Strange Magic had been percolating in George Lucas’s mind since his days working on the Star Wars prequels. Yet when the filmmaker sold his production company to Disney in October of 2012, Lucas also handed over the reins—all of them—on his animated passion project.
“At the point I came on, George was retiring, selling the company, doing all that big stuff, so he had to pull away from it and leave it in our hands,” says Gary Rydstrom, the seven-time Oscar-winning sound designer whom Lucas picked to direct the film in his stead at the tail end of 2012. “He had the story and characters in place, so our job was to make a reality of a film that did what he said he wanted it to do. But his input was imperative—so that’s why it was so important early on to get as much input downloaded from him as possible.”
For the next two and a half years, Rydstrom and his team took Lucas’s Midsummer Night’s Dream-inspired story—an idea Lucas says is “slightly more female-centric” than Star Wars—and the handful of reels Lucas had begun in-house, then molded them into the full-length film that Lucas had dreamed of. The primary directive: To use lyrics from Lucas’s favorite songs to tell the story of two creatures from opposing magical worlds who reluctantly find themselves in love. The responsibility of putting together the eclectic score, which includes covers of artists spanning decades and genres from Elvis to Beyonce, fell to music director Marius De Vries (Moulin Rouge). Production recorded over 400 songs, with barely five percent making the final cut. (Watch an exclusive clip of one such song—Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange”—below.)
Save for sporadic input every few months, Lucas largely relinquished control of the project. But his presence never vanished for the filmmakers or the cast, which includes Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph, and Elijah Kelly (the only cast member whom Lucas specifically requested).
“I definitely felt the spirit of George, the shadow of George and his passion for this, over the cast and the people who were working on it,” says Cumming, who voices the Bog King—a villainous insect who becomes drawn to a renegade fairy (Wood). Nashville’s Sam Palladio, who voices the dashing lead Roland, wasn’t even aware of Lucas’s involvement until he’d been cast: “I’d started working on it and then I’d discovered that it really was his brainchild and his creatures. That wasn’t actually explained to me at the very beginning, so I would have been even more nervous or panicked had I known that this was straight from George’s world.”
Over the years, animated films like Epic (which takes place in a similar enchanted forest) and Frozen (whose protagonists are two sisters) gave Rydstrom brief pause, though any similarities between those films and Strange Magic were locked in long before either premiered. But nothing was more frightening than the day he turned the finished product over to Lucas.
“That was the scariest day, because it’d been a while since he’d seen it, and I was doing it for him,” recalls Rydstrom. “And he loved it. We were far enough away from being finished that he could get one last round of changes into the movie, which was great. I tell people that if no one else likes it, it’s fine, as long as George and my wife like it. And my wife likes it, so I’m good! But George liked it, so I felt like we had done right by him.”
Strange Magic hits movie theaters on January 23.