Prequel Trilogy,  The Phantom Menace

An oral history of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, with George Lucas, Doug Chiang and more creators


Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace arrived on May 19, 1999, to a degree of anticipation and hype rarely seen before, or since, for a movie. There was good cause. It was the first new film in the Star Wars saga since 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and the kickoff of the prequel trilogy, which promised to tell the story of how Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side and became Darth Vader, while the Emperor rose to power. George Lucas himself wrote the script and was back directing for the first time since 1977’s Star Wars, and the movie became a giant leap forward in digital effects — including a record number of effects shots and a major CG character in Jar Jar Binks. “All of the Star Wars movies, in one way or another, are about me and my take on the world,” Lucas tells That might be especially true for The Phantom Menace, a colorful mashup of Kurosawa, political intrigue and history, racing, and family. As The Phantom Menace celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, spoke with several of its greatest architects to tell the story of how it came to be, and to reflect on it today.

Every Saga Has a Beginning

Following the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, George Lucas’s commitments to Star Wars, at least in film, were complete. In the intervening years — dubbed “The Dark Times” by fans — Star Wars was largely absent from the public consciousness. Lucas, for his part, spent the time raising his family and somewhat quietly shepherding the evolution of digital effects with Industrial Light & Magic, resulting in innovations like the liquid-metal T-1000 of Terminator 2 (1991) and the mind-blowingly lifelike dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993).

Finally, on November 1, 1994, Lucas sat down to write Episode I.

George Lucas, The Phantom Menace writer and director, Star Wars creator: Well, my decision to make Episode I was more or less driven by technology. The first three Star Wars films were designed very, very carefully to be done cheaply. We didn’t go to any big cities, we didn’t have a lot of costumes, we didn’t have a lot of extras. We didn’t have a lot of the things that cost money on a movie like that. So it was really driven by what I could afford. You have to remember, the first film was made for 13 million dollars. Today, that same film costs 300 million dollars. Even in those days, 2001 cost like 25 million dollars. And I think we had more special effects than that did.

With Episode I, I didn’t want to tell a limited story. I had to go into the politics and the bigger issues of the Republic and that sort of thing. I had to go into bigger issues. And in order to do that, I had to come up with a way of doing it, and that’s what digital technology brought me. I had Yoda but he couldn’t fight. I had cities, but I couldn’t build models that big. I had lots and lots of costumes, but I couldn’t afford to make them. So there were a lot of issues that were just practical — Episode I wasn’t doable for a long time, so I waited until we had the technology to do it.

John Knoll, The Phantom Menace visual effects supervisor: George had mentioned it in one of the company meetings. Back in the mid-‘90s, annually, we’d have a big company meeting, and George would usually address us and sort of tell us what he was thinking. From the time I started there, every year somebody would ask, “Are you ever going to go back and make more Star Warsmovies?”

I remember around ’94 or so, in one of the company meetings he said, “Yeah, actually, I think I am. I’m looking at writing stories now.” There was a lot of excitement about that. […]”

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  • Alexrd

    This article is great (a rarity on Always nice to see Lucas going in-depth on his own universe.

    Some noteworthy quotes:

    “So I had all this material. A lot of the story elements were givens. Early on, it was that Anakin had been more or less created by the midi-chlorians, and that the midi-chlorians had a very powerful relationship to the Whills [from the first draft of Star Wars], and the power of the Whills, and all that. I never really got a chance to explain the Whills part.”

    A reference to the sequel trilogy.

    “I’d already established that all Jedi had a mentor, with Obi-Wan and Luke, and the fact that that was a bigger issue — that’s the way the Jedi actually worked. But it was also the way that the Sith worked. There’s always the Sith Lord and then the apprentice.

    Everybody said, “Oh, well, there was a war between the Jedi and the Sith.” Well, that never happened. That’s just made up by fans or somebody. What really happened is, the Sith ruled the universe for a while, 2000 years ago. Each Sith has an apprentice, but the problem was, each Sith Lord got to be powerful. And the Sith Lords would try to kill each other because they all wanted to be the most powerful. So in the end they killed each other off, and there wasn’t anything left. So the idea is that when you have a Sith Lord, and he has an apprentice, the apprentice is always trying to recruit somebody to join him, because he’s not strong enough, usually, so that he can kill his master.”

    Another difference between the EU and George’s vision of Star Wars lore.

    “People have a tendency to confuse it — everybody has the Force. Everybody. You have the good side and you have the bad side. And as Yoda says, if you choose the bad side, it’s easy because you don’t have to do anything. Maybe kill a few people, cheat, lie, steal. Lord it over everybody. But the good side is hard because you have to be compassionate. You have to give of yourself. Whereas the dark side is selfish.”

    A reiteration of what he established in TPM, and a response to the whole Force/midi-chlorian misconception.

    “World building is the hard part. There’s so much of it and you have to go down to the smallest detail, the smallest knife and fork and spoon and cup. Besides the people and technology, it’s always the biggest problem, and it’s mostly a problem because it’s time consuming.


    But I did it on the first three Star Wars movies. Each Star Wars movie had three different societies. Three different cultures, three different worlds. And those three worlds were the basis of everything. And then at the same time, those three worlds and those three movies couldn’t be outrageous in terms of the environment because we didn’t have digital technology. We used deserts, and then we used forests. It was hard to find that many different environments to be able to build around. That was one of the problems of going on to the next three, which was I had to come up with worlds, fashion, and craft that were very different. That’s part of the “Where am I, what’s going on, what is this,” part of making a story, which is it’s unique, it’s weird, it’s different. And it’s interesting, it holds your interest.”

    Something that was a trademark of his movies and is clearly missing from the Disney ones.

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