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'Phantom' stars say they're happy to be part of legend

May 20, 1999
Web posted at: 5:02 p.m. EDT (2102 GMT)

By Andy Culpepper
Turner Entertainment Report Senior Correspondent

HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- They were almost lost in the bedlam that is Hollywood Boulevard. Almost, but not quite.

On the east side of the famed Mann's Chinese Theater, inside a sprawling city-block-sized crater, construction work continued on the $280 million-plus complex that's to become home to the Oscars in 2001. Up and down the Walk of Fame, with its inlaid stars honoring notables from Hollywood's past, gawking tourists with cameras and camcorders go through a never-ending walkabout, preserving their trip to Tinseltown on film and video.

But the faithful are still visible, almost unnoticed in the regular mid-afternoon cacophony of the boulevard. Almost a block away, next to the theater parking lot, there they are, lined up on the sidewalk, waiting.

Outside, it's another noisy dusty Hollywood Wednesday. Inside, it's a trip to Tatooine and points elsewhere.

Next stop, "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace."

The great wait

Who can fault their tenacity? After all, this trip began some 22 years ago -- with an interruption of more than a decade and a half for many. Patience, they say, is a virtue. And a relative one, at that.

These particular fans waiting outside for the next showing at Mann's aren't even in the first three groups to see George Lucas' new movie. That honor was reserved for the weary throng gathered in the same spot some 16 hours earlier.

But even as this latest group queued up for "The Phantom Menace," pundits lined up with their projections of just how much money the box office tills might hold by day's end. The estimates -- some as high as $45 million -- were staggering.

The film would prove to coup a still sizeable but much smaller $29 million by day's end, beating the record-setting $26.1 million box office take "The Lost World" opened to in 1998.

Somewhere, George Lucas had to be smiling. And maybe expressing -- if only to himself -- a little relief. He built it. They came.


Talking Tatooine

Two weeks earlier, during the New York publicity weekend for the media, he'd publicly downplayed any talk of breaking box office records. How could you compare this to anything prior? It wasn't Memorial Day. It wasn't even a holiday.

But for Lucas, who long ago made more money from his little space saga than most of us can even comprehend, this has never been about money. Or box office records. Or impressing critics? Get real.

Lucas' first three installments in the "Star Wars" series were completed in 1983 with the release of "Episode VI: Return of the Jedi." Circumstances not of his choosing -- divorce, other obligations -- prevented Lucas from going to work immediately on finishing the series with his back story, sometimes called the "prequels."

The filmmaker's motivation for getting back to "Star Wars" after two decades' time is probably no different than the same force compelling his legions of ticket buyers to line up for it again. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune put it this way: "Myths are central. They help hapless humans deal with the unknowable and the unanswerable."

We cleave to that which gives us comfort -- the familiar, the touchstone. Students of literature learn the term ubi sunt, roughly translated, "where have they gone?" -- a longing for things past. Even Lucas isn't immune to the feeling. And maybe more than the rest of us, for a world of his own creation.

"The part for me that was the most revealing," says the filmmaker, "was when I first saw the film ... especially the film of the desert from Tunisia. And the people, the characters were standing there. And it was 'Star Wars.' I mean, we were back there. It was exactly the same, and it was just like those 20 years had never elapsed. It was petty amazing. ... I think Tatooine is the thing that brings it back the most. If it's Tatooine, it must be 'Star Wars.'"


In galaxies not so far away

Lucas' desert planet Tatooine is in no textbook, and yet millions of moviegoers who stood in line to watch Episodes IV, V and VI, know where to look for it. In Los Angeles. In New York. Even in Northern Ireland.

Academy-nominated actor Liam Neeson joins the Force this time as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. But 22 years ago, Neeson was just another "Star Wars" novice, taking the journey for the first time.

"It was quite an intense time in Belfast in 1977 and I remember going to see it in the cinema," Neeson recalls. "It was a very, very dicey area of Belfast. And the cinema was packed. In fact, I had never seen a cinema packed in my life before that -- to see this Episode I. Not Episode I at that time. It was Episode IV. And it was unique. We all got lost in this story for two hours and came back out into the harsh reality of life in Belfast."

Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Jedi Council member Mace Windu in the new movie, has his own memories of that first "Star Wars" experience. When he heard a new episode was in the works, Jackson let it be known early on he wanted to be in the next installment -- no matter the part.

"Come on. Everybody's got their thing," the "Pulp Fiction" star declares. "I've been on the set with Dustin (Hoffman) which was kind of like, 'OK, Dustin, hey!' I've been on the set with (Robert) De Niro, and, 'Say, Bob! How ya doin'?' But you walk on the set and it's like ...." He stops talking for an instant and turns his head from side to side in a double-take motion. "It's Yoda. I'm doing a scene with Yoda! It's an awesome kind of thing. I don't know what it is."


And how do you explain that childlike glee? It's the magic of movies. And even a veteran movie star isn't immune.

"For me," says Jackson, "This is a part of cinematic history. As somebody reminded me ... I just joined a part of a cult history that millions of people kind of subscribe to."

It's a history still in the making, still being written even as the latest episode opens in theaters. Lucas and his team have already begun work on Episode II. After enduring a hiatus of so many years, in the words of producer Rick McCallum, Lucas and company will be "relentless" in getting the series finished. The next film is scheduled for release in 2002. The final episode is to follow in 2005.

Can they make it on schedule? McCallum seems to think Lucas can do anything.

"It's the imagination, it's the personality ...." he says. "You know leaders who have those three can make people do anything. So, it's very, very easy. I can get people up to the mountaintop. (Lucas) can get them to jump."

Or stand in line for hours. Or days. Or weeks on end. It's a force. Lucas has it. And now, after 16 years, so again do his fans.

Star Wars: Back to the Beginning

'Star Wars' reactions: Critics and the masses
May 19, 1999
Lucas: Looking forward to premiere -- and a break
May 18, 1999
Natalie Portman: 'Star Wars' queen
May 18, 1999

Star Wars Official Web Site
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