Last month I received a cryptic e-mail inviting me to a private screening of a new Star Wars film edited by Topher Grace — which is funny because I had no idea there was a new Star Wars film in the works, with or without Grace’s involvement. I was told the screening was a secret private event arranged only for friends only and was asked not to talk about it beforehand. The event was held somewhere in the Hollywood area in a a screening room filled with filmmakers, editors, actors, actresses and only a few press friends. I was told I could blog about it afterwards if I wanted, so here goes…

For those of you who don’t know, Topher Grace is a film geek. He loves the Star Wars films, the Back to the Future movies and all the same signature titles of any film geek who grew up in the 1980s. He recently became interested in the editing process and wanted to learn more about the art form. Instead of cutting a short film, he wanted to use something he was more familiar with.

His idea was to edit the Star Wars prequels into one movie, as they would provide him a lot of footage to work with. He used footage from all three prequels, a couple cuts from the original trilogy, some music from The Clone Wars television series, and even a dialogue bit from Anthony Daniels’ (C-3PO) audio book recordings. He even created a new opening text crawl to set up his version of the story.

The result is an 85-minute movie titled Star Wars: Episode III.5: The Editor Strikes Back. It should be noted that the Star Wars prequel trilogy is almost 7 hours in total length, and the shortest film (Episode 1) is more than 51 minutes longer than Grace’s fan cut. What this means is a lot of footage ended up on the editing room floor, and a lot of creative choices were made in the editing process. And the result? Topher Grace’s Star Wars film is probably the best possible edit of the Star Wars prequels given the footage released and available.

Whats most shocking is that with only 85 minutes of footage, Topher was able to completely tell the main narrative of Anakin Skywalker’s road from Jedi to the Sith. While I know the missing pieces and could even fill in the blanks in my head as the film raced past, none of those points were really needed. Whats better is that the character motivations are even more clear and identifiable, a real character arc not bogged down by podraces, galactic senates, Jar Jar Binks, politics or most of the needless parts of the Star Wars prequels. It not only clarifies the story, but makes the film a lot more action-packed.

UPDATE: The movie still isn’t online but Topher Grace has published a trailer of his Star Wars Prequel edit online, watch it here.

The screening last night was a private gathering of Topher’s industry friends — a event that feels like it will surely become part of Hollywood quasi-urban legend. I wish you all could see Topher’s version of the Star Wars prequels, but we were told that this would be the one and only time he would screen his cut. Of course, there are tremendous legal issues which would prevent him from screening the edit in public. He has no intention of uploading the footage online, and doing a screening at, say, Comic-Con, would require uncle George’s permission — which probably would never happen.

I will give you a rundown of what appeared and didn’t appear in Topher’s film below, but you’ll find that Grace was able to do a lot by removing just a few central aspects of the prequels: the politics, the clone storyline, and the majority of Phantom Menace. Scenes were also cleverly trimmed to get to the point and remove the fluff.

The opening crawl establishes that assassins have been after the queen and Jedis have been sent to intervene.  Topher’s version begins with Episode I’s climactic lightsaber fight between Darth Maul (Ray Park), Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), bypassing the majority of Phantom Menace completely. Starting the story in the middle of this fight was a brilliant choice. Qui-Gon’s dying request that Obi-Wan train Anakin perfectly sets up the story.

Grace’s version of the film(s) centers on Anakin’s training and friendship with Obi-Wan, and his relationship with Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). Gone are Trade Federation blockades, the Gungan city, the whole Padmé handmaiden storyline, the explanation of midichlorians, the galactic senate and the boring politics, Anakin’s origins (a backstory which never really needed to be seen in the first place), the droid army’s attack on Naboo, and Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) appears only briefly for only one line of dialogue, used as a set-up to introduce us to the Queen.

The first time we see Anakin, he is grown up and played by Hayden Christensen (Jake Lloyd never appears in this version). Kenobi and Skywalker are assigned to protect Amidala from additional assassination attempts. This leads us quickly into the chase to capture the assassin in the skies of Coruscant. Anakin is assigned to accompany Padmé to her home planet of Naboo. Unlike George’s version, Obi-Wan doesn’t discover an army of clone troopers on Kamino, but instead stumbles upon Count Dooku’s motives.

While the Clone troopers make a couple short appearances in this version of the film, the word “clone” is only used once, and the whole storyline is almost completely cut from the story. Jango Fett makes only a small appearance, and his son Boba Fett is left on the cutting room floor. Anakin returns to Tatooine and finds his mother tortured to death by the Tusken Raiders, but gone is the laughable aftermath.

Padmé and Anakin’s love story is given more of a central spotlight, incorporating a deleted scene of a dinner with her family on Naboo. While the dialogue still sucks, and the romantic scenes are still a bit cheesy, I was left caring way more about this relationship than I was in the original prequels. The arena scene is still included, but shortened.

And just like that, we’re already into episode 3. In this section, Topher has removed General Grievous.

Padme tells Anakin that she’s pregnant.  The Jedi Council orders Anakin to secretly monitor Palpatine and denies him the rank of Jedi Master. Anakin is frustrated with the Jedi and gets closer to Palpatine. He tells Anakin that the Dark Side of the force has the ability to prevent death. Anakin reports him to the Jedi Council, who doesn’t trust him to come along for the arrest. Palpatine/Sidious battles Jedi Master Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson), Anakin shows up and turns on his old master to become an apprentice to Darth Sidious. Sidious issues Order 66 across the galaxy, and almost all the Jedi are killed.

Obi-Wan informs Padmé that Anakin has joined the dark side. She travels to Mustafar to confront him, and realizes that Obi-Wan was telling the truth. Obi-Wan was able to hide aboard her ship, but Anakin believes that she brought him there to kill him. Anakin and Obi-Wan have their lightsaber battle in the middle of a lava flow, ending with Vader diced and burnt. Yoda and the Emperor have their lightsaber duel. Sidious finds Vader in time to save him, and Padmé gives birth to twins — but not intercut.

The twins find their respective homes, Yoda goes into exile on Dagobah, the droids’ memories are erased, and the film ends with Anakin being turned into Darth Vader. The last shot features Vader’s helmet being lowered down onto Anakin, creating the most iconic villain. And we are left on that dark note.

Yoda doesn’t teach Obi-Wan how to return from the netherworld to see Qui-Gon, and we don’t see Darth Vader learn of Padmé’s death — which also means we don’t see the resulting infamous laughable temper tantrum “Nooooooooooooooooo!!!!”

Topher Grace’s Star Wars fan edit is an interesting experiment. You have to understand that Grace can only use the footage available to him, so some of the same problems exist that plagued the original films: some of the dialogue remains laughably bad, and you can’t change some of the stilted performances and stiff framing. I have seen a few of the other fan edits that have been online, including the famous Phantom Edit — and this is probably the best of the bunch. I’m not sure if it turns the saga into a great film, but its certainly a lot more entertaining.

Before the film screened a trailer for another film Topher Grace is remixing — Steven Spielberg‘s Close Encounters of a Third Kind. I’m not sure that film needs a remix, or could even benefit from a remix, but am interested to see what the experiment will look like. After that, Grace hopes that other actors, editors and filmmakers will run with the ball, produce and showcase remixed films on a annual basis within this private community.

Jason Reitman has been directing live stage reads of classic film screenplays at LACMA, showing how a filmmaker can make different choices with an interesting cast can completely change a written screenplay. This seems like the next evolution of that, but also an exercise in storytelling with the use of crafty editing. I’m not sure I completely understand Grace’s motives in creating this film, but I enjoyed it regardless.

After the screening, I recorded a video blog reaction with Frosty from Collider, Alex from FirstShowing and Fanboys director Kyle Newman. Frosty and Kyle get into a fun spat over the overall quality of the Star Wars prequels:

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