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At Fan Convention, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Co-Screenwriter Shares Insights Into the Gig

At Fan Convention, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Co-Screenwriter Shares Insights Into the Gig

A Guest Blog by Rhett Wilkinson

Appearance by wordsmith Gary Whitta headlines a Salt Lake City comic con heavy on Star Wars storytelling and continuity

Star Wars was a significant swath of Salt Lake Comic Con’s FanX 2017, with multiple panels, including one that featured Gary Whitta, co-screenwriter for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

At the panel Inside Rogue One, Whitta spoke about writing the first standalone film among the Star Wars films. Other panels on the event’s Saturday included The Interconnected Star Wars Universe and Full of Sith. They saw Lucasfilm Story Group executive Matt Martin and Full of Sith podcasters Bryan Young and Holly Frey answer questions from each other and attendees that usually had to do with the *story* of Star Wars.

(And, on the off-chance that you haven’t seen Rogue One yet, spoilers follow.)

Inside Rogue One

Whitta couldn’t finish his sentence when talking about the end of Rogue One, when main characters Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor join the rest of the Rogue One team in paying the ultimate sacrifice in delivering the Death Star plans into Rebel hands.

Whitta got emotional.

As he had when he saw the film the first time — he “almost cried,” Whitta said. He was watching the opening scene, child Jyn run towards her farm home as an Imperial shuttle flew overhead.

“Because, s—, that was the first thing I wrote,” Whitta remarked, “and it’s real now.”

Whitta wrote the scene in his initial draft and it survived each subsequent one because director Gareth Edwards liked it that much, Whitta said. As a prologue scene, it also acts as an opening crawl, Martin said, that was absent from a Star Wars film for the first time.

“There were complaints about no crawl,” acknowledged Martin, the co-panelist with Whitta, before saying: “You get to *watch* the crawl!”

But there was “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” a trademark in each of the other seven Star Wars films — and writing that also touched Whitta. (“I thought ‘oh my G–!’ I can’t believe I just wrote that,” he said.) It did stay among the many things that he, Edwards and other Rogue One makers considered that had been in previous Star Wars films but didn’t end up in Rogue One, including John Williams scoring the music and screen wipes for scene transitions. To make such decisions, “Gareth and (Whitta) got into the head-space of the film,” Whitta said.

“Because as fans, we wanted those things we grew up with but then we thought, ‘we don’t need it,’” he added. “It was a different type of film. … I know people don’t like that, but I stand by that (Rogue One) didn’t need a crawl.”

Whitta said he sought for the prologue scene to reflect the one from Inglorious Bastards as George Lucas, for Star Wars, mirrored aspects of films including The Hidden Fortress.

The scene saw Jyn’s mother killed and father taken by Advanced Weapons Research Director Orson Krennic and put on assignment for the Empire. It was Jyn’s “Bruce Wayne” moment, Whitta said, pointing out that every film series telling Wayne’s story sees *his* parents killed because that origin is essential for the conveying of the protagonist to audiences.

“It’s the genesis of why (Jyn) hated the Empire… she discovers Krennic, who she hates, who she is going to come back in contact with,” Whitta added. “It (gives) personal motivations other than big weapons to destroy.”

When it came to the script, “the bones were basically the same,” Whitta said. Jyn as the protagonist and the presence of K-2SO were always at play, and the former Imperial droid always died. Though the two characters eventually shared the same fate, that wasn’t always the case with Jyn and other Rogue One members, Whitta added.

The original script treatment came from John Knoll, the visual effects supervisor and chief creative officer at the Lucasfilm-owned Industrial Light and Magic. (He pitched the story to Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy.) In that initial draft, Jyn lived. But when Edwards and Whitta discussed story treatment, they both felt like she and the other Rogue One members needed to go.

“It’s a story of martyrdom that they did so that Star Wars can exist,” Whitta remembered thinking. “And we had the idea that a character death doesn’t have to be tragic — it can be beautiful,” he added, pointing to Maximus’ death in Gladiator.

Nonetheless, Jyn — and every Rogue One member besides K-2SO — lived on in the next draft, which was Whitta’s.

“I didn’t know what Disney would want,” he said. “But there were so many hoops to jump through, I thought ‘maybe this is the universe telling me ‘I need to kill her.’’”

Then Chris Weitz, the other co-screenwriter, came on board and told Edwards that the protagonists needed to die.

“And God bless Kathy and Disney, they agreed,” Whitta remembered.

It meant the audience may have been progressively despairing over the increasing number of deceased Rogue One members. Attendees at the screening were asking “what’s going on?” Whitta said.

“K-2, you think ‘OK, the droid dies.’ Then Bodhi (Rook) dies. Wait! Then Baze (Malbus) and Chirrut (Imwe). Wait? What? Not Jyn!… Yes, Jyn,” Whitta said with verve, noting that Edwards was effective in making the deaths be felt emotionally while not getting in the way of the story.

Remarking on Jyn and Cassian’s deaths, “it’s beautiful” is all Whitta could muster before choking up. He expressed gratitude for Weitz for bringing the drama needed to the deaths.

Martin remarked that each death had a “useful point.”

It was known that some shots of the film would very well serve no point other than that they looked cool. That included Jyn’s coming face-to-face with a TIE fighter and lights turning on in a circular corridor behind Jyn, Whitta said.

“I was standing with (Edwards) in a Yavin 4 base (set) and I would say ‘where are we shooting?’ He would say, ‘I don’t know; I just want these shots and if there is a place for them later, we’d have them,” Whitta said. “It’s how he works.”

Whitta was standing in a very different place just a few years before, in a line at a Popeye’s Fried Chicken, when he read the news on his phone of Disney’s announcement of purchasing Lucasfilm and producing a new trilogy. The first thing he did after that: he called his agent.

“I wouldn’t have thought I was on their long list, let alone their short list,” Whitta said.

But a call came and Whitta would learn that “working for Lucasfilm is like working for the CIA,” he said.

The assistant to Kiri Hart, Lucasfilm senior vice president for development who oversaw Whitta, told Whitta that he would be sent a document that was password-protected. And that after he received it, he would be called with a password (it was 16 digits, Martin said). Whitta remained inside his house all day in anticipation — except for five minutes. Of course, that was when he was called. In the voicemail, he was told that he would be called back that Monday. (Yet, he “spent the whole weekend bouncing off walls” and tried to crack the document, he said.)

But the call came and, after opening the document, Whitta called Lucasfilm back, saying that he must have been sent the wrong one, in disbelief that it concerned a feature film.

“And I thought, ‘that was a great story — who doesn’t want to get that story?” Whitta recalled.

Whitta first thought that he was writing a video game or comic book. But there he was soon afterwards, at Lucasfilm headquarters, in the same room as Knoll, with Whitta’s turn, as the prospective screenwriter, to give his thoughts about how to flesh out the script. He said it was a brilliant idea to do the story and thought to “couch it in the language of a World War II man-on-a-mission story,” which are films he loves. He told Knoll and other interviewers that it was the best movie for him (Star Wars got him into writing, he explained) and that Lucasfilm shouldn’t tell anyone else about it. And at one point, he said that he envisioned the film being parallel to Zero Dark Thirty, which told the story of the investigation, raid and killing of terrorist titan Osama bin Laden that also has a strong, female character.

“John nodded as if this was a good idea — and when he pitched the idea to Kathleen, he said the same thing,” Whitta said. “Maybe that’s why they hired me.”

And Martin was given his canon-management role when development for Rogue One started, allowing him “early looks” into the script.

“It dawned on me that I would not only work on a movie I’m super-excited for, but I would work on ancillary content that ties into it… and be the connective tissue between the film and everything that goes on,” said Martin. “I lucked into it.”

Martin applied for the position after working for StarWars.com.

That there were many versions of the script is nothing new — in fact, for many, what’s left out of Star Wars films is more interesting than what makes it in, Whitta said. And, an early treatment of Return of the Jedi saw the ghosts of saga main characters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi help Luke Skywalker in his lightsaber duel against Darth Vader, Whitta reminded.

Edwards would take time from lunch while directing Godzilla to work with Whitta on finding the emotional and family elements of the story, particularly since the film was “militaristic” but the entire series is a family saga with a fallen man redeemed through his son, Whitta said. That led to *Jyn’s* father in Galen Erso, who designed a technical error in the Death Star that made it possible for Luke’s torpedoes to reach the space station’s core.

“That was *my* idea,” Whitta said. “I got tired of seeing online complaints of the plot hole.”

Martin’s speaking about connecting dots between Rogue One and the television show Star Wars: Rebels preceded Whitta’s speaking to reported complaints that Star Wars is now run “by committee.”

“It’s less of a committee and more of a brain-trust,” he said. “There are really smart people in the room, more collaborative than I’d ever heard from in film because they really know Star Wars — not just the trivia, but the DNA. And that was important because Rogue One was a different Star Wars — it’s not the saga and not the Force — but it needed to feel like a Star Wars film.”

With an office at Lucasfilm for a year, Whitta enjoyed consulting routinely with chief men for the Story Group, Leland Chee and a “living Holocron” in Pablo Hidalgo, Whitta said. And Whitta did his own homework, watching A New Hope again — and that’s why the plans are tapes in Rogue One, since the blueprints are called “stolen data tapes” in A New Hope.

“I know that people will watch (Rogue One and A New Hope) back to back,” Whitta said, “and I wanted the Everything Wrong (with Rogue One) YouTube video to be as short as possible.”

The Interconnected Star Wars Universe

Before George Lucas, Martin’s job didn’t exist.

Now, with the Star Wars creator having made his $4 billion sale to the Mouse House, there is a need for the Story Group. It’s meant to maintain continuity between Star Wars mediums that include films, novels, comics and children’s books, Martin said.

“I don’t think any franchise is doing this like we have,” Martin said. “You look at Marvel with their connected universe, but the comics and cartoons are doing their own thing.”

Martin added that such a group is important because “we don’t know what was in George’s head” in the 16 years between the conclusion of the original trilogy in Return of the Jedi and the return of the saga with the first prequel, The Phantom Menace.

What about the crossover between Rogue One and Rebels, including the television ship The Ghost appearing in the film?

“Those weren’t something from the Story Group but people in the company being a fan of others’ work,” Martin said. “That’s someone at Disney thinking to work The Ghost in; someone at ILM designing The Ghost for fun.”

Young was then quick to point out that in other aspects of the canon, “you have to dive deeper” to maintain continuity, stating that Story Group staffers check the films, television shows and comics.

“Who has read the Darth Vader comic?” he then asked.

Set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, Vader learns from famous bounty hunter Boba Fett of the name Luke Skywalker and that Skywalker is Vader’s son. And at the same time, Vader remembers his time as Anakin Skywalker with his wife, Padme, stirring anger in him as he shatters the glass of a Star Destroyer through the power of the dark side. Then, after further investigation, Vader goes after the mortician who worked on Padme.

“It’s so dark,” Martin remarked.

Young then promoted Catalyst, a book that ties Poggle the Lesser, seen first in Attack of the Clones on the planet Geonosis, with Krennic in their collaboration for constructs of the Empire to be built on Geonosis. Martin then pointed out that Poggle appears in Rebels, where it is explained how the Death Star plans were moved from Geonosis — Saw Gerrera, a key figure in Rogue One, was “getting too close to it,” Martin said.

Close collaboration is an attribute of the Story Group. Most are in the same office area and meet regularly to go over an upcoming project or “regularly catch up,” Martin said.

It’s a “maybe” that droids will be explored more in Star Wars mediums — it depends on the artist, Martin added. And using the example of K-2, “it’s safe to assume that the Empire does regular memory wipes on its droids and the Rebels are more lax about that,” he remarked.

The cartoon Clone Wars television show that ran from 2003–05 don’t fit into the computer-generated-image-Star Wars: Clone Wars television show timeline, Martin confirmed. “Look at it as fables told within the universe,” he added. “Over-dramatized” was a word Young used to describe Genndy Tartakovsky’s creation before he said that *CGI* Clone Wars creator Dave Filoni wanted to incorporate the cartoon version’s ending, a dovetail into the Battle of Coruscant that is the start of the film Revenge of the Sith, into his show.

The Yuuzhan Vong, in the pre-Disney canon, were aliens to the Star Wars galaxy who nearly destroyed the New Republic, the governmental organization resulting from the Rebel Alliance’s victory over the Empire. Martin spoke to a question about the Vong’s appearance in Disney canon by pointing out that Rebels was renewed for its fourth season. Young said that at StarWars.com, folks can view storyboards about the Vong that would have been used in Clone Wars had the show not been cancelled.

“The story always comes first” was Martin’s response to a question about how Lucasfilm determines who dies.

Young said that fans should start with Clone Wars if they want to get into Star Wars beyond the films.

“There are two or three arcs in The Clone Wars that are as good as any of the movies,” he added. “If you are looking for books, I can’t recommend Lost Stars enough.”

Martin also recommended Lost Stars, a young adult novel, before saying that a person should go with their favorite medium.

Is Anakin The Chosen One? Young’s answer: “maybe.” “I think that’s the interesting thing about it,” he added.

How did Anakin go dark so fast in Revenge of the Sith? Being trained late, he had so many emotional attachments, including his care for his mother, that Sheev Palpatine, the Sith Lord in disguise, used against him. “Anakin wanted to do really good things… (but) couldn’t control his rage and face the loss of Padme,” Young said.

Young added that Clone Wars adds nuance in that Anakin didn’t trust or often agree with the Jedi, and that a deleted scene in The Phantom Menace shows Anakin give into anger in fighting the Greedo character.

Is Mace Windu dead? Hidalgo said he is, Young noted, before adding: “If Steven Spielberg said he had a great idea for a one-armed samarai, Kathleen Kennedy would probably do it.”

“Don’t make any assumptions,” Martin replied. “My personal opinion is he’s super-dead.”

“But Darth Maul was super-dead,” Young replied, referencing the character’s return to Clone Wars.

Martin then acknowledged that Maul was “super-dead” and that a good enough story would be a reason to bring Windu back.

Is Snoke from The Force Awakens Darth Plagueis the Wise?

“I don’t think so, personally,” Martin said, wondering if any evil entity that “undermines Palpatine” would be seen in the films.

Full of Sith

Frey was talking with a guy in an elevator who wondered: what is the Force? What is the light side from the dark side, and what is “neutrality?” What do we make of Qui-Gon Jinn manipulating the dice in The Phantom Menace?

Frey brought the questions before the panel, true to the shared name of the podcast, that featured her and Young.

“I think Qui-Gon would say that everything is the will of the Force, even that which he (manipulates),” Young remarked.

The rest of the panel featured audience questions.

What happened to the Imperial Palace during the saga? Original trilogy artist Ralph McQuarrie did paintings of the underground of Coruscant, where the Imperial Palace is located and Palpatine’s lair is found, with lava underneath, Young said.

What is your favorite costume? Frey’s is Leia’s Bespin gown seen in The Empire Strikes Back.

Young’s?

“I’m pretty partial — I mean, obviously, the fireplace dress,” he said, referencing the leather outfit Padme wore at night while having a personal conversation with Anakin as she grew closer to him.

“All dudes love that,” Frey retorted.

Frey recounted going to a business trip in Washington, D.C., a day early in order to see an exhibit of costumes at the Smithsonian that included Amidala’s queen dress with lights along the base.

“It was a religious experience for me,” Frey said. “I was crying in front of people.”

Will we see more in future Star Wars films about lightsaber colors? In a book about Anakin’s apprentice Ahsoka Tano, the crystals providing the power for the lightsaber blade choose the Jedi, whereas the Sith can’t do a spiritual journey and so the color doesn’t change from the crystal, instead bleeding red, Young said.

What portions of Clone Wars or Rebels should be included in a Star Wars film marathon? Anything in Clone Wars about Gerrera’s development or “the Mortis episodes,” which explores Anakin’s turn to the dark side and his being the Chosen One, Frey said.

“Straight with the Star Wars saga, it’s Anakin’s story,” Young said, “and you want to do the arcs that deal with him.”

What are the panelists’ favorite “lesser-known, obscure” characters? Young said he still has a plush Max Rebo from the 1990s and that his first email address was maxrebo@hotmail.com. Rebo played a keyboard for the band at Jabba the Hutt’s palace, in Jedi.

Did Windu defeat Palpatine in their lightsaber battle, or did Palpatine let Windu win as a set up for Anakin’s succumbing to the dark side? “I think both are accurate,” Young said. “(Palpatine) knew Mace could take him but that he’d planted enough seeds with Anakin.”

The question “why do we tend to gravitate to certain Star Wars (trilogies)?” was accompanied by the questioner’s remark that prequels are “my Star Wars” and that as some folks don’t like the prequels, children like the sequel trilogy and not the prequels or originals. “We attach a lot of nostalgia to childhood, so things you see first are probably your favorite,” Frey said. “You feel (the films) were made for you when you were sort of an empty vessel receiving this wonderful universe for the first time.”

“There’s no way The Phantom Menace and The Force Awakens could have sold similar amounts of tickets if… us hard-core fans are what drives the box office,” Young remarked.

What predictions and theories do the panelists have for The Last Jedi? “The crawl will teach us if Snoke takes Kylo Ren (as a dark side apprentice) or not,” Young said. He then referenced The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson’s mention that the film picks up the second after The Force Awakens.

Frey noted that Johnson provides commentary tracks for theater attendees of his other films. She hopes that Johnson does it, and Disney permits it, for the eighth episodic film.

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