The Rise and Fall of Star Wars, Blog #12
Revenge of the Sith
Principal photography for Episode III: Revenge of the Sith began on at Fox Studios, Sydney, Australia, on Monday, June 30, 2003. Through a series of circumstances I can’t go into, I ended up on the set writing a book about it.
The day after I arrived in Sydney--the first day I admired the huge bats in some kind of park and walked all over the place--I made my way to the Fox Studios, driving on the “wrong” side of the road. After I was given a pass in the central office, I made my way to the set, where I recounted my nerve-wracking drive to animation supe Rob Coleman, who advised me, “When in doubt, always stay on the left.” Simple, but it worked!
At the time, mesmerized by a 1,001 sights, sounds, and even smells, I didn’t fully comprehend the importance of Lucas shooting Episode III exclusively with digital cameras. It took a while for me to understand that he was a steadfast agitator for the digital revolution and what that meant (more on this later). His chief ally in this movement was McCallum, who handled the technical side. Rick told me how his camera operators had pored over the instruction manuals when the beautiful Sony equipment had arrived for Episode II, which Lucas had also filmed digitally. Now they were old pros.
I was on set for a little more than month in Sydney, in two 17 day trips, I believe, and it was amazing to see a Star Wars movie being made; to see Lucas directing; sets being built; actors in motion; people dressed as aliens eating eggs and sausages. I was given a free pass to wander around; there were no minders, nothing was off limits, though I gave the three principals—Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), Natalie Portman (Padmé Naberrie), and Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi)—a wide berth, after some advice from Lynne Hale in PR.
Overall, the crew was welcoming, from “A” camera operator Calum McFarlane and 1st AD Colin Fletcher, to the craftspeople painting the wooden sets. If you were a John Knoll or Rob Coleman, you could suddenly be on the spot, with about fifty people or more waiting to hear how their on-set work was going to be affected by ILM’s postproduction concerns. In my case, I tried my best to be invisible. I took notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and notebook. That seemed like a better idea than trying to record anything, which would’ve made people uptight. By writing things down by hand, I could hear something said or see something done, move off, wait a minute or two, and then write it down, so people wouldn’t be made to feel self-conscious.
However, I had no backup for my scribblings. Ridiculously, my entire book resided in those singular notes. I didn’t back it up digitally. After a 10 or 12 hour day, I was too beat and too ignorant to do anything but watch bizarre Australian game shows on TV (Deal or No Deal was fascinating)…
I also had to do my day job while I was in Australia, which would be the template whenever I was writing a book at Lucasfilm: research (except in the archives) and writing was always done mornings, nights (not too often), on the bus, and weekends. I was assigned a table up on a mezzanine above a small stage where photographer Keith Hamshere was taking reference pics of each actor in costume following their scenes. This was done for licensing’s sake; Hamshere’s photographs were essential to many products, from books and posters, to clothes, to whatever. In the same area an immense full-body scanner, which looked more sci-fi than anything on set, had been set up to create full-body scans of actors in costume for the action figures and high-end sculpts. So while Hamshere would ask Ewan or Natalie or a Neimoidian to turn for a profile, I’d be busy upstairs doing email. (Hamshere’s work was important to licensing, but not so important to a few who saw these photography sessions as an imposition. One of them refused to cooperate, Rick said, until he threatened a lawsuit.)
Back on set, whenever George asked Jimmy Smits (Bail Organa) to modify his performance or alter an action, Smits would reply, “Yes, sir.” Often when George asked Christensen or McGregor, they would reply, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Back on the Original Trilogy, Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), and Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) had understood instinctively where Lucas was coming from, though he was famously uncommunicative. It was nothing personal. As many know, “Faster” and/or “More intense,” was what Lucas often requested of his actors.
Part of his general reticence on any set was due to the fact that he simply didn’t want to be there. Lucas had told Roger Christian back in 1976, set decorator on Star Wars, that each day he woke up with a metaphorical sack of large stones on his back and spent the day struggling to remove them, painfully, one by one. On set for Episode III, I overheard George asking himself one morning, “Why am I putting myself through this again?”
In 1978, three crewmembers got into a post-film analysis of their ex-boss, concluding that he took too much on himself and stressed himself out unnecessarily. They also thought he often put his trust in the wrong people. I’ve read similar complaints about similar visionaries. Evidently, when you’re hounded by success, it often becomes difficult to tell who has your best interests at heart, particularly given that many folks may have already told you things that didn’t turn out to be true, or said that something wouldn't work that did turn out to work, and vice versa, etc., etc. It’s a difficult position to be in.
Despite his directorial shorthand and his on-set suffering, Lucas, Ford, Fisher, and Hamill worked well together on the Original Trilogy and remained friends afterward. Lucas seemed particularly close with Fisher.
It didn’t help that Portman and McGregor may have been wounded by negative reviews of the first two prequels, making this last one harder for them. He and Portman were never ready to be interviewed (instead I relied on EPKs). Christensen, on the other hand, had less history and was more relaxed. I was given the go-ahead to shadow him for a day, morning till evening. He was ready to talk: young, smart, with his own production company. Like many actors, he was smaller in person, more vulnerable. When we walked from his dressing room to the immense soundstage, where Lucas and dozens of veteran technicians and craftspeople were waiting to shoot the next scene, with thousands of dollars disappearing every minute, I asked Hayden if he wasn’t apprehensive or scared.
“No,” he said. “I’m excited.”
Because it was winter down under, it was dark by the time we drove from the studio to his rented apartment (or house, I can’t remember). Christensen was up front, next to the driver, and I was in the backseat when he turned around and started telling me it was sometimes difficult playing Anakin Skywalker the way George wanted him to, perhaps more restrained than Christensen would have preferred.
I listened, knowing I wouldn’t be able to write about it then, but trying to explain that Lucas was perhaps not explaining why he was doing things in a certain way because he simply didn’t have the time or the inclination to do so. It wasn’t his style.
(Please note: This was not Christensen’s verdict on Lucas—only a step along the way. Stay tuned…)
Next: A Pleasant Dracula