What a difference two decades make: 20 years ago, Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, arrived in theaters to great fanfare… followed by an even greater backlash. Flash-forward to 2019 and the cast and crew of George Lucas’s 1999 prequel were given a hero’s welcome when they took the stage at Star Wars Celebration in Chicago. Part of that affection can be chalked up to the excitement for the final installment in the Skywalker Saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which premiered its first trailer to ecstatic audiences on Friday.
But there’s also an entire generation of Star Wars fans who have grown up on The Phantom Menace and have genuine love for Lucas’s kid-friendly story about trade disputes and double-bladed lightsabers. Warwick Davis hosted the 20th anniversary panel, which included appearances by prequel design director Doug Chiang, sound editor Matthew Wood, Sith master-and-apprentice Ian McDiarmid and Ray Park and the actor behind the most controversial character in the saga: Jar Jar Binks’s alter ego, Ahmed Best. Here are the five things we learned about the making of the movie.
Everybody loves Jar Jar
Love won during The Rise of Skywalker panel when The Last Jedi star Kelly Marie Tran was greeted by wild cheers, a direct rebuke to the online bullies who drove the actress off social media. And love won again when Best took the stage during The Phantom Menace reunion, with both the panelists and the audience warmly embracing the actor. Lucas himself beamed into the room via a pre-taped video message that reaffirmed his undying affection for the floppy-eared Gungan. It was a sweet moment of triumph for Best, who took to Twitter last summer to reveal that he contemplated suicide in the wake of the seemingly universal hatred for Jar Jar. “You guys are going to make me tear up,” the Bronx-born performer said.
Best went on to reveal that Jar Jar was inspired by equal parts Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Chan, as well as the reason behind the bare-bones costume he wore on set. Because Jar Jar was being created with then-cutting edge motion capture technology, the visual effects team wasn’t entirely certain that they’d succeed. “The reason I was in the suit was in case they needed back-up,” Best said, indicating that his on-set performance would cover up any digital gaps.
McDiarmid didn’t realize that Palpatine and Sidious were the same person
McDiarmid made his first appearance — and, as far as he knew — last appearance under Emperor Palpatine’s cloak in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. “I didn’t even know he was called the Emperor when I first got the part,” the actor said, with a laugh. That confusion continued when he was invited back for The Phantom Menace, which reveals Palpatine’s epic backstory — including the revelation that he’s actually a Sith master named Darth Sidious. Funnily enough, that wasn’t a connection that was immediately apparent to McDiarmid when he read the script. “I didn’t know until the first day of [of shooting]! The way George explained it was like Sidious was the Emperor who was not fully achieved. He also told me that I should think of Palpatine’s eyes as contact lenses; when I played the scenes, my face shouldn’t seem real. That was a fantastic note for an actor.” It’s more helpful than “faster, more intense,” that’s for sure.
Lucas considered it a period movie
One of the objections raised about The Phantom Menace at the time is how radically different its version of Lucas’s far, far away galaxy looks compared to the scrappier incarnation so familiar to everyone from the original trilogy. According to Chiang, that’s because the movie is specifically intended to capture another era — one that had never been shown on the big screen before. “On the very first day, George said, ‘Forget everything about what I said Star Wars is,’” Chiang remembered. “He never considered it sci-fi — he considered it a period film. The idea we came up with that was Episode I was going to be in the ’20s and ’30s, whereas the original trilogy were the ‘70s. And when you look at all the films, they have a continuity.”
Wood added that the period approach carried over to The Phantom Menace’s comparatively pristine sound design. “We wanted to make it [sound] sleek. Even the simple stuff, like the way a door opens. We wanted to create a world that complemented what Doug had created visually.” The one sequence where Wood allowed a little of the original trilogy’s grittier sound mix to sneak in was the pod race, since the competitors assembled their pods out of used parts. “We used a lot of analog real-world stuff to make that happen,” Wood said, adding that his favorite pod noises are generated by Sebulba’s hunk of junk. “It’s so throaty — we basically used a Ferrari where a guy had punched a hole in its muffler.”
Darth Maul is made up of equal parts martial arts movies, video games and The Prodigy
Park was only 22 years old when he stepped onto The Phantom Menace set to play the movie’s bad-ass bad guy, Darth Maul… and he didn’t feel so bad-ass at first. “I was nervous — I thought someone was joking,” he remembered. But he found his courage courtesy of co-stars like McDiarmid, as well as the film’s stunt team, who took point on finding the physicality that would make Maul a memorable villain. “I saw Darth Maul as a distinguished master you’d see in Chinese martial-arts movies — one that doesn’t say much, but is in full control,” Park said. Endless rounds of vintage ’90s fighting games like Tekken and Soul Edge helped as well: “We were playing those games and copying things.” Park also found aural inspiration in British electronica band, The Prodigy, specifically using their 1996 track, “Firestarter” as Maul’s unofficial theme. “I got myself geared up [with lyrics] like, ‘I’m a firestarter.’”
Sidious is back… again
Along with C-3PO and R2-D2, Palpatine is now officially one of the characters that ties the three trilogies together. The Rise of Skywalker trailer revealed that the Emperor will be back in some form, which McDiarmid confirmed by appearing onstage after the Episode IX panel. “You know, I just happened to be in the area, so I thought I should just drop by for a laugh,” the actor joked. But he also acknowledged his upcoming return… kind of. “As you know, Dart Vader chucked me [at the end of Return of the Jedi] and I thought that was the end,” he said, to knowing chuckles from the crowd. “I was under the assumption that we’d never see him again. I guess that’s how it will remain!” Not likely.
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