From the moment Marvel and Disney veteran Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “The Jungle Book”) pitched the bones of a “Star Wars” show to Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy at her Kennedy/Marshall office back in 2017, everyone got behind “The Mandalorian,” the first live-action TV series in the “Star Wars” universe. But it took a team of creative collaborators versed in both technology and storytelling to successfully deliver the show, which took off like a rocket at the November 2019 launch of Disney+.
Creator Favreau seemed to have a mindmeld with his Lucasfilm partner Dave Filoni (a “Star Wars” savant who had previously hired Favreau to voice a character on his animated series “The Clone Wars”). The two executed a list of smart choices on the road to “The Mandalorian.” As Kennedy can attest, it’s not easy to strike the fancy of the “Star Wars” fanbase, who can make or break any project set in the “Star Wars” universe. But capture them they did, as Yoda would say.
“The Mandalorian” is so goddamn fun that it looks easy. “We all liked the same things,” said Filoni in a recent phone interview. “It seemed to click. A lot of decisions, there was not a lot of debate.” Remember: Many things could have thrown this deceptively simple E-ride off the tracks. But here’s what Favreau, Filoni, and company did right:
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They chased a high-concept story that would appeal to “Star Wars” fans.
Showrunner Favreau developed a branded streaming series set in a familiar, recognizable universe, relying on cutting-edge game-engine rendering and LED video wall technology that he had mastered while making Disney’s live-action/animation hybrids “The Jungle Book” and “The Lion King.”
Of course, Filoni was no stranger to animation, and ILM founder George Lucas had pioneered countless VFX advancements over the decades, including digital set extensions (and the notorious Jar Jar Binks) on “The Phantom Menace” back in 1999.
As Favreau labored on the scripts for “The Mandalorian,” he checked in with Filoni to make sure he was hewing close to the established “Star Wars” canon. Coloring inside the lines was crucial to keeping fans on board.
“A lot of films and shows can be too complicated, and you can end up in a bit of a corner by making things too complex,” said “The Mandalorian” finale director Taika Waititi. “Sometimes the smartest move is to be simple. The heart of it — about a gunslinger without attachments who has to protect a child — is all you need to know. You drape the rest of the ‘Star Wars’ universe over the top.”
They hired a diverse set of directors.
Following a key Marvel directive, Favreau and Filoni hired directors with a range of experience who not only understood “Star Wars,” but brought their own personalities to each of the eight episodes, from “Thor: Ragnarok” filmmaker Waititi (who, in March, took home the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “Jojo Rabbit”) and actor-director Bryce Dallas Howard, who grew up in the extended Lucasfilm family, to live-action rookie Filoni, who directed the pilot and Chapter 5, “The Gunslinger.”
Howard grew up on her father Ron’s movie sets, and the Howard and Lucas families always hung out together. “George has always been and continues to be a great friend to my Dad,” she said on the phone. “He’s a mentor. When my Dad did ‘American Graffiti,’ he was 17 years old.”
After writing, directing, and acting in plays at NYU, Howard launched her acting career and moved into directing with a 2013 TV drama “Call Me Crazy: A Five Film”; documentary “Dads” (Apple+, June 19); and five shorts that gave her experience with digital cameras and VFX. “I’m obsessed with emerging technology,” she said.
After the actress finished shooting “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” she begged her reluctant father to let her shadow him when he took over the “Star Wars” spin-off “Solo.” She also landed a Lucasfilm workshop where she met Filoni and was put on the list of potential directors for “The Mandalorian.”
Favreau and Filoni prepared all five directors for how to design, build, and shoot the visual world that would virtually fill the volume, with its immersive LED walls and ceiling surrounding a practical set with props for the cast, who acted inside circumscribed dimensions.
“Jon really forced all of us to imagine how to put the constraints of physical production onto the limitless possibility at our fingertips,” said Howard. “If you have these effects, the sky is the limit. But if you don’t think about what’s possible in real life, it’s going to look fake. You can’t shoot magic hour in the volume all the time.”
Some explosive action sequences were better captured on practical locations — with airplanes and other noise — that had to match what was shot in the more controlled environment of the volume. “Going back and forth from the back lot in Manhattan Beach and the volume was a puzzle,” said Howard, “especially on the same scene.”
Waititi was originally going to shoot two episodes, but couldn’t get back from the Czech Republic set of “Jojo Rabbit” in time to prep both, so he voiced the robot IG-11 off-set, and just directed Chapter 8, “Redemption,” which suited him fine.
“The finale was a dense script when everything comes together,” he said. Waititi relied on walking movie encyclopedia Favreau and “Star Wars” philosopher Filoni to fill him in on what he needed to accomplish, so he could “put my spin on things,” he said. “I embraced the idea that Jon had invited me in to bring my style to the show. Each director has their own style. We didn’t have to copy each other or stay within this lane.”
At the start of the finale, two helmeted scout troopers who have kidnapped The Child hover on their flying motorcycles in the desert, waiting for instructions and slapping their restless cargo to keep him quiet. “That’s what I do,” said Waititi. “Take characters who should be exciting and make them talk about boring stuff, like the opening for ‘Waiting for Godot.’ I had great actors [Jason Sudeikis and Adam Pally] ad-libbing. We shot a 15 minute scene of those two dudes sitting and waiting for Giancarlo Esposito to open the spigot.”
The quiet scenes build up to some revealing flashbacks into the past of Mando, or Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal), as well as what Waititi called “an Alamo-style last stand.” As Mando and Cara Dune (Gina Carano) and Greef Karga (‘Rocky’ veteran Carl Weathers) take cover to face off against powermonger Moff Gideon (Esposito), the director got to “get the action flowing and throw stormtroopers around.”
They crammed a wide range of genres into eight short episodes.
It’s harder to write and direct episodes that range from 29 to 38 minutes than long ones, especially when they range over Western and Samurai action tropes set in a “Star Wars” sci-fi universe with both comic and tragic overtones. By leaning into varying colors and flavors in each episode, Favreau and Filoni kept the series unexpected and vibrant. “‘Star Wars’ is a magic balance of action, fun, adventures and comedy,” said Filoni. “Jon’s ideas were in the right style and vein of storytelling, this Man with No Name bounty hunter with a child character.”
“Like Hemingway, it’s hard to write short sentences that work,” said Howard. “Sure, it’s easier if there’s access to resources, and people can say more is more, more characters, more plot twists. All of that is seductive. I was impressed by Jon’s focus and restraint.”
As they beat out their whiteboard of story arcs, Favreau and Filoni crammed on the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood “Dollars” trilogy, Akira Kurosawa’s “Hidden Fortress” (which inspired “Star Wars”), John Ford westerns, and old TV series like “The Westerner.” “It’s about concise storytelling in a short amount of time,” said Filoni, “and how the landscape is a character, beyond the gunfights.”
They combined relatable humans with exotic creatures such as “Baby Yoda.”
The diminutive kid sidekick to The Mandalorian, inspired by “The Lone Wolf and Cub” manga and movie series, did not start out as what we now recognize as “Baby Yoda” (AKA The Child). In fact, at Favreau’s first story pitch with “a child character like the Yoda species,” Filoni remembered he thought: “‘Oooh, I don’t know if we should do that.’ Yoda is such a sacred thing, an important character to George with so little known about him. Jon knew he had to be careful about what it means.” Yet animator Filoni started doodling pictures of what the kid would look like.
Baby Yoda wouldn’t have wound up an iconic breakout unless everyone involved in the creature’s creation landed on a dime — and that included keeping the character’s existence a secret until the series premiere. At which point “Baby Yoda” exploded.
Favreau fought to keep The Child quiet and mysterious; his experience adapting animated characters into photoreal ones in “The Jungle Book” and “The Lion King” “came in handy,” said Filoni, as Lucasfilm designer Doug Chiang wrestled with the proportions of a young Yoda’s body and eyes and clothing.
Favreau and Filoni banked on “Star Wars” fans accepting the look of a practical animatronic puppet figure (which alone cost $5 million). That turned out to be a crucial decision; even on set “there was respect for the puppet,” said Waititi. “He felt like a character.”
In fact, while Werner Herzog was playing the villainous Client who pays Mando to deliver him The Child, the actor-director convinced Favreau and Filoni not to abandon the puppet for CGI. He signaled that they should appreciate the power of Baby Yoda, said Filoni. “He was the first person to react to The Child in a way that they seemed to know something we didn’t. ‘This is something miraculous,’ he said.”
Favreau gave Howard room to explore working with the puppet in Chapter 4: “Sanctuary,” knowing that she had experience with animatronic dinosaurs on “Jurassic World.” “Jon didn’t want to push Baby Yoda too far,” said Howard. “Or get too cutesy or lean into it too much. It’s about purity of intention.”
Courtesy of Disney / Lucasfilm
They were willing to keep lead actor Pedro Pascal hidden behind a mask.
Casting Pascal was crucial (in the tradition of James Earl Jones’ Darth Vader) to bringing to life Mando, the laconic and anti-heroic Mandalorian. And Favreau and Filoni made the choice to go forward with almost eight full episodes with Pascal’s face covered. That took guts.
Filoni disagrees. “The Man with No Name has no identity,” he said. “To reveal his face could become a big reveal, a powerful thing. It’s intense to do. There’s a lot of magic to it. The costume itself is wonderfully made (it’s not metal), the helmet details and design. Just as a cowboy uses the brim of his hat over his eyes to throw more intense shadows on his face, the visor mimicked the way that the shape would move. But Pedro brought the character to life.”
Pascal, an athletic actor who is dangerous and charismatic in both “Narcos” and “Game of Thrones,” was Favreau’s idea. “He can be charming and intense,” Filoni said. “All this street cred for fighting, you believe that. The Mandalorian is not a man of many words. That’s part of his charm. What he says is more meaningful, as he gets fond of the kid.”
Besides, admitted Filoni: with a man in a mask, it’s easier to loop in dialogue.
Next Up: Season 2, with Favreau & Filoni returning as well as Howard and a new cast including Timothy Olyphant, Michael Biehn, Katee Sackhoff, and likely, Rosario Dawson as a live-action version of “The Clone Wars” icon Ahsoka Tano. Luckily, the team wrapped principal photography just before the lockdown.
Will they make their assigned October Disney+ streaming date as they struggle to complete post-production? “What we learned on Season 1 helped on Season 2” Filoni said. “I didn’t know it would be as successful as it turned out to be. We have a shot.”