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A Phantom Menace?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This messy Burbank living room, with its cheap computer and jury-rigged video station, may be the most notorious rebel outpost in the “Star Wars” universe this side of the ice planet Hoth.

It is the lair of the Phantom Editor, a struggling filmmaker who boldly remade a copy of the first “Star Wars” prequel into a movie that die-hard fans liked better than George Lucas’ original--and became a cult hero in the process.

Using off-the-shelf software and a rented VHS copy of “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace,” Mike J. Nichols spliced away elements that were too cute for hard-core fans. In Nichols’ version of the 1999 film, the kid who will one day become genocidal overlord Darth Vader no longer yelps, “Yippee!” And the alien Jar Jar Binks, whose Barney-like antics launched countless “Kill Jar Jar” Web sites, is reduced to near-silence.

The unauthorized cut, which Nichols calls “Star Wars: Episode I.I The Phantom Edit,” has become a sort of “Basement Tapes” for a new, nerdier generation. Copies are advertised on EBay for $20. Late-night TV comedy shows make references to it. When the DVD version of the movie hit shelves, Nichols duplicated his efforts in that format and dubbed the result “Episode I.II.”

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Now, Nichols’ followers have sent him copies of “Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones,” hoping he can make the latest installment in Lucas’ genre-defining sci-fi series more to their liking.

Nichols, who was a card-carrying member of the “Star Wars” fan club as a kid in Canton, Ill., thinks he can do just that, if he decides to tackle it. The thirtysomething film editor (he declines to give his age) knows he sounds as brash as the teenage Anakin Skywalker when he says, “I have the storytelling sense that George Lucas once had and lost.”

The master of the “Star Wars” empire isn’t exactly quaking in his boots. “Our stand on ‘The Phantom Edit’ ... was: He was just an enthusiastic fan having fun,” said Jeanne Cole, a spokeswoman for Lucas’ Marin County production company, Lucasfilm Ltd. “There was no intention to commit any copyright infringement, and we appreciated that.”

Nichols says his version of “Menace” was never supposed to get beyond his circle of movie industry friends, and he has never made a cent on it. But news of the unauthorized work--and downloadable copies of it--quickly spread on the Internet.

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While Cole refuses to discuss any legal matters concerning “The Phantom Edit,” she said her company became worried about the rumors of its widespread distribution last summer. At the time, movie-news Web sites reported that the company threatened to get its lawyers involved. Nichols, who says he was never contacted by Lucasfilm attorneys, decided to post an apology to the company and asked fans to stop selling or trading his version.

The overwhelming popularity of “Star Wars” has spawned countless fan-produced spinoffs in recent years, a fact that Lucasfilm acknowledged earlier this month by granting the first “Star Wars” Fan Film Awards. But the contest was open only to documentaries and parodies, and Nichols remains persona non grata in the official “Star Wars” universe.

He is unsure if Lucas has seen “The Phantom Edit.” And despite his newfound notoriety, his Hollywood career has been slow to take off.

He had to abandon the original feature film he was directing (his description: “Citizen Kane” meets “Star Wars” meets “The Breakfast Club”) when the leading man decided in mid-shoot that cinema wasn’t his calling. Nichols has been keeping the rent paid at what he calls “Skywalker Ranch Lite” with freelance editing jobs on small-budget films and auto-lot TV ads.

Meanwhile, message boards remain clogged with up-to-date offers to hook fans up with Nichols’ “Star Wars” samizdat. “The Phantom Edit’s” legend and influence continue to grow. Fans are now debating the merits of a number of similar edits making their way around the Web, including a version that addresses the Jar Jar Binks issue by dubbing his dialogue in an “alien” language and adding subtitles.

A 23-year-old Sacramento film buff inspired by “The Phantom Edit” has begun trading what he calls “The Kubrick Edit” of the Steven Spielberg movie “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” He purports to reproduce what the film might have been if filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had not died while collaborating on the production.

Nichols likens “The Phantom Edit” to the fan-remixed pop songs that have become popular on the Internet--remixes of dubious legality. Some commentators have hailed “The Phantom Edit” as the advent of a futuristic “open-source filmmaking,” in which movie buffs can cut and paste the basic DNA of a movie, changing characters and plots to suit individual tastes.

In a recent issue of Res, a magazine devoted to independent filmmaking, writer Christopher Shulgan envisioned “a visual hip-hop, where video remixers sample and re-cut preexisting works to yield entirely new artistic creations.”

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Chris Gore, publisher of Filmthreat.com and a longtime champion of do-it-yourself filmmaking, doubts the idea will catch on outside the world of science fiction and fantasy buffs. No one, he noted, is re-cutting “The Godfather.” But Gore also believes that the threat of fans latching onto remixes may irrevocably shift the balance of power between big studios and consumers.

“The big threat is to the creative souls of these filmmakers, like [Martin] Scorsese or Lucas, who have lost their edge, either through self-indulgence or the fact that they have become so sheltered,” Gore said.

The Phantom agrees. “Now, big-time directors know that if they do a [bad] job, somebody may redo it and make them look like idiots.”

The pressure of audience opinion on artists’ output is nothing new. Charles Dickens famously rewrote a happier ending to the serialized “Great Expectations” to suit public tastes, and studios show some unreleased movies to gauge audience reaction early and tweak the product accordingly.

David Madden, an executive vice president at Fox Television Studios, was the executive in charge of the movie “Fatal Attraction” at Paramount in 1987. He presided over a controversial switch to a happier ending when the original, darker version of the thriller tanked with test audiences.

But Madden has seen “The Phantom Edit,” and he has mixed feelings about what it may portend--perhaps a phantom “Gone With the Wind” in which Rhett and Scarlett live happily ever after.

“I don’t mean to sound too 20th century, but I come from this tradition where an artist works really hard to create a vision,” Madden said. “I’m a little scared, because [fan reedits] somehow take away the primitive power of me telling you a story, and you having to follow the story. If it disturbs you, it may be that much better.”

Sipping a Mountain Dew at “Phantom Edit” headquarters--his sparsely furnished bachelor living room--last month, Nichols said he is bewildered by much of the theorizing his work has generated. Many of his values, he said, are pretty old-fashioned.

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“The Phantom Edit” was meant to be an act of “proactive criticism,” he said, a friendly attempt to guide Lucas away from special effects and marketing tie-ins and back toward the art of storytelling.

As proof of his disinterest in spreading his movie on the Web, he said that he still uses a pokey dial-up Internet connection. He preferred not to talk about the other simple hardware he used to produce “The Phantom Edit.” “I’m not a bootlegger,” he said.

Still, Nichols became as testy as any auteur when talk turned to copycat phantom edits that have traded on his reputation. “Yeah,” he snorts. “Attack of the clones.”


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