Rewind: When Star Wars Came To Town…

October 17, 2017
We take an in-depth look at the Sydney, Australia shoot of Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith.

Star Wars. Ever since that ominous, death-bringing Imperial Starship roared fearsomely into shot in writer/director, George Lucas’ 1977 game-changing sci-fi smash, those two simple words have taken on an extraordinary pop cultural currency. The original film and its two sequels – 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return Of The Jedi – formed a continuing mythology previously unseen in cinema, and created an entire generation of fans. When George Lucas returned to the world of Star Wars in 1999 with the prequel tale, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, it was on the wave of digital technology that was quickly rising and threatening to change the face of film forever, much as Star Wars itself had in 1977. “Jurassic Park inspired me,” Lucas said of the dinosaurs-run-amok blockbuster directed by his friend and occasional collaborator, Steven Spielberg. “I didn’t have to use rubber masks. I could build digital characters that can act and perform and walk around and interact with actors. I can use digital sets. I can paint reality. In essence, it means that cinema has gone from being a photographic medium to a painterly one.”

Like all of the Star Wars films before it, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was partly shot in England, this time at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire, and like all of the other films in the series, it was an enormous financial success. Debate roared as to the actual merits of the film itself, but a follow-up film was already in the works. And when the planning for the 2002 sequel, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones, was officially started, a massive change was signalled. With George Lucas at the creative helm of the prequels, much of the nuts-and-bolts production work was handled by his friend and cohort, Rick McCallum, who first joined the Lucasfilm fold as the producer of the TV series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which aired from 1992 to 1993, and the ill-fated madcap period comedy, Radioland Murders, in 1994. “No matter how impossible I made the task, Rick was able to overcome the challenges,” George Lucas has said of McCallum. “In addition to putting together great crews and working miracles with the budget, he was instrumental in helping push filmmaking into the 21st century.”

Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones.

Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones.

Looking to trim the budget and change things up for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones, McCallum – who left Lucasfilm in 2012 to produce independent films – started looking at other location options for the film. Initially, he’d investigated the possibility of shooting in New Zealand, just a few years before Peter Jackson practically turned the country into his own massive backlot for the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. “There wasn’t a large enough film industry there,” McCallum told FilmInk in 2002. “It would have ended up being a location picture, which didn’t suit us.” The producer, however, kept searching in the same part of the world, and eventually settled on Sydney, Australia for the studio work, with location shooting also taking place in Italy, Spain, and Tunisia. “At this point, Fox were planning their studio in Sydney, so it made sense to go there,” McCallum told FilmInk. “I’d been to Australia many times to score music in Perth for the Young Indiana Jones series, and had spent a lot of time there.  I love the place.”

For the producer, Australia’s glitziest city provided the perfect home for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones. “Sydney is the best place to shoot anywhere in the world in the English language, and anybody that doesn’t get that hasn’t travelled as much as we have,” McCallum told FilmInk. “The talent is extraordinary. It has a lot to do with economics, but that doesn’t mean just the exchange rate. It’s the most cost effective and cost efficient place to shoot because the crews are so flexible. And now that it has the studio, it’s the best place in the world. The weather, the people, the lifestyle…and as long as you have the crew out by 6:00pm on a Friday so they can go to the pub, they’ll do anything in the world for you. George and I haven’t made a film in Hollywood for twenty years – it’s outrageously expensive, and it’s highly litigious. Hollywood may be a dream to many people, but it’s not anything that we ever yearn for. I’d much rather have a base in Sydney.”

The announcement that Star Wars: Episode II would shoot in Australia sent the local industry (not to mention the press) into a spin. It would mean not only the opportunity of work for hundreds of actors, creatives, and technicians, but also the chance to work on a truly legendary piece of cinematic storytelling. “I was a huge fan of Star Wars,” says cinematographer, Damian Wyvill (Goddess, Backyard Ashes), who was employed on Star Wars: Episode II as a focus puller. “As a child, I loved all the films, and I had all the action figures. Of course, we all played it cool, pretending that it wasn’t that big a deal, but the first time that R2-D2 made an appearance on set, we all turned into ten-year-olds. Even the blokiest of grips lined up at lunch to have a photo taken with the little droid.”

Jacqui Louez, who worked as George Lucas and Rick McCallum’s executive assistant, had a similar experience when it came to Star Wars. “The first time that I saw R2-D2 and C-3PO, I actually screamed,” she tells FilmInk. “It wasn’t a very professional response, but it couldn’t be helped. Everybody was excited about working on the film, without exception. That said, everyone was extremely professional, which is what you would expect of an Australian crew.”

That buzz and sense of excitement extended to the acting community. While the major stars of the film – Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, and Ewan McGregor – would be heading down under for the shoot, many local actors would also be tapped for supporting roles, and to fill out the ranks in scenes requiring extras. “For a very short period of time, I felt like the most popular person in Sydney,” laughs Ros Bellenger, who handled the casting of extras on Star Wars: Episode II. “Everyone wanted to be an extra, including a couple of celebrities who I did let come on set, on strict instruction that they act like every other extra. I loved looking for the diversity in the look of the extras. The science fiction genre really allows you to cast the unusual. One guy called me up on the phone and said, ‘I’m 6’9’ and I can juggle.’ I immediately said, ‘Come and see me!’ It was great accommodating that sort of performer.”

Leeanna Walsman in Star Wars: Episode II

Leeanna Walsman in Star Wars: Episode II

According to actress, Leeanna Walsman – who was cast in the role of shape-shifting bounty hunter, Zam Wessel (“I’m in it for five minutes”) – Star Wars: Episode II was the big topic of conversation in Sydney. “It was so big in Australia at the time,” she told FilmInk in 2009. “Everyone was talking about who was going to be in it. I was doing a play with Rose Byrne at the time, and we ended up being in it together. I said to Rose, ‘Who was that woman that you were talking with at the theatre last night?’ She said, ‘Don’t say anything, but it was the American casting agent for Star Wars.’ Then that afternoon, I got a call saying to go in for it tomorrow. I thought, ‘Oh, fuck! I hope it’s not for the same role as Rose. That would be terrible.’ It wasn’t. They didn’t even tell me what it was. They said, ‘Oh, we have an idea for you. You’re like this biker chick.’ Everyone was going, ‘Are you excited?’ I’m thinking, ‘What?’ Everyone had more information than I did. I ended up getting the role soon after, but they wouldn’t tell me what it was, or give me a script. All they said was that I was playing a bounty hunter or something. I was a changeling…whatever that is. Something to do with Boba Fett.”

Leeanna Walsman’s friend, Rose Byrne, meanwhile did indeed end up scoring a role in the film, playing one of Natalie Portman’s handmaidens. “I haven’t even seen the film yet,” Byrne told FilmInk in 2002, just prior to its release. “If you blink, you might miss me. I haven’t even seen the original Star Wars films, only The Phantom Menace, so this is a very strange experience for me.” Always a down-to-earth interview subject, Byrne was typically upbeat about Star Wars: Episode II, looking at it as a great experience rather than any kind of challenging acting exercise. “I got to wear great costumes, and I also had an amazing hairstyle in one sequence,” she laughed. “I got to wear a hood too, and that’s when I knew that I was in a Star Wars film. It was a lot of fun on set too, though I was only there for twelve days, and I didn’t have any scenes with any of the other Australian actors, which was a real pity. It was a lot different from the Australian productions that I’d worked on. They had a whole cupboard of Snickers bars, which I was on to straight away.”

Along with Jay Laga’aia (as Captain Typho), Jack Thompson (as Cliegg Lars), and Temuera Morrison (as Jango Fett, hardman father of notorious villain, Boba Fett), the other major role to go to an Antipodean actor was that of Owen Lars, the character originally played by Phil Brown in 1977’s Star Wars. Joel Edgerton was under no allusions as to how he booked the part. “I owe a lot to the fact that I passed as a young version of Phil Brown,” he told FilmInk in 2002. “It wasn’t until someone posted a picture of me on the internet next to a photo of him that I went, ‘Fuck!’” The actor was also under no allusions as to his part in the film. “It’s only because Star Wars is in its own universe beyond being a movie that I’m even doing publicity for it,” he laughed. “There’s a lot that I have to pay homage to and respect about it.”

Joel Edgerton in Star Wars: Episode II

Joel Edgerton in Star Wars: Episode II

At least Joel Edgerton made the final cut. Major Aussie name, Claudia Karvan (along with Graeme Blundell and Trisha Noble), shot a quiet, domestic scene with Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman that ended up hurtling to a galaxy far, far away…also known as the “deleted scenes” section of the film’s DVD release. “It was good fun, actually,” the actress said on Enough Rope. “It was one day’s work, and there were about ten wardrobe calls for that one day. It felt a bit like, ‘Whew, this is big!’ But then you get on the set, and it’s an all-Australian crew, which was lovely. And George Lucas was really lovely too. I wouldn’t mind working with him again,” she laughed.

From the Australian participants on the movie that FilmInk canvassed, that appears to be the consensus on George Lucas, the godly figure who created the massive intergalactic sandbox in which they were all playing. Though often painted as a dowdy, insular figure who puts himself at arm’s length from everyone else, the Australians and New Zealanders on the film create a decidedly different picture of the man. “George Lucas likes to have fun on set; he’s pretty relaxed,” reveals Kiwi hardman, Temuera Morrison. “You can try whatever you like generally, though he likes you to stick to the script that he’s worked on for two years! I don’t think he likes to improvise too much.” Adds Leeanna Walsman: “I got on set, and I asked George what accent I should use. He said, ‘It doesn’t really matter; you’re in Star Wars land.’ I later went to George’s ranch in the US, and did a few pick up shots. I’ve had funny experiences to do with it. I even went to a Madonna concert with George and his daughter!”

According to Richard Boue, the film’s assistant stunt coordinator, Lucas was far from being an unapproachable figure, pulling the strings from a mile away. “George was fantastic,” he says. “He’d come around at lunchtime and chat with the stunt guys, and chat with the extras. He’d come up and chat. He’s not shy. He’s just got a lot on his mind, and sometimes it’s nice to chat with other people and get your mind off things. I think that’s what he was doing a lot.” Similarly, Joel Edgerton attributes Lucas’ perceived aloofness to the enormous pressure that the writer, producer, and director was under. “He can be a bit of a hermit, but I think that he’s forced into being so,” the actor told FilmInk in 2002. “He has created this thing that has become a monster. If there is anyone that a Star Wars fan would like to lock into a room and spend time with, it would be him. I think that what he really enjoys is the process of making it and then hiding away and making it brilliant. Then the hard bit is unleashing it.”

As the man who controlled the bigger picture of the Star Wars universe on the film, Lucas also had exacting standards. “I loved, but dreaded, the detail to which we had to work to meet George Lucas’ expectations,” says extras casting director, Ros Bellenger. “Finding the body doubles for Natalie and Hayden was a real challenge. They had to be exact; I even had photos of Hayden’s hands to match. And trying to cast identical twins for the young Jedi scene was immense.”

As well as those exacting standards, the mere size and scope of Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones was something brand new for the film’s local technicians. Though the 1999 sci-fi groundbreaker, The Matrix, had been shot in Sydney, as well as a number of other international productions, nothing had the weight of expectation that Star Wars: Episode II did. “Everything was just bigger,” says Richard Boue, who had previously worked on The Matrix and Terrence Malick’s Port Douglas-shot The Thin Red Line, as well as a whole host of Australian productions. “There were no shortcuts. They got on with it. Once scene might take a day, and that’s it – they took their time. It was very impressive. It’s a different scale altogether. It’s massive. You walk on the set, and it’s like walking into Angkor Wat. The sets are all hand-built by plasterers from England. There’s no gyprock or anything like that. These sets were real. It was incredibly impressive. You learn to operate on a higher level. Because everything looks so fantastic – from the wardrobe to the art department to the décor – you’ve got to match that. All the other departments are doing their best to shine.”

Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor in Star Wars: Episode II

Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor in Star Wars: Episode II

Despite the size of the shoot and the epic nature of the sets, Star Wars: Episode II rolled along at Fox Studios with little to no incident. “George and all the heads of department were extremely organised, so nothing was left to chance,” says Jacqui Louez. “On the rare days when overtime was required, everyone buckled down and got the job done without any complaints. It was a hectic film shoot as they all are, but at the same time, it seemed to sail by. I don’t really think anyone wanted it to end. I certainly didn’t. It was a truly magical time. It was my first stint working full-time on a feature, so as the new kid on the block, the hours took a little getting used to. I was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything, but I was completely exhausted when the film wrapped.”

Veteran art director, Ian Gracie – who has worked on the likes of The Wolverine, The Great Gatsby, Australia, Ned Kelly, and The Quiet American – also notes the controlled but frantic nature of the shoot. “The pace of the shoot was at times certainly hectic, and probably more akin to TV,” he tells FilmInk. “Striking and bumping in large sets overnight and through the day as well as having to co-exist with dressing, rigging, construction and lighting crews all made for an exhausting schedule. There were sometimes four stage changes in one day for the shooting crew, and 35+ camera set ups weren’t uncommon.”

According to stunt coordinator, Richard Boue, this pressure was never counterproductive. “They’re hundreds of million dollar movies,” he says. “They didn’t make the crew feel like, ‘We have to finish, we have to finish!’ I sat down for a chat with George, and it was like, ‘Aww yeah, we’ll fix it in post[-production].’ It was always, ‘We’ll fix it in post.’ If we had a meeting, and my department couldn’t give them what they wanted because I needed more time, they said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll do it in post.’ So we always had that safety net.”

Adds extras casting director, Ros Bellenger: “It was a huge film, and bigger than anything that I’d worked on, but I don’t remember the work load being something that I didn’t expect. We were all conscious that we were making cinematic history being part of the Star Wars franchise, and we wanted to do it justice.”

As with any Star Wars film, one of the heaviest workloads fell onto the shoulders of those creating the world’s many varied alien creatures. One of the key players was now-Gold Coast-based Jason Baird (currently heading up JMBX Studios), who served as the film’s live action creature supervisor. “Time pressure is always a factor on any film set, whether it’s a small or large production,” he tells FilmInk. “Every day, a certain amount of work is scheduled to be completed, and if it’s not, then pressure is added. This will usually be felt by every department. On Star Wars, however, with our department, I remember no pressure. We always had plenty of time to prep for a shot, and the feeling on set was always pretty calm. This goes back to all those meetings when you start the production. Planning is everything.”

Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen in Star Wars: Episode II

Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen in Star Wars: Episode II

That planning was carried out through a variety of channels, and though the film utilised department heads from the US and England, and teams of Australian technicians, the avenues of communication were only occasionally compromised. “Communicating with the Americans was easy, because they like to talk, like we do,” says Richard Boue. “It’s a different system in England. They seem to keep information. It’s just the way they work; I don’t think it’s a fault. I was actually struggling to get info because they didn’t have really big production meetings. They just said, ‘This is what we’re going to do, so get on with it.’ The American system is very much like ours in that you all get together, and you have meetings. The English let you go. They have information, and you’ve just got to dig it out. It’s a different system. It keeps you on your toes. It makes you good. You can’t be lazy. You’ve got to work.”

Adds art director, Ian Gracie: “There’s always bound to be the odd bump along the way when working with an international team. The English certainly had their ways, and given our cultural differences, so did we. There was an initial period where we had to work out who did what most efficiently. The production designer and art directors were incredibly experienced technically, and they had pre-established procedures that had been developed on Star Wars: Episode I. This made for a steep adjustment curve for many of us. Having said that, we’ve kept in close contact with the various department heads over the years. I still regard them as good friends, and many of the Australian crew members have worked with them on other projects.”

According to Jacqui Louez, there was no real friction between the local and international crew members. “I personally didn’t encounter any divides,” she tells FilmInk. “Both George and Rick had worked with a number of heads of department on previous projects including The Adventures Of Young Indiana Jones, so they had an established language. We have some of the best crew in the world in Australia, so there was no gap of talent or experience. The internationals and locals worked seamlessly together.” Focus puller, Damian Wyvill, concurs: “The English cinematographer, David Tattersall, was a complete gentleman, and a pleasure to work for, and the US crew from ILM, headed up by John Knoll – the guy who invented Photoshop! – were fantastic. Star Wars: Episode II was the first feature film of its size to be shot digitally, and not on film. Even though we carted film cameras with us around the world as a back-up, not a foot of film was shot. It was a whole new ball game for us, and it took a while to adjust. The producers were also keen to reduce the size of the crew, but as it turned out, you need more people to shoot digitally.”

Just as Star Wars fans around the world have a Death Star-sized place in their hearts for the films, so those Australians who worked on Star Wars: Episode II found the experience to be a special one. “One of the best moments was unboxing all the creatures from the past Star Wars films that they had shipped out to us,” says creature supervisor, Jason Baird. “Seeing an original Yoda puppet was very cool…it was like Christmas Day! But the main thrill was creating two completely new creatures, Shaak Ti and Kit Fisto, for the film. It was an amazing collaborative experience with George Lucas.”

Says Jacqui Louez: “What I learnt during my tenure on Star Wars: Episode II is unquantifiable, and I’ve no question that the many projects that I’ve worked on since have been shaped by my time and experience on the film. It has certainly been one of my career highlights. It was tough at times, of course, but it was an incredible experience. It’s something that I will never forget.”

Laughs Ros Bellenger: “Without a doubt, people are interested in Stars Wars being on your CV. I also made it into the behind the scenes features of the film, and to this day, I still sometimes drop that into a conversation – I tell people that I made it to the Star Wars DVD box set!”

As well as being a keynote moment for many of the Australian crew members who worked on the film, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones was also a turning point for the local film industry as a whole. With George Lucas, Rick McCallum and their team returning for the next film in the series, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith, Australia’s technicians and actors had been given the ultimate tick of approval from the biggest movie franchise in cinema history. “The trouble with the local industry is that you don’t want to shut out independent films, because it’s the lifeblood of what Australian culture is about,” McCallum told FilmInk in 2002 of the potential impact that international productions could have on Australia. “Studios have to support that, and have a different rate structure for them versus big American films. You don’t want to have one or two experienced crews that only work on big productions and shut out everybody else. You have to take advantage of working on a big film, but still use your skill set to work on a smaller film. It’s very tough when you’re making big money for the first time. It’s hard to come back from that.”

Indeed, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones proved that Australia could be home to both big and small productions. “I’d like to think that we are no longer looked upon as a cheap Hollywood backwater,” says Ian Gracie, “but as a place that any studio or overseas based production company can come to and be confident that they will be supported by a hugely experienced, creative, and technical supported industry.” When that galaxy far, far away stretched all the way to Sydney in 2001, it provided a vast challenge for the Australian film industry, and effectively blooded our local crews when it came to international filmmaking. “It was difficult,” says stunt coordinator, Richard Boue. “We got a bit paranoid at the time, because we’re in Australia and we have this easygoing attitude about things, and Star Wars comes to town. You think, ‘Oh, Jesus! How am I going to do this?’”

Nobody need have worried: in Australian fashion, they well and truly got it done…

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