Interview: 'Rogue One' Director Gareth Edwards On Why 'Star Wars' Still Matters

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."

[Edwards laughs]

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.

Rogue One A Star Wars Story - Scarif battle

There's a tiny moment I loved in the footage, where we see this Stormtrooper on board a prison transport vehicle. His armor is covered in dirty and his body language just suggests that he's exhausted. It's so fascinating to see familiar iconography so humanized. 

There's a shot that didn't make the film. One of my favorites was when we were shooting in the rain and we had Stormtroopers and one of the actors was just tired. He sat down out his outlook post and was just slumped with his head down, like "I can't take this anymore. I'm just exhausted." It looked amazing. And we said "Don't tell him! Don't grab him! Don't say anything!" We had to get the camera up there. We had a camera on a crane and I tried to get this shot of him without him knowing, while he was just contemplating, like he was lonely in the middle of all this craziness. We got some really great images, but as we put that sequence together, we just couldn't put it in. That's the frustration with Star Wars. There are so many good options available to you that are symbolic or just, as a fan, you'd love to see, but they can't make the cut. The film's two hours long and you're telling a particular story and it's just as much about letting things go as anything else.

You've talked a lot about photography from World War II and Vietnam helped inspire the look and feel of the film. One of the things that stood out to me while watching the footage was was how the Rebellion scenes feel like something out of a French Resistance movie, like a sci-fi Army of Shadows. It's not just about blaster battles, but about hard decisions made in dark alleys. Did any particular movie help inspire this tone?

Yeah, things like The Battle of Algiers. World War II was a massive influence on the movie in general and in that particular area. The visual parallel between the Imperial officers and the Nazis is quite clear in the original films. [The Imperial-occupied moon of Jedha] became a mixture of different things and it was, to some extent, occupied Paris as well, with people just trying to go about their lives with this force that's taken over [their home]. I think, to get the story right...you can get easily distracted by spaceships and robots. So what we would do was we would take all of the science fiction out of it and we would try to tell the story to one another as if it was World War II. Who would this person be? What are they trying to do? We did it as an experiment and it worked really well. Obviously, the Death Star becomes like the nuclear bomb, the race to be the first to have a super-weapon.

And Galen, who is Mads Mikkelsen's character, got born out of that kind of conversation. There is a genius in the real world named Robert Oppenheimer who was responsible for developing the nuclear bomb. Later in life, he had real regrets about that and talked openly against them. That grayness I find incredibly interesting. Someone is trying to do the right thing, trying to be good, genuinely trying to end a war, and then it turns out they might have done something terrible and then trying to put something right again. That gray of the bad guys thinking they're doing good things and the good guys accidentally doing bad things and life being more sophisticated than just good versus evil. This film is full of that grayness. Hopefully it doesn't preach, but it's definitely...nobody comes out of this movie clean. Everyone has a price they've paid to achieve their goal.

I'm glad you brought up Jedha. The action scene we saw that takes place there was the first Star Wars action scene that i'd describe as being genuinely scary. It often resembles a modern conflict in its visuals and it's intentionally messy. The Rebel forces are depicted as insurgents. Is it hard to make this kind of relentless action also fun to watch?

When we were storyboarding, we got real war photography, gave it to the storyboard artists and said, "Do the Star Wars version of this shot." So they would delete everyone and re-draw it like it was in Jedha. There was a load of great stuff that came from that, like people looking through windows and rooftops while tanks are going by and they're waiting to do an ambush. And the civilians, the fact that people are going about their daily lives...we had a child in that one sequence. It felt like, when we passed through Jedha, it was important that it's not a clean-cut thing. [Forest Whitaker's] Saw Gerrera, in our movie, represents the extreme end of the rebellion. He's someone that's gone so far to be good that he's gone right to the edge of what's acceptable to achieve good that he's nearly become the enemy himself and nearly doing the things that he's accusing his enemies of doing.

We wanted [Felicity Jones'] Jyn in the middle of this spectrum of difficult decisions. We have bad people doing good things, good people doing bad things. Which path are you going to choose? What are you going to do with your life? In the world we live in today, especially with the global media and the internet, we see a lot more perspectives. You get more opinions from other countries and you can see that the problems we have are not clear cut. If there's a story, if there's a moral at the heart of Star Wars, it's that we have to come together and work together to something good. When you work on your own, when you write off a particular culture, you're never going to stop anything. In good science fiction, that shouldn't be the surface layer. It's life lessons that kids should carry, but they're attracted to Star Wars because of explosions and robots and spaceships. I don't think we're doing our job if, at the core of it, there's not a good moral life lesson for kids. I grew up with Star Wars and I think I leaned on it a lot more than I've given it credit for [for learning to] believe in myself and not giving up and trusting my instincts.

There's a lot of fun and humor in it as well! I got very serious there.

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Rogue One is in theaters December 16.