How Francis Ford Coppola Helped ‘Kid Brother’ George Lucas Become A Filmmaker

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That Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola would call fellow filmmaker George Lucas his “kid brother” in an interview might seem surprising, especially if you’re only familiar with individual movies like Apocalypse Now and Star Wars, and not their collaborations or the small studio they founded together in San Francisco, American Zoetrope. Yet the term of endearment makes sense, and not just because Coppola is Lucas’ senior by five years. Coppola’s decision to let Lucas, then a Warner Bros. scholarship winner, observe the production of Finian’s Rainbow would have a lasting impact on the young film student.

During his time as a graduate student at the UCLA Film School, Coppola garnered praise as an adept screenwriter. An early screenplay, Pilma, Pilma, won the school’s Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award and scored him further work writing adaptations for projects that would be produced by major studios after a period cutting his teeth on low-budget films for Roger Corman and others. This led to co-writing credits on films like Reflections in a Golden Eye, This Property Is Condemned, and Is Paris Burning?, which in turn led to Coppola co-writing the Oscar-winning script to Patton, a biopic of General George Patton.

Coppola’s rapid rise from film school to Hollywood success made him a familiar name among other film students, including Lucas and friend Walter Murch at the University of Southern California. Lucas and Murch collaborated on everything, including the project that would become the short film “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138: 4EB,” which Lucas would direct. When their work placed them in competition with one another for a Warner Bros. scholarship, Murch told The Atlantic that they made “a blood pact like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn” by which “whoever got the scholarship would turn around and help the other guy.”

Lucas won and was put on the set of Finian’s Rainbow, a musical starring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark. That’s when Coppola, who’d already scored his first visit to the Cannes Film Festival with his second film, You’re a Big Boy Now, began mentoring Lucas about the business of filmmaking as best as he could. After the internship, the director hired Lucas as a “general assistant, assistant art director, production aide, [and] general do-everything” for his next picture, The Rain People. The budding director learned a great deal from the experience, but he also turned it into a proving ground of sorts — under the watchful eye of Coppola, of course.

He accomplished this with two different tasks. The first was a documentary about the process of making movies called Filmmaker, which Lucas shot with Coppola’s permission around the Rain People set. The younger auteur told The Atlantic that he did this “more as therapy than anything else,” as he “hadn’t shot film for a long time” by that point. The second had to do with Lucas’ continued development of “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138: 4EB” into a script for a feature to be called THX 1138. Both Lucas and Coppola thought was the script was “terrible,” but the criticism proved constructive, and with Murch and Coppola’s help, Lucas was finally able to turn THX 1138 into shape. It also helped that Lucas and Coppola were forming a new studio together.

The studio was American Zoetrope, and the pair created it in San Francisco as a place that would nurture young filmmakers whose interests and inspirations had little or nothing to do with the studio industry in Hollywood. Murch, whom Lucas brought into the fold with Coppola, told the Guardian decades later that “none of [them] had any family connections to the film industry” outside of their mentor’s previous successes:

“We came from very diverse origins but we were all interested in film, and in making American films under the influence of world cinema — and with a much more personal stamp. Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut and so on were who we had taken our inspiration from — mostly not from American films.”

This was the purveying attitude behind Zoetrope’s creation, and to kick things off, Coppola helped Lucas get THX 1138 off the ground with limited support (and limited interference) from Warner Bros. Or at least that was the idea until Warner Bros. got their hands on a rough cut of the movie.

Unhappy with what they’d seen, the bigger studio recut the film into something that Lucas hadn’t intended:

“I don’t feel they had the right to do it,” Lucas says, “not after I had worked on that thing for three years for no money. When a studio hires you, that’s different.  But when a film-maker develops a project himself, he has rights. The ludicrous thing is that they only cut out five minutes, and it really didn’t make that much difference.  I think it’s just a reflex action they have.”

Not only did the experience leave a bad taste in Lucas’ mouth, but it also left Zoetrope with little to no money to show for it. When it was released in 1971, THX 1138 was a box office failure that earned only $2.5 million, leading Warner Bros. to withdraw the development money it had invested in American Zoetrope. This put the startup in a perilous financial position, as Coppola, Lucas and everyone else involved wasn’t sure if they would be able to acquire further financing for future projects. These concerns were put to rest by a little side project Coppola had been working on called The Godfather, which grossed $133.7 million at the box office from a budget of $6 million in 1972. This reignited the hopes of everyone at Zoetrope and gave Lucas the tools with which to make his next project with Coppola’s guidance, American Graffiti.

During a question and answer session with Stephen Colbert at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, Lucas quipped that he’d made American Graffiti on a “dare” with Coppola. Specifically, the latter “was tired of Lucas’ ‘robot’ movies and wanted to see if Lucas could make a comedy.” Whether or not such a dare actually happened between the two friends and collaborators remains unknown, but it also doesn’t matter. Because the newly rich Coppola and Zoetrope invested in Lucas’ new film idea, which would go on to become a monumental box-office success the following year.

It was also due to Coppola’s Godfather-minted name that Universal Studios came on to distribute the project. Yet executives were still weary of Lucas after his flop with THX 1138. Hence why, when post-production was halted due to a strike by the Screen Writers Guild, Universal produced their own cut of the film and excised several particulars Lucas had originally included. This enraged Coppola, who, according to The Atlantic, went postal on his friend’s behalf:

“When they first saw a print, some angry studio executives believed the entire film was unfit to be released. Only after a stormy outburst by Coppola, standing at the back of a crowded San Francisco cinema, was the film saved. Universal owes its gigantic earnings to Coppola’s temper.”

From there, Coppola would finish out the ’70s with the impressive run of The ConversationThe Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now before running into financial problems thanks to the 1982 flop One From The Heart. Lucas, meanwhile, struck a deal between his own company, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox to make a little science fiction kids movie called Star Wars.

Now in their 70s, their camaraderie is still palpable — be it the way they bantered with each other and Steven Spielberg before presenting Martin Scorsese with his first Academy Award for The Departed, or when Coppola switches between praising and taking friendly potshots at Lucas in interviews. The friendship still exists, and even though the two don’t collaborate their team up provides an example of how chance meetings can change the shape of history. If it weren’t for the UCLA wunderkind’s willingness to take an intern from USC under wing all those years ago, the modern film industry would probably look, sound and feel quite different.