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‘Light & Magic’: Lawrence Kasdan Reunites with George Lucas to Tell the Story of ILM – Toolkit

Toolkit Ep 163: The "Empire Strikes Back" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" writer explores how his stories were turned into movie magic.

"Light & Magic"

“Light & Magic”

Lucasfilm Ltd.

As a young writer, Lawrence Kasdan made a name for himself scripting three of the most beloved cinematic spectacles of all time: “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “Return of the Jedi.” When he moved into the director’s chair, however, his best work tended toward modestly scaled humanist dramas and comedies like “The Big Chill,” “The Accidental Tourist,” and “Grand Canyon,” films more concerned with asking deep philosophical questions about how we live our lives (and why) than with pyrotechnics or heightened acts of heroism.

With his latest work, the six-part Disney+ documentary series “Light & Magic,” Kasdan has reconciled the two sides of his filmmaking sensibility to tell a sweeping story of spectacular technology through a personal lens. The show follows the evolution of the most influential special effects house in the history of cinema, Industrial Light & Magic, through an expertly assembled combination of archival footage and contemporary interviews that provide a crash course in the key technical developments of 20th-century effects while also exploring the moving, funny, and profound histories of the men and women responsible.

“The initial pitch before there was any research staff or anything was, I want to get the history of these people and we’ll get the technology as we go,” Kasdan said. “I found these people so extraordinarily gifted and unusual and eccentric and funny, and I knew they couldn’t be that good at anything for 40 years and not be interesting.” Kasdan conducted all of the interviews from his house via Zoom, with everyone from James Cameron and Steven Spielberg to ILM legends Phil Tippett and John Dykstra weighing in from studios all over the world. The process created an unexpected intimacy, and one of the most remarkable facets of “Light & Magic” is how revealing and forthcoming the interviews are – even the most die-hard “Star Wars” fanatic will see and hear things here that they’ve never heard before.

Even for Kasdan, who has known George Lucas since the late 1970s, there was new information that delighted and inspired him. “George has been very well covered, but never quite in this context,” Kasdan said. “I interviewed him for six hours and it was a wonderful conversation.” Aside from opening up about his dreams and frustrations as he built ILM to realize his vision for the “Star Wars” movies, Lucas and ILM provided Kasdan with access to astonishing archival resources; Lucas documented the behind the scenes inception and growth of ILM in meticulous detail at the time, and “Light & Magic” is filled with fascinating material showing the effects wizards at work. The treasure trove of documentary footage allowed Kasdan to create his version of Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, comparing the men and women of ILM now with their youthful selves and showing just how much — or how little — they had changed.

“The upshot is that you can see a guy who was barely 30 at the beginning, and now he’s my age,” Kasdan said. “I’m talking to him now, but we have footage and stills of what he’s talking about, so you see him as a 30-year old and you see him now and it’s just fun.” For Kasdan, turning to documentaries in recent years has been invigorating after decades as a fiction filmmaker. “I really enjoyed the whole process, particularly making the story in the editing room. You’re not fulfilling preconceptions of what you wrote a year earlier.” Ultimately, directing “Light & Magic” left Kasdan with a newfound appreciation for George Lucas and what he achieved. “I was more impressed than ever by the impact he had on everything: the way we watch movies, the way we cut them, the way we do sound. He was so ambitious — ‘How can we push this forward?’ People could barely understand what he was talking about, and yet it all came true. That takes a visionary.”

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