George Lucas Talks STRANGE MAGIC, Telling an Original Story Using Existing Song Lyrics, Sending the Right Message About True Love and More

     January 21, 2015

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Disney first announced Strange Magic back in November, but George Lucas has been working on the animated musical for 15 years.  It features Evan Rachel Wood as Marianne, a princess from the Fairy Kingdom who’s got zero interest in falling in love.  On the other hand, finding a dream guy is all her sister Dawn (voiced by Meredith Anne Bull) thinks about.  Meanwhile, over in the Dark Forest, the Bog King (Alan Cumming) is struggling with the same problem.  His mother (Maya Rudolph) is busy bringing him one possible love interest after another, but he’s adamantly opposed to finding “the one.”

In honor of Strange Magic’s January 23rd debut, Lucas came out to New York City to participate in a brief press conference.  He talked about the film’s lengthy development process, the challenge of getting existing song lyrics to sell an original story, making an “ugly” and “disgusting” character likable, how his own relationships came into play and more.  Hit the jump to check out the full discussion.

strange-magic-posterQuestion: I thought the music was great.  Can you talk about that and if the film has a connection to some of the things you thought about for American Graffiti

GEORGE LUCAS: Well, it’s from the same collection, archive I should say, and then the issue ultimately really has to do with the fact that what I wanted to try to do was tell a story using the lyrics from existing songs.  So, the first 10 years were spent developing the characters and trying to get the animation to do what we actually wanted it to do and take it to the next step, and also trying to weave all this stuff together.  And then it was the last five years where Gary [Rydstrom], Marius [De Vries], Steve [Gizicki] and all the other guys came in and we started casting and putting actors to the thing, but the driving force was, can the lyrics tell the story?  And obviously what the story was, it was determined by, ‘Well, this is a scene between the Bog King and Marianne.’  And then it was, Marius said, ‘Well, let’s do this as a duet.’  He mushed the whole thing together so it would work.  I just said, ‘I know this is impossible.  Figure it out.’

How about the American Graffiti connection?

LUCAS: I love rock and roll music.  What can I say?  I have a big archive of music that I’ve kept ever since I was like 10-years old, and this is part of it.  And then Steve came in later and added more music and a lot of it was trying to make the lyrics tell the story and obviously, for me, much to the frustration of some other people, like Steve, I wanted to have good music that I liked.  Not music that somebody else liked.  [Laughs]

You have two heroes that get the girls and they aren’t conventionally handsome.  So first, thank you!

LUCAS: You know, what about us guys?  Are we getting kicked out?  Only gonna be the ugly ones that get to be heroes and not the handsome ones.

How’d you come up with that?

LUCAS: It was simply a matter of, the story is about the difference between infatuation and real love, and real love is on the inside.  It’s somebody you have a common ground with, you share the same values, you share the same interests, you share the same humor, you share all those things that are things that will last you the rest of your life.  What the person looks like will not, and that’s the point.  If you fall in love with a boy band, that’s not gonna last.  If you fall in love with a football star, that’s not gonna last.  It’s for young kids to say, ‘Hey, let’s just get beyond the cover of the book.’  And again, it’s a story that’s been told over and over again.  In that case, it’s much more like Star Wars, [but] instead of mythology, it’s based on fairy tales, whether it’s as simple as The Ugly Duckling.  But it’s really something that says, ‘Hey, kids need to be told this every generation so that they understand that that’s really the way it works,’ and with a little, slight 60s, 70s twist, which is, you know, true love and happiness really is not with the pretty boy. 

strange-magic-image-impWas it challenging to find the right songs to match the story, like a jigsaw puzzle?

LUCAS: It was awful.  It was more like a Rubik’s Cube than a jigsaw puzzle.  And obviously when I went through it, I had a gazillion songs and I narrowed it down, narrowed it down with the story and then over the years we narrowed it down, narrowed it down and then when we started actually doing storyboards and putting things in and Steve and Marius came on, we recorded a lot of music that’s not in the movie because we would pull one song out, then we had to pull another song out.  It’s like a Rubik’s Cube.  It just would not stop and it was very hard to make it actually connect.  Originally I wanted it to all be music, like an opera, no talking, and when we got to that phase, everybody sort of beat on me really hard and said that’s not gonna work.  I’d say 70% of it is music.  ‘What you were doing in 15 minutes, we can now do in 2 minutes and we’ve gotta get this down from …’  My biggest problem in life, or any filmmaker really, is the film comes out way too long.  For instance, it’s like the three-hour American Graffiti.  The three-hour Strange Magic, you know, we can’t do it.

Could you expand on why you turned down directing another Star Wars movie to work on what’s been described as a passion project?

LUCAS: Well, originally I had two daughters, I ended up with another daughter.  Star Wars was for 12-year-old boys, I figured I’d make one for 12-year-old girls.  The 12-year-old boy one worked for everybody from eight months to 88, boys, girls, dogs, whatever, it really worked.  So I said, ‘Well, maybe I could do one like this but is slightly more female-centric.’  It’s really a story that hopefully will work for everybody, but it was really something [where] I said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll do this.’  And I just wanted to have fun.  I was directing Star Wars while I was doing these.  I’d go out and shoot and this would be put on the shelf for a while.  I had a little group of guys and girls working on this thing.  It’s a project that I’ve been doing for a long time and then when it came to sell the company, I realized it wasn’t really finished.  But I said, ‘Well, I still want to retire.  I’m not gonna wait this out.  I want to retire now.’  Time is more important to me than money.  And so I just did it and hoped that Kathy [Kennedy] and everybody who has been working on the film and everything would follow through and Disney would put up the money to finish it.  I mean, it was mostly done, so it wasn’t like they had to put up a whole bunch of money to finish it.  But, you know, it turned out extremely well and what I envisioned.  I know it’s been what, maybe two years [since I sold the company], but time moves very slowly in animation.

strange-magic-evan-rachel-wood-alan-cummingThe voices are absolutely perfect.  Would you talk about the cast and the casting process?

LUCAS: The only cast member I actually knew was Elijah [Kelley] because I worked with him before.  I kind of knew when we started working and started casting that I wanted Elijah to play the part of Sunny, but I knew I had a lot of other people who had to sign off on the casting sessions.  So I kept pushing him along and they’d say, ‘Well, we don’t think Elijah …’  The other ones, it was a different thing.  My part of the casting was mainly listening to the actors and then listening to them sing.  So out of that we picked the best actors and the best singers, and some of them, Alan Cumming I just met 10 minutes ago but we’ve been together for two years.  You know, but it was purely on talent and their ability to do the job.  And I think they did a fantastic job.  It was beyond anything I could have hoped for.

One of my favorite characters was The Bog King and I loved the Bog world.  Was there a specific inspiration behind the The Bog King and his world?

LUCAS: Well, obviously there’s the dark world and the light world and, in this one, rather than the dark side of The Force and the light side of The Force, it has to do with the fairies and the happiness and all that kind of stuff, and then the ones that are unhappy, because you’re mean, you’re unhappy.  That’s why you’re mean in the first place.  So, I wanted the Bog King to be as ugly as I could possibly make him, and so we kind of took a praying mantis and a cockroach.  That was when I said, ‘We’re not gonna use a real animal.  We’re gonna make up one.’  And of course then everybody went berserk.  I said, ‘How can you possibly do this?  You have a cute little butterfly fairy and this’ – there was a lot of skepticism about whether this idea was gonna work at all and, to me, it comes together thanks to Gary.  There was controversy also around whether they should kiss at the end.  They kiss in the end and so far nobody’s jumped up and said, ‘This is disgusting!’  It works!  We made this most disgusting person we could create be lovable and have her kiss him without you saying, ‘Well, that’s not even credible,’ because it is credible!  You know why they love each other, you know why they’re together.  It wasn’t as hard with Sunny and Dawn, but, you know, those things you stretch and when you look at it from the beginning, everybody goes, ‘Wait a minute,’ especially when we had the drawings.  They looked at the drawings and said, ‘You’re not really gonna have this cute little girl fall in love with this ugly little man?’  And for me, having gone through that experience in life where I got married, got divorced, adopted a bunch of kids and raised my kids, and went on and was a bachelor for 20 years and had the bachelor life and all that kind of stuff. I wanted to get married again, but I knew the people I was going out with, they weren’t the strange-magic-the-bog-kingkind of people I would marry.  And I thought, ‘Well, I’ll never find that person.’  I had given up and said, ‘It’s never gonna happen.  There’s no way I can find that person.’  And then I met my wife who is completely opposite to me in every possible way, but inside we’re exactly the same.  It’s eerie that we’re so much the same.  I was obviously quite a ways down the road.  This was eight years ago, but it did influence things.  And to say, love is strange.  I mean, it just is.  You know, it’s like this funny thing that happens.  By this time I was way beyond the old infatuation stage because I was 60.  Suddenly things were clearer because I found somebody that agreed with me, had the same moral values, had the same interests, and everything was exactly the same.  We finish each other’s sentences, she’s a great pal.  That idea is what you’re really looking for. 

Why did you make the movie?

LUCAS: Because I wanted to have fun and I wanted to make a movie where – I love music – where if I make a movie that has a whole bunch of music in it, I get to listen to the music all day long, and I don’t have to say, ‘Well, I gotta go back to work and I gotta stop listening to the music.’  I get to listen to music and go to work.

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