There are dream jobs…and then there are dream jobs.
This experience falls into the latter category without a doubt as sitting down with writer Gary Whitta in advance of the Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Blu-Ray release was a chance to live out one of my daydreams vicariously with someone who actual got his dreams to become a reality.
Aside from bonding over the Moana Soundtrack before we got started I got to ask him about how he became involved with the project, the pressures and the freedom’s of doing a standalone story, how this will rank for him years from now, what almost made him cry and so much more.
Dave Voigt: Obviously congratulations, but walk me through how you ultimately became involved with Rogue One because I have to imagine that this like the ultimate fan fiction dream becoming a reality?
Gary Whitta: Oh totally and you know even now as we talk about the home video release I don’t think that it will ever truly sink in. Ultimately the whole process started around 2014 when they first announced that Disney had bought Lucasfilm and that they were going to make Episode 7 and that Star Wars was officially back and they were going to be making these films again. Obviously as a fan, I was very excited but as a screenwriter, I was on the phone to my agent going “You’ve got to get me that meeting” much like every other screenwriter in town was doing at the exact same time! (Laughs) Honestly, I never realistically thought that I had a legitimate chance at getting a meeting because I mean let’s be honest; this is Star Wars and they can pick from the best of the best people that are out there and they did in like likes of Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy…but also ME! (laughs) I guess someone had to bring the bell curve down a little bit (laughs) but it was such an amazing experience. I was convinced for the longest time that it just wasn’t going to happen but then they brought me down to the Lucasfilm campuses in San Francisco for a general meeting and I really didn’t think anything of it because it was just very general talking about my personal history with Star Wars and what I loved about it all. Then a couple of weeks later they sent me out this document which turned out to be John Knoll’s initial treatments and ideas for Rogue One with the great idea to tell the story of the rebels who told the plans for the Death Star and had a really clear definition of who Jyn Erso should be and the structure of the film was all there. John is obviously a great idea man given his visual effects background, he’s just not a professional screenwriter which is how I ultimately became involved.
DV: This might be a dumb question but it is also something that I have always been curious about because your credit on the film is Story By and not Screenplay By. Can you tell me what the specific difference is between the two?
GW: That’s a hard one to really answer to be fair, because I did write the first draft of the script and a lot of what I wrote is in the film but you go through the whole process where the Writers Guild Panel (essentially a group of experts) go through every draft of the script and they determine who did what going by a very complex formula that they use but at the end of the day I would say that both John and I quite rightly deserve the Story By credit and both Chris & Tony deserve the Screenplay By credit. Ultimately though it really is all a team effort, I look at it like a kind of relay race; I run my lap, then I run out of speed and I pass the baton on to Chris who does the same and then passes it on to Tony who gets it across the finish line.
DV: Did you get to have any time on the set, or was this basically the kind of project where you were locked in a writer’s room the entire time?
GW: Both actually! I was in a writer’s room for quite a long time, which just isn’t very glamorous with beige walls that can be close in on you and it never feels like you are doing something truly magical…but then 18 months later you are standing on a Rebel base and you are going “Oh My God”, this is real. We knew that we were going to be on the same stages so director Gareth Edwards and I got to take a trip to Pinewood studios while they were shooting The Force Awakens and we got to sit in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon which is just about as insane of an experience as it sounds! (Laughs) Then when we’re back for Rogue One and it was the very first day which was the Rebel base on Yavin-4 and that big round table that they all sit around which had been recreated so perfectly from the original 1977 film that I truly almost cried. I felt like I had traveled back in time and was reliving my childhood to be standing on that set.
DV: And at least for me, and I suspect a lot of fans as well, there is such a sense of purity in Rogue One because it isn’t something that was going to get spun off into a Rogue Two or Three kind of scenarios. How was the pressure on you guys to make this slide into the timeline as well as it did because in many ways this really could be called “Episode 3.5”?
GW: Yeah, I mean more like “Episode 3.9999” to be honest (laughs) but you’ve got to remember when we were hired they hadn’t even seen Episode 7 yet and we were still wrestling with the concept of this being a standalone film and not as a part of the saga. They kept saying to us we want this to feel different and not like your typical Star Wars film. Once we got past that mental block that we all had and could see the beauty of doing something that was a standalone film and didn’t have to think about developing a sequel because there already was a sequel and we embraced the idea from a very early stage that these characters don’t have to go anywhere after this and Gareth was very much a champion of just saying that all these characters really should just die. Make it a story about a kind of martyrdom and about those who are capable of making the ultimate sacrifice like these characters do, it’s kind of beautiful and it gave us a real sense of freedom. For the longest time we were convinced that Disney would never let us get away with killing everyone off but to Kathleen Kennedy’s credit along with the entire team over there they were behind the idea all the way and supported having these characters make that kind of ultimate sacrifice. Gareth and I kept looking at Maximus’ death from Gladiator by Ridley Scott of how a character’s death can really be this beautiful and triumphant moment in the story. We wanted that sense of it being a sad yet simultaneously beautiful moment and I think Gareth captured the essence of that perfectly at the end of the film when Jyn and Cassian are on the beach at the end of the movie. It makes you feel sad for them because they are about today, but yet so proud because what they have done is really so meaningful, not only in the moment but for events that are about to come. It’s a really powerful moment.
DV: That’s really what stood out for me because it was such a revelatory moment for us as audience members when we realized that yeah they are really going for it and going dark with the ending but it all fits into the story arc of the universe so well that it really plays as such a transcendent and emotional moment.
GW: Yeah, I really love how unexpected it was, especially in a Star Wars movie but then again when you look back Empire Strikes Back or Revenge of the Sith the franchise has never been afraid to embrace those kinds of moments but with this being the first standalone film there really was this kind of audience expectation that some of these guys would actually survive. I mean K-2SO was always going to die and when he’s the first to go audiences get it and figured somebody would have to be expendable, it might as well be the droid but then when everyone else starts to go not only do you realize that they are all going to die, but you actually end up being OK with it because the Death Star plans got away and you know that’s really all that mattered in this situation. They did exactly what they went there to do. There is some nobility in heroism in it all and that’s what the audience is drawn into.
DV: I was jumping out of my seat so happy when it was all unfolding because I kept saying to myself; ‘They made The Dirty Dozen and it works so well for what had to unfold’!
GW: It’s funny you even say that because when we were putting it all together we really were trying to draw on some of those classic WWII movies like Dirty Dozen & Guns of Navarone to put a little bit of that DNA and feeling into the film.
DV: Now obviously other projects will come and go throughout your career but when you get to look back at everything you’ve done, will working on a Star Wars movie just be one of those irreplaceable bucket list moments for you?
GW: Oh I don’t even have to look back, it’s been that way for me for quite awhile now and I think it will take even longer for it to truly sink in. Obviously I am working on some stuff now that I am excited about and hopefully working on a Star Wars movie will open some doors for me but talking to Rian Johnson the other day who is hard at work on Episode 8 we just looked at each other and said “This is it, isn’t it?” because Star Wars is in a category of one, all by itself and getting the opportunity to work on it in some small way really is a pinnacle for us all in many ways. I may end up doing twenty other films that may have great success but when I’m gone if all I’m remembered for is working on a Star Wars movie, then I’m cool with it.