Judging by the nearly 30 minutes of “Rogue One” footage screened at Skywalker Ranch Saturday night, British director Gareth Edwards has made a very different and personal “Star Wars” movie — a gritty, verite war drama but with its own beauty and relevance.
Which is fitting for the first standalone story about the heist of the Death Star plans by a band of rebel spies led by Felicity Jones’ badass, self-reliant Jyn, just prior to “A New Hope” and the Skywalker saga.
But first Edwards (“Godzilla,” “Monsters”) had to deconstruct the cultural essence of “Star Wars” before he could make it his own.
“Inevitably, if you take on a ‘Star Wars’ film, you end up addressing all those questions about what [it means to you] and then you have to defend those ideas and protect them,” Edwards told IndieWire. “And, to me, it speaks from the heart and to the world about good and evil and war and hope.”
But in addition to addressing macro issues of globalism and terrorism, “Rogue One” expands the “Star Wars” universe with colorful new worlds and an international cast that includes Diego Luna as rebel officer Cassian, Donnie Yen as blind monk/warrior Chirrut Îmwe, Jiang Wen as assassin Baze Malbus, Forest Whitaker as resistance extremist Saw Gerrera and Riz Ahmed as pilot Bodhi Rook.
“It’s been very easy in the past to label it as we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys,” said Edwards. “And I’m sure like they feel they’re the good guys and we’re the bad guys. And the goal of a lot of films used to be: If we just eliminate the bad guys, we win. But I think a more modern, realistic viewpoint is that no one’s good, no one’s evil and the only real way we’re going to stop wars is to understand each other better, come together and empathize with them. And this film tried to take away the black and white and make it more gray. You even see the point of view of the bad guys and you start to understand what [the Empire] tried to do.”
However, in achieving the right look, Edwards wanted a style that was authentic, lived-in and yet beautiful. “We couldn’t put marks on the ground for actors — we had to be more organic and treat it like it’s this unfolding event,” said Edwards, who prepped by Photoshopping “Star Wars” characters into World War II and Vietnam war photography, and shot on location in Jordan, Maldives, Iceland and the UK.
The director chose cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Zero Dark Thirty”), who agreed with his gritty vision. “‘Star Wars’ is always old meets new — the far future and the ancient past in the design and the environments,” Edwards added. “We tried to do that stylistically as well with the latest digital camera with four times the resolution, the Alexa 65, combined with the Ultra Panavision 70 lenses used on ‘Ben-Hur’ [and more recently on ‘The Hateful Eight’]. This gave us the widest possible aspect ratio with a shallow depth of field.”
Part of Edwards’ personal journey, though, was embedding himself like a doc filmmaker. On his indie breakout movie, “Monsters,” the former VFX artist operated his own hand-held camera, which he also did on “Rogue One,” including an iPad virtual camera for choreographing action that was handed off to Industrial Light & Magic’s VFX team.
“We were doing part of this space battle sequence and John Knoll [chief creative officer and senior VFX supervisor, who pitched the ‘Rogue One’ story to Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy] had been really good at designing this set up for me,” Edwards said. “And at the end, someone said you need to get the Death Star shot for the trailer.”
“So they got the [Death Star] dish going in and I asked to turn on a light so it created a shadow. And I started exploring and I thought it would be really cool if the shadow revealed that we were in space and you’re gazing at the object. That could only happen because we had this virtual camera situation and I could see it in front of me.”
That became a microcosm of the “Rogue One” experience for Edwards: “You have a plan but you want the plan to break, and you want it to get fractured and you have happy accidents. It makes these big films feel more real. And I think the audience responds to that. And I hope we made the most authentic ‘Star Wars’ we can.”
Apparently George Lucas agreed because, after screening “Rogue One” last week, he called Edwards to tell him he liked it, which had the director on the verge of tears.
“He’s the reason we’re all here,” Edwards said. “What he did with ‘Star Wars,’ not just the movie but also pushing the technology, allowed people like me to make movies from home…that changed cinema.”