Tuesday, May 20, 2014

It's the 15th anniversary re-release of GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE - an interview with director Joe Nussbaum!

This year marks the 15th Anniversary of a short film we've discussed a few times on the blog here: GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE. The film is a hilarious mash-up of Shakespeare In Love and Star Wars, as it purports to reveal the origins behind George Lucas's script that launched one of the most enduring franchises and mythologies in popular culture.

To celebrate that occasion, the film will be available for download on iTunes for the first time ever. It's on sale today, so check it out here. (And unlike certain other filmmakers, this re-release is exactly how you remember it - no new musical numbers to be found.)

GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE is one of my favorite short films ever, if not my absolute favorite. Written by Joe Nussbaum, Timothy Dowling & Daniel Shere, and directed by Nussbaum, it is everything a short film should aspire to. It's got a brilliant premise, it moves fast, it's funny and the acting is solid.  It feels like a lot of young filmmakers today try to catch attention with fan films of some sort, but I have seen few as purely savvy and creative as Joe Nussbaum's GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE.

So when the opportunity arose to actually get an interview with Nussbaum, I couldn't say "yes" fast enough. In the intervening years, Nussbaum has directed the feature films Sleepover, American Pie presents The Naked Mile, Sydney White, and Prom, and has also worked in TV on a number of shows including Awkward, Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous and Surviving Jack.  But it all began fifteen years ago with a memorable short film...

Joe, first, congrats on the 15th anniversary of GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE! I think some of my younger readers have grown up with YouTube and an era of short films being easily accessible on the web. Can you take us back to 1999 and talk a little about what it was like to make a short film - and specifically a STAR WARS fanfilm - around then?

Joe Nussbaum: In the pre-YouTube era, it was all about VHS tapes. I worked as an assistant in film development, and my boss and her colleagues would get these short films on tape from agents trying to promote new directors. I would look at the stack of tapes and think, “I want a tape in that pile”. So I got together with some friends from film school and set out to make a short film that would get me noticed as a director.

The hybrid short already existed before us (what would today be called a ‘mash-up’) and we knew these were more likely to be watched. Shorts like Troops, Swing Blade, Eating Las Vegas, and Saving Ryan’s Privates were more likely to be put in the VCR than say, ‘Dancing to Oblivion’ or something like that. So being the calculating mofos we were, we dreamed up a hybrid of Star Wars and Shakespeare in Love and hoped it would work. Lucky for us, it did.

As for being a Star Wars ‘fanfilm’, I had not only never heard that word, I didn’t even know such a thing existed. I never thought I was making this movie as a fan (though I was a fan) I was always making this movie as a sample of what I could do.

 STAR WARS is pretty ubiquitous these days as a source for fan films. Was that the case in 1999? I definitely have strong memories of TROOPS becoming an internet hit around the time of the Special Editions, and going back further there is, of course, HARDWARE WARS. Did you have any reason to think that GLIL could become popular to the degree it did?

JN: Popularity was the furthest thing from my mind. I really didn’t think anyone outside of Hollywood would see it. I just hoped that the people who could hire directors (like my boss) would see it and give me a shot.

In your mind, what are the components of a successful short film?

JN: Mostly I think what makes a successful short film is the same as what makes a successful film of any length, but beyond that, specific to a short would probably be the need to capture the audience immediately (first scene, first seconds even), move at a very brisk pace, hold some surprises, and end strong. A successful short should also have strong stylistic elements. It should have a point of view when it comes to style.

Can you give us an idea of how thoroughly you developed your strategy for using this film as a calling card? This was a time before YouTube metrics and Twitter tastemakers were able to get a lot of eyes onto something. Obviously people responded to it once they saw it, but making sure they watch the film probably was the hard part. When you sent out a DVD or VHS of the film, how did you make sure it didn't end up in the "unsolicited submissions" pile?

JN: I was fortunate that the people involved in making the movie were all already working in the Hollywood machine. I was an assistant at a production company, producer Joseph Levy had been an assistant at a big agency and was working with a manager, and Gary Bryman, one of our executive producers, was floating around in legit development circles too. So when we finished the movie we had a network of ‘underlings’ in Hollywood who, if they liked it, could move it up the chain to their bosses.

Gary quickly showed it to a manager and I signed with him right away. This manager then paved my way toward an agent, and all our submissions were legit.

If you were making something like GLIL today, do you think it would be as successful? Should today's young talent be trying to make their own standout fan films?

JN: I hope GLiL would be just as successful today. I think when people like something they like it regardless of how much other noise is out there. I think if anything, with Facebook and Twitter and reposts, the short would have spread 100 times faster than it did back then (assuming people liked it).

As for today’s young talent, they should make whatever they would want to see. Yes, we were calculating when we decided to make GLiL, but we also loved Star Wars and loved the idea and thought it would be really funny. I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but make what you love and it will come out way better. If that’s a fan film, then do that. If it’s something original, do that. Make what you think you can make great and special. That’s the only chance that it will work.

You shot GLIL on 35mm film which is significantly more complicated and difficult than it would be to shoot and edit on digital today. Do you have any thoughts on how the short film community has been impacted by the greater availability of HD cameras and editing equipment, as well as easy distribution via YouTube and Vimeo?

JN: I’m not really tapped into the ‘short film community’ enough to know the answer to this question, but my guess is that everything’s a lot easier, and a lot cheaper, and there’s probably a lot more really unwatchable stuff because of it. Which is actually good news! Because then when you make something great, I’m sure it can still cut through.

The DVD behind-the-scenes has a great story involving Steven Spielberg. Can I ask you to recount it here?

JN: So one of my good friends, Jim Ryan, has worked at Dreamworks Animation since it opened. And when we made GLiL, we gave him a tape and he showed it to some of his co-workers there. Well, they liked it, and soon more of his co-workers wanted to see it. Apparently, word spread fast, and soon Jim was doing hourly screenings for everyone in the building. Somehow, the producers of the movie Jim was working on, Prince of Egypt, heard about the short and said they wanted to see it, so Jim gave them his tape. It turned out that they liked it so much, they gave the tape to Jeffrey Katzenberg. And apparently Katzenberg liked it enough to send it to Steven Spielberg.

Then, from what I’ve heard, Spielberg watched it, laughed very hard at it, and proceeded to call George Lucas and begin describing the short to him in detail. He then, according to the story, sent Jim Ryan’s copy of George Lucas in Love to George Lucas himself. Lucas wrote me a congratulatory letter less than a month after we finished the short, and the first line was “Steven Spielberg sent me a copy.” Definitely surreal and very very cool, and yes, the letter is framed on my wall. And yes, Jim got another copy.

You have directed 4 feature films and a lot of hours of TV in the last 15 years. I'm sure it's not as easy as "direct a good fan film, get a feature" so give us an idea of what was involved in making that leap from GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE to directing SLEEPOVER just five years later?

JN: It’s funny that you say “just five years later” because at the time, it felt like forever. I was fortunate because GLiL proved to be such a well received directing sample that I was attached to direct my first feature within three months. That movie never got greenlit. But then there was another. But that never got greenlit either. And then there was another, and another, and another. Sleepover was, I believe, the 7th studio feature that I was attached to direct.

Getting a movie off the ground and into production is amazingly difficult. It could be casting that kills a movie, or a poorly received rewrite, or a regime change at the studio, or simply the whim of a studio head on any given day. Ultimately, there wasn’t really anything I needed to do directing-wise beyond the short in order to get a movie, I just needed the planets to align to get one into production.

It seems like - for the most part - your resume has a lot of projects aimed at the teen audience. Is that by design? Are there things about that particular genre that you really thrive on?

JN: I feel like it’s more a result of the twists and turns of fate than by design. I do tend to love teen movies though and think that high school is a fertile ground for both comedy and drama, but I’d be more than happy to ‘graduate’ as well.

When you watch GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE today, what does that film tell you about the 26 year-old guy who made it?

JN: This is such a great question and one I’ve never thought about before. I think it tells me that guy was very passionate and had a strong enough belief in himself to risk his life savings on his own talent. I wonder if I would have the guts to do that today. I also see someone who was lucky enough to have an amazing group of friends willing to pour their hearts into a project to try and make it great. I wish I had as much chance to work with my talented friends over the years as that guy probably thought he would.

So in the last fifteen years, have you gotten the chance to meet the man himself, George Lucas?

JN: I did. It was five years after GLiL and I met George at the Telluride Film Festival where he was premiering the remastered THX 1138. I made friends with some volunteers at the festival who knew I had made the short and they helped smuggle me up to him before the screening. I quickly introduced myself and said that I made George Lucas in Love. Then the most amazing thing happened, George’s eyes lit up, he gave me a firm handshake and he said, “Thanks for making me famous.” I was speechless.

Then his kids, who were there with him, chimed in how much they loved the short. It was unbelievably cool.

And finally, as a STAR WARS fan, what are you hoping for from the new trilogy?

JN: I hope it’s great! I just want a great SW story with great characters who I can get behind and root for.   I can’t wait.
Once again, you can find the film on iTunes here. The official website is here, and there's even an official twitter account at @GLucasInLove.

Press Release Below:

In the fall of 1998, four friends and aspiring filmmakers, JOE NUSSBAUM, JOSEPH LEVY, DAN SHERE and TIM DOWLING began discussing making a short film in order to launch their careers.  The group went on to make one of the most notable, widely seen and profitable short films in the history of the genre.

The film, which was produced in less than two months with only two days of actual filming, hit Hollywood on the morning of May 24, 1999, and within several hours, copies of the film started being passed around town.  The film gradually worked its way up from assistants to executives, eventually ending up in the VCR’s of such moguls as Mike Ovitz, Jeffrey Katzenberg and George Lucas himself, whose copy was personally sent to him by Steven Spielberg.  It wasn’t long before the press picked up on the story of the film which was trailblazing its way through Hollywood.  The film’s success was reported in such publications as DAILY VARIETY, HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, NEW YORK TIMES, LOS ANGELES TIMES, PEOPLE MAGAZINE, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and USA TODAY.  The story went on to reach publications in nearly every continent of the globe.  Television news media also reported about the phenomenon on such outlets as NBC’s TODAY SHOW, CNN’s SHOWBIZ TODAY, MSNBC’s MORNING LINE, Fox News channel, CBS, CNNfn and many more.

In September, 1999, the film made its internet debut on MediaTrip.com. Within weeks, the film was reported to be the most viewed short film in internet history, eventually being watched several million times by internet audiences around the world.  GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE is currently taking its position in a permanent exhibit on the history of film on the internet at the prestigious Museum of Television and Radio in New York and Los Angeles.

Approximately six months after its world premiere and internet debut, GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE was made available for purchase on home video through Amazon.com.  Within its first 24 hours of sale, the nine-minute video became the top selling VHS film on Amazon, placing it ahead of “Star Wars Episode 1”.  GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE retained its number one position for nearly three months straight, just before the film’s release on DVD and broad expansion into traditional brick & mortar retail markets such as Tower Records, Barnes & Noble and Blockbuster.  At the same time, the film was being licensed for television, airline and theatrical exhibition around the world in numerous countries and languages.

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