How Francis Ford Coppola's Early Work Inspired George Lucas – And Led To 'Star Wars'

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas's iconic universe. In this edition: The Rain People (1969) and Filmmaker: a diary by george lucas (1968))In order to dive deeper into the films and filmmaking techniques and style of George Lucas, it's practically required to dive into the early work of Francis Ford Coppola. "The way I make movies I learned from Francis," George Lucas said in a 1977 interview with the LA Times. "I was his right hand for 10 years. I absorbed his idiosyncrasies. Yet we're exact opposites, 180 degrees apart; as a result, we're each other's foil."Today, we'll dive into The Rain People and Filmmaker, both films made in tandem in the late 1960s. The Rain People was a film made on the road, shot across a number of states. Francis Ford Coppola wanted to make a personal film and wrote his script and told Warner Brothers he was making it. This was the first film to be produced by American Zoetrope. George Lucas tagged along on the production, filming the behind the scenes documentary, Filmmaker, solo, with a 16mm camera and a Nagra audio recorder.

The Rain People

The Rain People follows Natalie (Shirley Knight), a young newlywed who has just discovered she's pregnant. She awakens one morning in her cage, sleeping fitfully in the arms of her husband, and leaves. She gets in her station wagon and gets on the freeway, barely taking a moment to look back. Along the way, she picks up a hitchhiker (James Caan) who got hurt playing college football and takes on the air of a more gentle Lenny from Of Mice and Men. As she's running from her responsibilities at home and trying to run from the newfound responsibilities of watching over Killer, the ex-football star, she's trying to understand exactly what she wants in life. Is she leaving hoping to have a fling and taste a life she didn't have? Is she struggling to come up with reasons to just return home? Or is she completely unsure of herself? The movie doesn't quite answer these questions, leaving the audience to figure out Natalie as she works to do so herself. Eventually, she gets pulled over by Gordon, a state trooper played by Robert Duvall (who would star in the next Zoetrope film as well, THX-1138)Gordon wields the power dynamics of his position to finagle a date with Natalie that turns south with disastrous consequences for everyone involved. The film is shot in a way that is at once reminiscent of the personal filmmaking that would be much more common in the United States in the 1970s, but also a throwback to Italian neorealism. By utilizing supporting non-actors found in the locales the production drifted to, it has all of the realistic patina of a film like Bicycle Thieves (1948.) The script of the film shifted through production, refining iteratively when new opportunities on the road presented themselves. One sequence takes place at a parade that the crew had stumbled upon and they reconfigured everything to incorporate it. Seeing how the complex puzzle of this film was put together and Lucas was given a fly-on-the-wall view of the entire process, it's no wonder he was able to learn from this experience. The film looks so much like THX-1138 and American Graffiti in terms of the documentary style of filmmaking and the way the shots play out. It's definitely the beginning of the DNA of how George Lucas makes films.


Filmmaker takes the production of the film on the road and, in 32 short minutes, gives you a complete idea of the filmmaking philosophy of those young pioneers and how they went about achieving a film like The Rain People in all of its idiosyncrasies.More than anything, it set the tone of what George Lucas learned as a filmmaker before he stepped into the world of film studios and Star Wars. This pre-dated THX-1138 by three years. In fact, it's reported that Lucas would spend all day shooting footage on the set of The Rain People and spend his evenings working on the script for THX-1138, which is itself an underrated masterpiece. Even though Filmmaker is a documentary, you can see filmmaking techniques on display that would go on to be refined in Star Wars films. There's a sequence of the production driving cross country and Lucas played audio from the CB radios they had, telling a story in montage through the static-filled voices. At one point, the production is getting pulled over by police and it had the same effect as the trench-run in A New Hope. In fact, the aural quality of the documentary creates an almost dream-like state at times, but always in the service of the story. If The Rain People feels inspired by Bicycle Thieves, Filmmaker feels inspired by the Maysles Brothers documentary Salesman, though that film was released the same year as Lucas's short. (Lucas would be a camera operator on their seminal documentary about the Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter.) With Lucas and Coppola narrating most of the documentary, it serves as an important cultural document about the minds who went on to redefine cinema over the course of the next half-century.Filmmaker is available on the internet in its entirety and can be watched here or in the embed above.

Independent Spirit

The Rain People is definitely worth your time. With Shirley Knight's sublime performance and standout supporting roles from a very young James Caan and Robert Duvall, you're going to want to make sure you see it. As an early film tackling feminist themes, it was hailed for its depictions of female independence, but some of those ideas, filtered through the lens of Coppola, might seem a little dated or quaint today. The film is strong and it's difficult to see why it's not spoken of more glowingly when taking the rest of Coppola's oeuvre into account. It's definitely no The Godfather, but you can see in it the greatness that was to come. As far as Filmmaker, it's a perfect look at the foundational philosophies of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. All of the desire to stay separate from Hollywood and the studio system, all of the desire to make films on their own terms, is present here. More than anything, despite the struggles, there's an optimism about the ability of films to change the world. "There's more nourishment in a good film than in a box of Wheaties," Coppola says at one point. And I can't say as I disagree with him.


The Rain People is available to rent or purchase on streaming services. Filmmaker is available online to watch now and I recommend you do.