STAR WARS’ NEW FORCE

Gareth Ed­wards ex­plains the pressure of cre­at­ing a more grown-up sci-fi clas­sic, writes Jonathan Dean

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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