What if George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola traded jobs on ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’?

This week HitFix is revisiting some of the key turning points in recent entertainment history and considering what would have happened if history had turned a bit differently. What if…?

My first contribution for “What If?” week here at HitFix asked a very simple question. That’s an easy one because it’s an either/or proposition, and honestly, it’s something I’ve thought about so many times in the last 20 years that it seemed like the most immediate and obvious topic to cover.

There’s another question that I’ve been turning over for a while now, and it’s a little more complicated. Part of it is based on something that was a real possibility, and the other part is based on speculation on my part about how a chain of events could have played out. I’m not saying that this scenario was ever going to happen, but that’s not the game, is it? When you play “What If?”, everything is possible, and so I’m going to posit something here that could have changed not only the landscape of modern cinema, but my life and the choices I’ve made about my work. Based on some of the responses I’ve gotten from other filmmakers for my vacation articles that will be running next year, I’m not the only one who would have been heavily impacted, either, which makes me wonder…

What if George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola traded directorial duties on “Apocalypse Now” and “Star Wars”?


“Star Wars” was released in 1977. “Apocalypse Now” was released in 1979. The two filmmakers were friends before that, though, and the timetable could easily have shifted if other choices had been made.


George Lucas. Francis Ford Coppola. Marcia Lucas. 20th Century Fox. Alan Ladd, Jr. Marlon Brando. Harrison Ford. Martin Sheen. Harvey Keitel. John Milius. Michael Herr. Steve McQueen. Wait… Steve McQueen? What the hell?


Well, the result was nothing less than the creation of the modern blockbuster age as well as the beginning of the end of things for Coppola in terms of studio financing. “Star Wars” was more than just a hit film or a moneymaker. It was a full-blown cultural phenomenon, and the ripples from it are still playing out now as JJ Abrams gears up to make “Star Wars Episode VII” for 2015. “Apocalypse Now” almost killed Coppola, both literally and career-wise, and while the film tied with “The Tin Drum” at the Cannes Film Festival for the Palme d’Or, it also created a difficult-to-shake impression of Coppola as someone who was out of control financially, making studios nervous and pushing him to the point of personal bankruptcy for the first of several times.

Three things that wouldn’t have happened:

1 – The ’70s might not have ended so soon

Any time you break things down by decade, it’s a little more complicated than that makes it seem. When I refer to “The ’70s,” what I’m really talking about is an all-too-brief moment where studios and audiences seemed to be willing to be adventurous, where artistry was not completely ignored in favor of commerce, and where the mainstream seemed broader and more exciting than ant any other time in film history. Both Lucas and Coppola were part of that moment, and many people point to “Jaws” and “Star Wars” as the harbingers of the ’80s, the end of all things good and the start of all things bad. I think that’s incredibly simplistic, but not entirely unfair. The thing is, “Jaws” came from a very different place than “Star Wars,” and the linking of the two always seems spurious to me. “Jaws,” like “The Godfather,” was an example of taking a sort of trashy popular novel and turning it into something that actually exceeds the source material. “Star Wars” was something very different, a reinvention of a form that the filmmaker loved as a child. Like “Raiders,” Lucas used “Star Wars” to pay homage to the serial storytelling that he loved as a child, and there is something almost charmingly naive about the way “Star Wars” accomplishes that. The wrong lessons were learned from the film’s success, though. The lesson that studios should have taken from film’s success is that when you allow a filmmaker to follow their loves, you’ll get something passionate and committed, something that goes beyond mere imitation. Instead of supporting artists and their impulses, the entire spirit of the ’70s, they fell into the trap of following someone else’s example.

2 – Francis Ford Coppola wouldn’t have had so many financial issues

If Lucas had stayed attached to “Star Wars” as writer and producer but not director, he would have had to cut Coppola in, and even if the film had just been a moderate hit instead of the outrageous mega-hit that it was, it could have made all the difference in the world to him. He was one of the biggest names in the industry when he started work on “Apocalpyse Now,” so if it had been “Star Wars” instead, he could have brought that clout to bear in getting the cast he wanted and building out the world in the way he wanted. It was “Apocalypse Now” that made studios take a step back from him, and it got harder and harder for him to put together budgets for films like “One From The Heart” or “The Cotton Club.” Imagine if he had stayed onboard for all three of the original films, alternating “Star Wars” movies with more personal pictures, using the money from the hits to help allow him to make things that more closely adhered to his own interests. He has been defined for most of the ’80s and ’90s by the things he did wrong, and I wish we’d seen what a secure and stable Coppola might have accomplished.

3 – Movies wouldn’t have become expensive toy commercials

While I personally enjoyed every one of the thousands of hours of my childhood spent playing with action figures and “Star Wars” toys, I recognized almost immediately that the merchandising drove the entire industry crazy. I’ve been in meetings at studios where someone asked a question about changing something to make it easier to turn into a toy, and I’m still amazed that executive’s tongue didn’t turn black and fall out. There were toys tied to movies before “Star Wars,” and I’m sure there would be toys based on movies today anyway, but “Star Wars” raised the stakes. They were able to release new toys for seven straight years, constantly, and that kind of money is what threw off the entire industry’s sense of proportion. If Coppola had made a more grown-up version, sadder and more operatic, I find it hard to believe it would have created the same frenzy that we are still coping with today.

Three thing we predict would have happened:

1 – Science-fiction cinema would look very different at this point.

If Coppola made “Star Wars,” I have a feeling the “opera” in the term “space opera” would be his driving creative impulse, and we might have seen a very different approach to storytelling from the start. If he took the simple science-fantasy ideas of Lucas’s story and then elevated the material in the same way that he did for “The Godfather,” we might have still seen an explosion of science-fiction films afterwards, but more adult. “Star Wars” could have led to things like a gorgeous big-screen treatment of “Childhood’s End” or “The Caves Of Steel” or “The Stainless Steel Rat.” Instead of wearing out Joseph Campbell’s archetypes, we might have seen genre films that aimed higher, that hewed more to the “2001” end of things. I can’t imagine Coppola making something as dewy-eyed and sincere as Lucas’s version of “A New Hope.” Considering how important family is as an idea in Coppola’s work, the family drama of “Star Wars” would have ended up front and center, and there’s a good chance Coppola would have figured out a way to make it all count.

2 – George Lucas would be the experimental filmmaker he’s always said he wanted to be.

The original idea for shooting “Apocalypse Now” was to go to Vietnam during the final days of the war and to shoot the film on 16mm in an actual war zone with Steve McQueen playing Willard. I have trouble believing anyone would have okayed that, even in the midst of the ’70s. It’s more likely that by the time Lucas got the money together, he would have had to go to Cambodia or Thailand. Roger Corman had already put the word out that the Phillipines were a nightmare to shoot in, so Lucas would have tried for something that looked as close to the real location as possible. If you want some idea about how the film might have looked with Lucas at the helm, check out “More American Graffiti” and, specifically, the storyline about Terry The Toad heading to Vietnam. It’s shot 16mm, and the image is presented as a windowboxed square during the movie. I seriously doubt the film would have ended up even remotely similar to the sprawling hallucinatory nightmare that Coppola ended up releasing. Instead, the film might have played out more as the straightforward modernization of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” like the original Milius script. I think it’s safe to say that without the merchandising money from “Star Wars,” Lucas wouldn’t have felt the same compulsion to work in commercial films, trapped by his own creation, and he would have been free to follow his instincts and make movies that looked a lot more like “THX-1138.” It’s likely he would have been known as that weirdo filmmaker who had that one big hit about the kids driving around in cars, instead of the unofficial master of an entire generation’s childhood.

3 – Digital filmmaking would have flourished even sooner

George Lucas gets credit for many of the industry innovations that everyone takes full advantage of at this point, but the truth is that Coppola was the real visionary. He was always just a little bit too early for his own good. I remember the first time I read about the Silverfish, Coppola’s digital studio on wheels, a trailer he could park on-set and use as both his staging area and his editing suite. He was the one who wanted to shoot on video instead of film. He was the one who saw non-linear editing as the future. He was the one who believed that film was a step along the way and not the final evolution of the tools. Lucas watched Coppola crash on the rocks of ambition over and over, and each time, he picked up where Coppola left off and perfected the technology. If Coppola had ended up making the “Star Wars” films, who’s to say he wouldn’t have pushed everything forward by a decade or more? I have a feeling all Coppola needed was the right financial support to make his dreams come true, and “Star Wars” could have been the right project to make that happen.

Did history work out for the best?

I think it did. “Star Wars” is one of those major events that affected not just the people who made it, but the people who watched it, and I cannot imagine the way modern movies would have changed without the saga in the mix. And while Coppola may not have picked the easy road, his “Apocalypse Now” is such a staggering example of what happens when a major artist pours his heart and soul into a project that I shudder to think of a world where it didn’t exist.

The relationship between Lucas and Coppola has always seemed particularly complicated. Coppola went from being a mentor to being a collaborator and then eventually to being someone who needed Lucas to help support him so he could keep working.  Lucas went from being a director working in a very personal way to being the CEO of a billion-dollar empire, trapped in many ways by his own success. While I enjoy thinking about what could have happened for both of these artists, I wouldn’t trade that possibility for the reality of what they both did.

Besides, if I screw with this particular part of film history, I might accidentally erase “Tucker: The Man And His Dream” from existence. And nothing is worth that.

I’ll have one more contribution to “What If?” week tomorrow, and keep checking in all across HitFix for special contributions from our music and TV writers about other possible alternate realities.