With STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE returning to theatres in a new 3-D version, we flashback to May, 1999 for my preview report that appeared in Cinefantastique’s cover story on the film.
A long time ago in a Galaxy far, far away…
Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with the blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.
While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace, to settle the conflict.
A disheveled boy, ANAKIN SKYWALKER, runs in from the junk yard. He is about nine years old, very dirty, and dressed in rags.
So opens STAR WARS, EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, George Lucas eagerly awaited first chapter in the STAR WARS saga. When Lucas first began work on the script, back in 1995, he only had some brief notes. Lucas explained to Lynne Hale, the publicist for The Phantom Menace, that the original outline for the three prequels was only about 15 pages long. “The whole early part was written to set up the (first Star Wars) films that were made,” observed Lucas. “I had to sort of figure out who everybody was, where they came from, how they got to be where they were, and what the dynamic relationships were between everybody.”
Lucas took his outline and began work by expanding it to include approximately 50 scenes for each of the three prequels. “I basically have to come up with 150 scenes,” asserted Lucas. “If I come up with a few a day, towards the end of the process, I will really start going through the outline and filling in all the blanks—finishing it and putting in all the detail and that sort of thing. Then I start the hard part, the actual writing of the pages.”
By beginning with such a rough outline, Lucas had the freedom to change characters and situations, none of which were ever set in stone in the first place. Lucas further explained the flexible nature of his scripting process, stating, “when I have an idea for a character, usually the character comes alive and metamorphoses into something else, or another kind of character. If you take the first draft of Star Wars, you can find the central characters that always existed, but they had different names, shapes or sizes. But the core of the character is still there and growing. It’s just trying to find the right persona to carry forward that personality.” A good example of this occurred in early drafts of Star Wars, where the character of Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) was the leader of the rebellion on Yavin who comes up with the idea of using small fighter ships to attack the Death Star. In the final script Lucas has transformed Tarkin into the ruthless agent of the Emperor, making him the actual builder of the Death Star rather than one of it’s attackers.
With such a slim outline for the three prequels, it’s not much of a surprise to hear Lucas’ revelation that there was never any story material for the final three sequels—the ones that were supposed to continue the nine part saga after the ending of Return of the Jedi. “It really ends at part six,” Lucas told Vanity Fair. “When you see it in six parts you’ll understand. I never had a story for the sequels.” Of course, it was Lucas himself who always maintained there was at least an outline for the final three chapters (episodes 7, 8 and 9). It appears the real reason for his abrupt abandonment of the Force is that in May of 2005 (when the last of the current trilogy is scheduled for release), Lucas will turn 61. “I’ll be at a point in my age where to do another trilogy would take 10 years,” said Lucas. “My oldest daughter was born during Return of the Jedi and since then I slowed down quite a bit. I focused more on my family and making The Phantom Menace is the first time I will go back and try to do a movie of this scale, with this much intensity.”
One of the reasons Lucas embarked on the current set of prequels, was due to the new advances in technology he can utilize. “I get to do a lot of things now, that I couldn’t do before,” explained Lucas. “I can create things that weren’t possible to create before. I was always—and I will be on The Phantom Menace—at the limit of what is possible in terms of storytelling. Things have advanced so far in the last 20 years, in terms of your ability to portray things on the screen.”
Lucas also noted in a recent article for Premiere, that digital technology will allow him to get closer to his grandiose vision. “The idea of being able to explore my imagination and make it literal is exciting,” noted Lucas. “It moves me forward to try to get my visions onto the screen. When I was young, I had ambitions for some things to be brilliant, and when it came out less than brilliant, I was very upset about it. Who knows, maybe it’s better that way—because the things that have come out exactly the way I wanted them, have not been very successful. I think I’ll be able to get closer to what I imagine things to be like with this film.”
Among the many new treats Lucas has promised for The Phantom Menace, is the portrayal of the Jedi Knights in the days when there were thousands of them to guard the peace and justice of the Galaxy. The two Jedi Knights sent to Naboo at the outset of the story are the young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), Obi-Wan’s mentor, who also holds a seat on the Jedi council (along with Yoda). Lucas disclosed some Jedi characteristics, while talking to Lynne Hale: “The Jedi are like negotiators,” explained Lucas. “They aren’t people that go out and blow up planets, or shoot down things. They’re more of a one to one combat type. In The Phantom Menace I wanted the form of the fighting and the role of the Jedi Knight to be special. More spiritual and more intellectual than just something like a fighter or a superhero.”
In an effort to top the light saber battles of the first Star Wars movies, Lucas is attempting to bring a more dynamic element to the new swordplay that will be occurring between the Jedi masters and their chief opponent, the maleficent Darth Maul, played by martial arts expert Ray Park. “I was looking for the kind of sword-fighting we had already done,” said Lucas, “but I wanted a more energized version of it, because we actually never really saw the Jedi’s at work—we’d only seen old men (Obi-Wan), crippled half-droid, half-men (Darth Vader), and young boys (Luke). To see the Jedi fighting in their prime, I wanted a much more energetic and faster version of what we’d been doing.”
The action of the new film will take place largely on three planets: The already familiar desert planet of Tatooine, where the 9 year old Anakin Skywalker is growing up; On Naboo, home to the royal Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), as well as several swamp-dwelling creatures, such as the Nuna (a flightless bird, similar to an ostrich, but without the long neck) and the Peko Peko (a Pterodactyl-like bird with an immense wing-span); and finally, on Coruscant, the capitol of the Galactic Republic, where both the Senate and the Jedi Council convene. Interestingly enough, Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who eventually becomes the Emperor—by his plotting with the Dark Lords of the Sith—represents Naboo in the Galactic Senate and is still shown as a benign presence in The Phantom Menace. The actual design of Coruscant was previewed in a brief shot seen at the end of the Return of the Jedi special edition, and it promises to be a truly spectacular city, full of streamlined ultra modern skyscrapers, jutting several miles into the sky. The Jedi Council deliberates in a circular dome room at the top of an imposing temple that looks vaguely like the Chrysler Building, but with huge windows, that afford breathtaking views of Coruscant.
As each new morsel of information about The Phantom Menace slowly leaks out, all the hype may eventually cause overwhelming expectations, that may be very hard to meet. Then, inevitably, the success engendered by the film will generate a backlash of criticism. For his part, Lucas professes these high expectations are not really affecting how he’s making the movie. “The fact that the film is so anticipated,” exclaims Lucas, “allows me the freedom to be creative, in the way I’d like to be creative, without having to worry about what people think. On one level, I’m going to get slaughtered, no matter what I do. On another level, some people will like it. After you make a lot of movies, no matter what you do, you’re going to get trashed on one side, while some people are going to love it.”