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Anticipating ''Episode II''

Anticipating ”Episode II”–We pump filmmakers on information about the second ”Star Wars” movie, but only get so far

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If there’s one thing that Star Wars fans learned from their Phantom Menace experience, it’s this: ”All the fun was wondering for two years what was going to happen,” says Scott Chitwood, co-founder of TheForce.net, a leading fan site. But even informed rumormongers say it’s still too early to seriously dish about Episode II, the second in the trilogy of films tracking Anakin Skywalker’s transformation from Jedi Knight to the evil Darth Vader. Inhibiting the gossip is that killjoy George Lucas, who has yet to finish a script that anyone can leak. (Disregard the alleged rough draft and interview with Lucas over at SuperShadow.com, both of which are bogus.) Here’s what’s known so far:

What’s it called?
For now, it’s being referred to as Star Wars: Episode II. There’s actually been little speculation as to the title; last time, Lucas didn’t announce The Phantom Menace until eight months before the film’s opening.

When and where will Episode II be shot?
Principal photography will commence in late June, and like Menace, it’s expected to last three months. Instead of filming in England, where portions of every Star Wars film to date have been shot, Episode II will mark a switch to Fox’s new studios in Australia. Producer Rick McCallum has already relocated Down Under to oversee set construction. Lucas will also shoot in Tunisia and Italy, which means a return to the desert planet of Tatooine and Queen Amidala’s Naboo.

Who will play the adult Anakin Skywalker?
There is a shortlist, but Lucasfilm won’t say who’s on it. Casting director Robin Gurland received more than 700 applications and took a hard look at 350 of them. As EW reported in February, Gurland has met with a cavalcade of Hollywood’s young bucks, including Joshua Jackson and James Van Der Beek; to that, add Colin Hanks (Tom’s son), Devon Sawa, and Shane West. One name definitely not on the shortlist is Leonardo DiCaprio. The Titanic actor has opted to make Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York his next project.

Who’s coming back?
Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala, Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu. Lucasfilm has yet to announce whether Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine (or is that Darth Sidious?) or Anthony Daniels as C-3PO will be returning. As for the much-derided Jar Jar Binks (played by Ahmed Best), Lucas announced last October that he will indeed be back. At least this time you’ve been warned.

How are the actors preparing?
”I just know it’s happening this summer and I have to keep some time open to do it,” says Jackson, who must first shoot Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense. ”I just hope I get to take my lightsaber out and chop somebody in half.” Says Portman: ”I’m excited to be in Sydney. I’m working on getting some friends out there because I had a hard time doing the last one because I was away from home and didn’t have people with me.”

What’s the plot?
Officially, Lucasfilm will say only that it’s set 10 years after Menace and that Anakin and Amidala will fall in love. Lucasfilm will neither confirm nor deny speculation that it’s set against the backdrop of a conflict known as the Clone Wars, and that groundwork will be laid for Anakin’s eventual switch to the dark side. The hottest rumor churning the mill is that an Amidala-smitten Obi-Wan will make it a love triangle and that a wedding will end the film; again, no comment from Lucasfilm.

Has the script been written?
Not completely; Lucas is still working on the dialogue, and Jonathan Hales — a onetime writer on Lucas’ TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles — will work with him on the final drafts. But the actors haven’t seen any pages — and neither has ILM, which by this time last movie had a whole script and was deep into development. Is animation director Coleman getting antsy? ”No, because I’m assuming there’s going to be a fair amount of overlap in the characters,” he says. ”So we’re not behind schedule because we already built a bunch of it [for the last film].”

Will Pepsi be the choice of Episode II?
The Phantom Menace home-video release marks the end of Lucasfilm’s promotional alliance with Pepsi (and fast-food divisions Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell) and Frito-Lay. Neither company would comment on any new deal. Advertisers spent an estimated $2 billion in marketing support for Menace and the 1997 rerelease of the second trilogy, but the fast-food chains saw less than stellar results.

Will there be additional virtual characters like Jar Jar and Boss Nass?
Perhaps. ”You know, every time I ask George that direct question,” says Coleman, ”he just smiles and says, ‘You’ll just have to wait and see.”’