By Terry Lawson
NICASIO, Calif. - Welcome to the house that Darth built.
Actually, what is called the Main House at Skywalker Ranch, a few minutes outside San Rafael, is an exquisitely crafted and elegantly appointed Victorian model home; no one officially lives there.
The master of the manor, George Lucas, lives in San Francisco. The house is used primarily to welcome visitors and clients, and to give people who work for LucasFilm and its special effects company Industrial Light & Magic a respite from their offices and work stations. Many of them work a short walk away at what is called the Tech House, which is where they and Lucas spent much of last year, bidding Darth good-bye.
The demise of Darth Vader, one of the most well-known fictional villains in the world, occurred in 1983 in
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi '' (now known as Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi ‘’). But Lucas swears we will see the last of Vader, known before being cast into the hellish volcanoes of Mustafar as Anakin Skywalker, in the last of three prequels,
Episode III - Revenge of the Sith,'' opening May 19. Yes, this is really, really the end,’’ says Lucas, who has opened the Main House, the Tech House and other buildings on the 5,000-acre spread of Skywalker to the curious, the fascinated and the obsessed one final time before he starts what he calls
the rest of my life.'' He's showing them his final Star Wars’’ movie in his state-of-the-art screening room so they can write an end to this chapter of the story.
LucasFilm will continue production on
Clone Wars,'' an animated series spin-off of the franchise, and within a couple of years, hopes to launch a new live-action series that would take place in the years between episodes III and IV, but not feature any of the now-iconic characters from the film. As for Lucas, he will be listed as a producer of these efforts, but his day-to-day involvement in anything Star Wars’’ is at an end, he says.
But can he walk away from the most influential myth - and movie series - of the past half-century, not to mention an industry with an annual profit larger than some movie studios?
I did it for 16 years,'' says Lucas, firmly. I’m ready to do it for good.’’
Some critics argue that Lucas should have never returned to
Star Wars11 years ago, when he began writing what would be released in 1999 as
Episode I - The Phantom Menace.'' It told the story of Anakin, a 9-year-old from the planet Tatooine, whose family is visited by a Jedi Knight and informed that he is the chosen one, a savior imbued with a magical power known as the Force who can maintain the balance of the universe if only he gets into the right school. Nobody wanted me to make that movie,’’ says Lucas, sipping soda in a small room attached to the recording studio where the sweeping orchestral scores for his movies are recorded.
What everybody wanted to see was Darth Vader killing everybody and being Darth Vader. The problem was, that wasn't the story I wanted to tell.'' Those who need a complete history of the Star Wars’’ prequels are directed to the DVD editions of
The Phantom Menace'' and its successor, Attack of the Clones,’’ which contain comprehensive documentaries that many fans believe are superior to the actual movies. (Anyone who has consciously avoided pop culture since the Nixon administration can catch up with the original three films and the story of how they permeated the national consciousness on the DVD box
The Star Wars Trilogy.'') The short version, says Lucas, is that to make the original films, he had to concoct extensive back stories for Vader and other characters. At some point after he finished raising his family; producing three Indiana Jones adventures and many more less successful projects (the most embarrassing of which may be Howard the Duck’’); and overseeing the establishment of the world’s leading special-effects house Industrial Light & Magic and a universe of
Star Wars'' tie-ins, the muse started nagging him. Everybody believed ‘Star Wars’ was the story of Luke Skywalker,’’
he says of the innocent young hero played by Mark Hamill in the first three films.
It wasn't. It was the story of Anakin, his father, who started as a hero and was then lured into the Dark Side by a powerful surrogate father, who convinced him that to save the wife he loved, and save the universe from the betrayal of the Jedi, he had to give in to his worst impulses - the lust for power, greed, selfishness - feelings all humans harbor. You can buy this or not, but I actually felt compelled to get the story I always wanted to tell on the record. It was Darth Vader who made the sacrifice by killing the evil Emperor who had seduced him.’’
While the first of the prequels played it coy, true Star Warriors always knew that Supreme Chancellor of the Republic, Palpatine, the Senate leader portrayed in
Return of the Jedi'' by veteran English theater actor Ian McDiarmid, was the manipulative Darth Sidious, chief agent of the Dark Side. (Though the character had a cameo, played by another actor in The Empire Strikes Back,’’ Lucas digitally replaced him with McDiarmid when the ``Trilogy’’ was released on DVD last year, and he added a foreshadowing line of dialogue.)
I remember getting this call that said this American fellow Lucas wanted to talk to me about this movie he was making,'' says the dapper McDiarmid, who, in contrast to the jeans- and work shirt-clad Lucas is in an elegant tailored suit. Before I was off the phone, a car was coming to collect me. By the time I got back from lunch, where we never discussed the role at all, the phone was ringing with the producer asking if I wanted to be in the film. I said, what would I be playing? He said, ‘Emperor of the Universe.’ I said, well, yes, that would be quite nice.’’
Like everyone else, McDiarmid says he was somewhat surprised when
The Phantom Menace,'' undoubtedly the most anticipated movie ever made, was released in 1998 to mixed reviews. Most said that the special effects, thanks in part to animation director Rob Coleman, were the most remarkable ever seen onscreen, but that the story was weak and the dialogue was worse. The digitally created alien Jar Jar Binks, the film's comic relief, was declared one of the most annoying characters ever made for a major film. Producer Rick McCallum, who competes for the title of his boss' No. 1 fan, says he was sad, but not altogether shocked. Writing has never been the easiest thing for George,’’ says McCallum. ``But he seemed to be the only one who could fathom his own vision; that, like the original three movies, these three were actually one big movie, too, so you had to start with Anakin as a kid. ‘Phantom Menace’ is a kids’ movie, and the kid who was 8 when he saw it is 15 or 16 now, and he’s ready for the darker, more ominous tone of the final act, ‘Episode III .’ He knows now the world is not just pod racing and adventure, that it’s full of evil and betrayal.’’
Lucas has no problem saying the words
I am not a great writer.'' He confirms what Lawrence Kasdan told the Detroit Free Press three years ago: He originally asked Kasdan to write The Phantom Menace,’’ and that Kasdan, then working on his own sci-fi epic, begged off.
``Could Larry write better dialogue than me? Sure. Could he write better transitions than me? Sure. But eventually, I knew that Larry or whoever else I asked would make the same arguments some of my closest associates made, which was don’t start the prequels with the story of a 9-year-old boy. So I finally decided, it’s your story, George, just tell it the best way you know how to tell it.’’
If the criticism Lucas received for casting Jake Lloyd as 9-year-old Anakin was harsh, it only intensified when he chose little-known TV actor Hayden Christensen to play the teenage Anakin. Christensen says he was thrilled to be chosen for the role but
definitely worried when I read the script for the first time.'' The dialogue was, well … I didn’t know how I could make it convincing,’’ says Christensen of a script some critics called
ridiculous'' and tone deaf.’’
Listen, I was thrilled to get the role,'' he says . It was one of the greatest parts ever, and I just wanted to do the best I could do. Samuel Jackson, who I thought was one of the best ever, had called George and asked to be in these movies. I mean, who am I? Finally, I just said to myself, I am George’s voice. This is his vision, and I’m here to fulfill it, and that’s how we worked.’’
Christensen says that in his
reckless youth'' he asked Lucas if he could do line readings in a way that bore less resemblance to those in the 1930s serials, like Flash Gordon,’’ that had originally inspired Lucas to write
Star Wars.'' He would say, ‘OK, give it a shot.’’’ But we all knew what he wanted, and what he wanted was what he printed. He knew you couldn’t have one actor doing that arched eyebrow stuff and another going all Method on you. It was all of one piece. And only George saw the whole piece.’’
Christensen believes that
Revenge of the Sith'' will ultimately make the previous two episodes more palatable. He says he was really happy with what he learned when the script was delivered more than two years ago. First, that character people called whiny and petulant in ‘Episode II’ makes more sense now that he’s embraced who he really is.’’ It helped, too, that Christensen proved himself a fine, natural actor in
Shattered Glass,'' an acclaimed independent drama in which he played disgraced journalist Stephen Glass. I felt that everybody felt more comfortable with this, and I know I’m looking forward to going back and looking at episodes IV, V and VI now because this changes everything. You’ll see them in a different way.’’
And that, claims Lucas, was always the point.
I could have never conceived this, because I always thought ' Star Wars' was like the first act of the movie in my head, and I never really thought I would get the opportunity to make the ending. You have to remember, nobody wanted to make that movie. They (the studios) didn’t get it. Then I get to go back and explain the beginning. It’s still the classic hero’s journey, but because it’s just been made backwards so to speak, in reverse chronology, we’re just now seeing where the hero gets corrupted, before he gets redeemed.’’
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)
We will get to see the redemption, yet again. McCallum and Lucas are planning to go back and reconfigure all the movies for 3D, and neither rules out making changes in the process. Lucas, who says he has kept himself outside the
Star Wars'' phenomenon while acting as an obviously interested observer’’ of the influence that his wild idea has had on the culture of the 20th and 21st centuries, says he will be involved with the 3D editions, but they will not rule what he says is the third act of his life.
I was a guy who wanted to make independent movies outside the Hollywood system. I lived in San Francisco. I still do. Now I want to make some movies about other ideas, other people, other places. I couldn't have started these movies when I was 75, so I did them while I had the energy they took to do them. Maybe I'll have that energy again, but I can't count on that. I wrote and directed some movies. By its definition, a myth has a life of its own. I’ve done my bit,’’ he says, ``and now I’m on my way.’’
THE LUCAS FILE
Name: George Walton Lucas Jr.
Birthdate: May 14, 1944, in Modesto, Calif.
Height: 5 foot 6 inches
Background: Father was a stationery store owner. Lucas wanted to become a professional race car driver before he was injured in a crash. He went to Modesto Junior College before enrolling in the University of Southern California film school.
Did you know? Lucas agreed to forgo his directing salary for ``Star Wars’’ in exchange for 40 percent of the film’s box-office take and all merchandising rights. The movie went on to break all box office records and earned seven Academy Awards.