The Beginning: Making Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace solidifies its place as the greatest making-of documentary ever created around the 55 minute mark.
George Lucas and his inner circle of visual effects artists, producers, audio designers, and editors enter a Lucasfilm screening room to watch the first rough cut of what would become The Phantom Menace. Everybody knows that it’s a work in progress. The effects are temporary. The pacing is up for grabs. They’ve assembled to watch and learn.
They take their seats in comfy armchairs, surrounded by the soft yellow glow of a dozen table lamps. Lucas arrives, and a few shuffle from their seats to give the big boss the best seat in the house. The idle chatter dies down.
“Everybody awake?” Lucas says with a smile. A few of the assembled chuckle, but even the legendary creator of Star Wars can’t quite convert the room to relaxation.
“Alright, let’s do it,” he says, and it’s difficult to miss the nervous tension in his body language.
The lights fade down, and at first it’s perfect. John Williams’ trumpets blare. A vast sea of stars serves as the backdrop for the main title, followed by a roll up, which crawls up into infinity — just as every Star Wars script says it should. A new, iconic title crawl appears for the first time since Return of the Jedi in 1983. Episode I, it says, THE BEGINNING. It’s so early in the process that they don’t have the name yet.
Smash cut to a couple hours later. The movie’s over. The lights are back on. Now it’s time to talk about it.
“It’s a little disjointed,” Lucas says.
“There’s a lot of short scenes,” says Ben Burtt, the man who made every iconic Star Wars sound and co-edited Episode I.
“It’s bold, in terms of jerking people around, but — ” Lucas trails off, mid-sentence. He stares off into the distance at the blank movie screen. He purses his lips and shakes his head. Instead of speaking, he does it again. He smacks his lips.
“I may have gone too far in a couple of places,” he says.
The Beginning is an admirably honest look at the creation of the first Star Wars movie in a decade and a half — especially given that it’s a product of Lucasfilm. As the company that produced The Phantom Menace, you might reasonably expect it to shy away from the parts of the creative process that make its leaders look, well, bad. And yet Lucasfilm shipped The Beginning as a special feature when The Phantom Menace arrived on home video. It’s never hidden from it. You can watch it right now on the official Star Wars YouTube channel.
And what you take from it will probably have a lot to do with how you felt about The Phantom Menace.
Unlike many of my friends and colleagues, I like The Phantom Menace. I liked it in 1999, and I like it in 2019 — impossibly 20 years after I first saw it at a midnight screening and then a morning screening and then an afternoon screening and then a nighttime screening on May 19, 1999. (Yes, that’s my ticket above. Yes, it’s resting against a Darth Vader desk calendar that my sister-in-law got me for Christmas. Yes, I’m kind of into Star Wars.)
On a spring night in 1999 (did I mention that was 20 freaking years ago?), I walked into the theater in a world where Star Wars was more or less universally adored (Han shooting first notwithstanding). I walked out into a different world, where that was not so much the case.
The Beginning is an inextricable bridge between both worlds, chronicling the excitement, the anticipation, the missteps of a Star Wars galaxy with more than one trilogy. It’s unnerving. It’s funny. There’s a scene where George Lucas shows battle droids for the first time to his buddy Steven Spielberg. (Perhaps you’ve heard of him?)
There’s a lot to love. There’s probably a lot to hate. Either way, it’s well worth your time, even 20 years(!) later.