By Tim Nasson
New York City — I was five years old when the first Star Wars film was released in 1977 and finally saw it and its two sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi for the first time last year when they were all re-released. In other words, I am not a psychotic Star Wars fan, groupie or expert.
I am, however, a movie fanatic and can appreciate something amazing when it comes my way.
‘Amazing’ may not be quite the word to describe Phantom Menace, at least not in every sense. But this is not a review.
Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader in the first three of the Star Wars films released, is alleged in this latest film to be the product of an immaculate conception. How dare George Lucas imply that Darth Vadar is Christ like.
“Most religions teach about immaculate conception in one way or another,” says Lucas during the time he spoke.
“Aren’t most superheroes conceived in an unusual way?” adds Lucas, who only did 20 or so interviews the weekend I spoke to him and everyone else involved with Phantom Menace.
As for the film’s overhype? “Do you think I wanted this overhype?” he asks.
“It just became that way. I don’t know who or why anyone would have to compare Phantom Menace to Titanic in the sense that many are commenting that Phantom Menace is going to beat Titanic at the box office. I do not think that it will. I don’t even think that it will beat the grosses of the original Star Wars.”
Let’s just hope it doesn’t tank like Howard the Duck, one of Lucas’ biggest disappointments.
(FYI: Titanic grossed $610 million at the box office in the US alone. The first Star Wars grossed a little over $300 million during its initial two runs in the late 1970’s. Adjusting for inflation, they are about even with tickets purchased.)
“I wrote Phantom Menace 20 years ago,” says Lucas. “I originally wrote Anakin as a 12 or 13 year old but realized when I was ready to complete the screenplay a few years ago that he needed to be a bit younger. He is a slave who is separated from his mother and I thought that the issues would not have been as dramatic if I had not changed his age to nine.”
While Lucas dreamed up the who Star Wars saga, nine films in total, over 25 years ago, he came to the conclusion only four years ago that the time was right to begin production on the three prequels to Star Wars.
“I was supervising the direction of the first Jurassic Park film,” says Lucas, who is a friend of and sometimes partner with Steven Spielberg (all of the Indiana Jones films), “while Steven was in Poland finishing up Schindler’s List. There was this hand-held camera shot of a dinosaur chasing Jeff Goldblum that looked so real that I realized technology was ready for a new Star Wars. A Star Wars that I would be uninhibited with in the special effects department.”
After seeing Phantom Menace, you may find that it was filmed in more kid-friendly style.
“I did not set out to make this installment more kid-friendly,” says Lucas, even though the film does seem a lot less violent than the previous three. The deaths of two important characters in Phantom Menace seem anticlimactic.
“The one thing I set out to do most was ensure that the millions of fans who want to see Phantom Menace get to see it in a venue it was intended. Great sound. Huge screen. , etc. I am not interested in winning Academy Awards, breaking any box-office record or whether I get good or bad reviews,” he added.
Natalie Portman, who plays Queen Amidala, walks into a suite in the hotel with glitter on her face.
Born in Israel, Portman, who made her film debut six years ago in The Professional, did not grow up in an American household and was not a die-hard fan of Star Wars when she took the role. “I had to think for three weeks whether I even wanted to take this role,” she says. “It is a nine-year commitment. I have to be in all three. I love my privacy and knew that by accepting the role as the Queen, I would lose it immediately.”
All of this from a girl who turned down a lot of money to take a lead role in The Horse Whisperer to play Anne Frank on Broadway.
Jake Lloyd who plays young Darth Vader, first gained fame opposite Marisa Tomei and Gena Rowlands in Unhook the Stars, and giving Arnold Schwarzzeneger a run for his money in Jingle All the Way.
The fourth grader admits that life hasn’t changed too much for him since he signed on to work on the ‘biggest’ film of all time. Ironically, his father was the age he is now when the first Star Wars film was released.
“I love making movies,” says the precocious lad, putting in a plug for a role he’d kill for. “I’d love to make a movie based on one of the Harry Potter stories. I’ve read a lot of them and loved them all.”
Liam Neeson, who stars in the upcoming The Haunting, stands six feet, four inches and immediately commands a presence upon entering the suite. Son in law of Vanessa Redgrave, husband of acclaimed stage actress Natasha Richardson, who last year was nominated for a Tony Award for the revival of Cabaret on Broadway, Neeson is proud to be included in the ensemble.
“Next to Schindler’s List and Michael Collins, I’d say this is my favorite role,” he comments, on playing Qui-Gon Jinn, one of the Jedi Knights who teaches Obi-Wan Kenobi, played in Phantom Menace by Ewan McGregor (who happened to be the only main character who did not participate in the film’s junket).
Soft spoken, Neeson calmly answers my question about the rumors flying around that he is getting out of the film business.
“You know what?,” he asks. “I had just gotten done with a play on Broadway, [‘Oscar Wilde’] finished Phantom Menace and had been away from my family for quite some time. That comment stemmed from a sudden burst of anger. I did say that I was going to give up acting. But I am not going to. I will never direct a film, but I am not going to give up acting.”
Samuel Jackson, best known until now, for his Academy Award nominated performance in Pulp Fiction, was happy to be cast as Mace Windu, even if only in the film for a couple of minutes.
“I remember seeing Star Wars the first day it opened,” he says, “smoking up and drinking with the rest of the audience who thought it was a movie only for pot heads, with all those crazy special effects and space ships. Those types of movies, until then, were always campy and stupid. No one knew to what an extent that ‘Star Wars’ was going to be ‘the’ movie of the ’70s and its generation.”
“I always wanted to be in a sci-fi, monster movie,” he says, of Phantom Menace, laughing, making light of the horrible film “Sphere” he co-starred in last year.
Wearing his trademark Kangol hat, this one inscribed by the company with the words The Phantom Menace, Jackson admitted he looks forward to being part of the next two Star Wars films, “hopefully in a bigger role.”