George Lucas lets Ian McDiarmid and Hayden Christensen get their Revenge in Episode III

And so it ends.

The legendary Star Wars saga comes to a conclusion—sort of—with the imminent release of Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith. The film, written and directed by Star Wars grand poobah George Lucas, sends countless Jedi knights to their graves and witnesses the transformation of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) into Darth Vader, a transformation aided and abetted by the treacherous Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who’s revealed to be the mighty Sith lord Darth Sidious (also McDiarmid). And by the time the credits role, the stage will be set for the initial Star Wars trilogy: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Lucas recently opened the gates of his Skywalker Ranch in San Rafael, Calif., to a press corps eager to glimpse the final film in the Star Wars saga, which will open on May 19, and to chat with Lucas and his cast. Science Fiction Weekly was on hand to talk with Lucas, Christensen and McDiarmid.

George Lucas, how hard or easy is it to just step away from a franchise that’s so popular and such a moneymaker?

Lucas: I walked away from it before. For 15 years. I thought long and hard about coming back and doing the backstory. And the only reason I did it, ultimately, was because I was interested in the story and the fact that it would shift how you look at [episodes] IV, V and VI. IV, V and VI were really meant to be a story about Darth Vader, and it is a story about Darth Vader, but Luke [Mark Hamill] and Leia [Carrie Fisher] became more central figures; not really central, but the impact is stronger. But I thought if I gave Darth Vader his due you would understand what a tragic story the whole thing is, and it would change the way you look at the movies. So that’s why I did it.


At the end of the day, what are you most proud of when it comes to Star Wars?

Lucas: I’m most proud of the fact that I was able to take special effects to where it is now. I mean, movies started as a special effect. All the first movies, that’s what they were interested in, the special-effects part of it, because that’s what wowed the audience. It was like a magic act. And that’s what the medium was, originally. And then, over the years, studios came in, and they had big special-effects departments, and it was a big part of the way that they designed movies. They could make movies with anything that they wanted. So they made big historical epics. They did fantasy movies. They could do all kinds of movies. There was nothing that they couldn’t do in those days, the ’30s and the ’40s.

And then in the ’50s they moved away from doing sort of epic movies and doing psychological movies and then doing street movies, and then by the time you got to the ’70s you were kind of forced to do a very narrow kind of movie. You couldn’t do big epics, historical pieces. You couldn’t do space films and science fantasy and that kind of stuff. You get one movie a year, maybe, and it would cost an enormous amount of money, and if you wanted to do a western they wouldn’t let you do that anymore, because there were too many horses or whatever. And none of the studios had a special-effects department anymore. They were all gone.

Disney had [one well-known] matte painter. Universal had Al Whitlock, who was a matte painter, and then there were a few matte painters in England. But basically the idea of a special-effects department didn’t exist anymore. They would just do a few matte paintings if they had to fake things. By bringing back the special-effects world I brought back the ability to make all kinds of movies, and not just space movies, but all kinds of movies which didn’t really exist before, in the ’70s.

The Star Wars films seem prescient in their explorations of democracy and dictatorships. Was that always your plan?

Lucas: Well, that’s been in all of the movies. The whole point of the movies, the underlying element that makes the movies work, is that you, whether you go backwards or forwards, you start out in a democracy, and democracy turns into a dictatorship, and then the rebels make it back into a democracy. That’s one of the uber-issues that everyone is dealing with. You’ve got the personal issue of Anakin and his turn to the Dark Side, and his children bringing him back to being a human being, but the larger issue is the fact that you’ve given up your democracy. And it was never anything where the bad guys took over. It’s always been a thing where it was given to them. It’s based on Caesar. It’s based on Napoleon.

You actually have the line, “This is how we lose a democracy.” How personal a comment was that?

Lucas: That was pretty much there 30 years ago. It really came out of the Vietnam War. It came out of Nixon wanting to change the rules so that he could get a third term, and with that—I’m a big history buff—I was beginning to study Caesar. Why did the Roman senate give his nephew a dictatorship when they had gotten rid of Caesar? Why did they do that? After they had a revolution in France to get freedom, why did they create an emperor? I mean, why did they do that? Why did the Germans, after they had a democracy after World War I, turn it into a dictatorship? Why did they do that? That was my initial question 30 years ago. And I’m not really saying why as much as how it gets done, because it always gets done in the same way. And it’s scary, the fact that the world has caught up to that theory.


You’ve said now that the Star Wars films are finished that you’re going to direct the kinds of independent features you’ve put off for the decade you spent making episodes I, II and III. But, in the meantime, is Indiana Jones IV the next project for you?

Lucas: I’m doing a film called Red Tails, which is about fighter pilots during World War II. I’m doing Indiana Jones and that film at the same time. I’m producing those two.


Ian McDiarmid, is Palpatine/Sidious the defining role of your career?

McDiarmid: Oh, I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of defining roles. Well, you know, it’s the one that most people are going to see. You can put it that way. I’ve played a lot of interesting and demanding parts, and I hope I’ll go on doing that.

You’ve played any number of Shakespearean roles—and in fact just concluded a run as Lear. Do you see parallels between Palpatine/Sidious and any other Shakespearean characters?

McDiarmid: No, not really. The Lear I played recently was not Shakespeare, but by a living English playwright called Edward Bond, and he was a tyrant who couldn’t see the woods for the trees. He kept promoting peace while actually propagating war. There’s a lot of that going on, but in the end he learns that his position is untenable and contradictory, and as a result of that tries to undo some of the things that he did. Before he dies, he becomes a slightly better person. That’s not the case with [Palpatine/Sidious]. He’s totally irredeemable, completely black, and has no other motivation than the accumulation and exercise of power, and he doesn’t care how many people die in the process. In fact, human life is a series of machines to him. And when Anakin turns into a machine, that’s even better than the pliable, strong young man that he’s already corrupted, because machines are even more powerful than the people who use them, and to actually get a weapon that is also semi-human is the most powerful weapon you can have. So I’m sort of describing a bit about Palpatine’s non-motivation, and I think where he’s different is when you play these great parts of Shakespeare there’s lots of psychological complications that you can find in them, but it was very important not to find any psychological complications in this man, because he doesn’t have it. The person who has it, now you know, is Anakin, and he’s had it all along. And so Mr. Evil isn’t really Darth Vader, although what I make him become symbolizes that. Mr. Evil is me. I’m blacker than him. My character is the blackest of the black.

I suppose I could put it even simpler. It’s not that people like that don’t exist—there are lots of examples, [such as] Slobodan Milosevic. Now, of course he’s a human being, but the whole progress of the situation in the former Yugoslavia was about one man’s determination to obtain as much power as possible. He wanted to get all those countries together and run them, and he didn’t care how he did it. He did it by various sophisticated, underhand ways, and by having a lot of people killed, and though I’ve never met him, it seems to me that that is another case of somebody who not only has no moral center but no moral compass. Human life doesn’t matter. Everything is expendable on the road to power. Fortunately, we know that it’s not sustainable, and he’s in prison and currently on trial.


You kick a lot of Jedi butt in Episode III. Can you take us through the process of training and blue screens and all of that?

McDiarmid: I was surprised how much butt, in fact, I do kick in this movie. I thought all the power was in the head and in the hands, so when I got, not so much the script, but the schedule, which said “fight training” on a huge number of days, I thought “that will be falls,” because I’d read the script. But then it became clear to me that I had my own saber, and Sam [Jackson, who plays Mace Windu] and I were going to lock—and not intellectually—and that Yoda [voice of Frank Oz] was going to get a tough time, and that I was going to have to learn how to use this thing. And I did in a limited way. I have to say, completely frankly, unlike Ewan [McGregor] and Hayden and indeed Sam, I’m not an expert swordsman, nor did I become one as a result of learning stuff for Revenge of the Sith, but I did do all the sequences, and that’s what George likes, because he needs the energy, he needs the eyes, he needs the intention, and I didn’t do it at the speed of light. But my stunt double almost did. His name is Michael Byrne, and he should get a large share of the credit for that. I learned a new skill, and I hope I can do it and it will be convincing choreographically, if not in terms of speed and actual dynamic energy.

Hayden Christensen, everyone is saying this is the film the fans have been waiting for. Is it the film you’ve been waiting for?

Christensen: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s the story that I was waiting for, and it was the time in Anakin’s life that I was waiting for. This is him at his most transitionary phase. It’s him becoming dark.


What did you learn from George Lucas on the two films you’ve done with him?

Christensen: Where to begin? I mean, so much. I think that probably what has been most impactful is seeing how much George has accomplished and how he’s sort of remained a very kind and decent person. You always learn something as an actor from each film that you do, and you’re always better on the next because of it. But what I really took away was ultimately about being a good person. You can create these amazing empires and films that will be around forever and ever and ever, and he still doesn’t let it go to his head. So that’s inspiring.

What was it like the day you stepped onto the set in your Darth Vader costume?

Christensen: Everyone came out to bear witness. It was an event. It was an event for myself, for everyone working on the film, to finally see Darth. I went to set first, and they had a changing room on set, and I went in and it was a good 15 minutes to put on the whole costume, layer by layer, and having everything fit in. But then walking out on the set and having a huge crowd of people there, and getting to watch their faces as they took in Darth Vader was very cool. It was really neat, because these are people you know and are friends with. Even with the awe and excitement, it was coupled with a certain glimmer of fear and a respect that needed to be paid; lower the head.


Any secret wish for more, so you could spend more time as Darth Vader?

Christensen: A III 1/2 so, that I could wear the outfit all the time? Not really. It was actually very awkward to be in it. Aside from it being an emotionally amazing experience, the logistics of having to walk in it were very awkward. There were big lifts in the shoes.

So, is that you we hear speaking as Vader?

Christensen: I don’t know. I was giving the lines in the mask.

We’re pretty positive it’s James Earl Jones doing the voice.

Christensen: It was? He was credited for it? The things that they can do on the computer, I’m sure that they could make mine sound an awful lot like his. So I wouldn’t be surprised. But no, it did sound like his [voice].


How has being a part of Star Wars changed your life?

Christensen: It changed a lot of things. I would get recognized, which was a new thing for me. Someone asking for your autograph is really bizarre when you don’t really understand what you’ve done other than win a part in a film. But it changed a lot of things in life and made me have a real appreciation for the sort of normalities and the simple things, and just going home to be with your family and the sort of consistent things in life that can’t change. It made everything much different.

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