s George Lucas said to his bank manager, ‘I’m going to return to Star Wars for a while,’ and address the dreaded prequels. After defacing the original films as a means of road-testing new effects technology, Lucas produced three ghastly prequels, which all but punched the love out of me. Signs were good at first - the trailer brought tears to my eyes when it premiered on MTV. I sat in front of the television and felt the emotion one feels when reunited with a much loved friend. It had been sixteen years since Return of the Jedi and here, unfolding before my eyes, was the confirmation that I would be going back to the universe that had so inspired me as a child.
To add to the excitement, actor and friend Peter Serafinowicz had been cast as the voice of Darth Maul, the new villain, a scary-looking horned fellow with a red-and-black face and demonic contact lenses. A special trailer showcasing the character was released and a group of us piled round to Pete’s house to watch it, after it had taken an excruciating twelve hours to download. This was, after all, the era of 56K dial-up modems, nowhere near as speedy as today’s broadband fibre optics. Kids these days don’t know they’re born with their perpetual online status and nanosecond downloads, I remember when it took minutes for a web page to load and iPods were almost an inch thick - an inch! We gathered round Peter’s computer and clicked play, barely containing our wonder that one of our own was part of the Star Wars universe, that Pete was a Darth. It all seemed like a wonderful dream.
However, it wasn’t long before the signs of impending disappointment started to appear, like the dust motes that fall from the rafters seconds before a major earthquake. Thanks to early reactions from critics and fans alike, a nagging doubt had already been poking away at me, but it had largely been kept at bay by my monumental levels of excitement. Of course, there was also the creeping realisation that the special editions were shit and the awful moments of ill-judged slapstick in the trailer didn’t help, nor did the slightly flat artificiality of the environments on display.
Before the evidence laid itself out with sickening certainty, the small hints at the fate of my beloved franchise were easy to ignore, even as they became more pronounced. Pete called me after a screening in the States, and with one of the deepest sighs ever to cross the Atlantic, he said, in the rich tones of his lovely, deep, Liverpool accent, ‘It’s just not very good.’ I didn’t feel disappointment, I still felt armoured against it; such was my immunity against the failure of my beloved Star Wars, I was determined to see it for myself and as quickly as possible. With a small amount of disposable income in my pocket left over from the first series of Spaced, I purchased a ticket to New York with the express intention of seeing The Phantom Menace.
I arrived in Manhattan one early evening in August of 1999 and checked into the Paramount Hotel on West 46th Street. I dumped my bags and took off into the night to find a cinema that was playing the movie. It wasn’t as easy as I expected it to be and I eventually found a small movie theatre on East 34th Street, bought my popcorn and settled into a front-row seat to watch the film I had waited sixteen years to see.
As the Lucasfilm logo rippled across the screen and the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare blared from the speakers, I bristled with excitement, emitting an involuntary whoop that was echoed by one or two of the other faithfuls in the audience. However, I soon became aware of an uneasy feeling of apprehension in the crowd, which was uncharacteristically quiet for an American audience. The film had been out for several weeks by this point and consequently the majority of the really avid Star Wars fans had been and gone and many had not come back. My excitement had already been dampened slightly by the inauspiciousness of the theatre, and this sense of miserable dread was only exacerbated by a problem with the projector that upset the alignment of the image, so that when that moment finally occurred and the Star Wars titles appeared on the screen, accompanied by John Williams’s iconic score, the bottom half of the lettering was at the top of the screen while the top half protruded from the bottom, fittingly like a row of gravestones. I had a bad feeling about this.
From the opening scene it appeared something was not right. The first line was badly dubbed and, just as Pete had reported, the film simply wasn’t very good. In actual fact, Pete’s critique had proved somewhat generous. The film was a boring, turgid, confused mess of pretentions and ill-thought-out science-fiction conceits, masquerading as children’s entertainment and told with all the dexterity of a four-year-old recounting his summer holiday with a paintbrush.
I left the cinema in a daze and wandered up 34th Street with a couple of fellow Brits who had stumbled out alongside me, obviously experiencing a similar sense of ennui. We hadn’t walked more than a block before we found ourselves admitting our disappointment. It was an odd feeling, which came something close to liberation in a strange way; like admitting to an addiction or confessing a terrible crime. I had spent much of my youth championing Star Wars, not just in the playground to those who claimed the most recent rip-off was somehow better, but intellectually to cineastes who dismissed it as artistically bankrupt. I would still disagree with the latter charges even now when discussing the first three films, but I always felt an odd defensiveness about my love of the movies, particularly as an adult, which occasionally felt like a burden. Now, I didn’t have to endure that burden again. Star Wars was undeniably rubbish and there was nothing I could do to change that.
The next morning, I went to see it again, just to make sure. I had awoken as though the previous night had been a bad dream and blamed jet lag, the weight of anticipation and the dodgy projection at the cinema, and resolved to give it another chance. Predictably, it was shit again. Stumbling numbly out of the theatre once more, I realised I was alone in New York and completely bereft. I decided to go and see another film, just to take my mind off Star Wars, and noticed that a film called The Matrix was playing in the same theatre. Two hours later, I re-emerged into the street full of the excitement and satisfaction that The Phantom Menace had failed to inspire. The Matrix seemed fresh and cool and visually breathtaking; making wonderful, intelligent use of CGI to augment the on-screen action, striking a perfect balance of the real and the hyperreal. It was possibly the coolest film I had ever seen. Ironically, fraternal directing team the Wachowskis faltered quickly with their sequels, killing their baby in just three years. Credit to George Lucas, it took him twenty-five to murder his.
eturning home to begin writing the second series of Spaced, I decided to channel my disappointment at The Phantom Menace into my character, Tim, and use him to express my feelings on the subject. We were even able to channel some of that dissatisfaction into the first series during the editing process, hastily adding the caption Three good Star Wars films later’ as passage of time after the characters spend an evening watching the original trilogy.
During the filming of the first series, we had approached Lucasfilm’s licensing department and asked permission to use various Star Wars merchandise for set dressing, as Tim Bisley, like me, was an inveterate fan. They said no to everything, presumably because they were gearing up for a whole new batch of products and didn’t want to generate any unnecessary nostalgia for the old stuff. I’m speculating there of course. The truth is, I think they were just being overcautious, in case we took the holy trilogy’s name in vain, which at that time seemed like an extremely unlikely event.
By the time the second series went into production, the first series had aired and Lucasfilm’s licensing people, seeing that our intentions were honourable and affectionate, were more than happy for us to use anything we wanted. By this time, however, the damage had been done and we didn’t really want to. Besides, it would have been hard to justify, since you have to supply context for usage and ‘we’re going to burn it’ doesn’t present a convincingly positive proposal. As it was we settled for a number of cardboard boxes pointedly labelled ‘Star Wars stuff, as we mounted our scene-for- scene re-enactment of Darth Vader’s funeral, substituting Star Wars itself as the corpse burning before the grieving son.
Despite everything, I was still first in line for the second prequel, Attack of the Clones, even though the title, like its predecessor, sounded like an abdominal complaint. I don’t wish the following metaphor to come across as flippant, I must preface it by saying I am fully aware of the horror and hardships caused by domestic abuse in all its forms, but my relationship with Star Wars in later years is comparable, symbolically at least, to living with an abusive partner. No matter how let down and violently disappointed by it I felt, I would always return for more, as though nothing had ever happened, making excuses for previous transgressions and dismissing them as anomalous. So it was when I sat down to watch the film at the Odeon Leicester Square at a press screening I had somehow managed to blag tickets for. This film seemed to have the potential to abolish the memory of its predecessor. It promised more action and a more complex character in Anakin Skywalker, thankfully no longer a bowl-haircutted cutie saving the day by accident. There were lots of light sabres and a character that looked a bit liked Boba Fett. It claimed a darker feel, aligning it stylistically with The Empire Strikes Back, which could only be a good thing, right?
Sure, as I left the cinema, I had some of that youthful spring in my step and didn’t feel that bomb-shocked sense of unease I had experienced in New York. By the time I reached the other side of Soho, however, I realised it had all been an illusion and Attack of the Clones had been no better than the first prequel, in fact in some respects it had been worse. Told with the same clodhopping ineptitude, it attempted to win favour by trying to invoke the spirit of the original instalment by making direct references to it, while simultaneously distracting us with lights and flashes to draw focus awayfrom the awful truth.
When Revenge of the Sith was released, I was ready to forgive it once more, despite the mountain of evidence to suggest the series was irredeemable. I had been present at the announcement of the title in San Diego on the day I met Carrie Fisher, and noted the slight desperation amid the fans who decided to see the sly reference to the original title of Return of the Jedi as a clever circular allusion rather than the desperate attempt to claw back credibility that it probably was.
By this time I had actually become friends with a few people at Lucasfilm, having found my vocal disapproval of the prequels had won unlikely support from people within the organisation. When the original theatrical cuts of the first trilogy were re-released on DVD, free of any of the tampering inflicted upon them in the run-up to the prequels, I received a parcel in the post, containing the discs and an embossed Lucasfilm postcard. The message simply read: ‘We thought you might like these.’
As a result of my new-found connections, I was invited to one of the first screenings of Revenge of the Sith at the Twentieth Century Fox building in London’s Soho Square. This was undoubtedly the most enjoyable of the three. Still beset by the same problems of style over content and story incoherence, it nevertheless scored points for drawing closer to the original trilogy in both storyline and aesthetics and the promise of seeing the birth of Darth Vader himself.
One scene even involves the action occurring in the corridor of Princess Leia’s blockade runner, glimpsed at the beginning of the first film. This moment is doubly powerful in that it is a physical set and not a digital environment, which even enhances the effect of the CGI Yoda, framing him in a realistic setting, making him seem more solid, more present. I actually cried a little bit when Emperor Palpatine initiated Order 66 and wiped out the Jedi, giving kudos to Lucas for his use of cross-cutting, in a sequence reminiscent of the final stages of The Godfather. This one was definitely the best of a bad bunch.
Ultimately, though, the film served only to highlight a number of niggling inconsistencies that undermined the continuity of the saga and cast doubt on the credibility of Lucas’s grand narrative plan. It’s true that a larger, more complex story existed before Star Wars and that Lucas had lifted a manageable midsection to create the first film, but it seems hard to believe that the surrounding saga was anything more than a conceptual sketch or a very rough first draft. Oddly, despite the big-budget treatment, the prequels retained the feel of something being made up on the hoof without any regard for consistency and it would seem that nobody had had the scones to point it out.
No one ever said, ‘George, if Luke Skywalker is the son of Anakin Skywalker (now Darth Vader) and the forces of good are attempting to conceal him from his father, why didn’t they give him a new name or hide him somewhere other than the family home of Darth Vader’s stepbrother?’^ Or, ‘Is a bit of bad luck and some mild teenage truculence enough to change a goofy kid into a murderous galactic tyrant?’ Or, ‘Do you think the big reveal that Senator Palpatine is in fact the evil Darth Sidious (soon to be Emperor) all that surprising, considering the same actor played a character called Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi?’ Or even, ‘Isn’t it a bit unseemly to establish sexual tension between Luke and Leia if they are eventually going to be revealed as brother and sister? Are they from Gloucester?’ It seems strange that such a grand and expensive endeavour appears so undercooked at times, almost as though the whole venture was being presided over by one person, refusing to accept any outside input, despite knowing deep down that he had bitten off more than he could chew.
As determined as I was to enjoy Revenge of the Sith, having decided that was going to be the case before I saw it, the film ultimately let itself down at key moments, not least the hilarious Darth Vader/Frankenstein debacle, which so undermined one of the most anticipated beats in the story. Anakin Skywalker, having been mutilated and left for dead by the peaceful, monk-like Obi-Wan Kenobi, is rescued by the Emperor and rebuilt as the ‘more machine now than man’ badass we remember from the original films. When he regains consciousness, he asks how his girlfriend is, in that recognisable voice made oddly whimsical by the vulnerability in his tone, and when informed that she is dead, shouts a big long ‘nooooooooooooo’ and breaks free of his bindings to stagger clumsily across the Emperor’s lab in a wave of snigger-inducing grief. This frustratingly blurs the moment that Anakin Skywalker ceases to be and his evil alter ego takes hold. It seems strange to see the iconic visage of cool, impassive evil attempting to emote. In Return of the Jedi, Vader’s true humanity is implied in a few moments of stillness, when we can almost see confusion in his static visage, then witnessed fully just before he dies, the majority of his sentiment delivered with the helmet off.
If I had worked for Lucasfilm at the time, I would have strapped explosives to my body, burst into George’s boardroom and demanded that he rewrite the scene so that the last vestiges of Anakin’s humanity are displayed before the helmet goes on. He lies on the operating table, all but rebuilt, the mask hovering above his face. He wakes, disorientated, looking around, flexing his new cybernetic limbs, scared and confused. He demands to be told what has happened and asks about his wife and even Obi-Wan, clearly not yet fully recalling the events that brought him to this end.
The Emperor then coldly begins to explain, even as the mask begins to lower inexorably towards Anakin’s face. Half concentrating on the Emperor’s
words but distracted, terrified by the claustrophobic fate drawing towards him, he becomes still only at the news that his pregnant lover is dead by his hand. Then the weight of emotion vibrates through and the furious, grief-ridden denial escapes his lips as the mask closes over him, muffling his agony into a protracted silence, then we hear that famous breath as he inhales for the first time and Darth Vader is born. Not that I have thought about it that much.
Despite my irrevocably damaged feelings about Star Wars and having already seen Revenge of the Sith, I jumped at the chance to go to the premiere in London’s Leicester Square, because I had wanted to attend such an event since I was a child and no amount of recent disappointment could eclipse the dreams of the seven-year-old me still filed away in my brain. I wore my Rebel insignia T-shirt and got giddy at the sight of forty imperial storm troopers walking down the red carpet and, in spite of everything, felt a huge surge of affection towards George Lucas when he got up on to the stage and made a short introductory speech.
At the after-show party, I rubbed shoulders with various Star Wars alumni, including Peter Mayhew who played Chewbacca (who was in a bad mood - typical Wookiee) and the diminutive Kenny Baker (who made up for it and proved great company). At one point, a friend from Lucasfilm approached David Walliams and myself and asked if we wanted to meet George. Of course we accepted the invitation and followed our contact through the crowd for an audience with his exultedness.
Lucas was deep in conversation with director Ron Howard who, in his days as an actor, had taken the lead in Lucas’s American Graffiti before going on to Happy Days. Our friend drew Lucas’s attention and informed him of our presence, at which point he turned and looked at me with the weary acceptance of a man about to be gushed all over by another thirty-something fan whose life he had changed. He seemed tired and slightly exasperated and in that second I regretted accepting the offer to meet him, but then luckily something cool happened. Ron Howard grinned at me, shook my hand and said, ‘Oh man, my kids just love your movie!’ I spluttered a thank you, slightly taken aback, and as I chatted to Ron, I noticed George’s expression change from bored to slightly more attentive. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like just another fan; thanks to Ron, I had been elevated to the status of fellow film-maker and as such found myself welcomed into the conversation. George asked about Shaun of the Dead and we chatted about film-making, then he said the most interesting thing, something that shed a surprising light on the artist behind the billionaire businessman. He asked if I minded him giving me a piece of advice. He leaned in towards me and said, ‘Just don’t suddenly find yourself making the same film you made thirty years ago.’ In that instance, everything made some kind of sense to me. Here was a man whose only significant failing was the inability to trust anyone else. He had always been a maverick, since he was a young avant-garde film-maker and sought to operate beyond the grip of any conventional means of production. However, a victim of his own colossal success, he had become the very thing he used to rail against and yet, still possessed of a furious self-reliance, had continued to doggedly guard his own creative output even at the expense of the thing itself.
I fully admit that without Jessica, Edgar or producer Nira Park’s significant talent and input, Spaced would have beena pale and insubstantial version of what it actually became. As much as you trust yourself in creating a work of artistic entertainment, it is sometimes vital that you find coalition with like- minded people in order to achieve an all-important objectivity, which is impossible to find by yourself. If George had only trusted those around him to nurture and temper his ideas with objective input, he might not only be wealthy but also blissfully content.
t’s a hell of a thing to meet your heroes, let alone find yourself working with them. I have been extremely lucky in this respect and, in true ESTB fashion, have found myself working for some of those directors that shaped my tastes asa child. In 2008, while out in LA shooting StarTrek for fellow film geek JJ Abrams, I drove down to Giant Studios in Santa Monica to meet Steven Spielberg. It was difficult attempting to summon the concentration required to negotiate the LA freeways while trying to comprehend the hugeness of my impending rendezvous. Steven had recently met with Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish (formerly one half of nineties media teddybearists Adam and Joe), about rewriting the script for his forthcoming film, Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn. Edgar had subsequently suggested Steven talk to me as well.
I parked up at the studios and made my way inside, where I was taken straight to Steven, who was operating the performance-capture camera on a small, elevated stage.23 He was exactly how I knew him from countless behind-the-scenes documentaries: bearded, baseball-capped and unfailingly charming. We chatted for a while about Tintin and other things. I told him about our new film, Paul, specifically my and Nick’s idea that our alien hero had acted as adviser to Steven over the years, giving him a few key moments and plot details for E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He found this hilarious and pitched in a few ideas of his own, one of which you will see in the finished film, although to divulge that now would be a spoiler.
As our meeting came to an end, Steven casually asked if I wanted to actually be in the film, as he had been thinking about me for the role of one of the Thom(p)son Twins. I spluttered something to the tune of That would be great’, and when he asked me if I had anyone in mind for the other twin, I immediately suggested Nick Frost, an idea he warmed to straight away.
The beauty of ‘performance capture’ is that although the computer captures your physicality and facial expressions, the details of both can be manipulated into any shape, a technique exemplified beautifully by the versatility of actor Andy Serkis, who was able to play an emaciated hobbit and a twenty-five-foot gorilla, wearing essentially the same costume, a skintight body-suit covered in reflective tracking markers.
A year later, Nick Frost and I stepped onto the set of Tintin wearing our hugely unflattering bodysuits (which somehow looked cool on Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig and Jamie Bell) to play the almost identical Thompson and Thomson for a man both Nick and myself had long admired. Between takes, Steven was happy to talk about his work and experiences, much to our utter glee. I couldn’t help but recall being ten years old and making that crucial choice between Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Gloucester Fair or, indeed, sitting alone in the ABC cinema two years later, crying inside my parka while watching E.T. I said as much to my mother when I left the studios after my first meeting with Steven in 2008, phoning her breathlessly from the car park at Giant Studios.
As if this wasn’t irony enough, I sent a picture of my daughter to Steven shortly after she was born, since he had only seen her grainy sonogram image while we were shooting, and received an email back declaring that he thought she resembled the star child at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This made me so happy, not only because he had related her to a famous cinematic baby (as of course he would), but that I found myself in a position where one of my all-time favourite directors was looking at pictures of my baby girl. I can’t wait to tell her.
Working on Tintin was something of a double whammy professionally speaking, being directed not only by Spielberg but also Peter Jackson, who was co-directing via video link from New Zealand. Peter had been present for much of the run-up to the shoot but then returned home, handing over main duties to Steven. Peter was another director for whom I had had the utmost admiration as albeit a slightly older youngster. His movie Braindead (Dead Alive as it was know in the States) was a favourite of both mine and Edgar’s and was required viewing during our writing of Shaun of the Dead, since it was essentially a romzomcom (romantic zombie comedy), despite claims in other corners that ours was the first. I actually reviewed Braindead for a cable TV station while working as a stand-up comedian in Bristol on its release in 1992, never knowing I would one day find myself directed by its creator.
After Shaun of the Dead was released, we found another ally in Peter, who made very positive noises about the film and gave us a winning quote for our poster. When we came to shoot our ode to the police action film, Hot Fuzz, Peter happened to be on a location scout in the UK and agreed to come and perform a cameo as a psychotic Santa Claus who stabs me through the hand in the opening montage of the film.24
On the New Zealand leg of our Hot Fuzz press tour, Peter not only introduced the film at its Wellington premiere but also played generous host, inviting us to his house for several dinners, giving us an extensive and fascinating tour of Weta, his huge and impressive production facility, and generally showing us some good old Kiwi hospitality. While wandering around his private movie museum, he produced a frame containing one of my shirts from Shaun of the Dead and asked me to verify its authenticity. Studios will often make money on the side by selling props and costumes on to collectors and auction houses. A friend had purchased the item for Peter’s collection, and while I was there, he grabbed the opportunity to ensure the seller was on the up and up. I checked it over and recognised my own bloody handprints smeared across the front, proudly confirming it to be genuine.
We knelt down either side of it and posed for a picture and I once again experienced that wave of temporal irony joining the spatter of coincidental dots that had brought me to this point and, three years later, would lead to my participation in Tintin. I could even trace the irony back to early memories of my father reading me Lord of the Rings, as I inspected the models of Isengard and Minas Tirith in the Weta prop stores. What the hell? It’s a memoir, it’s supposed to be self-indulgent.