Spoiler Interview | Gary Whitta, ‘Rogue One’ and the Death Star
Writing a giant blockbuster would be a massive understanding under any circumstances, but writing a film like Rogue One is a particularly daunting prospect. Not only do you need to make certain that the first official Star Wars movie spin-off since the Ewok movies holds up to the best films in the franchise, but you also need to make certain that the story you’re telling – which takes place between two pre-existing movies – feels extemporaneous and important without getting in the way of existing continuity.
Fans seem to mostly agree that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story succeeded in its goals. It’s the story of Jyn Erso, a rebellious woman enlisted by the Rebellion (fittingly enough) to help track down her father, who helped the Empire build a weapon of mass destruction called the Death Star. Eventually her journey evolves into a mission to steal the Death Star plans, which would eventually become the MacGuffin at the heart of the original, classic, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story arrives on Digital HD this Friday on March 24, with a Blu-ray release planned for April 4, 2017. So we figured that the time was right to catch up with Gary Whitta, who shares a “Story By” credit with John Knoll, the Chief Creative Officer at Industrial Light & Magic, and talk about the difficult job of telling a new Star Wars story right smack dab in the middle of the old ones.
I spoke on the phone with Gary Whitta about why it was necessary to make Rogue One, the future of the Star Wars standalone films, why you shouldn’t have to read the novels to appreciate a new Star Wars movie, the real reason why we never saw the Death Star operating at full power, and how close we came to getting a much happier ending. SPOILERS ABOUND. (You have been warned.)
Crave: You have a really interesting job to do with Rogue One. You have to tell a new and exciting story but you have to work within the gaps of our knowledge of existing Star Wars stories. I guess my first question is, why was it necessary to fill in this gap? Why was it necessary to tell the story of Rogue One?
Gary Whitta: I can only speak to my own experience, really. I remember when they first told me what the idea for the film was – let’s see the story of the rebels who stole the Death Star plans – my instant reaction was, “Oh my god, I want to see that movie!” That was just my gut reaction. So whether or not it was necessary I don’t know, but whether or not it was worthwhile, I certainly think it was. Considering how well the movie turned out I’m really pleased that we got to tell that story.
And I’ll say this, I think the best thing, the best compliment about the film that I’ve heard, the greatest thrill for me – and I think we’re going to see this a lot now when the movie comes out Blu-ray and people have a lot easier access to it – is when you watch the two films back-to-back, as people have, because people at the cinema watched Rogue One and then came home straight away and watched A New Hope, you watch New Hope in a different way now. I’ve heard people say it actually makes the original film better because you look at it in a different way now.
You know that the flaw in the Death Star isn’t there by accident, and more importantly you know everything that they went through to get the plans this far. So Jyn and Cassian and K-2 and all these heroic characters, they all make this heroic sacrifice to get these plans off the planet, and then little do they know after their death, they’re going to end up in the hands of this clueless farm kid on a desert planet who doesn’t know what to do it.
So now when you watch it, if you’re watching these films for the first time, you’re really – I think – even more invested in those plans finding their way back to Yavin because you now have a better understanding of what the Rebels went through to get them this far.
I think that raises an interesting point. These films no longer exist in a vacuum. There’s always context.
That context goes beyond the other movies. I’ve heard from other Star Wars fans who said that their appreciation of Rogue One was significantly influenced by having read the books as well. Do you think we’re shifting into a new audience paradigm where you’re expected to know other information before you move into a Star Wars movie?
No, I don’t think we’re ever going to ask the audience to do homework before they go see a film. Like, I understand it. I understand it’s clickbait. I see these videos and articles all the time online: “Ten Things You Must Know Before You Go See The New Wolverine Movie, or the New Star Wars Movie.” But really? If there are ten things that I have to research before I go see the film, the filmmakers haven’t done their job. You should just be able to go and see the film and not have done any homework before or after.
Having said that, for people who are really hardcore fans and they want to consume everything last piece of information, it’s out there, right? You don’t need to know Krennic and Galen’s origin story to enjoy Rogue One but if you decide that you want to know more there is a book for you. It’s not required reading but it’s optional if you’re that invested.
So it’s your take that the movie should stand on its own. That’s important still.
Oh my god, if I went into a studio and pitched a movie and said, “Okay, listen, this movie is only going to work if the audience reads this book first,” I’d get laughed out of the room.
All of the anthology films that we’ve heard about so far, or that we’ve seen, are currently prequels. Do you think that’s the function of these Star Wars anthology films right now, and that it’s important to let the new trilogy let the franchise move forward?
No, I think that the two standalones that we know about – Rogue One and Solo – I think it’s somewhat coincidental that they both happen to be prequels. I think LucasFilm made the decision that those are the two that they’re interested in telling first.
As coincidence would have it they are technically both prequels but I just think they decided Rogue One was the best one to go with first because it gave us the opportunity to do a really different kind of Star Wars film, one that has no Jedi, one that’s more militaristic, more gritty, boots on the ground. There’s a lot of opportunities to make a statement with the first film, which I think they did, which is they did a really different kind of Star Wars film. You’re not going to see lightsabers… well, you do see one, but you’re not going to see a lot of Jedi running around. It’s going to have a different, just directorially, it’s going to have a different feel to it.
And then I don’t know about Solo but I imagine that will have a different vibe to it as well, and I think as time goes by they will go… the next standalone they announce might very well surprise you. It could be completely different. So I think it’s just a coincidence.
Well, are there any other cracks in the story so far that you think warrant another movie? Like, we’ve see how these Death Star plans got stolen. Is there a whole movie about the Bothan spies that would be worth watching?
Yeah, again, I don’t know if the longterm potential for these standalone films is necessarily all about plugging gaps in these different stories. I mean, Rogue One definitely is that, right? It’s telling a story that the original film very directly suggested in the opening crawl. In the first film the Death Star plans have to come from somewhere, someone has to actually steal them. So that story was kind of sitting there, begging to be told.
I think the Star Wars movies, people just love Han Solo, and the idea of seeing a young, even cockier version of him running around is one that people are excited to see. Those just on their own merits those are films that LucasFilm decided are worth making. But I don’t think the mandate for those films is or should be, “Let’s plug gaps between the existing films.”
One of the tricks you have with this movie is you have the Death Star in the movie, but you can’t use it to blow up a planet because the first film clearly said that Alderaan was the first time they did that. Can you me about the difficulty involved in making that work as a plot element?
I mean if we really wanted to blow up a planet we could say Tarkin was lying to Leia. Why does that have to be the truth? But for the most part we wanted to stay true to the idea that Alderaan was the first complete planetary destruction we’ve witnessed.
Also, one of the mandates we got from LucasFilm was, “Show us things we’ve never seen before,” so one my ideas was… what did it look like? What did it feel like to be on the surface of a planet as it’s getting hit by the Death Star? So now obviously on Alderaan it’s very quick. Those people were killed so quickly they were probably not even aware of anything happening. So I really liked the idea of an action sequence escaping from the planet as it was breaking up around them.
So from that we reverse-engineered the idea that they needed to test the weapon. Again, when you test something for the first time you never test it at full power. You test it at ten percent power to make sure you don’t blow yourself up. So the ten percent single reactor ignition allowed us to have a plausible test for the Death Star and also witness the destruction that it’s capable of from the ground level while it’s still allowing our heroes to escape.
When you were talking about putting Grand Moff Tarkin in the movie, did it occur to you at the writing stage how that would happen, whether they would be recasting or using computer technology to recreate him… which is of course what happened?
One of the benefits of working with John Knoll, who was my co-writer on the story, who again came up with the original idea for it, him also being the head of ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] allowed us to tackle those questions directly. It was like I said to John “Can we do this?” and he said “Let me go ask someone.” He’s the guy who knows if it can be done.
So I said from a story point of view, I feel like Tarkin needs to be in the movie. Because he’s so present. He’s such a part of the Death Star in the original film, he’s going to feel absent if he’s not there and he just shows up in A New Hope. So he has to be put in the film.
John said, “I agree, we need him, let’s get him in the film.” I said, “How do we do that? Do we get a lookalike? How do you we make it look like him?” He said, “No, we’re going to do it all CG.” There was never any question in his mind that’s how it should be done. I was like, “Can you DO that?” He said, “We’re GOING to do it. That’s how visual effects get better, we try things and you do things that have never been done before.”
So I think that was one of my most exciting… I never talked about it publicly because it was a big surprise in the film, but I remember talking to John all the time saying, “How’s Tarkin coming along? Can I see how he looks?” and the first time I saw him I was blown away.
Was it always the plan to kill off every single character in the movie, or was there some debate about finding loopholes if you wanted to continue this story with one or two characters who may have been able to survive?
We went back and forth. I certainly was not a fan of the idea of a loophole. I think you should pick an idea and commit to it, and not kind of hedge. But it’s something where we went back and forth and I can tell you that Gareth and I, when we were literally the only two people aside from John Knoll working on the film, that was our initial instinct. “I think everybody should die.”
In John’s story treatment Jyn got away, and I remember thinking I feel like they should all die. It should be a story about martyrdom and these people make the ultimate sacrifice so that the galaxy can have a chance to defeat the Empire. It just made sense to us that these characters should have this triumphant death, that they die but succeed in the mission. It’s tragic but it’s beautiful. You feel proud of them but also sad they die at the end. We wanted to have all these emotions.
But we were worried, frankly, that we might not be allowed to get away with it, that Disney would say no. So we never developed that version. We developed the version where Jyn gets away. But it was always, always, Gareth and I were always thinking that they should die, they should die. This is not the right ending. They should die.
After I left and Chris [Weitz] came on, Gareth kept scratching that itch, saying they should die, they should die, and Chris said “I think you’re right! I think they should die.” So they eventually took the idea to the story group and Kathy [Kennedy, President of LucasFilm] and pitched them. They said, “Yeah! Do it!” And, “Oh, you’re actually going to let us do this?”
And they did, and I’m glad they did. I’m glad that Gareth continued to fight for it even after I left because it’s the right ending for the film.
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Top Photo: LucasFilm
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.