A Discussion on I’m ‘George Lucas’: A Connor Ratliff Story with Director Ryan Jacobi
Sundance Film Review: I’m “George Lucas”: A Connor Ratliff Story
Director: Ryan Jacobi
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The facts of the matter are these: There is a man in New York City who—in near-monastic reverie—spray paints his hair and beard a distinctively pearlescent gray-white, slips confidently into a production crew jacket from the 1986 Howard the Duck movie and proceeds to host a talk show in guise of the face, name and spectral murmur of (in his own insistent terminology) retired filmmaker George Lucas. This man is Connor Ratliff, and he, both as Lucas and otherwise, is the subject of director Ryan Jacobi’s documentary I’m ‘George Lucas’: A Connor Ratliff Story, premiering at 2024’s Slamdance Film Festival.
“You’ve seen Connor in a bunch of TV shows,” says interviewee J.D. Amato early in the film. He’s right, and what’s more, Ratliff pops up in a lot of different places. You may have heard of the podcast Dead Eyes, presented by an actor who Tom Hanks fired from the HBO series Band of Brothers for having, in Hanks’ passed-along words, “dead eyes.” That actor is Connor Ratliff. He’s a cartoonist as well as an actor and comedian. He’s worn a lot of hats, and he comes across as a person with plenty of genuinely interesting and strange stories to tell. Since 2014, Ratliff has interviewed baffled celebrity guests in character as Lucas, at first on stage at Hell’s Kitchen’s UCB Theatre and, since the pandemic, over elaborately live streamed video conference calls.
“I pitched a mockumentary to Connor, in the vein of The Larry Sanders Show or, rather, like one of the Christopher Guest movies,” Jacobi says. “Like, we’ll shoot a multi-cam version of the show, and then we’ll pretend you guys have a writer’s room, we’ll pretend that Watto’s a real person, we’ll pretend you’re actually George.” But over time, Jacobi began to see Ratliff as somebody just as interesting and worthy of a profile as his parodic take on Lucas. So the project shifted and instead became a documentary and overview of the George Lucas Talk Show as Ratliff’s ongoing experiment.
“You’d think the movie would be more about George Lucas,” says Jacobi. “His presence looms over the whole film, but that’s not the story we’re telling. This is about Connor.” The framing of the film is fascinating and, I feel, correct to show the caricature of Lucas as a reflection of the more detailed portrait of Ratliff.
Aside from the film’s focus, though, it is interesting to consider the retired filmmaker at the center of the parody. George Lucas is an artist who’s been plagued simultaneously with industry-defining success and with films that have consistently failed to live up to his own vision, as well as near-psychotic levels of fan backlash against everything he’s done since the mid-1990s. In another world he could perhaps have parlayed the cultish devotion to his work into becoming an L. Ron Hubbard-type American prophet figure, and even in this world, the soft-spoken and somewhat reclusive Lucas is almost universally recognizable (consider that I’ve yet to mention Star Wars by name in this review, and you still know who I’m talking about).
“You’d think this would be spiteful, right? Based on what people kind of feel about George Lucas,” says Jacobi, but Ratliff’s version of George Lucas is so clearly founded in deep admiration of who he sees as a monumental artist and a kindred soul. He both genuinely loves and admires Lucas and thinks he’s the funniest man in the world.
I saw a staging of the George Lucas Talk Show in September of 2019, which (unbeknownst to me at the time) was concurrent with the production of this documentary. It was kind of incredible; not a stand-up set and not quite a piece of performance art. It is basically a real talk show, at least as much as something like Adult Swim progenitor Space Ghost Coast to Coast was a real talk show. Aside from it being hilarious, I was struck by the studied nuance layered into the character Ratliff was improvising. He plays Lucas as a man at once proud of and beleaguered by his own greatest successes, insistent on spotlighting his more minor and forgotten efforts as a producer: Radioland Murders, Red Tails and Strange Magic, the animated jukebox musical and figurative wadded up piece of chewed gum stuck to the underside of a desk. It’s not just a vocal or visual impression, it’s a genuine character performance, and it feels like Ratliff treats his George Lucas experiment as something interesting, rather than just something funny.
“If there’s one thing that George Lucas, Connor and I have in common,” says Jacobi, “it’s that we don’t ask for permission to make things.” Like Lucas, Ratliff is almost solely fueled by the vision in his head. He knows he’s the only person who’s going to put something like this into the world, and that he won’t be satisfied until the images and emotions in his mind are made manifest. Jacobi’s film is an addition to this lineage, a crowdfunded and lovingly considered vision of a bizarre and inspiring cult saga.
“I get this joy from the irony that this really isn’t a hero’s journey story,” Jacobi says, referencing mythologist Joseph Campbell’s theory of heroic archetypes, a major influence on Lucas’s storytelling. “Connor even comes out and says, ‘My hero’s journey is over.’” There is a strange sense of selflessness to the endeavor: Ratliff cannot possibly be in this for fame or personal acclaim. If he was, what a strange and circuitous way to go about it. Connor Ratliff inhabits the name, face and voice of George Lucas because, at some moment several years ago, he considered what it would be like to discover that a guy does a talk show as George Lucas and determined that it would be pretty weird and pretty funny—and he was right. We need not ask for whom Ratliff seeks the proverbial cup of Christ: The glory is for George. –Daniel Kirkham