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May the 4th Be with You

The franchise's prequel trilogy is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated and guarded movie event in history

Two years back, Pierce Brosnan dashed about its cavernous soundstages as Agent 007 in Goldeneye. But these days, even James Bond would have trouble crashing the gates of Leavesden Studios, the 286-acre facility northwest of London where writer-director George Lucas will shortly arrive to begin filming chapter 1 of his much-ballyhooed Star Wars prequel trilogy. Goodbye, Aston Martin pit crew. Hello, keepers of the Millennium Falcon, who'll be jetting into Europe's biggest indoor-outdoor film factory — it even has its own airstrip — under security worthy of the Queen herself.

''It's probably the most secretive film ever,'' says prequel cinematographer David Tattersall, who shot Radioland Murders and the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series for Lucas and this summer's Con Air for producer Jerry Bruckheimer. ''I've seen the script, but I can't say anything. I had to sign this [confidentiality] document. No telling what they'd do to me if I talked.''

Like many of the creative crew involved in what is perhaps Hollywood's — hell, the world's — most fervently anticipated set of action-fantasy movies, Tattersall can't help sounding a bit rattled. The enormous expectations he's facing are bearing down on him now like an Imperial spacecraft. And the G forces have only gotten more intense with this spring's success of Lucas' Special Edition rereleases of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, which have grossed $251 million in the U.S. alone, bringing the series' overall worldwide take so far to almost $2 billion — plus $4 billion in merchandising revenues. So as Lucas and company set up shop, well aware the whole world is watching, it's sometimes hard to tell whether they're about to make a movie or launch a military strike. ''There are guys patrolling the perimeter with dogs and big sticks, and they look mean,'' says Tattersall. ''You need picture IDs and swipe cards to get in everywhere. It's like the Pentagon.''

Both at Leavesden and at Lucasfilm, based north of San Francisco, the top brass have gone to great lengths to classify as many details as possible. For months, Lucasfilm reps indicated that production wasn't likely to get under way until September; last week, they revealed that an initial 13-week live-action shoot on part 1 could in fact conclude by late September, with several rounds of follow-up filming to continue through the fall.

Is all this obfuscation really necessary? Probably. ''It's not paranoia, it's self-defense,'' says Lucasfilm producer Rick McCallum, who will oversee the new trilogy. ''There are people willing to pay a lot of money to get hold of our scripts and designs.'' Those designs, in number and complexity, dwarf anything done on the original trilogy; once the live-action cameras stop, approximately 1,500 shots of computer-generated imagery will be added to the first film alone, a technical challenge that means Star Wars: The Balance of the Force — as fan scuttlebutt has the working title — won't actually be ready for release until May 1999. Parts 2 and 3, possibly titled The Rise of the Empire and The Fall of the Jedi, should shoot their live-action portions in one big nine-month chunk at the turn of the century, with releases to follow in 2001 and 2003. That's a mighty long time to keep a nosy press and potential imitators at bay, and indeed, some casting news about who'll play whom in the prefatory tale, which takes place 30 years before the original Star Wars, is already leaking out, even though Lucasfilm stresses that contracts are not all set:

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