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It's Just a Movie, Lucas Reminds : 'Phantom' filmmaker says he intended to entertain--not change--the world.

May 20, 1999|BOB HEISLER | NEWSDAY

As the center of a virtual universe, the imagination that launched a thousand Internet communities, George Lucas is used to having his every movement analyzed for meaning. So he carefully chooses his words when he says, in effect, that sometimes a movie is just a movie.

But when the movie is Lucas' "Star Wars--Episode I The Phantom Menace," which opened Wedensday after perhaps the biggest buildup in the history of the cinema, that can be hard to believe.

Lucas' comments came at a packed press conference earlier this month in New York where the writer, director--and many would say, real star--of "Phantom Menace" tried to diminish expectations, artistic and financial, about his long-awaited prequel.

"I'm happy that 'Star Wars' stimulates young people's imagination, and it was designed to make people think about the larger entities and the mysteries of life," Lucas said.

But that's it. He's not looking for a world in which he's worshiped, or even followed. Or to have his films looked at as spiritual and moral guides. He's just looking to sell movie tickets, and, of course, the toys and gizmos that are the ancillary, instant relics of popular culture. He's not a prophet, or even a pinball wizard, he says. He's a filmmaker.

What Lucas has done with "Phantom Menace" is introduce a "third level of filmmaking," says Lucas biographer Dale Pollock, whose "Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas" (Samuel French Trade, $14.95) has just been updated to include the new movie.

"First we added sound, and then we added color and this is the first time you're going to be able to see what digital and computer technology can do to the essential process of filmmaking," Pollock said. "[Lucas] can predesign the effects, direct the scene, have the effects beamed to him by satellite, look at the scene he just shot with the effects, say, 'No I want Liam Neeson to do this instead of that because he's got to react here,' go back in, redo the take and then, even in the cutting room, if he's not happy, just digitally alter everything."

For the actors in "The Phantom Menace," that process is called blue-screen acting (for the screen that, in effect, blocks out space for the digital effects added later), and it was a little unnerving.

"You have to be very careful about acting against a blue screen," actor Liam Neeson told the press following Lucas. "George was very immediate: 'Say that line faster,' or 'Try it again, but slower.' "

But that was it, Neeson made clear. No lectures about motivation or characterization. No discussion about whether a Jedi knight would say that line or act that way.

If Lucas has any goal beyond making a gazillion dollars, Pollock suggests, it is to render Hollywood and its studios irrelevant. He was burned as a young director, believing the studios badly botched his first feature film, "THX 1138." Soon after he formed Lucasfilm, his own production company. After a battle with Universal for control of his next movie, "American Graffiti," Lucas began working on his saga about the young and plucky heroes of the righteous rebel alliance and their efforts to destroy the evil Empire.

Now, of course, Lucas doesn't need studios to finance his work. The estimated $125 million spent to make "Phantom Menace" came from Lucas himself, from a financial empire built on three formidable pillars: Lucas owns the special effects cartel called Industrial Light and Magic, responsible for state-of-the-art effects in "Jurassic Park," "Men in Black" and, most recently, "The Mummy."

He also owns the digital sound post-production system Skywalker Sound, used to make his spectacular images even more effective. And, of course, there's a little movie franchise called "Star Wars" that Lucas owns lock, stock and barrel-of-merchandise. In the 22 years since the original "Star Wars"--what is now known as "Episode IV"--more than $4.5 billion worth of "Star Wars"-related products have gone home with fans. He is, after all, chairman of the board of Lucasfilm, LucasArts Entertainment Co., Lucas Digital, Lucas Licensing and Lucas Learning.

Lucas doesn't need studios to sell his movies, either. He's paying 20th Century Fox a percentage of the gross to essentially take the cans of film from Lucas' production facility to the individual theaters--a job that he hopes will soon disappear when he will be able to send a digital print directly from his Skywalker Ranch compound to the local multiplex.

If he seems to be obsessive--setting down rules for how many minutes of coming attractions before the movie, what can be sold in the theater lobby, selecting which posters to display, which action figures to make--he says it is because he wants to present his work in the best possible light.

" He wanted to make money because he wanted his independence," noted Pollock. "But do I think it's all about money? No. It's all about control. It's all about his feeling that the artist should have total control of his work."

But every artist loses control at some point, and as "The Phantom Menace" left his hands and played to audiences of theater owners and movie critics and the occasional fan who raced back with a comment to share on the Internet, Lucas heard something he rarely hears: sighs of disappointment.

"When you get a situation where you have so much hype and anticipation, it can't possibly live up to that," Lucas said. "I'm fully aware that some fans are talking themselves into a situation both in the fact that they've gotten much older--the film is made for young people--and the fact that they have these amazing expectations which the film can't possibly meet."

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