HOLLYWOOD - George Lucas, looking overheated under the midday sun, gamely worked the red carpet recently at the world premiere of the latest cinematic installment to his space saga, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. At one point, Lucas was photographed with one of his most avid fans, a grinning, chubby fellow from Pennsylvania who showed up at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre wearing two-day stubble, a sweat-stained shirt and a brimmed frontier hat that Indiana Jones would admire.
That guy, Dave Filoni, also happens to be the director of Clone Wars (which opened this weekend across the U.S.) and quite possibly the luckiest Star Wars fan alive.
Like Charlie inheriting the chocolate factory, the 34-year-old Filoni was plucked from relative obscurity two years ago and handed the job of using computer animation to create a Star Wars cartoon series for the small screen. Filoni and his team did so well that Lucas (who, it goes without saying, is not easily amazed) made the decision to hand them the keys to the kingdom and let them make the seventh theatrical release in the ongoing chronicles of the Skywalker family.
A few weeks ago, in Los Angeles working on the final mixes of the film, Filoni still seemed dazed by the entire odyssey. In 2005, he dressed up as a spider-faced Jedi named Plo Koon to go with his buddies to the opening night of Revenge of the Sith. Three years later, he's the one taking Star Wars into its fourth decade as a pop-culture phenomenon.
"I can't even begin to tell you how strange and wonderful and great it's been," said Filoni, who has an earnest manner and easy laugh. "Just getting to meet George Lucas was pretty amazing, and then working with him and getting to be part of this process ... it's a great responsibility. I feel like my job is to bring his universe to the screen and make sure it lives up to the standards he's set."
The Clone Wars is a curious and intriguing project. It features the voice talent of several familiar names from the live-action films (Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee and Anthony Daniels, who has voiced C-3PO since the original 1977 film), but most of the key roles are lesser-known replacements. If the film is a success, it could open up a new sector of computer-generated animation sequels to action franchises. Would moviegoers still stand in line to see Indiana Jones, Harry Potter or Spider-Man if the action was lively but not entirely alive? Beowulf and The Polar Express have tested the concept, but a Clone Wars success could be a pivot point for Hollywood.
If the film is not a success, it will likely bring to a close the theatrical run of Star Wars, which began 31 summers ago when Lucas was just a few months younger than Filoni is now. The Star Wars films have grossed $4.3 billion at theaters worldwide.
For Filoni, his attention is back on his original mission: the television series that will also be called The Clone Wars, which begins airing on the Cartoon Network and TNT this fall with weekly 30-minute episodes. The film and series are the maiden efforts of Lucasfilm Animation, which has offices in Northern California and Singapore. The new film and the extended tales of the namesake series will take place between Episode II Attack of the Clones and Episode III Revenge of the Sith in the Star Wars continuity.
The art for Clone Wars strikes a middle ground between the dramatically stylized, hand-drawn look of the Cartoon Network series with a similar name that aired from 2003 to 2005 and the photo-realistic CGI world that Lucas used with history-making efficiency in the most recent Star Wars live-action films.
To Filoni, that balance was the key concern in his quest. His previous work was on the traditionally animated Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. It caught the eye of Lucasfilm executives, and they called Filoni - who at first assumed that a phone call from Skywalker Ranch was a practical joke being pulled on him by his fanboy buddies. It wasn't a joke, and neither was the job interview a few days later.
Filoni nearly had a car wreck on the way over from the airport, and he walked out of the job interview certain that the taciturn Lucas thought he was an idiot. He didn't, and Filoni had the job the same day.
"I go to the conventions and talk to the fans and I tell them, 'No, you don't understand, I am one of you,' and I really am," said Filoni, who grew up outside Pittsburgh as a member of his high-school marching band and an avid film fan.
Does that explain his Raiders of the Lost Ark approach to hat fashion? Filoni wears his trademark lid all the time, but it's actually for reasons that nature-lover Lucas instantly respected.
"This is what I wear when I go out in the wilderness," Filoni said. The filmmaker's passion is hiking, camping and tracking wolves, the animals that he admires and frets about. Last summer, he left behind his Clone Wars to go to the Northwest Territories of Canada, to film wolves and try to "figure out a balance between the rabid green aspects - which is just let them be - and the real impact there is on cattlemen."
Filoni said the trip to the frontier helped him put aside his stress about The Clone Wars - for a little while. "You can get a way from a lot of things up there. But then, you know, making a Star Wars movie is the sort of pressure you can't forget about for too long."
Geoff Boucher writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Watch a preview of Star Wars: The Clone Wars at baltimoresun.com/starwars