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George Lucas: Defending the Empire

A candid conversation about PHANTOM MENACE, due on video Tuesday.

By Zed R. Nemo     April 01, 2000

In a way, George Lucas is a film student's dream of what a filmmaker should be, an auteur, a man who makes films with a distinctive, personal imprint all his own. Or let's put it another way: a wide, mainstream audience regards him in much the same way that cinephiles regard their favorite directors; just as a sophisticated filmgoer would go out of his way to check out the latest Ingmar Bergman film, people buy tickets to see George Lucas movies because they're George Lucas movies, not necessarily because of the stars attached. In effect, he is a star shining from behind rather than in front of the camera, and his name is one of the few (along with Stephen Spielberg and James Cameron) that has a brand name awareness with viewers who aren't always concerned with who wrote, directed, or produced a film.

With Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace about to hit video shelves on Tuesday, we wanted to sit down and chat with him about his latest blockbuster. Of course, despite the multi-million dollar success, the film did not fare well with critics, and even long-time fans were disappointed. This, along with Lucas decision to put the film out only on tape, not DVD, has upset some collectors eager to own the film in the best format possible. Not that any of this will prevent the film from setting records for rentals and sales, but we did feel it was a necessary topic to address.

NEMO: 'THE PHANTOM MENACE' CAME INTO THEATRES AS PERHAPS THE MOST ANTICIPATED MOVIE OF ALL TIME. WITH MILLIONS OF FANS WHO HAD BEEN WAITING FOR ANOTHER 'STAR WARS' SINCE 'RETURN OF THE JEDI,' THE NEW FILM WAS ALMOST GUARANTEED TO SCORE BIG BOX OFFICEAND IT DID. YET, THE REVIEWS WERE MIXED, TO SAY THE LEAST. AND THE FILM WAS TURNED AWAY ON OSCAR NIGHT; IN FACT, IT WAS THE FIRST 'STAR WARS' FILM NOT TO WIN FOR BEST VISUAL EFFECTS, LOSSING OUT TO 'THE MATRIX' IN ALL THE TECHNICAL CATEGORIES.

George Lucas: True.

NEMO: ALSO, DID YOU KNOW THAT 'PHANTOM MENACE' ENDED UP IN A VIRTUAL 3-WAY TIE WITH 'THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT' AND 'WILD, WILD WEST' IN FANDOM'S POLL ASKING WHICH WAS THE 'WORST/MOST DISAPPOINTING/MOST OVERRATED MOVIE OF 1999'?

George Lucas: No, I did not know that.

NEMO: FRANKLY, I WAS SURPRISED. OUT OF SEVEN POSSIBLE CHOICES (INCLUDING 'BIG DADDY' AND 'THE HAUNTING'), 'WILD, WILD WEST' EARNED 28% OF THE VOTE; 'PHANTOM MEANCE' EARNED 27%; AND 'BLAIR WITCH' EARNED 26%. PRESUMABLY, PEOPLE VOTED 'WEST' FOR BEING WORST; 'MENACE' FOR BEING DISAPPOINTING; AND 'BLAIR WITCH' FOR BEING OVERRATED.

George Lucas: Hmm.

NEMO: ANYWAY, ON BEHALF OF GENRE FANS EVERYWHERE, I WANTED TO THANK YOUR FOR CASTING JAKE LLOYD IN 'PHANTOM MENACE.'

George Lucas: Yes, his performance was underrated by critics with an axe to grind.

NEMO: ACTUALLY, I MEANT THAT I HEARD YOU HAD AUDITIONED HALEY JOEL OSMENT. IF YOU HAD CAST HIM, THEN HE MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN IN 'THE SIXTH SENSE,' AND HE WOULDN'T' HAVE GIVEN THAT OSCAR-NOMINATED PERFORMANCE. WHO KNOWS? LLOYD MIGHT EVEN HAVE ENDED UP IN THE ROLE!

George Lucas: I never thought of it that way.

NEMO: ANOTHER ELEMENT OF YOUR FILM THAT CAME UNDER FIRE WAS THE CHARACTER OF JAR-JAR BINKS.

George Lucas: A lot of critics try to blame the ills of the Hollywood film industry on blockbuster 'event' films, so they were looking for something to criticize. It was like a feeding frenzy: one started, and everybody else jumped in.

NEMO: BUT CHEWEBACCA IN THE FIRST TRILOGY DID ENDEAR HIMSELF TO THE AUDIENCE; YOU ACTUALLY HAD A BETTER SENSE OF WHAT HE WAS SAYING THAN WITH JAR-JAR. I ALWAYS WONDERED IF YOU HAD SOME FORESIGHT OF WHAT THE REACTION TO THE CHARACTER MIGHT BE. FOR INSTANCE, I THOUGHT ALL YOU FILM SCHOOL GRADUATES LIKE SPIELBERG AND DEPALMA SCREENED YOUR FILMS FOR EACH OTHER AND GOT FEEDBACK. AND YET YOU STILL WENT WITH JAR-JAR AS WE SEE HIM IN THE FILM.

George Lucas: Yes.

NEMO: SO, YOU'RE RELEASING 'PHANTOM MENACE' FOR HOME VIDEO, BUT ONLY ON TAPE NOT DVD.

George Lucas: True.

NEMO: BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHO LIKED THE FILM SO MUCH THEY WANT TO OWN THE DISC? AREN'T PEOPLE WHO CAN'T WAIT GOING TO HAVE TO BUY THE TAPE NOW, AND THEN PAY EVEN MORE MONEY TO BUY THE DISC WHEN IT COMES OUT MONTHS LATER?

George Lucas: We're using the extra time to make sure that the DVD presentation is up to the standards of quality that the film warrants.

NEMO: IS THERE ANY CHANCE YOU MIGHT BE PREPARING A SPECIAL EDITION OF 'PHANTOM MENACE' FOR DVD? PERHAPS YOU COULD OPTICALLY REPLACE JAR-JAR WITH A REAL ACTOR? OR MAYBE YOU COULD USE CGI TO ENHANCE SOME OF THE ACTING PEROFRMANCES?

George Lucas: I did the special editions of the first Trilogy because I wasn't able to accomplish all I wanted to when they were originally released. All you have to do is look at the interviews I gave at the time of STAR WARS to confirm this. With this second trilogy, I am able to make the films as I want them to be.

NEMO: IT WAS AN AMAZING TECHNOLOGICAL ACHIEVEMENT THAT YOU WERE ABLE TO ADD JABBA THE HUT TO 'STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE,' BUT IT'S NOT AS IF VIEWERS FELT SOMETHING WAS MISSING FOR TWENTY YEARS. IT EVEN REPEATS A LINE OF DIALOGUE FROM THE PREVIOUS SCENE, ABOUT HAN DUMPING HIS CARGO AT THE FIRST SIGHT OF AN IMPERIAL SHIP.

George Lucas: We had to make the point clear to the audience.

NEMO: LIKE YOU HAD TO 'CLARIFY' THAT GREEDO SHOT FIRST, BEFORE HAN SOLO SHOT AND KILLED HIM?

George Lucas: It was always meant that Han fired first. It was just difficult to show that without looking corny. We had to find a middle ground. I never wanted to introduce Han as a character who would shoot someone in cold blood.

NEMO: MAYBE IT'S JUST ME, BUT I ALWAYS FELT HAN WAS JUSTIFIED; GREEDO WAS A BOUNTY HUNTER THREATENING TO TAKE HIM IN DEAD OR ALIVE. ON ANOTHER SUBJECT, I'D LIKE TO ASK ABOUT THE MASTER PLAN FOR YOUR 'STAR WARS' SAGA. IN THE SCREENWRITING COURSES AT U.S.C., WHICH YOU ATTENDED, ONE THING THEY TALK ABOUT IS BACK STORY: TO KNOW WHERE THE CHARACTERS ARE GOING, YOU HAVE TO KNOW WHERE THEY'VE BEEN, EVEN IF NOT ALL THAT INFORMATION IS GIVEN TO THE AUDIENCE. I'VE OFTEN WONDERED WHETHER THIS NEW TRILOGY WAS BASED ON A BACK STORY YOU HAD IMAGINED WHILE WRITING THE FIRST 'STAR WARS.'

George Lucas: That evolved right after the first film was released. I said I could do two sequels, and the studio wanted to know what else I could do. I said I could make three films out of the back story.

NEMO: MANY ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS (NOT NECESSARLY WITH YOU BUT WITH OTHER PEOPLE WORKING ON THE FILMS) GAVE THE IMPRESSION THAT YOU HAD A MASTER PLAN FOR A NINE-PART SAGA, INCLUDING AN ADDITIONAL TRILOGY THAT TAKES PLACE AFTER 'RETURN OF THE JEDI.'

George Lucas: There are no scripts or story. I just had an idea it would be fun to get the cast back when they were older and have them play the same characters later in life.

NEMO: JUST TWO MORE THINGS: FIRST, I LOVE THE FIRST TWO 'STAR WARS' FILMS, BUT THE (RETROACTIVE) INCESTUOUSNESS OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN LUKE AND LEIA JUST SEEMS WEIRD; YOU GET AN ALMOST 'ROCKY HORROR' TYPE REACTION FROM VOCAL MEMBERS OF THE AUDIENCE. SECOND, IT KIND OF BUGS ME THAT DARTH VADER, WHO CAN SENSE THE FORCE IN OBI-WAN AND LUKE AT GREAT DISTANCES, NEVER SENSES HIS OWN DAUGHTER WHEN HE'S FACE TO FACE WITH HER. COULD YOU PLEASE MAYBE TRY TO EXPLAIN THIS IN PARTS SEVEN THROUGH NINE, IF YOU EVER GET AROUND TO THEM.

George Lucas: I'll give it some thought.

NEMO: WELL, MR LUCAS, THANKS FOR YOUR TIME.

George Lucas: May the Force Be With You.

NEMO: LIVE LONG AND PROSPER.

Zed R. Nemo comes from a family with a naval background; his ancestors include a submarine captain. He is a graduate of the Miskatonic University School of Journalism.

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