The man in charge of Star Wars’ first foray into universe-building has wanted to be a director since he was a child—mainly because of the George Lucas saga he now finds himself a part of. Gareth Edwards, 41, was given the director’s chair for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story after making his name as a visual effects artist and directing the Godzilla reboot in 2014. While his fandom is unquestioned, he’s been tasked with creating a Star Wars tale unlike any other, in which the Jedi and their lightsabers are absent and our protagonists are more ordinary, down-to-Earth rebels.
Rogue One takes it way back to before Episode IV, focusing on the band of rebels who stole the plans for the Death Star and allowed Luke Skywalker to blow it all up by exploiting an improbably simple vulnerability. Their efforts were previously an afterthought, mere exposition to allow young Luke to flourish. Now they’re at the center of the first standalone Star Wars film expected to build a universe to rival Marvel’s. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and the rest of the cast don’t need to become tentpoles for sequels to come, but they need to be engaging enough to convince us we can keep falling in love with characters outside the Skywalker saga.
With all of that on the line, we sat down with Edwards in San Francisco to discuss the pivotal film, including his influences from outside the canon, and how Rogue One reflects the modern world.
Rian Johnson had a list of six films outside the Star Wars canon that he wanted the Episode VIII cast to watch before filming. Which non-Star Wars films did you look to for inspiration?
One of the first things I do is grab imagery and put together a document, a PDF, that is just full of thousands of images. For me, the films that I got a lot of images from were Apocalypse Now, Thin Red Line, Alien, Blade Runner, and a film called Baraka.
There’s a scene on the planet Jedha that makes the movie almost feel like a Middle Eastern CIA thriller. Was that something you were thinking about at all? You’ve compared the area a lot to Mecca.
It's not done necessarily on purpose, but you're always trying to find the parallel to whatever you're doing in Star Wars, because it's this very abstract, incredibly fantastical thing. Jedha became a mixture of all sorts of things. I'd been to Jerusalem on holiday and found the place just mesmerizingly beautiful and stunning—all the different mixes of religion that were all interacting in the street, walking around and seeing thousands of years of history that's affected the entire world. When we decided we needed something that represented the whole belief in the Force and Jedi, I couldn't help but think of that. Cassian [And or, Diego Luna’s character] probably does represent the rebel equivalent of the CIA. He's kind of a spy and...
I was thinking of Claire Danes in Homeland.
Right. And Greig [Fraser], our DP, shot Zero Dark Thirty. It's funny, I love that end sequence in that movie, but Greg would be frustrated because he'd say, "Oh, I couldn't move any of the walls out the way. I couldn't get the shots I wanted, because we were in a real helicopter." So when we came to build our U-Wing, originally there was this idea that we were gonna remove the walls so we could shoot, and we said no. So the whole thing was built like a real helicopter, and he was stuck, only being able to film what he could as if this thing was really flying. It’s potentially frustrating, but the reality is that subconsciously when you're watching it as an audience, even if you can't explain why, it feels more real. The limitations add to the realism.
In all the other Star Wars movies, we've seen the Jedi Knights, who are like the pastors in this world. Now, we’re finally seeing regular believers, the people who just believe in the Force.
I know, it seems impossible—I mean, they even reference it as a religion in A New Hope: "Your sad devotion to that ancient religion." It's like, there must be thousands of people that believe in the Force, right? And so, yeah, even though there are no Jedi [in Rogue One], I still wanted to talk about the Force, and the belief, and the spirituality of it all. Without that, it's not really Star Wars.
The Force kind of permeates everything.
Through Jyn's history, and also through the Chirrut Îmwe [Donnie Yen]—they are a way of bringing that up in the movie. Chirrut and Baze Malbus [Jiang Wen] are supposed to represent war and peace. Baze is like, "You get success by physically doing something, and you only win by killing people.” And Chirrut's more internal and spiritual, and believes in the Force and that everything's going to be okay. It’s belief and non-belief, you know what I mean?
What’s the importance of the Kyber Crystals? That’s some real Star Wars nerd shit, but now it’s coming into the mainstream.
It's symbolic of a few things. It was interesting not necessarily for fan service, but because it felt symbolic of our world to say: this is the spiritual home for a lot of beliefs, but it’s also a raw material that is valuable to the rest of the world. We will fight for that and take it if we need to. In the real world, it may be oil, but in Star Wars, it's Kyber. And Kyber, in terms of canon, was used to power the Death Star, as well as the lightsabers. I like the idea that the same thing that can be used for good can be used for bad. It's just what you choose to do with it. It's not like this massive thing in the movie, and it's not for fan service—it just represented that commodity that everyone's after, and the only way to for the Empire to get it is to destroy this beautiful, ancient, religious city. That felt quite relevant for today.
The cast has also referenced the moral ambiguity of this film reflecting current times. Was capturing that one of the most important things for you?
The grayness, yeah. It's always the dark side or the light side, and I think characters in our film are grayer. When they first made Star Wars in the '70s, the world maybe felt a bit simpler: they're the bad guys, we're the good guys. Today—with the internet and global connection—we know deep down that it's not as simple as that. It used to be that to win, you wipe out the bad guy. That's not gonna lead to any peace ever. I think the way we're gonna achieve any end to war ever is to understand each other and have empathy. So all the different characters in our film, initially, there's distrust, conflict, and hate, but then they learn that the only way they're ever gonna do anything is to work together and get past all their problems. That felt like a nice, meaningful thing to put inside the movie.
Sounds like a teaching moment a lot of people could learn from.
Star Wars, if anything, is like life lessons for kids.