The biggest indie film ever made: 'Phantom Menace'
May 31, 1999
From Dennis Michael
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- When movie fans think of independent films, certain criteria usually come to mind: artsy topic, low-budget financing, no-name actors, perhaps a first-time director.
One thing they probably don't think of is George Lucas' $115 million "Star Wars" prequel blockbuster, "The Phantom Menace." But indie film it is, perhaps the biggest and most expensive indie film ever made, completely financed and created outside the Hollywoodland studio system by Lucasfilm Ltd.
It's also the dream-come-true for Lucas, and a beacon of hope for young independent filmmakers everywhere.
'I was tenacious enough ...'
In the late 1970s, Lucas began shying away from the studio path like it was the Dark Side of the Force. Having worked in the Hollywood gravitational pull, where "control" is a collective experience, Lucas says he got tired of too many cooks spoiling the pot -- studio execs messing with his product, forcing deadlines, giving him creative headaches.
But with the success of "Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope" in 1977, and Lucas' later victories with movies like the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" series, he has parlayed his wealth to form his own little Hollywood where he lives in northern California.
He's the leader of his Lucasfilm creative galaxy, and Hollywood's Darth Vaders are far, far away.
"Fortunately I was tenacious enough and stubborn enough that I wanted to do my movies and not direct somebody else's script, and I just wanted to create the whole thing myself," Lucas says.
'Straight out of George's imagination'
Lucas first grew frustrated with Hollywood's overbearing influence when he was working on the feature film "THX 1138" (1971). But his biographer, Dale Pollack, says Lucas reached the last straw while creating his next film, the classic "American Graffiti" (1973).
Pollack says Universal Studios brass recut the film without his permission.
When "Star Wars" became the biggest hit of all time, it made him rich. It also made him free.
"In every film he's made, whether it's 'THX 1138' or 'American Graffiti,' he had a vision in his mind," says Pollack, author of "Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas." "Everyone else told him that vision wouldn't work and he stayed true to it and he enjoyed great success. And I think that's become sort of his bylaw."
Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who has starred in a number of independent films -- including "The Phantom Menace" -- says "Episode One" is all Lucas, from start to finish.
"And it's the most independently owned and thought of thing that I've ever seen," Jackson says. "I mean, he uses other people to create some images and stuff but the germ of all this comes straight out of George's imagination."
While the studio 20th Century Fox is involved as a distributor, "The Phantom Menace" now stands as an example of indie film achievement. But even Pollack admits that Lucas' work should in no way be compared to the films that play at festivals like Robert Redford's indie mecca Sundance.
"There is certainly a certain irony there, in being an independent filmmaker who has a corporation worth $4 or $5 billion," says Pollack. "It doesn't really quite make you the Rebel Alliance against the Evil Empire, but it makes you a different empire. So I don't think he can really say he's an independent filmmaker and talk as if he's one of the kids at Sundance trying to get their first feature off the ground."
Still, Lucas provides a new hope to those indie filmmakers who hope to find their big break away from Hollywood's grip. And Pollack says he can relate to those filmmakers.
"I think George Lucas would have been happy being one of those kids," says Pollack. "And that always has been the spirit that has animated him. I think that he has clearly shown that you don't have to play by Hollywood's rules to be successful."
CNN Interactive Senior Writer Jamie Allen contributed to this report.
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