STAR WARS’ NEW FORCE
Gareth Edwards explains the pressure of creating a more grown-up sci-fi classic, writes Jonathan Dean
On the outside, Lucasfilm in San Francisco looks like an office you’d arrive at to do temping work, then wish you had opted for bar work instead. The only sign that this is home to the organisation that uprooted film for ever is a Yoda fountain but, like the green mini sage, it is tiny and mostly obscured by trees.
Squint through glass doors and you’ll see a stormtrooper, but the best thing to photograph is a statue of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, “father of cinema”, the man who enhanced our understanding of motion and pioneered modern projection techniques.
Putting him in bronze outside Lucasfilm’s HQ is a provocative gesture. This is the company, best known for Star Wars, that many say has ruined movies with its creed of dazzle over delicacy. Its base is the quietest thing about it. Inside, it’s like a spoilt brat’s Christmas morning, full of toys and models from projects stretching back 40 years.
Founded by George Lucas in 1971, Lucasfilm is the parent company of the special-effects supremo Industrial Light & Magic. Both were bought by Disney in 2012. A walk-through reveals exhibits ranging from Marvel’s Avengers to a matte painting used for a city backdrop in ET. Sculptures of the metallic baddie from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in various stages of morph, are housed in glass boxes. Over lunch, two men in motion-capture suits talk in the canteen, which has a glorious view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a workplace that’s good for staying young, buffered from reality by a constant coddling of nostalgia.
Sitting back at his desk there is British director Gareth Edwards: scruffy, relaxed, looking the same as he did six years ago when we met in his London flat to talk about Monsters, the nobudget debut film he fine-tuned on a laptop. Since then, he has made a well-received Godzilla remake. But this month comes his big test — Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first spin-off that takes the franchise away from its main episodic structure to flesh out tales from the surrounding galaxy.
He initially says his is “a little more adult” in relation to other Star Wars films, but stops him- self. “It’s more for big kids,” he says. “I’ve made a film I want to see, and I don’t view myself as an adult, really.”
A friendly 41-year-old, he’s of a generation that has been allowed to take the culture it loved as children to unprecedented levels of grown-up involvement. “We haven’t had to work in a Victorian factory or go to a world war,” he says. “You don’t have to leave your childhood.” He thinks he had Star Wars toys at home; what was definitely there was a photo of him on the Tunisian set used for Luke Skywalker’s house in the first film in the series. For his 30th birthday, he went as a fan; and, as a boy in Nuneaton, in England’s Warwickshire, all he wanted was to “live on a desert planet and have friends who are robots”.
Star Wars is the reason people work in the San Francisco complex, because of both its financial success and its social impact. In 2012, the franchise’s worth, accounting for everything from ticket sales to Darth Vader duvets, was an estimated $US30.7 billion — and that was before JJ Abrams’s reboot last year with The Force Awakens. The seven films to date have been nominated for 27 Oscars.
But such jaw-dropping figures are mere foundations for the skyscraper above. The series has broken into pop culture like no other movie. A cabinet displays a picture of Michelle Obama dancing with Chewbacca, signed by the first lady and her husband.
The new film, Rogue One, is the behemoth’s biggest risk. The story takes a line from the “crawl” of text that opened the saga’s debut film, A New Hope (originally titled Star Wars), in 1977 — “Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR ...” — and turns it into an entire plot.
It has the best cast assembled for a Star Wars film: Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, Diego Luna and Ben Mendelsohn. But the gamble is plain to see. There will be no Princess Leia and co, or even popular new characters such as Kylo Ren.
What’s more, the last time Star Wars told stories whose endings we already knew, we got the dreadful prequels that began with The Phantom Menace. (On a wall at HQ is a model of those films’ bete noire, Jar Jar Binks, frozen in the carbonite — a nod to past mistakes.) The pressure on the new film, then, is such that cynics are looking for something to blow; hence reports that the project was blighted by reshoots.
Edwards is in his default mode: relaxed. He says it doesn’t matter that people already know the plans for the Death Star were found. “It’s a problem every single historical film has had,” he argues. “You know how World War II ended, but it doesn’t stop you being gripped by Saving Private Ryan.” As for the reshoots, they were “normal”, he shrugs, adding that knowing you can try something again leads to creativity first time around. “If you’re doing a scene and it’s risky, you reassure people and say, ‘We can redo it.’ It makes everyone calmer. Reshoots is the wrong term. Reshoots is like you’re shooting the same scene again, as opposed to finding a way to give it a twist and make it stronger.”
So the reshoots weren’t done to insert more humour? “No,” he says emphatically, confirming that he has also been reading the cyberchatter. “I read a lot online. If you didn’t care what anyone thought, you wouldn’t make films. You’d just be imagining it in your head. So I do care, and it’s interesting the way things are extrapolated. Yeah, there was a comment about the tone, but it’s not the case.”
Push the director on the film’s thematics and he mentions Robert Oppenheimer, co-creator of the atom bomb — an inspiration not usually connected with fun. Edwards says the Death Star is a metaphor for nuclear arms, and he wanted his Star Wars not to be the simplistic good v evil tale of films past, but something more “grey”. Mikkelsen plays the scientist behind the Death Star technology, and his backstory riffs on Oppenheimer’s quote, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” It’s hard to imagine anything less Disney.
It’s hard, too, to imagine anything more annoying than having six-year-old quotes read back to you but, to prepare, I’d gone through our chat for Monsters — Edwards’s directing debut after training on special effects. “I love the idea of playing with [a script],” he said then. “When studios gamble a small country’s national debt on a film, it’s a big ask ... I’ve worked with big crews and know how restrictive it is.”
At the time, Edwards had a crew of four, a cast of two, locals as extras. Now he is here to discuss Star Wars. How does he bring his indie ethos to something this gigantic? “The holy grail is a combination of the two,” he say. “And we have been more successful than I hoped. The film has a vibe that doesn’t feel like a glossy, disposable popcorn movie; it’s more a character-
Visual effects expert Dennis Muren
Director Gareth Edwards
Felicity Jones in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story