Time heals all wounds. And so it is that The Phantom Menace has become renewed in the hearts of the Fandom. Mention of Gungans is no longer guaranteed to lead to spilled beer and a scuffle at the pub. In many peoples view, the prequels have fermented into a more palatable offering than first thought. In this 20th Anniversary year of Episode I, I met with Oliver Ford Davies to discuss playing Sio Bibble, the wise Governor of Naboo in all three prequels.
Oliver was President of the Oxford Dramatic Society, recipient of the coveted Olivier award, and has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company several times. Hailing from a prestigious theatrical background, Oliver would at first seem slightly out of place watching frog aliens squabble about space taxes.
How did you get mixed up in Star Wars? “Well I’ll tell you how I did, I was at Stratford working with the R.S.C. and my daughter was seven. I used to take her to the cinema, and the only thing showing was the Return of the Jedi, and I think we saw it three times.” Then I was doing a play in London with Ian McDiarmid and the casting director Robin (Gurland) came to see it and thought, he might do. So I went to see George and I proved to know a great deal about Return of the Jedi, and Jabba the Hutt, and all that. He was so amazed that this aging British character actor knew about Jabba the Hutt that he gave me the part of Sio Bibble
You have appeared in all three prequels. I did. The part got smaller and smaller, and I wasn’t going to be in the last one but George suddenly thought it would be nice to have him at the funeral. So they popped my head into the funeral, and I’m there for about four and a half seconds.
And that was shot elsewhere wasn’t it? Yes I was working at the Hampstead theatre club so I couldn’t go to Naples, and I couldn’t go for the second one so they had to bluescreen me at Ealing studios actually.
So you have missed out on going to the exotic locations? Yes, I know, I was pretty sad about that!
The prequels were in part an experiment in digital film making as much as a continuation of the Skywalker saga. Having been a part of the evolution of cinema, I asked Oliver about the changes in filming and blue/green screen on the first three episodes.
You see, on the first one, The Phantom Menace, I didn’t do any green screen. We did a week at the Royal Palace (Caserta in Italy) outside Naples which I enjoyed a lot. Amazing – sixty different kinds of marble in that palace! And then we did odd days in Leavesden. I think they were still a bit tentative about certain things. I remember I had to hold the glowing ball (at the end of Episode I), and they seemed very uncertain about what size it was going to be, and obviously that was put in later – Oliver laughs at the memory. “You make it up as you go along.”
What was it like working with George as he pioneered digital cinema? “In The Phantom Menace I had to be a hologram. And the only way they could do a hologram then was that they would film me eight times, and I would face eight ways, right around the clock.”
Remember, the extraordinary cost of these cameras at the time meant there were only one or two on set at any given time. One of the same model is still currently available twenty years later, for US$80,000.
I was saying this same speech eight times, and at the end George said “That was amazing Oliver, you said that speech identically eight times!” I thought, yes that’s what stage actors do you know. After a hundred performances they say the same speech the same way. American film actors never do it the same, they are great believers in throwing it around, doing it differently (to provide a selection of options for the director).
What are you working on at the moment? The next thing I’m doing, I’m in a production of Peer Gynt at the National Theatre. Johnathan Kent is directing a new adaptation by David Hare so that will keep me busy during the summer. We will begin late June.
You can learn more about the production and order tickets here