Posted on Monday, December 5th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Gareth Edwards looks tired.
It’s the kind of fatigue you see on the faces of filmmakers after they’ve put the finishing touches on major motion pictures and have to summon a second (third? fourth?) wind to survive the press cycle. A stiff breeze could knock him over. But the director of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is smart and alert and clearly as much in love with George Lucas’ classic science fiction universe now as he was when he first signed to to make Lucasfilm’s first Star Wars spin-off movie. He’s also the kind of filmmaker who is comfortable naming The Battle of Algiers as an influence on his space opera.
I spoke with Edwards the day after watching 28 minutes of Rogue One and the director of (the wonderful) Monsters and (the divisive but brilliant) Godzilla shared his thoughts on moving from the independent realm to the world of blockbusters, why Star Wars still matters, and how the war-torn fictional moon of Jedha is like Nazi-occupied France.
I was talking to some of my friends who work as programmers for SXSW and they remember seeing an early version of Monsters from when you submitted it. There were no finished visual effects, but they remember thinking “If this guy can pull this off, it’ll be amazing.”
Has your process changed from the days when you were making tiny movies like that? Has having thousands of collaborators on a giant movie forced you to adjust your sensibilities?
Obviously, with a film like that, you get a lot of great freedom in that you can be very organic. People would always say, if they were polite about that film, they would say, “How did you make something reasonably good with so little money?” I think the opposite is true. How do you make something good with an insane amount of money? Because when there’s a lot of pressure riding on something, when you have this really high budget stuff, it could potentially limit you. I found there are a lot of advantages to being on a small budget and having a small crew. You get some very intimate performances and naturalistic cinematography. And then you do a massive Hollywood film and it’s the other side of the spectrum. You have to plan so far in advance, six months ahead sometimes. But it’s epic! And you have the resources to do things in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have done from home at a computer.
With Rogue One, I tried to combine the best of both worlds. We had sets, like the spaceships, where you’d literally get sealed in so you could shoot 360 degrees and the only time you could open the door was when we said we were finished. We would do 40-minute takes sometimes, just repeat the scene over and over and get all of these different angles. It felt like a real vehicle that was really going somewhere. Outside, through the windows, was a 180-degree view of LED screens that had pre-rendered flight sequences on them. It was trying to create that feeling of really being in a real place. All of the happy accidents that happen from reality…when you make a CG-heavy movie, something so fantastical has to have a lot of CG, that planning and that contrivance can often make it feel fake and not as real as other movies. And so I was desperate on this one to make it as authentic as we could and have the audience really believe this was a real city or town and that this must really be unfolding because I don’t quite understand how they’ve done this.
The thing that seems to unite Monsters, Godzilla, and the footage from Rogue One is that they all have this unique sense of perspective. Even when you’re filming something familiar from the Star Wars universe, you present it from very specific points of view that emphasize size and distance. Did you actively set out and say “I’m going to shoot that AT-AT in a way that it has never been shot before?”
One of the things you do, when you have a scene or whatever it is you’re doing, I replay that scene in my head and pick different positions to watch it from in my head. Sometimes they’re with something. Sometimes they’re objective aerial shots or sometimes on the roof with a complete new stranger and see which ones make me say, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I love the contrast of jumping around and seeing some amazing, beautiful thing from a distance and you say, “Oh that’s incredible! I’d love to be there!” and suddenly you’re there and it’s horrific and chaotic and it’s like, “Oh my god! Someone make this stop!” And suddenly it stops and you’re back somewhere else, seeing it from a different perspective and suddenly you understand why the enemy is doing what they’re doing. From their point of view, you look like a genuine threat and you must be killed!
I like jumping around perspective. It keeps things alive and makes you realize that your personal perspective on anything is very misleading and it’s real hard to get a real sense of anything. I like jumping to perspectives that aren’t necessarily part of our characters, like suddenly you’re in a window, looking from someone’s house. It’s like we put cameras all over this location in Star Wars and everyone got to film as this event flowed through. And then we just pick the best shots and the best moments, like a sporting event.