Every saga has a beginning, and the cast and crew of the earliest movie in the Star Wars chronology came back together April 16, ahead of its 20th anniversary.
Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, the first movie in creator George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, hit theaters May 19, 1999, and showed innocent Anakin Skywalker’s first steps to becoming the monstrous Darth Vader.
Actors Ahmed Best, Ian McDiarmid, Ray Park and Anthony Daniels joined crew members at a packed panel — preceded by Weird Al Yankovic’s tribute song The Saga Begins and the— on the last day of Star Wars Celebration Chicago.
It was hosted by Star Wars staple Warwick Davis, who played multiple roles in the movie. He was podrace spectator Weazel (who also showed up again as one of Enfys Nest’s Marauders in Solo) and Anakin’s friend Wald.
The first two cast members to the stage were Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious) and Ray Park (Darth Maul), with the former making a cheeky reference to his surprise appearance at the Episode 9 panel.
“Friday, I just happened to be in the area,” McDiarmid said. “So I thought I should just drop in for a laugh.”
The actor recalled how momentous it felt to be working on a Star Wars movie once again as he revisited Palpatine, whom he played as an older character in the original trilogy.
“I made the assumption that we’d never ever see him again (after his death in Return of the Jedi), and I guess that’s how it shall remain,” he said, in another cheeky reference to the character’s apparent return in The Rise of Skywalker, which takes place decades later.
He also noted that Phantom Menace castmate Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn) didn’t realize he was playing Palpatine and Sidious during filming and let him know at the premiere.
“‘It was you, you bastard!'” McDiarmid recalled the actor saying.
It turned out that McDiarmid helped Park, who played Sidious’ Sith apprentice, settle into his role.
“I was nervous … Ian really reassured me and kept me calm,” said Park, who also noted that he made Prodigy’s Firestarter his personal theme for getting into character as Maul.
Park highlighted his cameo as one of Padme’s guards during the final battle.
Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks) got the biggest reaction as he and Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) hit the stage, with the crowd chanting “Jar Jar” as he arrived.
Best recalled how he was discovered while working on the stage show Stomp, and that as a kid from the Bronx, going to Skywalker Ranch “was mad trippy.”
Daniels noted how happy he was to discover his character was basically made by Darth Vader.
“It does explain why Threepio is slightly nervous about everything,” he said, even if the protocol droid doesn’t actually know Anakin is Vader.
He revealed that his favorite line from the movie is “What do you mean “naked?”, uttered after cheeky astromech droid R2-D2 beeps that his “parts are showing.” Threepio doesn’t have his iconic gold plating in the movie.
Lucas didn’t show up in person, but sent a video message about his continued fondness for The Phantom Menace.
“It’s one of my favorite movies and Jar Jar is my favorite character,” he said. “It was one of the first digital features and we’re very proud of that.”
The retired filmmaker also expressed his affection for the fans celebrating his movie 20 years later.
“I love each and every one of you.”
The actors were joined on stage by designer Doug Chiang, visual effects supervisor John Knoll, digital model maker Jean Bolte and sound designer Matthew Wood. Chiang noted that Lucas wanted this movie grounded in the 1920s and ’30s, compared to the original trilogy’s subtle ’70s look.
Knoll highlighted his brief cameo in the movie.
“I’m in the space battle. I’m the only pilot you actually see get killed,” he said.
Bolte cited scummy podracer Sebulba, Jar Jar Binks and Yoda as her favorite characters to work on. However, she said junk dealer Watto was the closest to her heart, since she loves collecting.
Wood said they took a different approach to sound compared to the older movies, deciding to make it “sleek. He highlighted how doors made smooth sounds compared to the” ker-thunks” of the original trilogy.
“Sebulba’s pod was basically a Ferrari that a guy kindly punched a hole in his muffler for,” he revealed of their approach using real-world sounds (which he learned from original trilogy sound guru Ben Burtt.
Wood also had a cameo as Jabba’s Twi’lek majordomo Bib Fortuna during the podrace scene.
The fan convention, which ran April 11-16, already saw the reveal of Episode 9’s title and first trailer and more details about the Galaxy’s Edge Disney Parks attraction. We also got our first glimpse of live action show The Mandalorian, and The Clone Wars season 7, both of which are coming to the Disney Plus streaming service.
If you want to catch up or revisit the saga, check out our guide to watching all the movies online in chronological order.
First published April 15 and reposted for the movie’s 20th anniversary.