Lawrence Kasdan has penned some of American cinema’s most popular films of the past four-plus decades, be it Raiders of the Last Ark, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, his own Body Heat and The Big Chill, or the more recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Despite also crafting an impressive directorial career over that period, however, the 73-year-old filmmaker has largely shied away from helming special effects-heavy blockbusters himself—which is why he turns out to be a novel choice to spearhead Light & Magic, a six-part Disney+ docuseries (July 27) about Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the visual effects company that was founded by George Lucas to help produce 1977’s original Star Wars.
ILM has since become the pioneering leader in its field, responsible for countless groundbreaking and beloved cinematic spectaculars, and Kasdan’s portrait is a loving tribute to an outfit that was born out of necessity and blossomed into a paragon of risk-taking innovation and boundless DIY creativity.
Light & Magic is an illuminating glimpse at the combination of luck, ingenuity and daring that begat ILM, buoyed by a surplus of amazing behind-the-scenes material (and corresponding film and TV clips) and commentary from everyone who was anyone during the company’s heyday, including Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, Joe Johnston, Phil Tippett, and John Dykstra—not to mention Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis and the godfather himself, Lucas. With heart and humor, Kasdan crafts a history lesson that doubles as an origin story for our own current CGI-ified tentpole landscape, shining a light on the humble beginnings of a venture that would repeatedly revolutionize core aspects of the industry. As someone intimately connected to Lucasfilm and, thus, ILM, Kasdan provides an insider’s peek at a transformative era and the artists who first imagined it, and then made it real.
We chatted with the writer/director about ILM’s seismic impact on the movies, his own connection to Lucas’ classics, and the ironic future path that Light & Magic has inspired him to chart.
You include so much from Lucasfilm’s history in Light & Magic, but one conspicuous absence is Jar Jar Binks, the first fully CGI supporting character in a live-action film. Was that deliberate? Or did he just not make the cut?
I’d say, didn’t make the cut [laughs]. Yeah, that’s what I’d say. I was at the first screening where people saw Jar Jar. There was a small group of us up at the [Skywalker] Ranch, and it was the first prequel, and it was part of what was very disorienting. The movie looked completely different because it was all digital. George’s great dream had been fulfilled, and he was back to directing because he liked those circumstances better than he did with live people. Jar Jar was just an aspect of that shock that we were seeing. I don’t think there was anyone there who jumped up and said, “Love Jar Jar!” But George did.
You wrote some of the effects-heavy blockbusters featured in Light & Magic, and yet you never directed one yourself. What, then, made you want to make this docuseries?
I think what you’ll find is that it’s not a doc about the technology or the science. It’s a doc about the people, and all these geniuses put together and forced to work together, and sort of falling in love with each other in the best kind of work-work way. There’s a kind of eccentricity about them, there’s enormous passion for sure, and the skill level is off the charts. And the skills were so different! Someone wasn’t just a sculptor who could make the maquette; they were genius sculptors. And the painters—you think of matte painters as, well, they just do the background. If I could paint one painting like Harrison Ellenshaw could paint, that would be a dream come true in your life!
Then when you see these people who can not only do a great painting but can figure out the design of the Falcon, and then you see them in the Death Star falling asleep because the work is so painstaking and brutal, and then you see Joe Johnston out there pushing the dolly—they did everything, and they were all-for-one. There was nothing sappy about it. They were actually living all-for-one.
Did you spend any time at ILM? Or was that mostly separate, given your own role as a writer?
It was mostly separate. I would go up to visit and I’d go up for screenings occasionally, and I spent a lot of time around there, but mainly just talking in between script conferences and things. One thing that I think had a big effect was, I had come in liking all kinds of movies, and I wanted to direct movies. These movies were filling a big part of that need; they were a certain kind of movie. But they were nothing like some of the movies that had made me want to make movies. So, when I went off to make my own movies, those movies truly reflected my primary interest. I was glad that I could work successfully in this other field, but that did not seem, to me, to be the only field.
When writing Raiders or Empire, was there a dialogue between you and ILM? Because as we see in the docuseries, these guys weren’t just craftsmen; they were fully fledged artists who had significant input into the final product.
There was for the directors—for [Irvin] Kershner and for Richard Marquand and for Steven [Spielberg], and I was struck in the making of this show how much Steven, he’s very humble about it. He said, “I depended on them,” and I loved that. I think that’s the way to use ILM. Of course, Steven had miraculous visions and ideas that were so fun and delightful and entertaining, but he didn’t always know how to make them happen. But he knew where to go to find the people who could make them happen, and I love that. It just covered a certain kind of movie; it didn’t cover every kind of movie. So, I felt really lucky. I got to work in both fields.
There’s a stunning amount of ILM archival material in Light & Magic. What was the most pleasurable—or unexpected—discovery?
I was sort of generally excited, because it just kept coming. This was footage that no one had ever seen before, where George and Lucasfilm had never opened those vaults to any outside eyes. There are snippets of it, when you go back to other movies about the movies, but nothing with the concentrated focus of: Who was working on this, how did they do it, and had there ever been a technique to do this before? One of the most pleasurable things for me about the show is, you can have a guy my age talking about solving a problem in 1977, and you can actually see the still of him working on it in the room! That’s incredible.
Did you learn anything new about filmmaking during the course of making the docuseries?
I had always loved the results of this effects work, but I had never known how it was done. One of the secondary goals for me of doing this project was to finally understand it. But it was always second place behind: Who did this, and how did they come together, and how did they get along once they came together? I like these stories like Ellen Poon, who sees Star Wars when she’s 15 in Hong Kong, and she gets this name—Industrial Light & Magic—in her head and 15-20 years later she winds up there in the Bay Area, with a stop in London. The kind of magnet that it was for people with these gifts I find very stirring.
I know this is going to sound a bit like hyperbole, but is George Lucas the most influential director/artist in the history of contemporary movies? He helped create both the modern blockbuster and the concept of modern franchises, as well as pioneered special effects and digital production which now dominate and define the industry and medium.
You can’t overstate it. In fact, as time goes on, people will talk less about Star Wars and those movies, and they’ll talk more about the fact that we would not have the digital cinema that we have, and we certainly wouldn’t have had it with the speed that we had it, if it wasn’t for George Lucas. He had this vision, and that may be his greatest vision of all.
Light & Magic contends that digital cinema is his legacy, as much as directing any single Star Wars entry.
He took just as much pride in that as in any of the movies. People told him for years, you’re crazy! This can’t happen! And George said, yes it can, and he brought in the people who could make it happen. That’s why it’s amazing. You see these guys who were on the first ARPANET, Ed Catmull, and you say, oh, he’s a genius, and he’s in Utah. How did George get him to come and lead the geniuses?
“In fact, as time goes on, people will talk less about ‘Star Wars’ and those movies, and they’ll talk more about the fact that we would not have the digital cinema that we have, and we certainly wouldn’t have had it with the speed that we had it, if it wasn’t for George Lucas.”
Was this focus on Lucas’ digital work what convinced him to participate in Light & Magic?
We didn’t know [if he’d participate]. I pitched it to Imagine, and it was all dependent on getting George to be cooperative. He had so much material that had never been seen before, and George has varied feelings about his legacy, and he’s certainly had varied feelings since he sold the company [to Disney in 2012]. It was not a slam-dunk that we were going to get his cooperation, and at times, it could be very delicate, because he has his own feelings about what did he sell, and what’s happened to it since. But this thing was unwavering, which is the story of digital.
Was the post-sale era what Lucas wanted to discuss the least?
No, he wanted to talk about it more! But from the first meeting—and we have a lot of records of that—I was saying, yeah, that’s great, but that’s not what this is about. This is about these people.
Was there anything Lucas didn’t want to provide?
We’ll never know what he didn’t want shown, you know? We felt so blessed to have this plethora of unseen material. Also, Lucasfilm, they own a lot of that stuff, and they opened their vaults. So, you get to see the process that was followed. But I can never know what George has hidden back in that other vault.
Star Wars takes up the series’ first two episodes. Similar to my question about George, is it the original the most influential modern film ever, due to its effects and the fact that it gave birth to ILM and its innovations?
Yes. I don’t know if I pulled it off or not, but the reason the first two episodes are like that—the first one, it takes a long time for George to even come into it. It’s really about who put this together, and how did they stumble up against George. How did they find John Dykstra, and then once John Dykstra was brought in, he had control over who he was going to bring in. George was at a great distance—he was making A New Hope. And in the second episode, you see how hard it was to get A New Hope made.
But it really is about the next four episodes, because it’s George’s determination and his innovation—“Get these people in there, I don’t care if they’ve ever made a movie before, I need them to do something, and you tell me what it is I need them to do,” because he didn’t know. The first two episodes are about how you can find the origins of the entire fifty-year ILM experience in that struggle to get A New Hope made.
There are many renowned artists featured in Light & Magic, be it Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren or Joe Johnston. Were there any unsung individuals, however, that you wanted to highlight in the series?
Over the course of the long history, some people got more public attention than others. What was stirring was that, within the company, everyone knew that everyone was contributing. There’s a lovely thing—I think it’s Jean Bolte talking about when they had the model shop, you could sit and watch amazing sculptors and painters come up with this stuff ten feet away, and when the whole process went digital, it was a dark room with a bunch of people sitting at computers. You can imagine the fun differential there [laughs]. Also, you see the yearning on the part of [Jon] Favreau, and Doug Chiang, and JJ [Abrams] was like this when we did The Force Awakens. You want to bring in the old methods as much as you can, because there’s a tactile pleasure in them and something that’s missing in digital movies.
Given Lucas’ conflicted feelings about Lucasfilm’s post-sale output, and given that you’re directing this while having collaborated on The Force Awakens and Solo, was it tricky making Light & Magic with Lucas?
I think it’s all part of the stew, you know? It probably put me in a very good position, because right from the get-go, I was saying to George—which he doesn’t hear that much—I disagree with you about what we’re doing. You know, when you say that, there’s a chance he’s going to pick up his ball and go home. But he didn’t. He wanted this story to be told, and there were moments when he doubted, or he said, I’m uncomfortable with that. Not many. He wound up sort of giving us carte blanche, and it was vital that we get that endorsement from him just so I could do my work.
Did this experience make you want to return to Star Wars or Indiana Jones?
No. What this has done for me is, I want to make documentaries. I just found it so stimulating. I had made my first documentary right before this with my wife, where we made a documentary [Last Week at Ed’s] about the closing of a little diner that we ate at all the time, and it was that experience that was so pleasurable to me, I thought, I want to spend more time on docs. That’s when I went around, started to meet people at Imagine, and we both sparked on the same idea. I said, I want to do a history of visual effects, and they said, what about ILM, since they already had a relationship. I said, that’s me going back home to my hometown, and I loved it. So right away, we knew that this was going to be about this aspect of it.
So ironically, your deep-dive into effects-heavy cinema inspired you to go in the opposite direction, to non-fiction?
It’s no knock on the other movies! But when I came into film through movies like this and The Magnificent Seven, Seven Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia and big epics, I was interested in big movies. But the other movies had grabbed me just as much—Out of the Past and Double Indemnity and the great comedies of the ’60s and ’70s, when comedy meant something different entirely. I wanted to do that, and I loved Westerns, and I wanted to do Westerns. So, there was no one area that I wanted to do, and ILM—I didn’t really start working with them until later, and only really intensely on one picture [2003’s Dreamcatcher]. I loved working with them, but I didn’t have a good experience with the picture.