The Star Wars Story
We sat down with the Rogue One director to talk inspiration, risk taking, and blockbusters as high art.
As you walk the halls of the executive floors of Lucasfilm in San Francisco, it’s hard not to get lost in some of the posters on the walls. Many are foreign variants of classic American films. John Ford films with titles in Italian and the like. It’s easy to both forget where you are and forget where you’re going. After a few minutes of zoning out, chatting with my escort about how I’m always worried that I forgot to press play on my recorder half way through any interview, we arrived at a small office where Rogue One director Gareth Edwards was waiting patiently. Despite the fact that, as he tells me, the press tour has already been to several countries before the American junket, he appears calm and collected. This is both the benefit of interviewing someone early in the junket day and the benefit of interviewing Edwards, whose constant calm has been ever-present since he was promoting his first film, 2010’s Monsters.
Edwards epitomizes the generation of filmmakers who grew up in the era of Star Wars. The 41-year old filmmaker, an unabashed lover of the sci-fi of the 70s and 80s, has seen his career grow by leaps and bounds in 6 years – from the low-budget monster flick Monsters to 2014’s Godzilla to the new Star Wars film. But for him, it’s actually about going back to those films of his youth. “I grew up in an era where the idea of high art and things being popular were one and the same,” he explains as I slyly check to ensure I didn’t make that recorder mistake again. “Masterpieces, for me, like Close Encounters or Star Wars, they were really well-crafted movies that still today are some of the best pieces of cinema. And they were incredibly popular. You didn’t have Oscar bait and blockbusters back then. They were one and the same. I think we can have that again.”
For Edwards, this idea is all the more important when it comes to making new Star Wars films. “I embrace films that don’t differentiate themselves. They say, you can have great performances, beautiful cinematography, stories that have meaning, as well as being fun and successful. Star Wars, if anything, has the license to take a risk. It’s the one film that you know it’s gonna make its money back. More than any other movie, it’s the one that should go out on a limb. That’s what we tried to do.”
Among the risks involved with Rogue One was the idea of making a war film set inside the Star Wars universe. Set apart for the Skywalker saga, Rogue One is the franchises first true dive into the conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion that is less interested in The Force than it is with strategy and espionage. In order to craft the proper look for the film, Edwards looked to real war footage from WWII, Vietnam, and the movies that chronicled these wars, as reference. “I put together a kind of image reference PDF,” he explained. “It had thousands of images in it. Some of them were just photography and design and architecture.” At the press conference earlier in the day, he recalled how he and early production staffers would cut out Storm Trooper helmets and blasters and paste them onto old war photos, creating mock-ups that would inspire a lot of the battle compositions within Rogue One.
But what about inspiration from other films? “There was a lot of films in there,” says Edwards. “Like Apocalypse Now, Alien, even Blade Runner. The interiors of Blade Runner, that aesthetic. It feels like that 70s timeless sci-fi that hasn’t dated. If you were ever gonna go slightly away from Star Wars, they were a good reference. Things like Thin Red Line.”
The most surprising mention there is Aliens, Ridley Scott’s more gothic sci-fi/horror classic from 1979. But as Edwards explains, there’s a very specific place where Alien’s stamp exists in Rogue One: “When you see a planet in the movie called Eadu, it’ll make a lot of sense.”
For those wondering, Eadu is the rainy, gothic planet from the trailers:
Yeah, I can see a little Alien influence in there. For Rogue One, there’s a mix between H.R. Giger, Ralph McQuarrie, and visages of real war.
This is the inherent risk that Edwards faced with Rogue One. It was all about figuring out how to tell a story that felt inherently like a Star Wars movie, but also infusing new elements of visual language. By focusing on the kinetic combat and the strength of his ensemble, he set out to bring a new set of favorites to the forefront of Star Wars. “We wanted every character in the ensemble to feel like they could be your favorite,” he explained. “That’s what I’m so pleased with. In a military mission movie, you have an ensemble, and I genuinely can’t say I have a favorite.”
Whether or not the masses think Edwards has accomplished his goals – to create new favorite characters, to blur the lines between blockbuster and high art, to create an experience that is both familiar and innovative – remains to be seen as Rogue One releases to the masses at the end of this week. What I can say for certain that despite the whirlwind of publicity tours and endless pressures, Gareth Edwards remains calm and confident that he’s given us a little more of that timeless sci-fi.