Dave Filoni talks Grand Admiral Thrawn and the future of Star Wars Rebels
“There’s always a bit of truth in legends,” Ashley Eckstein‘s Ahsoka Tano pointedly put it in Star Wars Rebels season two. With the Star Wars Celebration reveal that Timothy Zahn’s classic expanded universe character Grand Admiral Thrawn is headed to the Disney XD series in season three, the line between stories that Lucasfilm has designated “Legends” and what is now considered the official canon has never been more blurred.
“I can’t remember when I wrote that line,” Rebels‘ showrunner Dave Filoni laughs. “I think I was messing with everyone a little bit. We didn’t have confirmed Thrawn being on the show yet. I mainly wrote that just to say, ‘Look, I know there’s probably a lot of truth in plenty of those stories. But they can’t just be considered canon right now. So we’ll just see where we go from there.'”
Dave Filoni has one of the guiding forces for the Star Wars universe since directing the 2008 feature film Star Wars: The Clone Wars and serving as writer, director and executive producer throughout the Clone Wars animated series and into Star Wars Rebels.
“[W]e’ve been kind of forging how these things evolve,” Dave Filoni told a small group of journalists backstage after the Rebels panel. “I would have these big beat outlines to talk with Simon [Kinberg] and Kiri Hart and say ‘I think this is what we’re doing or this is where we could go’. But it wasn’t like in season one I said ‘In season three we’ll have Thrawn here!’ …I think we knew would bring Vader in. We just weren’t sure when we would do that but that was always planned at the end of one into two. Ahsoka was kind of planned for the end of one into two. Maul was not really on anyone’s radar but probably mine because I worked with him the most on ‘Clone Wars’ and I saw a lot of value in trying to finish out some idea of what’s happened to this guy or where he’s been because I didn’t like leaving a lot of the ‘Clone Wars’ fans hanging.”
Because Star Wars Rebels takes place prior to the events of A New Hope, Dave Filoni has an interesting creative challenge in telling new stories that are also influenced by major “historical” events. As such, a tremendous deal of planning goes into the stories that are told on Rebels and many surprises are kept deeply under wraps.
“I always want to know when we start kind of where it’s all going,” Filoni continues. “That’s especially true of Ezra. Here we’re introducing this pretty potent Force using kid. Where is he? You’d think he’d be a pretty important tool for the Rebellion to use in the later films. But eventually Simon and I figured out what that means, where they go and what happened to them. The same is true for Thrawn. If we bring him in, we have to think reasonably about, ‘Where is he?’ There are any number of reasonable answers as simple as, ‘He’s on a Star Destroyer.’ You can reasonably say that. While there’s the hunt for Luke Skywalker, there’s all kinds of other things going on in the galaxy. That’s a reasonable thing. You usually start off by thinking, ‘Okay. At least we have a reasonable thing in the future.’ But then, as you tell your story, you’re giving them all kinds of real experiences. Those real experiences fuel into the conclusion at the end of the story. We need to know what our end game is for this character that I think is exciting. You go through a number of questions. ‘Does he survive? Does he not survive?’ We’ve been kind of the architects of that as we’ve been going here. I think we have a nice path figured out for Mr. Thrawn. I wouldn’t bring him back lightly without that plan.”
Thrawn made his original debut in Zahn’s literary trilogy that launched with Heir to the Empire in 1991. At the time, the books represented a continuation of the Star Wars universe that picked up after the events of Return of the Jedi. Naturally, it was important for Dave Filoni to get Zahn involved early and, as revealed at the panel, the author is set to deliver the canon backstory of the new Thrawn in a new novel hitting shelves next spring.
“I was pretty adamant with a couple of people saying, ‘Listen, we need to have Tim sign off on this. This is kind of a waste of time [otherwise],'” says Filoni. “We, of course, can do what we want with a character that Lucasfilm owns, but without Tim’s okay, what does it mean? That’s not going to be good. Once we had some stuff, we wanted to do what we thought was right and make the character. Then we brought him in. We had the production fully prepared. I said, ‘Look, if there’s something that Tim says that I think is really valuable, even if it changes something dynamically, we need to be ready for that and see what we can do.’ I wanted to make sure we did this right by everybody. We brought him in and we didn’t really tell him why. We just flew him up to Lucasfilm and sat him down in a theater and said, ‘Hey, we’re bringing Thrawn into the show.’ He was like, ‘Wow.’ and I said, ‘Yeah, wow. And I’m going to show him to you right now and you let me know what you think.'”
Fortunately, Timothy Zahn was delighted at the show’s approach to the Empire’s imposing blue-skinned Chiss.
“We showed him some of the scenes with him,” Dave Filoni recalls. “He looked like a kid in a candy store. I think it meant a lot to him not just because it was his character, but because you have to imagine what he went through when it was announced that everything is Legends now, not Expanded Universe. I get that and I’ve always appreciated the work that goes into the Expanded Universe… For Tim, I think it was us saying, ‘No, no, no. We really like your character. We want him to be part of the real thing. The canon universe.'”
Even as Legends transition to the official canon, the canon is experiencing its own reevaluation. The Clone Wars‘ Saw Gerrera is set to make a reappearance in Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One, played by Forest Whitaker. Even the Star Wars Rebels characters themselves are getting a creative makeover as “realistic” versions of the characters have started to debut in the Black Series action figure line.
“It’s great,” says Dave Filoni. “They send them to me, I look at them and I give notes. Killian Plunket, my art director and I, both look at them and Killian will draw detailed notes. I’ll relate them to certain actors I think were inspired for me to make the characters. Look at different faces and do face combinations of ‘I like this nose and I like these eyes’ and kind of get a person that’s like that. There isn’t any one person, so they can be their own type of figure, but the Ahsoka Black Series might be my favorite version of that character. It really nails her in a live action form and, I thought, really beautifully. The Kanan figure is great. I’ve seen the Sabine prototype but not the actual, in plastic, figure. That’s a great treat for me, I love that. I’m all about crossovers, I don’t care. Not too sacred but if you’re using one of my guys I want to know about it and make it work.”
Moving forward, Star Wars Rebels has plans to bring the tone of the series closer to the look and feel of Rogue One as the clock ticks towards the events of A New Hope. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the series needs to come to an end, however.
“It absolutely could,” Dave Filoni said when asked if Rebels might continue past A New Hope. “There would be nothing wrong with that if we chose that that was important for us to tell the story. We have surmised, over the years, that the Rebellion isn’t technically over until ‘Return of the Jedi and even then there was some additional fighting that lead up to Jakku. So when is the ultimate victory that would mean Hera and company are free of the fight? Well, it doesn’t seem to be for a long time. So it’s not impossible and there are probably a lot of stories, I’m just gonna try and tell the most important ones for them, what their saga is, and probably not every saga ends on the same day.”
That being said, Dave Filoni has been eyeing a proper ending for Rebels all along. He’s just not going to reveal exactly when and how that ending may come about.
“We have discussed he end point since the very beginning of the series,” he says. “As exciting as it is to tell new tales I always say ‘Well, okay. What’s the end game of this whole thing?’ and I’ll point out examples. When Frodo gets the ring you know what his ultimate goal was supposed to be. He’s supposed to throw it in the fires of Mount Doom. When you have Luke Skywalker you pretty much take that he’s going to overthrow the Empire so you have to take a look at what you have promised kids at the beginning of ‘Rebels,’ you know, what are we saying that Ezra is trying to do? …It looks like a very similar goal to Luke but we know he doesn’t have that goal. He is not going to be able to do that. So I’ve asked myself, and Simon as well, ‘What does that mean for Ezra? What can his ultimate goal be that the audience can feel that they’ve had an experience, a success, a triumph, or not?'”
Star Wars Rebels Season 3 will premiere on Disney XD this fall. Check back for updates on the show and the broader Star Wars canon between now and then and tell us what you want to see from Rebels in the comments below!
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