Gareth Edwards has a background in special effects and documentaries, but he’s directed only three feature films. The strength of the first, 2010’s Monsters, was so strong that he was pegged to helm the well-regarded America version of Godzilla in 2014, followed by the biggest prize yet: Rogue One, the first official foray into an expanded Star Wars universe beyond Episode I-IX. He spoke to the press about the project at a recent junket for the film.
Question: What were you looking for as far as evoking the feeling of the original film, back in 1977?
Gareth Edwards: We were kind of making a period piece. We’d say to the crew and the designers, “imagine this is set in 1977 and don’t do anything we couldn’t have done back then in terms of aesthetic.” The opening of the film is a bit of a reflection of A New Hope to some extent. In A New Hope, the very first time you see Darth Vader come in, it’s a black guy in a black cape surrounded by white Stormtroopers. And at the opening of our film is there’s a guy in a white cape surrounded by black Stormtroopers. We’re trying to take what’s familiar but sort of inverted or twisted. That scene was tough. We were shooting in Iceland and freezing our tits off out there, and the fog was coming in. And then suddenly it would clear and our actors would just nail it. We took a lot of energy from those moments.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about Vader? He’s this iconic cinematic image, and suddenly he’s yours to play with.
GE: You have to get over the fact that he’s Darth Vader. He needs to be a character in the story you’re telling, and that means getting over it. It took a little while. We learned that we should do the rehearsals and talk through the scene without the costume, because as soon as that helmet goes on, it’s too intimidating. You can’t give direction to Darth Vader: he tells you what he’s going to do. We could tell when he was coming during the shoot. Film sets are very noisy, with a lot of banging and chattering going on. But when it got quiet, you knew he was on his way. And suddenly, the whole crew is six years old again, and here’s the scariest man in the galaxy stalking around your set. And then you think, “Oh shit, I’ve got to go over and speak to him!” You have to snap out of it.
Ben Mendelsohn, who plays our villain, he’s an old-school fan like a lot of us. There was this time, we were in the middle of filming this scene with Darth and Ben SAID, “Garth, need to talk to you.” He takes me aside, into a corner, and he goes, “It’s Darth fucking Vader.” [Laughter] And I said, “I know!” And we both had this little moment where we melted and we could just admit it, and then we turned around, and could be professional about it.
Q: This version is much grittier than we’ve seen, especially in relation to the fight between the Empire and the Rebels. Can you talk about how you achieved that?
GE: When we started, Kathy Kennedy would keep asking how was this going to be different, and remind us that we needed to differentiate ourselves from the saga. One of the things we did to find that was to take photographs from Vietnam and World War II and the Gulf, and use this bit of software to put in rebel helmets on the soldiers and rebel guns and some X-Wings in the background instead of fighter jets. Suddenly this stuff became really engaging, and everyone who came and looked at the footage got very excited.
Q: What was the most important thing from Lucas’s original trilogy that you are bringing into Rogue One?
GE: It’s like a really tricky thing to emulate what we love about the original movies, but still feel like we’re telling a different story. We could have done a very specific genre film and stuck “Star Wars” on it and said “that’s our movie.” But George Lucas was always really good at mixing the genres together: creating this very emotional sort of mythological story that just happened to have robots and spaceships in it. And it’s not something that you just do in a week. It took two-and-a-half years to find that balance: to evoke the feeling of the original film without losing our own movie in the process.
I’ll tell you, the most terrifying thing was having to show this movie to George. To be honest, the most important review to me – the only one that really mattered — was George’s. Everyone loves these movies and we this one to be the movie everyone wants it to be, but this is George’s universe.
Q: How did that go down?
GE: He just watched the finished film a couple of days ago. We were in the middle of doing press, and you know how these things go. You’re doing one interview on top of another, and suddenly the PR folks said, “We need to take a break.” And I was like, “I’m okay.” And they said “No, we need to take a break.” They take me into this room, and they say, “George wants to speak to you.” And they made the call. I was terrified.
Q: AND?! What did he think???
GE: I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I’ll say I can now die a happy man. I will take that conversation to my grave. It was a real privilege.