Unlike many in his field, director Gareth Edwards' career has progressed dramatically in a short burst of time. It was only in 2010 that the Brit visual effects artist helmed his first theatrical film, the critically acclaimed Monsters. Four years later, he was given the reins of the blockbuster relaunch of Hollywood's Godzilla, starring Bryan Cranston. And as of Dec. 16, Edwards' resume will boast an official Star Wars film with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Not bad for anyone's ambitious standards, but Edwards is well aware of the surreal nature of his incredible career trajectory.
In an exclusive chat, Edwards talks about how daunting it's been to craft a story in a cinematic world that has impacted him so deeply, creating a Star Wars story with such bleak stakes and where his ambition will take him next.
You get the gig directing for arguably the world's largest franchise. Most people would not be ready for that responsibility and pressure. In your case, did Godzilla prep you for this maelstrom?
I think it's pretty clear throughout the whole process that you are doing something that you are going to remember for the rest of your life and, in some way, will define your career. It's hard to escape that, because Star Wars means so much to so many people, and means the world to me as well. It's amazing to even get the opportunity to do a Star Wars film. It's never going to happen again in my lifetime, for me.
How did you get in the running to direct the franchise's first non-saga story?
I think when I first heard they were going to make more Star Wars films, I was excited as a fan to get to see them. Then slowly, it was a very gradual thing ... I was in the middle of finishing Godzilla and I got an email to have a meeting with Kiri Hart, SVP of Story Development [at Lucasfilm], and we had a really great chat. At the time, I was in the middle of the stressful part of doing a big film, so I wasn't that interested into jumping straight into another thing like that. In the meeting, I was relaxed, because it was two Star Wars fans chatting. I left the meeting thinking it was interesting, and a few days later I got an email with documents attached. I read one and knew I wouldn't be the right filmmaker for this, and then read the other one and thought, "Oh, wow! I can't believe they are going to make that film!" Part of me was like, "Is it sacrilegious to make a movie so close to A New Hope?" And then in about two seconds, I realized I was stupid and if they were considering me for it, I have to go for it.
When did you get a sense that the job might be yours?
I assumed they would be chatting to 50 other filmmakers, but the more meetings I went in for and the more conversations we had, I started to realized, "Hang on a minute, I think they're just talking to me." I daren't tell anyone. I went home that Christmas and kept it a secret. Like I normally do, I got Christmas presents that were Star Wars related from my family. Inside, I'm thinking, "I'm going to be making this film," but I can't say anything because I didn't want to have to tell them if it all fell through. I spent the next year paranoid it wasn't going to happen.
Once you were hired, where did you start?
When I began, John Knoll had written a couple pages of a treatment of what it could be. What was good, and useful, is that you have an opposite problem with this film. Normally, someone will have an idea for how a concept begins, and all ideas explode outward from the initial starting point. The job is where do we go with this? But in ours, we knew everything had to lead to an ending and we sort of knew where the ending had to be. It was like reverse engineering an explosion.
That ending is an almost throwaway line in Jedi where Mon Mothma says about the Death Star blueprints: "Many Bothans died to bring us this information."
Yes. So all our conversations really were about the beginning, and what characters we're choosing and why, and what the themes are and what we're really saying. With Star Wars, you can't just stick up some spaceships and robots and call it Star Wars. In terms of what George Lucas did, it fell heavily on mythology and storytelling, and had a deeper meaning behind everything. There's a lot more meat on the bone than your typical fairytale or sci-fi movie. So the question was if this film didn't have the Star Wars logo on it, why would we bother? It was interesting trying different permutations and combinations to lock into things that made sense, or were strong. One of the ways we would achieve that quite often was to take the science fiction out of it and talk about it like it was a WWII movie. You talk about it in terms of characters in Europe, because if it worked as a story that could work in different eras and be more timeless, then you feel like you can wrap Star Wars on it and it will work.
Your previous films - Monsters and Godzilla - at their core are survival love stories. Did Rogue One naturally end up in that space as well?
Yeah, you never start off saying I want a theme like this and then I'll figure out the story. You get attracted to stories and the theme rises to the surface. Then once you recognize it, then you try and strengthen it. if you look at the sagas - and we're the first film not to be part of the saga - they are about a father/child relationship, redemption of the father and good versus evil. It felt like our film had to have those things even though it wasn't a big Skywalker story. Something I find interesting is that I don't think people are born evil, or necessarily good. Because our film comes before A New Hope, it's a chance to show that even people in the Empire were trying to do something good and it backfired. I wanted to have a world where good people do bad things and bad people do good things. Obviously, we have the Death Star, which is a metaphor for super weapons and the ultimate power. Once you relate that to things to WWII and the race to get the nuclear bomb, it all started to click. You could go we can tell that sort of story in the Star Wars world and it feels right.
Does Felicity Jones' Jyn Erso personify someone who is one thing doing another thing entirely?
She's not to start with. The goal with Jyn was that she was meant for a much more peaceful, normal life. Through events you witness at the beginning of the film, it all gets smashed off course. She ends up having a life she's never meant to have where she's forced into a war situation as a child and grows up to be a fighter. One of the reasons we wanted to have Felicity is because initially when you see her, she doesn't seem that kind of person. She has a lot of intelligence and emotional intelligence to her. I love that this story isn't meant to happen to her but she gets pulled into it. It wasn't her destiny to be a savior but she gets sucked in. And there's a family relationship with themes of the sins of the father which are very much at the heart of our film.
Are there any classic war or heist movies that are influences for the film?
Definitely. Star Wars is a melting pot of different genres. It's funny because we're the first spin-off, people ask the equivalent movie comparison in the real world? I always felt like there isn't just one. For it to be Star Wars there has to be lots of different ones and blend them together, which is what George did so well. Star Wars is a bit of a Western, a bit of science fiction and a Biblical epic. We didn't want to pick just one, so some of the ones that were for me good inspiration was, visually, Apocalypse Now. It's one of my favorite films. When we started doing a war film, that was one everyone felt very passionate about.
Also Asian cinema. When Lucas started developing Star Wars he had inspirations and it grew into this thing we now know. He went back to his inspirations like Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958) which is the blueprint for Star Wars.
Parallel with that, we were trying to create these spiritual characters in our film who ended up being Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen). Chris Weitz came up with those two characters who could represent war and peace. I had just been watching Fortress and I loved that C3-P0 and R2-D2 grew out of these two bickering Asian characters. So we went back to the roots and cast two of the best Asian actors in the world. Baze and Chirrut are like the yin and yang of war and peace.
How difficult was it setting a tone that didn't feel rather depressing knowing the outcome of many of these characters?
It's a bit of a tricky one because you can ask how do you make a film where everyone knows the ending, but you can say that of every historical film ever, or any book adaption. It's less about what happens in the wider world but more about what happens to the characters that you create to care about in the film. Hopefully, you care about, and invest in them. I really hope, and feel, that our film takes you on an emotional rollercoaster and the spectrum of different feeling but the whole point of what they are trying to do is restore hope. That was always the optimistic goal: to try and restore peace to the galaxy. We know what happens in A New Hope, but it's really what happens to the characters about whether you have a euphoric or sad feeling. There's a mixture of feelings and you go on quite a journey, like they do, and it's not one note, I hope.
Let's bring it back to Gareth Edwards, the guy who has loved Star Wars since he was a kid. Was there an ultimate "pinch me" moment for you?
Yeah, there were loads. One of them for sure was when I was on set chatting to Felicity and I looked behind her and I spotted Mark Hamill. He came to visit and I said, "I'm really sorry, Felicity. Come with me now to meet Luke Skywalker." As I came up to him he was wearing a Godzilla shirt. Now, I grew up with Star Wars and believed it was real, but also that it's out there, in another world and not with people you could ever meet. So to stand next to Luke Skywalker, while filming Star Wars and he's wearing the t-shirt of your previous film...it really did feel like a dream and I would wake up in a minute, and be like six years old with my mum calling me saying "Tea's ready!" There were many moments like that. George Lucas came to visit during pre-production and that threw me for a loop! Every single day there was something that in another life would have been the biggest deal of my life. And you go home and can't tell anyone about it because it's so secretive. People would ask, "What did you do today?" "Just filming." (Laughs)
Has Rogue One changed you as a filmmaker?
I hope it's changed me. You want to keep growing and evolving. I've learned so much from this film. Every time you do a film, you do feel it's wiped the other ones out in terms of what you've learned. But it's the kind of film that if you ever expected it to happen, or wanted it to happen, you'd think it would be at the end of your career as the icing on the cake. That it happened a little earlier is kind of nice because now I'm really excited about the future and moving forward to do some more personal material.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story open Dec. 16, 2017.