LOS ANGELES — Reflecting on his seventh decade of life, as well as his imminent retirement, George Lucas recently handed over the largest donation in the history of the University of Southern California — giving birth to the college’s brand-new School of Cinematic Arts.
With friends Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis by his side, the man behind five of the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time addressed the long-term future of cinema, along with shorter-term outlooks for a new Indiana Jones adventure, a newly announced animated project and the entire “Star Wars” universe.
“It seems to have inspired a lot of people,” Lucas said of his “Star Wars” franchise. “But it’s not just filmmakers. It’s astronauts and people that go into business and people that do all kinds of things. ’Star Wars’ was really designed to make people think outside the box — to make people use their imagination and think anything is possible. And it does that.”
With his prequels behind him, Lucas has shifted his attention to two daring projects that could bring tie-fighters, tauntauns and Tatooine to a new generation of imaginers. First among them is a largely 3-D animated show very different from the recent, slick Genndy Tartakovsky “Clone Wars” cartoons but set throughout the same epic battles. “We’ve got a number of episodes finished now,” he promised. “It looks really good. It’s a lot of fun.
“It’s that same time period,” Lucas added of the show, which is being shopped to various channels. “But it’s quite a bit more sophisticated, and it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen on television before. … [Tartakovsky] used his distinctive 2-D style to do [Clone Wars], but it was two minutes at a time, so it was a test-subject kind of idea. It worked and everything, but then we knew we were eventually going to do a 3-D animated series.”
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In 2007, Lucas will begin work on a live-action “Star Wars” show set during the 18-year gap between Episodes III and IV. “We haven’t started yet; I start that next year,” the filmmaker said, adding that he’s determined to write an entire first season before shooting begins on the show that will star “background” characters from that time period.
“None of the Skywalker story, none of that stuff is in there,” he explained, shooting down any depiction of a young Han Solo acquiring the Millennium Falcon or running with Lando Calrissian. “It’s completely different. The animated series has got all the characters in it. The one that comes after, the live-action one, is with people who were in ’Star Wars,’ but they’re not the main characters.”
Lucas said the plot will be steered by characters such as Tie-Fighter or Rebel pilots, most only briefly glimpsed in the six “Star Wars” films.
Those who haven’t been stuck in a cave for the past five years know all too well that Lucas, Spielberg and Harrison Ford have been developing a fourth Indiana Jones adventure for more than a half-decade now, with all three needing to approve the finished script. When pressed for an update, Spielberg insisted that he wanted to keep the day’s focus on his producing partner; Lucas is optimistic about the project.
“Steve and I are still working on the script,” Lucas said, but he wouldn’t confirm rumors that Indy will have some sort of young apprentice — family member or otherwise — in the flick (see “George Lucas Says Indiana’s Next Crack Of The Whip Will Be Tamer” ). “We don’t know yet, because we haven’t got the script finished yet.”
Indy’s executive producer did, however, reveal one theme that he’s determined to address in the first “Jones” flick since 1989’s “The Last Crusade.” “Well, he’s an old man,” Lucas admitted. “That’ll be in there.”
Old age is clearly on Lucas’ mind, and it seems to be shaping a lot more than just the “Indy 4″ script. “I’m kind of semi-retired,” he said during the press conference announcing his donation. “Now that I’m 60, I’ll [influence the new program] the way I would’ve done it if I had been 60 [when I attended USC], but I was not. I’m 60 now, so that’s why I’m doing it.”
Afterward, Lucas followed up on his “semi-retired” comments by saying that he won’t be directing any more films in the near future. “Right now I’m an executive producer, and I’m going to be an executive producer for another couple years,” he insisted. “I’m trying to set up some projects and get them done.”
But as far as proper directorial efforts go, Lucas seems uncertain that the once bright-eyed kid behind “American Graffiti” and “THX 1138″ will ever truly return — and if he does, he wonders if anyone would even want to see the end results. “After I’ve done (the executive-producing work), I’m gonna go back and do my own films, but they’re more esoteric in nature,” Lucas said. “And I’m not sure whether they’re even going to be released.”
Such comments will undoubtedly raise eyebrows among Lucas die-hards, who have spent years tracking the progress of “Red Tails,” the passion project that was earmarked to serve as his directorial return. “It’s a producing movie,” Lucas said of the flick, which will tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black pilots who served in the Air Force during World War II. “[I’m producing] ’Red Tails,’ then ’Indiana Jones,’ and then I’m doing an animated feature.”
Lucas was hesitant to give any further details on the animated flick, which his Lucas Animation plans to begin working on in a year. He also held back details on what exactly those “esoteric” directorial flicks will consist of.
“I’ve got lots of ideas for movies and for TV shows. I’m gonna pursue those when I’m on my own, because I’ve set up a fund that I can use up,” he said. “And if they don’t work, then I’ll just keep going until I’ve used up my fund — and then I’ll retire for real.”
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