Unshaven and slightly rumpled, with a laid-back demeanor and dry sense of humor, Gareth Edwards doesn’t instantly strike you as the type of person who would command an army, cinematic or otherwise. But if “Star Wars” has taught us anything, it’s that warriors come from unexpected places.
Growing up in England, the 41-year-old Edwards was inspired to become a filmmaker by his deep passion for George Lucas’ beloved space opera. Now, as the director of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” — the first in a series of planned standalone spin-off films set in the galaxy far, far away, distinct from the ongoing episodic saga — he finds himself a key player in the creative expansion of the franchise.
Set shortly before the events of 1977’s “A New Hope,” “Rogue One,” which hits theaters Dec. 16, chronicles the mission of a ragtag group of rebels to steal the plans to the Empire’s planet-destroying Death Star. Featuring a diverse ensemble cast including Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker and Donnie Yen, the film is the closest thing to a full-on war movie ever seen in the “Star Wars” series, blending the familiar spectacle of interstellar dogfights, droids and laser battles with a gritty cinema verite style, a visceral kind of violence and a degree of moral murkiness new to the franchise.
Getting the film to the finish line was something of a battle in itself. Over the summer, reports emerged that “Rogue One” was undergoing extensive reshoots, with screenwriter Tony Gilroy — who shares final screenwriting credit on the film with Chris Weitz — reportedly being brought in to help iron out issues with the story, including the film’s ending. While reshoots are standard practice on big-budget films, “Star Wars” fans, ever sensitive to the slightest tremors in the Force, aired their worries en masse online.
“There were a ton of reshoots,” acknowledges actor Riz Ahmed, who plays a cargo pilot named Bodhi Rook. “But if people want to read anything into that, I’d encourage them to read into it the guts it takes to unpick stitching rather than just try to embroider over it, to make it right. I admire [Lucasfilm President] Kathleen [Kennedy] and Gareth and the whole team for having the guts to go, ‘Let’s reopen this. Let’s do some of this again.’ I think it’s because they really care — and hopefully that’s something that shows when people see the film.”
Edwards — who made his feature directing debut with the micro-budgeted 2010 indie “Monsters,” which he followed up with the 2014 blockbuster “Godzilla” — dismisses the notion that the film was unusually problem-plagued.
“All great films have stories attached to them of how horrific they were to get made,” he says. “Knowing that going in, you’re kind of expecting a bit of a war. You end up feeling like the characters in the film, that we’re trying to do this impossible task. Their pretend one is to steal the Death Star plans but the actual one is to make a great ‘Star Wars’ film.”
Just over a decade ago, for his 30th birthday, Edwards made a pilgrimage to Tunisia to visit sets that had stood in for Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine, packing food coloring so he could drink blue milk like the future Jedi master. Now, on a clear early December afternoon, he sat in the Lucasfilm headquarters in San Francisco, reflecting on his improbable journey from “Star Wars” superfan to “Rogue One” director.
As we’re sitting here, “Rogue One” is less than two weeks from opening. With all the expectations that go along with a “Star Wars” movie hanging over you, what does this moment feel like?
It’s a very strange sort of limbo. It’s a rare situation to have a film that no one in the world has seen but the characters have already infiltrated pop culture a little bit. I went into Target the other day to get a charger for my phone, and I walked past the clothing section and there are boxer shorts with Scarif, which is a planet in our film. I thought, “That’s just crazy!” [laughs]
There’s nothing like it. For the rest of my career, I’m never going to have a situation where something is teed up so well to do well. And because of that — because “Star Wars,” more than any other film, is kind of guaranteed to make its money back — I think it should take more of a risk than other films. It should go out on a limb a little more. And for whatever reason, because “Rogue One” is a standalone, we were given that license from the studio to be different.
How did you come on to this movie? When you first heard they were making more “Star Wars” films, did you immediately throw your hat into the ring?
[Points out the window at San Francisco Bay] I was genuinely on that water. We were doing a scout for “Godzilla” and we were on a boat going around the bay. I knew that Lucasfilm and ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] were based here, so I said to the crew, “Do you mind if we just go to the Yoda Fountain? I’ve always wanted to go.” I got a picture taken and then got on the boat.
As we were on the boat, people were like, “Hey, Gareth, have you heard: Disney has just bought Lucasfilm and they’re probably going to make more ‘Star Wars.’ ” We all had this little fantasy of, “I wonder what filmmaker would be good for that.”
I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be contacted about it. But I did get an email from Lucasfilm to come and have a chat. I was just coming to the end of “Godzilla,” and the last thing I wanted to do was jump into another big film. So I went into this conversation with Kiri Hart, who’s [Lucasfilm’s] head of development, really not trying, really relaxed.
I thought maybe they were talking to me for a TV series or they were just doing their due diligence and talking to everybody. I left and as I got home a little bit later an email comes through and it says, “What do you think about this?” And there was a document in there that [ILM Chief Creative Officer] John Knoll had written [outlining the story of “Rogue One”], and as I was reading it, you start thinking, “Wait a minute — this connects directly with my favorite film of all time. This is sacrilegious. You can’t make this movie.”
Then about 10 seconds later, I was like, “Are you crazy? You’ve got to dive into this.’”It would kill me if I was driving around seeing billboards and I know I’d had that opportunity and turned it down out of fear. So you’re sort of instantly checkmated as soon as they offer it.
You’re too young to have seen “A New Hope” in the theaters when it came out. How did you arrive at your “Star Wars” fandom?
I don’t remember the very first experience — it was probably just toys that I saw and wanted. Back in the day it was hard to see “Star Wars.” But I remember my parents bought a Betamax player and my next-door neighbor had a copy of it, so I begged to borrow it.
I put it in and watched the first 10 minutes and I thought, “I know what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” It wasn’t be a filmmaker — it was sit and watch “Star Wars” over and over and over until I die. It just felt like, “Life is going to be good now because whatever happens, I can always put ‘Star Wars’ on.”
Then obviously you learn that “Star Wars” is a lie called cinema. So after I got over that, I thought, “OK, well, the second-best option is to be a liar and try to make films.”
There’s no version where I ever thought I’d be able to do a “Star Wars” movie. I just thought George would do them all. I didn’t even think you’d get [episodes] seven, eight, nine. Then we got the prequels.
Now it’s a brave new world. I’m very excited as a fan for different filmmakers to keep getting these opportunities and see them have these different takes on the universe. Even if I was offered an episode, not that that was ever in the cards, I still would have preferred to do “Rogue One” because it’s touching the film that made me want to do this in the first place.
“Rogue One” has a grittier, more naturalistic feel than any previous “Star Wars” movie. Did you know from the start you wanted that tone?
If I was going to do it, I felt like I just didn’t want it to be a glossy, disposable popcorn kind of blockbuster. I take my “Star Wars” quite seriously. There’s humor in the movie, but as a fan I just wanted it to feel real. That involved being a bit more subjective and hand-held and like a documentary crew to some extent.
Stylistically we knew to some extent it was going to be a war movie, so we looked at footage from Vietnam, the Gulf War and World War II. In the edit, we did a rough version of the movie using pieces of war footage and photography just to see what the rhythm and feel of that would be like.
It felt so strong when you took real footage from a real conflict and instead of a Huey you put in an X-wing and you put Rebel helmets on the guys who are in a trench scared for their lives. You just look at that image and go, “Oh my God, I’ve always wanted to see that.”
I was nervous that I wouldn’t be allowed to do it. You’re waiting for them to go, “No, we want it glossy and more like what you’d expect from a big Hollywood blockbuster.” And they didn’t and we just kept going. We had a license to be different because the studio kept saying, “How are these [standalone movies] going to be unique from the saga? You’ve got to make them different.” And we took that as permission to be more realistic and more grounded with it all.
At the same time, a huge part of the audience will obviously be kids and a kind of “Apocalypse Now”-style “Star Wars” could be too much for them. How did you know how far to push the violence and the edginess?
We pushed it. At times we probably went too far and then dialed it back. Obviously “Star Wars” is as much for kids as it is for adults. But there’s this whole generation now that I would consider like big kids.
I know when I was 9 and 10, I was watching films way beyond that age group, and it’s what kids aspire to. “Empire Strikes Back” tonally is reasonably adult, and that was probably my favorite of the lot in terms of the vibe and the atmosphere. So we would hold that one up as our benchmark. For whatever reason no one got in our way, so that’s what we’re releasing.
Normally on a huge movie like this, everything is meticulously planned out and storyboarded. But by all accounts, you took a pretty loose and flexible approach throughout, with characters and scenes sometimes evolving and changing even as you were shooting. Do you always work that way?
I spent 10 or 15 years doing visual effects and, if I learned anything from that time, it’s that you do the best work when you let things go wrong and embrace the happy accidents. Then suddenly it feels fresh and you’re somewhere new.
There’s obviously storytelling and things are controlled. But when you’re doing something so fantastical as “Star Wars” and you’re relying a lot on CGI, it’s very hard to create that realism, so you’ve got to let things get out of control. You’ve got to let things happen that don’t feel quite right. Then, when you put all the spaceships in, there’ll be something that hopefully feels more real than normal. It was trying to create the chaos, which I thought I wouldn’t be allowed to do.
I think it was very hard to watch our dailies. Normally this shot leads to this shot and you go, “Oh, I see how that scene will work.” But with some of our stuff, especially the battles, it was hard for people to know if we had it or not, so there was this big leap of faith in me. I never really got any anxiety but I think there must have been some.
This summer, the Internet went crazy over reports that the studio was nervous about “Rogue One” and the movie was undergoing major changes. What was it like for you to be in the middle of that — and how much truth was there to the rumors?
It’s really hard to read things online sometimes because you want to say something but it’s pointless. It’s futile to get involved.
What happened was that I’d say a third of the movie or more has this embedded documentary style to it, and as a result we shot hours and hours and days and days of material. Normally when you put a film together it goes together like A-B-C-D-E and you move on. Whereas we had so many permutations, so many different ways it could be constructed, it took longer in the edit to find the exact version.
We’d always planned to do a pickup shoot but we needed a lot of time to figure out all this material and get the best out of it. So that pushed the entire schedule in a big way. Then Disney saw the film and reacted really well and they said, “Whatever you need, we’re going to support you.” Our visual-effects shot count went from 600 to nearly 1,700, so suddenly we could do absolutely anything we wanted. To design 1,000 visual effects shots should take a year, so it was all hands to the pump and we never came up for air really until about a week ago.
It would be beautiful if you write a story, you shoot exactly that, you edit it and it’s a hit. But art — or good art — doesn’t work like that. It’s a process, and you experiment and react and improve. And if I make more films, which I hope to, I want to make them like that as well, where it’s organic and it’s not predetermined.
You can have a dictatorship creatively where you say, “We’re going to do this, this and this and I’m not going to listen to anyone and I’ve pre-decided it in my head.” I think that kind of filmmaking is like the Empire and this other kind of filmmaking is more like the Rebellion. I feel like I’m more of a Rebel than those other guys, so I prefer to be in that camp.
There were reports that Tony Gilroy was brought in to help with the reshoots and the overall tone and the ending underwent changes. Was that part of it?
Things kept improving constantly and the film was getting better and better — and if you’re improving it, you don’t stop. I think any other movie you would say, “That’ll do. We’re going to get a hit.” But “Star Wars” is going to live forever if you do it properly. We just can’t let it go. You’ve got keep going until they prise it out of your hands.
Making “Star Wars” is a team sport, really. You can’t make these massive movies completely on your own. Even from the costumes to the guns to the ships to the VFX, it’s a real team effort.
And honestly, if anyone takes credit for all of it, it should be George Lucas. We’re just borrowing it. George gave it to the world and it’s like this precious thing you get to hold for a moment and do your thing with it and then you have to give it back. “Star Wars” doesn’t belong to you. You borrow it from the world.
We’re living in tense, fractured times. Obviously you couldn’t have anticipated what the zeitgeist would be when you started on “Rogue One” 2½ years ago, but do you see it now through that political lens?
We didn’t put any political slant on this whatsoever but I’m happy that people feel that it might be relevant because it means that the story is reflecting the human condition somehow. In a modern society there shouldn’t be wars, but there’s probably as much fighting going on now as there was 2,000 years ago, if not more, which just tells you that we don’t change.
I think “Star Wars,” when done properly, should be timeless. People like to think of it as science fiction and the future, but I think it’s got more in common with history and mythology. It says “a long time ago” in the beginning for a reason, because it’s like this biblical epic.
For me, that’s what makes “Star Wars” have meaning. OK, it’s space ships and robots and explosions. But there’s an inner truth to it that’s speaking about the world. [pauses] That sounds very deep.
It’s funny because when I spoke to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan last year before the release of “The Force Awakens,” he said that he thinks “Star Wars” is “basically goofy.”
[laughs] I know, so you can go completely under the radar. It’s like a small-scale assault with an X-wing — you can get in there past the shields when it’s wrapped in science fiction.
Working in this franchise that you’ve loved so much your whole life, is it hard to separate the fan side of your brain from the filmmaker side?
The moral of “Star Wars” to some extent — and I took it quite literally — is that scene [in “A New Hope”] when Luke is going down the trench run to blow up the Death Star and he decides the only way he’s going to achieve this impossible goal is if he turns off his computer. He’s going to switch off this outside point of view. That’s all you can do. You turn off the Internet and trust your gut and go for the target.
There’s no hiding from “Star Wars.” You pull it off and you inherit the Earth. You don’t and you can never live it down. We all felt that pressure — and then we decided to ignore it.
It may be that the line before and after “Rogue One” will be the defining thing in my life. But to me, the success of this film will not be what it does on Dec. 16 at the box office. It’s if 20 years from now I’m crossing the street and some teenager goes past me and he’s wearing a T-shirt with [“Rogue One” droid] K-2SO or [Yen’s blind warrior-monk] Chirrut or someone on it.
Then I’ll go, “OK, yeah, we did it.”