31 October 2020 The Irish Film & Television Network
Producing The Phantom Menace
15 Jul 1999 :
In an extensive interview, producer Rick McCallum talks to Paul Byrne about the making, marketing and manhandling of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

Having started out as a producer in his native Britain, working with such luminaries as Dennis Potter (on Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective and Dreamchild), Nicholas Roeg (Track 29 and Castaway) and even The Rolling Stones (the Undercover music video), Rick McCallum landed firmly on his feet in 1990 when he teamed up with writer/director George Lucas. Starting out on Radioland Murders and the award-winning TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, it was with the restoration and enhancement work done on the Star Wars Special Edition that McCallum finally began to feel the full force of his job. With The Phantom Menace firmly on its way to being the second biggest grossing movie of all time (behind Titanic), McCallum is now preparing for the next installment of the Star Wars saga, Episode 2

PAUL BYRNE: I was surprised to hear George Lucas say recently that The Phantom Menace would have to be one of the Top 10 grossing films of all time simply to break even. It came in at $115m, which was $5m under budget, and, even with advertising taken into consideration, it's probably the surest bet Hollywood's ever produced.

RICK McCALLUM: "It costs X amount of money to make a film, and then when you market a film, you'll spend in four or five weeks what it cost to make the movie again. The movie has to make up for both those things. If a film costs $100m to make, you'll spend another $100m on marketing it worldwide, that's $200m the film's got to make back to break even. You only get about 50% of the gross, so if you gross $400m, you only get $200m back."

PB: It was a given though that The Phantom Menace would make at least $400m worldwide.

RMC: "Nothing's a given. If you had asked the makers of Godzilla last year, with all the hype and everything else on Godzilla, if they had a given, they would probably have said yes. We've learnt since then you never say yes, you never know."

PB: Put it this way, if you're looking for any private investors on the next Star Wars movie, I'd be happy to chip in.

RMC: "Thanks (laughs). I'll think about it."

PB: Was the pressure any less here, given that this movie was self-financed?

RMC: "The only thing any writer, director, producer or whatever cares about is having enough money to keep on making the sort of films that he wants to make. It's truly what being independent is all about. If you make a film, and it makes a lot of money, and you use that money to make another movie, then you can control the destiny of your life. If you lose, then you're out, but if you make it, you keep on going, and everyone survives in a happy way. And that's really the responsibility for us. We didn't have to worry about the studio, but we did have the risk factor, because George risks everything when he makes a film. And when you make a film that costs over $80m to make, you do have to be in the top 10 or 20 to break even. That's the madness of Hollywood right now. We make three hundred films a year; at least a hundred and fifty of those cost $80m or more, and they have to be in the top 10 or 20, or they don't break even. But everybody's looking for the big lottery ticket, you know. It's the big win, like Independence Day, or Titanic, or Star Wars, or whatever the big movie is every couple of years. But it's not a sane way to run a business at all."

PB: So, what, your job was at stake here?

RMC: "Oh yeah, but that's the terrible thing about being a freelance producer, your job is always at stake. You're always depending on how successful your latest movie is. But we went into this trying to be as fiscally responsible as possible, coming in under budget, working hard. That's really the issue of technology for us. It's really only a tool, but it helps makes things bigger than we could ever possibly build, and at a level that's far more expansive at a far less cost that anyone could have ever dreamed of a couple of years ago. All the mythology behind technology, it's all bullshit. The only real gift it gives you is it allows a writer to actually write anything he wants and a director is only limited by his imagination. It doesn't mean the film's going to be any better - if it's not an integral part of the storytelling process, then people don't respond to the vision, the size or the epic nature of the film, or whatever - but it's not just associated with big films. It's small films too. Look at Shakespeare In Love, where you can have the Globe Theatre but you don't have to build it, and you can have just a hundred extras and replicate them into a thousand. Big films help push the technology and make it cheaper for smaller films. I don't know if you saw Celebration; it was made for $28,000. That couldn't have been made two years ago, but now you can make it on a Sony DVD camera for a thousand pounds, and if the picture is any good, if the talent is there, then someone will release it. And as digital projection takes place, which will happen in the next three or four years, there's actually going to be a marketplace where filmmakers can send their films by fibre optic to any theatre in Europe. It may be only one showing a day, but it will allow a whole different audience to see films. It's a great time to be making movies."

PB: Is there a side of you that would like to work on a low-budget film now, especially after something as big as The Phantom Menace?

RMC: "Absolutely. In fact, that's the dream, certainly for George. When he's finished here, he's got a lot of films, most of them are experimental, with no dialogue in them, pure visual imagery trying to create a narrative. He wants to do a lot of experimental work."

PB: Would they be released as a new George Lucas film, or would he try and keep such releases low-key?

RMC: "Oh, he'd want to keep as low-key as possible. They would be intended for a different market entirely, and they would have to be marketed specifically for that market."

PB: Has CGI made the role of the producer any easier?

RMC: "No, it's a whole different level now, because most people who work in CGI now have never even actually worked on a film. I would say the average age of the people who worked on The Phantom Menace was probably about 25. None of them have come up through the traditional steps of actually working on a film. They're much more individual; they haven't learnt the techniques being inter-dependent with a large group of people. So management wise, that's a challenge. Whereas traditionally special effects people would be out there working with the filmmaker on the floor, now those two worlds are separated completely. We're trying to join them together and make that process much more fluid for everyone. But it's still a challenge. Right now we have 60, 70 years worth of experience in terms of how we create and solve problems. In the effects world, it changes all the time Every 18 months, you can buy a computer that's twice as fast and half the cost of the one you just bought. That's never happened in the history of the world before. Nobody knows how to deal with it. I think at ILM now we have less than NASA but more than The Pentagon in regard to technology. It's pure raw, silicone graphics power, and that's amazing for an effects company. But it takes so much power to render image on piece of films. Sometimes a shot, like one of the pod race shots, can take six, seven days, 24-hours a day. That's hundreds of millions of dollars worth of processing power just to create an 8-second shot. Phenomenal."

PB: Last year, talking about the second trilogy, you said it would have to be much darker than the original trilogy, but The Phantom Menace is really quite light.

RMC: "Episodes 2 and 3 are definitely the downward spiral. We know where he's got to go, we've just got to learn how he gets there in 2 and 3. But the overall issues of why we do the bad things that we do, is it our pride, is it our ego, is it narcissism, is it lack of passion, is it environment, genetic? What makes us do the things that we do when we hurt people, and then, what are the consequences of those actions? That's really what episodes 2 and 3 are about. But in order to see the whole journey - this is really one big 12-hour film - at the end of the day, we know that, as bad as Anakin gets, he still redeems himself. Now, is that a conscious effort, is it fate, is it destiny that's provided this highway for him to take? No one knows. Little Anakin now, as you see him in Episode 1, there are just a few hints of something amiss in this seemingly perfect little kid. There's a certain independent thinking, some kind of skill; how does a perfect kid become this monster? Is it his ego? That's part of the interesting aspect, but it's certainly no different than the question we all have to ask ourselves. I probably have to ask it more because I'm a producer, and we're very much in touch with our dark sides, of course."

PB: The fact that this kid actually says 'Yippee!' is a giveaway that there's trouble afoot.

RMC: "When was the last time you were in America? Then again, that answers your question. A lot of American kids are trouble (laughs)."

PB: You've worked exclusively with Lucas since 1990; at this point, do you have the power, or the nerve, to turn around and tell George that something sucks? Is it difficult to strip away all the business and get to the core quality of the product?

RMC: "No. I think if you're a writer, you write alone, if you're a painter, you paint alone, but when you go to make a film, no matter how big, no matter how Titanic an ego you have, you cannot make movies alone. You need to be able to collaborate with people. With George, it couldn't be easier. The thing is, with film, there is no truth until you make the movie and you show it. You can have the greatest script in the world but it doesn't mean shit until the audience sees it. It's not like doing research on anything else. You have to actually make the movie to find out whether its good or bad. The thing is too, the quality of your truth is about the quality of your argument. If things don't work, everybody argues. It's not just me, it's the whole group. If you have a group that's, again, strong enough. I think the problem with a lot of films today is that you'll have a film where the cameraman is making his film, the editor is making his movie, the costume designer is making his film, and the director is making a different movie than the writer. In fact, the writer doesn't even recognise the movie. And that's primarily why films are so bad; the process. No one ever sits down and says, hey, let's go make a bad movie. Even if it's a first film, and it's a horror movie, everyone in that room wants to make the best horror movie ever made. And then, why are films so bad. So many of them are."

PB: The Phantom Menace is aimed squarely at kids; was there any consideration for those thirtysomethings who were looking for The Matrix?

RMC: "It's never changed from day one for George. People bring a lot of stuff to the work, but the minute you decide to put an eight-year old boy in your movie, that pretty well defines what sort of movie you're going to make, and who you're making it for. Yes, there is a problem that some people may have if they're older, especially if they grew up watching the other pictures. That depends on how they relate ultimately to themselves watching the movie, or if they have children watching the movie, but this is just one big 12-hour matinee for kids."

PB: When exactly did the Star Wars saga change from a 9-film epic to a 6-film epic?

RMC: "There will only be six. The confusion comes from when he wrote the back story. There were nine installments for him, and they were overlapping. They weren't that well developed, but he picked the story that would be the easiest to get off the ground and make. He never thought he'd get to make the second two anyway, much less make the first three. But if you look at the arc of the story, you meet Anakin at eight, and then he eventually redeems himself. There's not much further the story could go to really."

PB: Was it your own choice to make a cameo in the film?

RMC: "It was just a pathetic form of the most vain and petty narcissism. Because we build these things layer by layer, you'll have little blanks sometimes with the blue screens, and we'll put the chief animator as one of the pilots or whatever. It's cheaper too, because we don't have to pay these people."

PB: Which scene are you in exactly?

RMC: "It's when Palpatine arrives to Naboo and greets Anakin, and when you pan over, behind the Queen I'm one of his guards. Waving at my mum."

PB: There were scenes shot that apparently weren't used; Adrian Dunbar shot a scene, didn't he?

RMC: "Adrian's in one sequence on the set, but he was only in for a day. We just loved him, and we thought he was a great actor. But nothing was really cut out of the film, there were just shavings here and there. He wanted to be in the movie for a day, and we wanted him to be in it, and since he was in London we invited him up for the day. I would say less than five or six minutes ended up not making it into the film. We shot the film in only 60 days, so every sequence is in there."

PB: What is your feeling about the Jar Jar Binks racial controversy?

RMC: "It's just… You've seen the movie? It's not just Jar Jar. It's gotten pretty insane. There was a huge controversy before I left, about Wada, that it was the single biggest disservice to the Jewish faith, that Wada was being portrayed as this Jewish haggler. And then the Arab Defence League came out on the same day at the same time claiming it was the worst single injustice to Arabs in the United States, and it happens to be an English actor of Italian descent. It's insane."

PB: But Jar Jar is given strongly recognisable Rastafarian characteristics.

RMC: "Well, again, this is a tough one; you'd have to have kids to understand this. Kids identify with Jar Jar completely because he's goofy, he's not totally there, he's a bumbler, but he is definitely in the United States, and Asia - and I'm sure he will be over here too - the most loved amongst young kids. Whereas Darth Maul is the most loved for older people. That's just the way it is. A lot of older people are turned off by Jar Jar, they think he's too wacky, but there isn't a single kid from eight to twelve - which is primarily our audience; maybe 14 if you push it a little - who doesn't love Jar Jar Binks."

PB: Being a slightly older viewer myself, I thought Darth Maul was indeed the best character, but I was more than a little disappointed that his 15 minutes of fame only lasted nine.

RMC: "You've got to remember that this is Episode One, an introduction to a whole new world.

PB: So it's only a flesh wound?

RMC: "When you're dealing with the Dark Side, such things run deep."

PB: You touched on this earlier, but you must come into contact with some pretty dedicated Star Wars fans, fans who probably know more about the saga than you and George.

RMC: "I would say that the serious hardcore fan base are so obsessed and insane and out of their brains; these guys are completely wacky. I'm not going to spend eight or nine hours a day playing the Pod Race game, but they do. We're talking about a certain kind of kid, usually from eight to sixteen, they like to role play. They buy the costumes, they believe they are these characters, and that's all they do. When I was a kid, it was go-carts and cars, and then girls come along. And some guys never leave their Star Wars toys, and they exist in that world for years and years, because that's what they like to do. But for the average kid, whether it's Star Wars or Independence Day or Toy Story, they always grab onto something, become obsessed with it for five, six, seven months, and then another obsession comes along and that's just the way it is. And girls have got the bug too. The number one action toy in the world for girls is Star Wars action figures. Barbie doesn't even come close now.

PB: One of my favourite rumours from the film set was that you had to rebuild all the doorways because Liam Neeson was so tall.

RMC: "That's just internet bullshit. There are twelve hundred websites, with probably ten to fifteen million people communicating with each other all around the world, every day, and they take a little crumb and run with it. And I would say that of all the Star Wars news put up on the internet over the last year, about 85% was utter bullshit. They said that Charlton Heston was going to be cast as Yoda. That was hilarious. Putting shots of us coming out of different buildings and saying we were in a meeting. You used to be able to take a story and it would take weeks for it to explode, but now… It's like the Clinton/Lewinsky thing. When I first heard about that it was 11.30 at night, I was just outside of Washington D.C., I went to sleep, and when I woke up at 7 o'clock, impeachment trials were already starting to be set. And that was in a seven-hour period. And that's down to the Internet really. You can have someone write a review, from the traditional media establishment, someone like Time or Newsweek, and the maximum it's going to hit worldwide is maybe two million people. And every magazine has its reader make-up; with Time magazine for example maybe only half of the readers will bother with the film reviews. So that's a million people. On the first day of our exhibitors screening in New York City, a 12-year old boy wrote a 60-page review of the movie, seen by ten million people in less than 24 hours around the world. And those ten million people want to see the movie. It's a totally different market for us. No one can control or manage something like the Internet; it's too big."

PB: Does it help you, because the Internet creates this fog of confusion?

RMC: "To a certain degree, but it's a forum that's so big and so powerful, and if it supports you, it makes a big difference. It's like Wild Wild West; the internet obviously doesn't support the movie, because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what you do, you can spend all the money in the world promoting something, but it won't make a heap of difference if the movie isn't any good. If people don't ostensibly like your movie, it doesn't matter what you do. Yes, you can have a small little film that needs to let its audience know it's there, but on this bigger level, of mass communication around the world, it really doesn't matter. You're either liked or you're not liked."

PB: The Phantom Menace is probably as close as you can get to a critic-proof movie though.

RMC: "Yeah, I guess it is. But the critics don't get it, they don't recognise that this is a kids movie. Whether people get disappointed about that - people who've been with Star Wars for 20 years - I think at the end of the day, that it will all fit together once everything is done. But this, yeah, it is pretty critic proof, I guess.

PB: Do you anticipate a similar reaction to Episodes 2 and 3, or do you think the attention now has a lot to do with the 16-year gap?

RMC: "I think that had a lot to do with it. It's hard for me to accept that almost 90 million people have seen the film in five weeks. That's just phenomenal. It's broken every single box-office record at that level, and we still have six or seven weeks. It's already the second highest grossing film in its original release ever, and it'll pass E.T. probably within two weeks. It won't get anywhere near Titanic, but it's so beyond anything we'd ever thought. We were hoping two or three hundred million dollars, and it would be in the top 10, but it's just amazing how things have happened. If you take your average ticket price of four bucks, it's a lot of people. Or it's a small group of people who've seen it a thousand times each, I don't know.

PB: Can you tell us anymore about Episode 2?

RMC: "The people who are going to drive the picture next time out are Ewan and Anakin. And also, we know that Anakin is going to get married, and we know pretty much that he gets married to the Queen, so it's a love story and a friendship picture, and there'll be a lot of bantering between the two. The script should be finished September, October, and we'll keep casting then right up until the shoot next June."

Paul Byrne

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