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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Let the Force Be With Us: George Lucas and Ted Conover Make Real the Unreal

In 1964, in the dead of a bitter Russian winter after waiting with my family for hours in a long line at Moscow’s Red Square, I stood next to the body of Vladimir Lenin. The only thing that kept me from reaching out to touch the Soviet leader’s yellowish hand was the glass tomb in which his body (lifeless since 1924) was encased.  The corpse is now 146 years old, but thanks to the cosmetic efforts of Russian scientists, the leader doesn’t look “a day over 53.” Appearances are everything.

Meticulously crafted appearances (as president-elects, journalists and filmmakers also know), can transform reality into fiction, and fiction into reality.  

Two days ago, with my own imagination running wild (as I remembered Lenin's tomb), I stood beside a glass display case gazing at a photo of George Lucas and his creative team gathered around a desk cluttered with Storyboard sketches. Dozens of other action scenes and costume sketches hung on the wall behind them.

The display, part of the Star Wars and the Power of Costume exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, includes more than 70 original costumes. In the article “George Lucas and the Origin Story Behind Star Wars,” the online magazine Biography quotes a young Lucas back in 1971 as saying, “The reason I'm making Star Wars is that I want to give young people some sort of faraway exotic environment for their imaginations to run around in.”

When creating the earliest concepts for Darth Vader, George Lucas told the artist that he "wanted Vadar to look like a ‘dark lord riding on the wind,’ with black flowing robes, a large helmet like that of a Japanese samurai warrior, and a silk mask covering his face."

Actor Samuel Jackson, when he saw his Jedi costume, told fans: "At last I had an idea of who I was, how to carry myself... I had a way of being."

Costumes, as the Star Wars exhibit reminds us, bring characters to life because they help the actors immerse themselves in the characters' inner lives.  

But before the costume comes the vision.  Had Lucas not immersed himself in the environment of his own imagination when he drafted the original script, his creative team would not have been able to manifest his vision on the big screen.   

George Lucas immersed his imagination in a fictitious world so that our imaginations might believe the reality of that world. Even beloved Carrie Fisher could not always separate her life from that of Princess Leia's. 

But for writers, immersion is not just about making real an imaginary world.  It is also about immersing ourselves in what is already real so that our imaginations might come to know that which is strange.  For journalist Ted Conover, immersion writing (as he tells us in the Introduction of his newest book Immersion: A Writers Guide to Going Deep) has the "huge potential for sowing empathy in the world. It's a way to introduce readers to strangers and to make them care, a way to shine a light into places that need it."

For Conover, this meant hopping a freight train in the St. Louis rail yards and riding the rails with America's hoboes, as he did for his book Rolling Nowhere. Or it meant journeying with illegal immigrants across the borders between Mexico and the United States for Coyote. Or most notably, it meant putting on the "costume" of a prison guard and for a year, day after day, immersing himself in the brutal world of New York's most notorious, maximum security prison facility. 

I once presented with Ted at an adventure writing symposium in Wyoming, and I remember Ted telling the audience (referring to his book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing) that when he got home every night, he had to strip off his uniform and shower before even thinking of hugging his wife or children. Writing Newjack (winner, National Book Critics Circle Award) required deep entrenchment in an unsavory world. Wearing the uniform (the "costume" of his disguise) contributed to an immersion that went more than skin-deep. 

"But that doesn't mean these books are about us," Conover writes. "In immersion journalism, there is always a subject beyond the narrator herself, something the writer sets out to investigate. Immersion writers may draw on their own experience (often they contrive it as a form of research) but they focus on the larger world." 

Immersion:A Writer's Guide to Going Deep gives us an intimate look at how Conover has, for more than thirty years, imagined new ideas, gained access to the unknown, gone undercover, researched, written, and dealt with the aftermath of a journalist's often exotic life.  

Whether writers choose to make real imaginary worlds, or immerse ourselves into the center of what is already a real world, the New Year promises to offer itself up to our imaginations in unimaginable ways.  Let the Force be with us as we navigate these uncharted waters. 

NOTES:  Read “The Cost of Keeping Lenin Looking Like Lenin,” The Atlantic, April 2016.

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