To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first episode of the Skywalker Saga, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, SYFY WIRE has put together a series of oral histories that detail different aspects of the top-secret, often groundbreaking production of the movie. In this installment, we look at Darth Maul, the stunts, and the final lightsaber duel that would define a generation.
Darth Maul, played by Ray Park, defined the look of The Phantom Menace. Just about every bit of marketing took aim at cashing in on the villain and his impressive double-bladed lightsaber dueling skills. Yet Maul was still a mystery, and with that mystery came a dueling style that was unlike anything anyone had seen before in a Star Wars movie.
Park was charged with bringing Maul to life, but he would never have gotten that job without Nick Gillard. Gillard was the stunt coordinator on The Phantom Menace, but before he got involved in the film industry as a stunt person, he got his start in the circus.
"For me," Gillard told SYFY WIRE, "it was about the food. There was free cakes, and you never get enough food in the circus. So I made it my mission to do stunts in movies."
After working his way up through the ranks of British film, Gillard, like so many others who would go on to work on the prequels, found himself working on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. In a way, Young Indiana Jones was a sort of audition.
"We had been shooting with Sean Patrick Flanery in Morocco," Gillard says of the first time he realized working on Star Wars was a possibility. "Often, when you fly out, they give you something to take to the production offices. I was flying out somewhere, and Rick McCallum, the producer, gave me an envelope to take and said, 'Don't open it.' And so of course as soon as I was on the plane I got it open, and it was the storyboards for the podrace, and I'm thinking, 'They're doing another Star Wars.' When I got [to the offices], he offered [the job] to me."
Gillard then brought in Park. At first, the idea was that he'd just do some tests for a few days and possibly get on as a stunt performer.
Park says he had no expectation that he was actually going to get to work on Star Wars; at the initial filming, he got in the Darth Maul makeup, did the test, and didn't hear anything for weeks.
"And then I had a call from Rick McCallum, and that was the best call I've ever had in my life," Park told SYFY WIRE. "To be told that you're gonna be the bad guy. From Rick, it was like, 'Now, Ray, I want you to be mean. I want you to scare every child in America and around the world. You're gonna be bad.'
"And I was like, 'Yes, sir. Yes, sir. I can do that. No worries. I can do that, I can do that.'"
With an actor in place, it was then up to Gillard to actually choreograph the fight among Maul, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and decide how it went, as the script was surprisingly thin on details.
"The script doesn't have any description of the fight. It just says 'A vicious lightsaber fight ensues,'" Gillard explains. "Then I'd ask George [Lucas] how long he wants that fight to be for, then I'll study the characters, you know, utterly, so I'll know what they'll be doing in that situation — how they will feel about it, how they're going to move — and then write it accordingly."
With the fighting script written, Gillard then had to set his sights on the physical choreography and actually train the actors to carry out the moves. "I don't try to force a style on them," he says. "Obviously, they've gotta get really good. We get that through rehearsal, so we have enough rehearsal that they have muscle memory."
David Tattersall, the director of photography on The Phantom Menace, explained how intensely the actors worked at learning the moves, particularly McGregor and Park as they sorted out the final duel.
"There was usually a space set aside that [McGregor] asked for next to the stage. [A place] for him to practice with the stunt team and Ray Park. They would just rehearse all the time," Tattersall says. "And there was somebody from the prop department with them, because they would use a lightsaber handle with an aluminum rod so that they actually have something to make contact with.
He continues: "These guys, they got so good and so vicious with their fighting practice, the swords would end up like coat hangers at the end of every scene, they were just bent to pieces. So there was a guy on site making swords as quick as they could destroy them, constantly making new swords. Ewan was just destroying them."
Park remembers being in awe of both McGregor and Neeson. "I got to work with the stunt guys first in coming up with different techniques, but it was different with Ewan and Liam, it was a different time and a different tempo," he says. "But then, I preferred it, because they not only were doing the moves, they were actually playing the part. We were actually acting, so it was better for me, and they were great."
According to Park, Darth Maul's history could have been completely different if the original plan for the character had been carried out.
"When we were choreographing our fights for the end, originally, Nick came up with them chopping [Maul's] head off, and I thought that was a better death. But Nick said, 'You know, just in case they want to bring you back, this way you can be brought back.'"
While sitting on set, Park, Gillard, and some of the other crew members joked about all the ways in which Maul could spontaneously reappear. In their wildest imaginations, Maul returned on a hover speeder with no legs, using his double-bladed lightsaber as a sort of canoe stick in his quest for new legs. Luke Skywalker got a new hand, so why couldn't Maul get new legs?
Of course, Park had no idea he'd eventually return to play Maul nearly two decades later. He recalls seeing Maul's initial return to the Star Wars fold with his son as they watched Star Wars: The Clone Wars together.
"I was like, 'What?! He's made it all the way through?'" he says. "I should have been sending more fruit baskets to George."
Though Darth Maul's look and personality now feel ubiquitous in the wake of 20 solid years of movies and television, Park wasn't quite sure how the makeup would work at first. "When they were doing me up, I just thought I looked silly. You know, my big nose, and my weird teeth, and then my blue eyes, and I just felt like a big panda, you know?" he says. "And not to be disrespectful to George or anyone, I was just hoping that they didn't see what I saw and they would fire me. But once the contact lenses were in and people were staring at me on set, it was like, 'Wow.'"
To get into Darth Maul's head, Park tried to talk to Lucas about what the character was like and where he was from. "He was like, 'Ray, he's whatever you want him to be, it's up to you.' And so Darth Maul came from the action, like the old school Masters where they wouldn't look at you while fighting. He came from a martial arts background, and I felt like you could show a lot with just your presence and what you're doing and [your] confidence. I think that's how Darth Maul became the way he is."
Although Park had his reservations at first about the way Maul might appear in the film, once he saw The Phantom Menace all those concerns faded and he realized he was a part of something amazing. "It was only when I saw the movie that I was like, 'Man, it looks really good.'"
While Gillard and Tattersall continued working on the rest of the Star Wars prequels through to the end of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Park would have to wait until Ron Howard's Solo: A Star Wars Story to reprise Maul. He'll once again lend his talents to the character with the upcoming season of The Clone Wars on Disney+; Maul's fights will be motion-captured, something new to the animated series.
Maul's continued presence in the Star Wars world, while at first unexpected, only lends credence to just how carefully crafted he was in The Phantom Menace. From the look to every sweep of his lightsaber, Maul was and continues to be of vital importance to the Saga, even after 20 years.