As a director, Gareth Edwards can do big—that much, he’s amply proven with films like Monsters and Godzilla. Still, it doesn’t get any bigger than Star Wars, and tackling the franchise’s first spinoff, Rogue One—which follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her ragtag team as they try to steal the plans for the Death Star, thus setting in motion the very first Star Wars film—presented its own set of formidable challenges. Edwards recently rang up Vulture to explain how he managed it, tout the film’s diverse cast, and clarify all sorts of reports about how much the film was revised during production.
This mammoth Star Wars experience is coming to an end for you. How do you feel?
I’ve tried not to feel or think too much about it. It’s such a marathon making a film—two-and-a-half years, at least—and every day, you do something that in any other lifetime would be one of the highlights of your life. What’s so weird is that I’ve spent the last two years surrounded by Death Troopers and the spaceships from our film and all our characters, and I could never tell anyone about it … and then suddenly, on this certain day of the year, you just walk into a shopping mall and they’re everywhere. I was in L.A. today and I walked into a store that had two life-size cutouts of Death Troopers greeting me. And I realized, “This is the real world, this isn’t the office.” Star Wars is something that you never get to own—you just borrow it from the world, and then you give it back.
What did Lucasfilm tell you about the future of Star Wars when you first met with them? Did you know they’d be making spinoffs like Rogue One?
I was like the rest of the world: All I knew was what I was reading online, and I didn’t know what to believe. J.J. Abrams was doing Episode VII, but my assumption is that they’d take three years to make the next one and then three years to make the one after that, like George Lucas did. So in my wildest dreams, I thought if I were to get a Star Wars film, it would be ten years off.
So when did you find out what they actually had in mind?
I went in December 2014, and I was really relaxed because I actually didn’t want to do another big film. I wanted to have a break after Godzilla. And then I got sent via email this document that had two spinoff ideas, and I read one of them and thought, “This is great and I’d love to see this, but I’m not the guy to direct it.” And I read the other and thought, “Oh, my God, this is the film that leads directly to my favorite film of all time, A New Hope.” I figured they sent the email to 20 guys and I was just one of them, but every time I went in to see them and talk about it a bit more, I started to realize, “Hang on, I don’t think anyone else is involved. I think it’s just me.”
I still thought it would be three years away, or ten—who knows. And then suddenly it got toward the summer, and they said, “We’re gonna make this next.” I was planning for a holiday after I finished Godzilla, and I pretty much had to go straight on a plane to San Francisco and start development of Rogue One. It was kind of nonstop, and I wouldn’t have done that for any other film. Star Wars is the kind of movie where the second they mentioned it, it was like checkmate. I couldn’t go watch this movie someday and see someone else’s name at the end, knowing that I could have done it. It was more than once in a lifetime—it was once in the human race, getting to do a film that connects to Star Wars.
How do you find the right tone where this film isn’t too slavish to what’s come before, but still feels like Star Wars?
It’s a very fine line. If you go slightly left, you’re making some other sci-fi movie that’s not Star Wars, and if you go slightly right, you’re just copying what George Lucas has already done. It’s a real balancing act to try and make it feel like it has all the ingredients of Star Wars but you’re baking a different meal. We kept saying, “How is this film different than the saga films? How will it feel unique?” Stylistically, what we gravitated toward was trying to make it feel as real as possible. One of the experiments we did early in San Francisco was we took images of Vietnam and Middle East conflicts and World War II and we literally just Photoshopped rebel clothes over the soldiers. There was a lot of emotion in those images, and anytime someone would come and ask about Rogue One, those tended to be the images that we would give out. And people said, “Oh, my God, I would go see that.” So we kind of had license to make a more realistic, slightly World War II take on Star Wars.
I’m kind of impressed that you sold Disney and Lucasfilm on this massive Star Wars movie by showing them pictures of Vietnam. That’s ballsy.
I kept waiting to be fired, to be honest with you, and it never came. But you know, Star Wars is the movie that’s affected me the most in my entire life. It’s the reason I wanted to become a filmmaker, and you’ve got this amazing opportunity to play on that field. It’s like the equivalent of the World Cup finals: If you’re not gonna get on that pitch and desperately try to score, you shouldn’t be doing it. What we were even more afraid of than playing it safe was that everyone would watch this film and say, “But what did you bring to the table? It’s just like everything else.” I was more scared of that than going too far in the other way.
This is by far the most multicultural cast Star Wars has ever had. Was that by design?
Our story is obviously set before the original Star Wars film, and the Rebellion is fractured and dysfunctional and broken up into little parts all over the galaxy. Those white, male British X-Wing pilots and Americans you see in the original Star Wars, they make it into the movie, but we have soldiers who don’t go beyond this film and we wanted to represent new parts of the world. Star Wars is so rich and it seems crazy that everyone’s, like, a white male guy. That’s due to the 1970s and the fact that it was shot in Britain, but I was very lucky: I’m British, I grew up in England, and I got to see myself represented in a film. I think it’s about time that we represented the rest of the world. We were all in agreement that not just because of the story, but because it’s 2016, it’s great to have such a diverse cast. The thing about this is the second you say “Star Wars,” everybody wants to drop what they’re doing and get involved, so we had our pick of the whole world to choose from and with such a diverse cast, we could have literally anybody. It’s an embarrassment of riches with the cast in the film.
Rogue One is also the second Star Wars movie in a row to feature a female protagonist. That’s quite the sea change for a franchise that historically has had only a handful of significant female characters.
John Knoll, who wrote the original treatment, has two daughters and he wanted to have a hero they could look up to. I feel like one of the most successful heroines in science-fiction cinema is Sigourney Weaver in Aliens—I love her, and as a guy, no part of my brain thinks of her gender. She’s just Ripley, that character. We tried to write Jyn as neither male nor female, as just a person. Obviously, she’s female, but even with the clothing, my goal with the costume department was to design clothes that I would wear as a guy on Halloween. She wouldn’t look feminine, and she wouldn’t look masculine—she’d be neutral. Jyn is a person who just happens to be a girl.
A lot has been written about the reshoots that were done on this film, and it’s rumored that Tony Gilroy came in and shot some of the new material himself. What really happened?
Tony is a great writer and he had done a few days’ work on Godzilla. We had always planned to do these pickup shoots, and in this day and age when everything has gone digital, you don’t have to be so literal about preproduction, production, and postproduction—the whole thing blurs together. When we did the pickup shoots, Tony came in to write the screenplay for those scenes, and because we shot it documentary-style and had so much material, essentially, we ended up being a bit crunched for time. So we all dove in and did different things: Tony did some second-unit on the pickup shoot and so did I, and we went from 600 visual effects to 1,600 visual effects. The scope of the movie just got bigger, and so there was this divide-and-conquer mentality that went on. I think the results are really good and that’s all that matters, is the movie.
Lucasfilm head Kathy Kennedy has said that she’s looking for a woman to direct a Star Wars film. Who would you like to see do it?
I’d love to see an Andrea Arnold Star Wars, or even a Lynne Ramsay Star Wars, or a Sofia Coppola Star Wars. I’d be first in line for that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.