CS Interview: Rogue One screenwriter Gary Whitta
Walt Disney Pictures and Lucasfilm just released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere, and will release the Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD and On Demand release on April 4. To coincide with the release, ComingSoon.net had an exclusive 1-on-1 chat with Gary Whitta, the Rogue One screenwriter who co-wrote the story! We talked about the origins of the project, the Darth Vader dilemma, and much more!
ComingSoon.net: “Rogue One” started with an elevator pitch by John Knoll, but his original conception was a smaller, scrappier movie in a lower-budget range. At what point did you and Kathy and the gang just decide this actually had to be a proper, big budget, tentpole movie?
Gary Whitta: You know, that may have been the original plan, like as a business plan when they pitched to Disney. I’m not sure. I wasn’t there at that time, but the other film’s smaller than this. I remember saying to Gareth, like, “If you can’t throw everything and the kitchen sink into a ‘Star Wars’ film, when can you?” Lucasfilm never said, “This is a smaller film, like, try and keep it under $50 million. Don’t put any huge battles in there.” We knew there was always going to be a big battle, because it’s Star Wars. So it never felt like a smaller film to me. The first draft I wrote was huge. It was bigger than the film you see now. It had more planets and bigger battles and it was even bigger than “Force Awakens,” I think.
Whitta: Yeah, the budget and the scale of it. But again, even after we pulled it back down to size a little bit, still, it feels as big a movie as “Force Awakens.” I don’t think it feels like a little scrappy independent “Star Wars” film at all. We went all out.
CS: Right. Well, a lot of people are sort of in the dark about what the process is on a movie like this. You worked on it for a year solid. How much of that was just you in a lonely room typing away, and how much as you interacting with Kathy, John, Gareth and the Lucasfilm story group?
Whitta: So Kathy was mostly busy with “Force Awakens.” She would check in from time to time, so we were developing and writing while “Force Awakens” was shooting. So Kathy was a little bit—she was with “Force Awakens.” She would come back and see us. But she was mostly on the other set. And I’m in a room writing away a lot of the time, but that’s when I’m actually working on the script. But then, when we’re developing the story, it’s very, very collaborative. Lucasfilm is a very collaborative place. We were lucky to have Gareth fully available to us, you know, because it’s not often you get to do this. But Gareth was in the room. We had offices next to one another. And any time that we developed the story, Gareth was in the room with us, as was the Lucasfilm story group and John. And every now and again, someone like Rian Johnson would step in. He’s in town for the day. Oh, come and see our ideas. And we’d pitch him ideas and we’d get feedback. So we had the luxury of an incredible brain trust that we could lean on to help with the story.
CS: That’s interesting. Do you remember anything specific that Rian contributed?
Whitta: I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t think Rian ever said like, “How about you do this?” But we would push him ideas and he would give us his feedback on things that he liked and didn’t like. And Rian a genius at story, so any time he was down for the day, I would grab him and, as far as ideas of, “What do you think of this? What do you think of that?” and just try to get some kind of feedback from him. Most of the time, it was just me and Gareth, and then Kiri Hart was just going through, John Schwartz, who’s a co-producer on this film, John Knoll, and you know, other people who would kind of drift in and out. But it’s way, way more collaborative than any of the other films I’ve worked on in story development.
CS: So what was the biggest kind of eureka moment for you during that year, when you felt like you really nailed something important with the characters or the story or a sequence?
Whitta: For me, it was when the light bulb went off, and Gareth and I in a room and John had already given us a very good foundation and that was already there and he created Jyn. Then, the basic structure of the film, first the Death Star and discover it’s a real thing and then trying to get the plans. And John always had that. What we didn’t have was an emotional underpinning of the character. I wanted to feel the same emotions I feel when I watch “Star Wars” films, even though it’s not the same kind of film. It’s not a family saga, it’s more of a militaristic, sort of boots on the ground, man on a mission movie. We still wanted to have that same heart, that same emotion. And so, the biggest, biggest thing that kind of unlocked the rest of the movie for us was the idea that Jyn’s father was a scientist who has been abducted by the Empire and forced to work on building the Death Star. I always thought was kind of poetic. That’s very “Star Warsy”, about the idea that it’s his own daughter, who then, has to kind of finish the job, in the same way in the original “Star Wars” films Luke was going to bring the father back.
CS: Now as happens often on big films like this, the script got sort of broken up into three phases. There was your phase, there was the Chris Weitz phase and there was the Tony Gilroy phase. What do you consider to be the biggest seismic change from what you were doing?
Whitta: I don’t know if there was ever like a seismic change. I mean, even from when John created the basic structure of the film, that never changed that much. I mean, again, I had the idea of the scientist father, lots of other little changes. But like, for example, Gareth kind of fleshed out the theme and made it more of an ensemble piece. And Tony I think made some structural changes and some others, just lots of other stuff that kind of helped elevate it, and get it across the finish line.
CS: Was there a scene that you wrote that didn’t get shot that you wish you could’ve seen, where you’re just like, “Oh man, I wish they would’ve shot that”?
Whitta: No, not really. I think my script is pretty good, but there’s no way that it’s better than the one they eventually made. I mean, it’d be very arrogant to suggest that I by myself could’ve written the film better than the one that was written by myself and Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, who are both brilliant. So the film only ever got better. You know, a line of dialogue here or a gag there or a sacrifice here for the greater good. But that’s the whole point, is towards the greater good, you know, when you write roles, things you have to get rid of, little gags or a line of dialogue or a moment or whatever it might be. But it just doesn’t belong in the movie anymore because you’ve got a bigger idea that is better. And so, you sacrifice the little things, for some better stuff.
CS: I actually got into a lot of discussions with other “Star Wars” fans when the movie came out about the Vader stuff. There are some who feel like the movie didn’t really add much dimension to Vader as a character, and there were others who actively did not want more dimension to him, they just wanted to see classic Vader force choke and kill people. Did you want to add more to his character or is that kind of a slippery slope?
Whitta: Yeah, a little bit. We definitely decided early on that we wanted Vader in the movie. He was going after the Death Star plans at the beginning of “A New Hope,” so it didn’t feel like we were shoehorning him into the story, he had been after the Death Star plans, which pre-dates the beginning of “A New Hope.” So it was totally organic as far as that in the film. With a character like Vader less is more. He should only appear in the movie a couple of times and we didn’t want to put him in the film too early, not until like two thirds of the way through the film. He only has like, what, two or three scenes in the whole film, but they’re really powerful scenes. And so, we were very aware of using him sparingly. That’s one of the things I’m proudest of. I pitched the idea and I was like, “I want to go see where Vader is. I want to see where he lives when he’s not working for the Empire. He’s somewhere.” And I loved this whole castle on Mustafar, that he had chosen to build his house in the place where Skywalker dies and Darth Vader was born. And he doesn’t ever talk about it. It doesn’t show. And it’s something I think, “Star Wars” fans really responded to. They loved the idea that it shows this really dark, almost kind of masochistic side to the character, because it shows he goes back to almost his gravesite to build his house. And there is something kind of really tragic about that. And maybe a hint in a very, very slight way, maybe it hints at the idea that you mentioned that the Jedi in Anakin is still alive in him.
Whitta: Because I always imagined, you’d never overtly do this in the film, but I always imagined that maybe he kind of looked out that window and back to the lava, where Anakin had that final battle with Kenobi. So we know he’s still alive in there somewhere. And then, of course, the scene in the hallway at the end is, I’m biased, but it’s probably my top five “Star Wars” things of all time now. I always wanted to see him just straight up murdering everyone in the room, and it’s so cool, to get to do that.
CS: Something I grappled with after “The Force Awakens” is the question, “What is a Star Wars movie?” Right now Lucasfilm seems very focused on mining the Original Trilogy characters and iconography while also introducing new characters and ideas. Do you think there will ever come a day where there will be a Star Wars movie with no Vaders or Yodas or Boba Fetts or Stormtroopers? A story that is a wholly new thing divorced from all the stuff George originated but still very much in the spirit of that universe?
Whitta: I think you’ve already seen us get 90% of the way there with “Rogue One.” Yes you see Leia, yes you see the Death Star and Vader, because those are elements of that story and they belong there, you can’t tell that story without those characters. But for the most part, 90% of that story is completely new characters. Completely new planets and places you’ve never seen before. It’s a Star Wars movie with no Jedi! You don’t see a lightsaber once until Vader pops it out at the end. It doesn’t have any spirituality or mysticism… a little bit through Donnie’s character, but it’s very different DNA to the Star Wars films that have come before it. I really like the fact that we tried to do something different. The next spin-off is ‘Han Solo,’ that’s another familiar character, but I think increasingly you’re going to see… One of the thing things we really want to do at Lucasfilm is create a universe and not keep relying on old legacy characters. We’ve got Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren, they’ve already introduced a new generation of characters. Whatever kind of Star Wars films they’re making 10 or 20 years from now, I don’t think they’re going to be relying on the same legacy story elements as we have in the past.
CS: It would be cool to see something totally new, without the baggage of, “Should Vader do this or should Vader do that?”
Whitta: Yeah, I quite agree. I’m speaking purely as a fan. I obviously have no idea what their plans are for the franchise. I did my small piece of it, but it makes sense to me that you don’t want to keep telling the same story over and over again. You want to tell new stories.
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