completely different.
I think it helped that he already had some of my previous books, and Taschen have a good reputation. The books I make are not character pieces nor opinion pieces—they are purely historical. There are no value statements made by me in my books. It is true that I am making value statements in what I select, in how I present the information and how I edit. It’s the equivalent of a documentary because the editing is the writing of a documentary. That’s the way I look at it. Luckily, George said “Yes.”
These “Yoda lectures” are probably the most interesting texts in the book. I don’t think George has ever covered these topics in such a detailed way before. There was that great interview by Bill Moyers in 1999 but the difference is that you did the research for one year and you were able to ask specific questions like the role of fatherhood or the meaning of symbiotic relationships in Star Wars.
Yes, they are ideas in the movie but it is hard to notice some of them. I have to tell you that I didn’t know a lot of the subtext before starting my work on the books. That was part of my discovery. I saw that symbiotic relationships are mentioned twice in Episode I, and I asked myself, “Why has George put that in?” I saw the movies when they came out but I never paid any attention to that. Doing the books gave me the opportunity to think about them. And there is another aspect: I now look at movies, books and comics in a different way because I’m in my 50s now, not in my teens. I’ve read a lot of books, I’ve tried to learn and to evolve, and I am a different person now than the person I was back then. Well, maybe the same person, but a little bit more informed and able to see the world in a more critical way. I read a lot of interviews and realized that I need to ask George more about the midichlorians and the Whills and symbiotic relationships and stuff like that.
How did such a talk go?
George did not talk about the Whills for an hour. The talks would start on Star Wars, then the conversation would cover lots of different subjects—history, politics, evolution—then we would go back to Star Wars. But those other things were also interesting and important and on occasion, I did include them within the book.
They say Star Wars is set in a galaxy a long time ago, far, far away. But it’s not.
It is related to George’s life experiences, growing up during the Vietnam War, the idea of the freedoms that you should have, the idea of fighting oppression, the idea of democracy et cetera. These ideas formed George, and are the ideas that he talks about in his work, and so they informed Star Wars.
Just take the very first film he made. It is called Look at Life. He took photos from Look magazine and Life magazine, magazines dealing with world events, and he edited them together, using an animation stand (like the animation stand that would be used for the VFX in Star Wars), to make an animation using still images. This is what George does. He looks at life. And then he did a short film about the Berlin Wall because there was a very famous footage of somebody trying to run across the Wall, being shot and killed. This is what George was concerned about in his early 20s when his ideas on the world were being formed. Even though we change and evolve, we’re still the people we were. The core values remain the same throughout life.
I see both Star Wars Archives books as one, it’s one story. George is talking about his near-death experience and starting to take the world seriously and then you see him discovering that film is his art, the way he can express himself. He tries illustration. He tries photography. And then he discovers film and editing and he thinks “Yes!” He discovers how he can edit one image after another image and as they come together it represents a completely different meaning. That’s the discovery. And once he discovers that, then he evolves all the way through his career. What we have by Episode III is the evolution of the moviemaking process that George has completely changed to reflect the creative process. He didn’t do everything by himself, but he’s the guy who punched through—he was the driving force of these transitions. Other people and the industry followed.
“Rick McCallum: What was extraordinary about the whole experience is that we had about 62 companies come together based on George’s dream, investing serious money without a single contract […] All on people giving their word.”
They did over $100 million of work for several years because George Lucas asked them to.
Well, I think they saw a profit at the end of it as well… I think of George as a modern-day cowboy. He comes from Modesto which is in the desert. And there’s a certain attitude with this, an understanding and belief in your fellow men and in the idea of your word being your bond. It’s not something George or anybody has ever said, but something that I observed and had in my head as I was editing, that George believes in certain core beliefs: he believes in people and he believes in the best of people, in treating people with respect. And he expects to be treated in the same way. And if he’s not, then obviously there’s a disappointment attached to that.
I had this experience when visiting the Ranch and talking to a lot of people who have been there and worked with him for decades. Many of them are not in the book. They described George as a caring man and it comes through in everything he does and the way he acts. He supports a lot of people. And in this book, within the context of Star Wars, I wanted to present this as truthfully as I could. I wanted to find a way for people to understand what George was trying to do and how he did it.
In December you had an interview where you mentioned that Padmé is a representation of democracy while Anakin is of individualism in The Phantom Menace.
Yes, I realized that Padmé always seeks cooperation and concordance in the movie. Anakin is the opposite. He does everything by himself: he builds C–3PO, he builds his pod, he wins the race and he blasts the droid control ship, all alone – or with a little help from R2, of course.
This analogy works in Episodes II and III as well. In Episode II, Anakin thinks they need a dictatorship instead of democracy and also wants to cheat death. In Episode III he says he is doing everything to protect Padmé but he really wants the greatest power of the galaxy for his own good. Padmé (and also Palpatine) become side characters in his plot. Democracy, concordance and unity are now dead, they lost the battle. So, their representation, Padmé must also die.
If you take that analogy all the way through it, it works. It’s interesting to see that these things are all embedded within Star Wars but they rarely appear within the chatter of the internet or anywhere else. There is so much information out there about Star Wars, it’s very difficult to cut through that and to get to the essential core ideas. I think one of the nice things about the book is that those ideas are given the space they need. George is almost reluctant to talk about some of these ideas because he’s designed his movies to work for children. He wants them to feed directly from the screen into the eye and then into the brain, to work in that way instead of being explained in words. It’s great to see that within the context of the book, George confirms these concepts.
I think these are connected to the mythical level of Star Wars. There is one level where we see the space battles etc. going on and below all them, we have this mythical level, which is difficult to catch.
I think the reason why he’s built these psychological archetypes into the story is for us to come to an understanding of ourselves, our lives and the decisions we make.
Because at some point in our lives, we’re going to make a decision about whether we do something purely for our own benefit or for the benefit of others.
Are we going to do or say something for our benefit which exploits others or is to their detriment? George shows how we can be manipulated or influenced or led down a certain path. Without proper guidance, education and training will lead us into a way that will not only destroy ourselves but will destroy others around us. Star Wars presents these in a big, dramatic fashion. But every single day we are faced with these tiny, tiny battles in our lives. And what he’s trying to do is to make us recognize our almost banal battles so that we change our behaviour so that our automatic reaction is not to do harm to others.
The fact that he’s embedded these characters with mythological archetypes means that we can relate to them. Just in the same way that we can relate to Thor, Loki and Odin. There are two brothers fighting for a father’s love. One of them is strong and powerful and the other one can only survive on his wits. He’s the trickster figure: he can’t actually do anything himself; he can only manipulate others to do it for him. You see these archetypes in different myths and legends, whether they’re Perseus or Achilles or Hercules or Zeus. They all represent different parts of our own personalities, desires and feelings. They were created as stories that we can tell ourselves in order to help us lead better lives. Then they became religions. This is all part of a tradition, and George is part of that tradition but for the modern age. He has created something that’s both old and new.
“George Lucas: Star Wars is a human saga about the struggle between what is good and what is evil; it also deals with more personal issues of growing up, family and politics. I have tried to bring together a lot of ideas that have existed over the last few thousand years and put them into a new story primarily for young people, to understand human heritage, not just of one particular country, but the human heritage that we all share.”
We could say that these are his training lessons for the children of the modern age.
Absolutely. They are rules for life. And this is how George describes them. I think that as long as the trainers and his padawans continue and add their own twists and turns but with the same ideology—as long as they understand the lessons that George has given—then it will continue and evolve into other lessons, being told in different ways.
I think it was really important to include these thoughts in the book because the public has no access to these materials. Our source to understand George’s thinking about his own art is what you compile from the archives and the interviews.
As I’ve said, I wanted to find the “why” of Star Wars and the only person who knows that is George. Everybody else is guessing—only George knows. My work is to curate what’s in the archives in order to find a way to tell the story, to frame it, dramatize it and put the information in the right order, for it to be meaningful and understandable for everybody. It was funny because George said almost the same thing about when he was introducing concepts to Star Wars. It’s the same process: you have to put the information in the right order to introduce a little bit here and there so that by the end the cumulative effect will be more than the individual effect of each bit. So, by the end of the two books, you will have picked up all these concepts along the way to understand what they mean.
“George Lucas: I like to make movies that are complex, but it’s not obvious to people unless they start digging into it. Most people don’t realize it and can’t grasp the whole entity because they’re focusing on four or five pieces out of 200, and often they don’t want to hear about the other pieces because it requires additional thought and ideas outside of the films. […] It’s subtle. I don’t think most people realize that it’s even going on, but if you look for it, you’ll see it.”
What will be your next project?
I’m working on personal projects at the moment, doing fiction and nonfiction. I write and edit print on demand books on writers like Damon Runyon and Gerald Kersh, as well as books on the history of cinema, and I’m waiting for the publication of the new edition of The James Bond Archives, which includes a new chapter on No Time to Die, for which I did interviews with Daniel Craig, the director Cary Fukunaga and others. I’m writing comic strips and selling my previous work through my webstore. Basically, I do whatever is fun for me to do.