George Lucas, Chip Kelly, and Billy Corgan
How creative minds falter in the absence of collaboration and accountability
As Star Wars mania envelopes the globe, the creator of the almost 40-year-old film franchise, George Lucas, recently criticized the newest installment in an interview. Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which has been loved by most, currently ranks 93 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and has received an overwhelmingly positive reception from fans and critics. Lucas last week described the film as too “retro” and compared Disney, which bought the rights to the franchise in 2012, to “white slavers” who had bought his children.
The tweet above, which has been retweeted over fifteen hundred times in a few days, resonates with the Star Wars fanbase because it communicates what so many people feel. George Lucas is a dichotomy: he created Star Wars yet he almost ruined it.
What happened that the esteemed director of the most popular movie franchise of all time fell out of favor with the public? How did he change between 1977 and 1983, when he wrote some of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time, to 1999 to 2005, when he released another trilogy that was virtually the opposite?
Lucas began to work on a figurative island, and blocked collaboration and accountability — two important elements that allowed his early films, specifically A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, to succeed.
There are examples across culture — genius, creative minds flourishing when collaborating with other talented individuals. But so often these creative people allow their ego to take hold and they end relationships and cut off positive influences (both intentionally and accidentally).
Recently in sports, Chip Kelly, former head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and the University of Oregon football team— who was successful in both places — was fired because, “He was too much like a dictator — he did things his way and didn’t listen to anyone” (John Breech, CBSSports.com).
Musician Billy Corgan has enjoyed a long, successful career, primarily with his rock band Smashing Pumpkins. But over almost 30 years there have been lots of ups and downs and a wide range in quality of his music. What can explain the differences between Corgan’s best work and his worst?
George Lucas first reached fame in 1973 with the film American Graffiti, in which he was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Writing. Lucas co-wrote the script with Gloria Katz (who also co-wrote Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and Willard Huyck (also an uncredited writer for Star Wars Episode IV). The film was produced by Lucas’ friends and mentors, Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Kurtz.
In a 1974 interview, Lucas had this to say about his relationship with Coppola: “Francis is involved in all my pictures, and I’m involved on all his pictures. We work more or less together as collaborators. What we do is look at each other’s scripts, look at casting, then at the dailies, at the rough cut and fine cut, and make suggestions.”
Lucas brought this collaborative mentality into the original Star Wars trilogy. He was showered with accolades for the first three Star Wars films, and received Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Hugo Award nominations in categories such as Best Director, Best Writer, and Best Dramatic Presentation. While he is the lone credited writer and director for 1977’s Episode IV: A New Hope, and was nominated for Best Director and Best Writing Oscars, he did not win. However, seventeen of his colleagues did win Oscars that year in six different categories, including his wife at the time, Marcia Lucas, for editing.
Heather Massey of the Galaxy Express calls Marcia Lucas “the unsung hero of Star Wars” for her editing work on the original trilogy. Her work has gone largely unnoticed and she does not get much credit, as the Galaxy Express article explains. One might assume editing is simple and only a matter of condensing and correcting, but it is far more. As Massey writes, “The right [editor] can breathe new life into a mediocre project. Everything can change dramatically depending upon the choices an editor makes.”
While Lucas did pen the stories for Episodes V and VI, other primary roles were filled by others. 1981’s Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back was directed by Lawrence Kasdan and the screenplay was written by Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. The Empire Strikes Back is usually referred to as the best of the seven Star Wars films, and the one Lucas was the least involved in (until 2015’s The Force Awakens). Lucas’ collaboration continued with 1983’s Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, with Richard Marquand directing and Lawrence Kasdan co-writing the screenplay with Lucas.
Fast-forward to Episodes I, II, and III, released 1999 to 2005, and Lucas’ awards were limited entirely to the Golden Raspberry Awards, or Razzies, which recognize the worst in film each year. “The prequels signal a troubling lack of interest from writer-director George Lucas in the apparently tedious business of writing and directing — or at least directing actors…the awkward phrasings stick out more when Lucas seems to focus on digitally pasting together bits of footage into ‘perfect’ compilation takes that don’t always give his actors the space they need to transcend the B-movie dialogue,” as described by Jesse Hassenger for A.V.Club.
What happened to a director who had been recognized as the best in his industry, but was now among the worst? Lucas forgot his own past, which can be seen clearly in the 1974 interview: “We [Lucas and Coppola] can bounce ideas off one another because we’re so different. I’m more graphics-film-making-editing oriented; and he’s more writing and acting oriented. So we compliment each other, we trust each other…It works very well, because you really need someone to test ideas on. And you get a piece of expert advice that you value.”
Lucas himself initially recognized he was weak from a writing and acting orientation, yet by the time the late nineties rolled around, he had ceased collaboration and testing ideas on anyone. The credit for the prequels read: Episode I, written and directed by George Lucas; Episode II, written and directed by George Lucas; and Episode III, written and directed by George Lucas. As Joe Marine writes for No Film School, “Though George Lucas wrote and directed Star Wars: Episode IV, he actually didn’t direct, and wasn’t the only writer, on Episodes V and VI. Contrast that with his total and complete control writing and directing all three prequels, and you can see where problems might arise.”
Sean Steele for Heroic Hollywood adds, “While the original Star Wars trilogy followed a more traditional film making process, the prequels suffered from a lack of collaboration. George Lucas is a world-builder and a visionary. We should never forget that, even if you agree with the sentiment that he is not a very good screenwriter or director. Though the prequels were beautiful, they suffered from awful dialogue and poor performances from normally great actors.”
In September of 2015, The Guardian interviewed actor Anthony Daniels, who plays 3-CPO in all of the Star Wars films. He had this to say about Lucas: “George has changed a lot over the years but I think he finds it slightly hard to collaborate…He made decisions that I believe might have been better discussed with other people. J.J. is more collaborative. He likes to listen.”
J.J. is Abrams, who directed December’s Episode VII. Thankfully Star Wars has returned to a collaborative process: Abrams directed; Kathleen Kennedy, Bryan Burk, and Abrams produced; Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and Abrams wrote the screenplay; and of course the film is based on George Lucas’ characters and universe.
Looking at the Rotten Tomatoes rankings gives a clear picture of how the films which are a result of more collaboration are more widely loved:
1. 94% Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
1. 94% Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
3. 93% Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
4. 80% Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
5. 79% Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
6. 66% Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
7. 56 % Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
While Rotten Tomatoes rankings are imperfect, with Star Wars they generally list the films in the same order as most fans. (The biggest flaw seen above is that Return of the Jedi is far more than one percentage point better than Revenge of the Sith, no matter how one feels about the Ewoks.)
Lucas created the phenomenal world of the Star Wars universe that fascinates generations of people around the world. Unfortunately when he came back around to create more Star Wars films in the nineties he was no longer willing to admit his flaws, he did not allow people to speak into his vision, and most importantly he was unwilling to allow anyone to contradict any of his ideas. The accountability and collaboration that was a hallmark of his development as a filmmaker in the seventies was unfortunately lost. The only thing that saved the Star Wars franchise was Disney purchasing Lucasfilm for four billion dollars in 2013 and moving it in a new direction.
Chip Kelly is an American football coach, formerly the head coach of the University of Oregon and most recently the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League (NFL). He led Oregon to BCS games (Bowl Championship Series, the highest level of college competition) in each of his four seasons as head coach, finishing with 46 wins and 7 losses, and one national championship game appearance. Kelly won multiple college coach of the year awards during his Oregon tenure, and is most widely known as an offensive genius and innovator for the speed at which his teams play. He utilizes what is known as the “blur” offense, which prioritizes running plays quickly.
Kelly was hired to coach the Philadelphia Eagles in January of 2013 and was fired by the team last week with one game to go in the 2015–2016 season. After leading the team to 10–6 records in each of his first two seasons, including one playoff appearance, the Eagles fell to 6–9 this season before he was dismissed.
Coaches getting fired after only a few seasons is extremely common in both college and professional football, so no one should be too surprised that Kelly didn’t make it three full seasons. But the circumstances of Kelly’s termination are unique.
On January 3, 2015 Chip Kelly was promoted from his position of head coach of the Eagles to also becoming the general manager of the team (although he did not hold the title). The only other person in the NFL that holds the titles of head coach and general manager is Bill Belichick, who has won four Super Bowls and has been coaching in the NFL for 40 years.
What Belichick does successfully (balance the two roles), and what Kelly attempted to do, is work usually done by at least a couple — and in most cases a group — of individuals for all 30 other NFL teams. “Kelly will now have the freedom to make all decisions on the roster, including the draft. That could possibly give him more power than any NFL coach,” wrote Martin Frank for The News Journal.
Without getting into specifics, Kelly wielded that power, radically overhauling the Eagles roster; releasing star players and signing new ones. The player acquisitions did not go well, and with 6 wins and 9 losses, the total control — that Chip Kelly asked for and was given — was taken away.
According to Phil Sheridan of ESPN, three days before Chip Kelly was fired, Eagles owner Jeff Lurie brought Kelly into his office to discuss the state of the franchise. Sheridan writes, “Lurie suggested a new structure, with a general manager who would handle the Eagles’ personnel department. Kelly balked at that suggestion and Lurie fired him.”
Lurie said about the previous promotion for Kelly: “There was a risk involved in allowing Chip to have that kind of say over player transactions…However, risk/reward — sometimes the risks don’t work. In this case, they didn’t.”
Lane Johnson, an Eagles player drafted by Kelly, called him a great coach in an ESPN interview the day after his firing. But he went on to say, “Too much power. Control. Not being human about things; not working together, with the team, instead of being a dictator.”
Owner Lurie concluded, “Going forward, I think a much more collaborative approach between player personnel and coaching is the way to go. That’s the direction we’ll go.”
Despite the Eagles’ poor record, Kelly’s innovative offense worked for much of the 2015 season. The “blur” offense of the Eagles, according to FiveThirtyEight, was the fastest paced team in the NFL (since TruMedia began tracking fewest seconds of clock time per play a decade ago). However, Kelly’s offseason personnel moves did not give him the players he needed for the team to be successful. Kelly refused to collaborate, and did not allow anyone to question his decisions. He ended up with a roster of players unable to execute his playbook and he lost his job.
Billy Corgan is the frontman of rock band Smashing Pumpkins, who have been active the most part of 30 years. He has also released a solo album, and fronted the short-lived band Zwan. Corgan won two Grammys with Smashing Pumpkins and has been nominated for nine others.
Corgan may seem to be a unique character to include in a story about accountability and collaboration because he wrote nearly all the songs on all his albums and many times played all the instruments (except drums). On Siamese Dream, possibly his greatest work, he re-recorded his bandmates guitar and bass parts after they had left the studio.
Unlike in filmmaking and professional sports, collaboration is theoretically unnecessary in music. Beck, who has released 12 albums over the last 20 years, writes and composes all his music and for the most part also plays all the instruments. His most recent work, Morning Phase, was showered with accolades. In February 2015 Beck won three Grammys: Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical; Best Rock Album; and Album of the Year.
Beck is an outlier however, and in rock music the most beloved works are created by bands — groups of individuals working together. The most well-known example is The Beatles, made up of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison. McCartney and Lennon were the primary songwriters, and as Joshua Wolf Shenk for Slate puts it, “In the early days, [McCartney] said, he and John were constantly in each other’s presence, and ‘everything was co-written; we hardly ever wrote things separate.’”
After The Beatles split McCartney, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr would each go on to have prolific individual careers, but none of their solo work ever approached the originality or notoriety of what they did together as The Beatles. Other successful rock bands of the past few decades that display true collaboration are U2, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and Radiohead. (While the highest selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, is technically a solo album, Jackson benefited from the help of multiple co-writers and dozens of musicians; including Paul McCartney).
Smashing Pumpkins formed in 1988 with the lineup of Billy Corgan on guitar and vocals, James Iha on guitar, D’arcy Wretzky on bass, and Jimmy Chamberlin on drums. That line-up stayed together for eight years, toured the world incessantly during that time, and recorded three critically-acclaimed and platinum-selling albums in that era: Gish in 1991, Siamese Dream in 1993, and the double-album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in 1995.
Of the 52 songs across those three albums, Corgan is credited as the lone songwriter for 46 of them. Corgan and Iha co-wrote four songs, and Iha wrote two songs himself. However, as the band spent so much time together during that time period, the other three members played a huge part in the sound and results.
Butch Vig, who recorded Siamese Dream, had this to say in an interview with Songfacts: “Even though Billy ended up doing a lot of the guitar and bass overdubs, the band, when we would cut a song, they would all play live in the studio with Jimmy. And D’arcy and James contributed to the record also by just being there, talking about the arrangements and the performances and stuff.”
Two of the songs that Iha co-wrote with Corgan — “Soma” and Mayonaise” — are two of the best Smashing Pumpkins songs ever recorded. Spin Magazine ranked all 318 Smashing Pumpkins songs a few months ago, with “Soma” coming in at 53 and “Mayonaise” at two. A Rolling Stone reader’s poll in 2012 places “Mayonaise” number one and “Soma” number four. On The Top Tens list (with live voting) “Mayonaise” is currently three and “Soma” is nine. And on this Slant Magazine list, “Mayonaise” is credited as the greatest Smashing Pumpkins song of all time.
In 1996, Chamberlin left the band, and Smashing Pumpkins recorded 1998’s Adore as a three-piece. By 2000’s Machina, Chamberlin was back but Wretzky had departed. And on both of those albums, unlike the first three, the liner notes credit all songs to be written and composed by Billy Corgan. The quality of the music suffered after Mellon Collie, and it was clear the band collaboration had disappeared.
In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, Corgan had this to say when talking about 1995’s Mellon Collie: “I think you could argue that in many ways it really was the last album for that lineup…It really was the last time the four of us worked together in earnest.”
Despite losing his original bandmates, Corgan didn’t stop writing and recording. He ended Smashing Pumpkins in late 2000, but then in 2001, Corgan formed Zwan, arguably the most collaborative band he has ever taken part in. With Zwan, Chamberlin continued to drum, and joining he and Corgan were bass player Paz Lenchantin and guitarists Matt Sweeney and David Pajo.
Sweeney was a prolific songwriter himself; primarily the frontman of the band Chavez. Pajo was an accomplished guitarist, playing in nearly ten bands before Zwan. In a 2003 interview with NY Rock, Corgan describes Zwan’s formation as accidental, as he and Sweeney had gotten together to write some songs in Utah. He went on to say each member brought something to the band, and even as he was the primary writer, Zwan was collaborative. In the Badger Herald’s review of Zwan’s lone album, Mary Star of the Sea, Elly Rifkin writes: “Corgan’s Zwan is a product of reciprocity, favoring an ensemble vibe versus a glamorous one-man show with great backup players. The music clearly reflects this solidarity.”
Zwan dissolved as quickly as it formed, and in 2005 Corgan would release his lone solo album, TheFutureEmbrace. In an Associated Press interview around the time of its release Corgan said, “The Zwan thing kind of came together, and it was like a fun thing. It was sort of like a welcome relief after the Pumpkins … I never didn’t want to be in a band.”
While even the lesser-quality Pumpkins albums still received praise, TheFutureEmbrace was the first Corgan album that was panned. Daniel Rivera for PopMatters says, “It’s not that any of the songs are horrible; it’s just that they are so shamelessly middle-of-the-road that you become sickened by the ambivalence that they instill.”
Unlike Lucas and Kelly, Corgan’s loss of accountability and collaboration was unintended. After his second band broke up, Corgan claimed he had no interest in starting another and he began work on what would become TheFutureEmbrace. However, only months after that solo album released, he announced a Smashing Pumpkins “reunion” via full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times.
Corgan didn’t actually reform a full band; there was no reunion. The new Smashing Pumpkins — at least initially — would only be he and drummer-friend Chamberlin. The liner notes for 2007’s Zeitgeist read: “Songs by William Patrick Corgan performed artfully by Jimmy Chamberlin, drums, Billy Corgan, all the rest.”
Zeitgeist is easily the worst Smashing Pumpkins release, and Slant Magazine sums up most people’s feelings, calling it “deplorable”. Looking at the Metacritic ratings of all of Corgan’s work, it is clear that Corgan’s loss of collaborators post-Zwan negatively affected his music (albums listed in chronological order):
87: Gish (1991)
96: Siamese Dream (1993)
88: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
Adore (1998) [Adore is not listed on Metacritic, but based on a survey of reviews a score in the high 60’s is probable]
66: Machina (2000)
79: Zwan- Mary Star of the Sea (2003)
59: Billy Corgan- The Future Embrace (2005)
59: Zeitgeist (2007)
72: Oceania (2012)
70: Monuments to an Elegy (2014)
Thankfully, even Corgan himself became aware of the problem and his need for music accountability. Guitarist Jeff Schroeder (formerly of the Lassie Foundation) joined the band for touring following Zeitgeist, and has now been a member of Smashing Pumpkins for eight years. Corgan even called Schroeder a better guitar player than himself. In the years leading up to 2012’s Oceania drummer Mike Byrne and bass player Nicole Fiorentino also joined the Pumpkins.
Corgan discussed the second coming of Smashing Pumpkins in a 2012 Consequence of Sound interview:
I’m in a really good situation. Honestly, I never thought I would be again in a band…But as far as ever letting anybody else into the space, into my personal space, my private space, my emotional space, I thought I would never ever again let any musician into that space. And it’s been an interesting kind of fated journey with Nicole, Mike, and Jeff…it was that funny feeling of “Wow, this is it. This is the four of us.” The four of us are meant to work together…And I really wasn’t expecting it; I was just expecting to put together a functional music unit…
They’ve shown an ability and a willingness and a temerity to lead, to take possession of the Pumpkins’ world, to stand up for things, to fight for things internally that are important and help rebuild my confidence and support me when other people are constantly telling me I’m an idiot and to go back to playing the old songs kind of thing. Behind the scenes is really important to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like, “Wow, I’m really in a room with people who really got my back.” It’s a really good feeling, and I can’t praise them enough right now…this band is really good with space and tone and texture, which I think you can hear on the album.
Oceania clearly benefitted from Smashing Pumpkins once again being a four-person unit. In his 2012 interview with Rolling Stone Corgan said this about the 17 years between 1995’s Mellon Collie and 2012’s Oceania: “And everything in between is what’s happened in between the shipwreck.”
Rob Harvilla for Spin Magazine writes, “Now we greet Oceania, a new record with a new band that’s easily his best work since his rat-in-a-cage heyday, calm and confident and warm, redolent with arena-wimp grandiosity, evoking his greatest hits without getting caught up in the futility of trying to top them. A pleasant surprise, a palpable relief.”
2014 brought another Smashing Pumpkins album, Monuments to an Elegy. While the full Oceania line-up unfortunately did not stay intact, Corgan continues to work with Schroeder, and brought in Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee. The album was produced by Howard Willing, who worked on 1998’s Adore. And then for the band’s 2014 tour, joining Corgan and Schroeder were Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk and Killers bassist Mark Steormer.
As the music world awaits the next Smashing Pumpkins’ album — tentatively set to release later this year with the title Day for Night — hopefully Corgan continues to surround himself with people he trusts to help him create and focus his craft.
George Lucas, Chip Kelly, and Billy Corgan are — without question — successful, creative geniuses who have bettered their respective fields: filmmaking, football, and music. As their work and legacy are looked back upon, most will remember their best and most terrific works and accomplishments, not their missteps.
However, if throughout their careers they had continued to surround themselves with people who could have helped refine their good ideas — and more particularly, contradict their bad ones — then Kelly would still be the coach of the Eagles, Smashing Pumpkins would not have released Zeitgeist, and most importantly, Jar Jar Binks would not exist.