“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” lands on digital HD Friday. The movie was a blockbuster, but even fans watching it again on a small screen now don’t know the whole story behind it.
The film’s director, Gareth Edwards, spoke with CNN at the South by Southwest conference last week and gave us a behind-the-scenes look at how Disney’s first “Star Wars” spinoff came to be, including its surprising ending, its use of CGI actors, and the way a confused Starbucks Barista helped name a planet in a galaxy far, far away.
The following conversation – which contains major spoilers about “Rogue One” – has been edited for length and clarity.
What surprised me about “Rogue One” is all of the main characters die at the end. How did you come to that choice?
The first draft I did with [screenwriter] Gary Whitta, we felt they should die. We were killing off all the characters and we just thought, “If we kill everybody off, they are going to freak. They are going to reject this. We should let Jyn and Cassian live, it’s your main characters.” We had this whole ending that did that, this little epilogue. We handed it in and one of the first reactions we got was, “Well, shouldn’t they all die? Surely, they should all die, right?” [Lucasfilm President] Kathy Kennedy said this. We were like, “Yeah, that would be great, but can we do that?” She was like, “You can do anything you want.” From that point on they all died…
I feel like I got a high score on a Disney film for death.
What is your reaction to the quasi-controversy around the use of Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, as a CGI character for Grand Moff Tarkin?
I think it’s fair enough and you should tread carefully around this area. We felt like we weren’t recreating Peter Cushing so much as we were recreating Tarkin, like a character he’d already established and we were doing our damnedest to pull from his performances to tell the story. It was nearly impossible to do a proper job of “Rogue One” and the periods that led up to [“Star Wars: A New Hope”] without having Tarkin in the movie. We did think about doing it discreetly where you never really see him. What about if we cast a different actor that kind of looked like Tarkin maybe a little bit? They all felt like bad choices.
[Industrial Light & Magic CCO] John Knowles, specifically, was at a point where he felt like the time has come technologically where we can pull this off, so we can do anything you want to do. We spoke to Peter Cushing’s estate and asked them like, “How do you feel about this?” They were OK with it. Then the real challenge became, can you do it?
I don’t know if you know this phrase, “Uncanny Valley?” Have you heard of this?
No, I haven’t.
What we do is we anthropomorphize lots of things in life, right? We try to make them human, so like an icon, a mascot. It might be a coffee cup or something, right?
A coffee cup?
Yeah, so then we put eyes on it and a mouth and we like it even more because it’s like human, right? There is this graph that you can draw where the more you make something human, the more we like it. This graph goes up and up and up, and then very strange things happen where, very close to it being completely human, we totally reject it. The graph drops to zero and then back up to 100. We like things more and more the more human they get. When they get close to human, but they are not human, it feels wrong. It feels like a zombie, or evil, or like there’s something going on that we just don’t like. There is a falseness to that, like a trick, and we hate it. That drop is “Uncanny Valley.”
That has been a real hurdle in VFX for a longtime, trying to get across “Uncanny Valley.” John was like, “Yeah, I think it’s time. We can do this.” What you find is that 99% of that problem is solvable very quickly, like you get there quite fast. That last 1% of trying to get it right takes nearly 99% of the effort, so we worked on those shots. They were the last shots to end up in the film. We were just working and working on them and criticizing them. We were really hard on it. We were paranoid that it never was going to be good enough.
Then we were in one meeting and Kathy Kennedy came and we presented her with the work. She had a new assistant and after about an hour-and-a-half of criticizing all these little details in the eyes, or whatever it was, at the end of the assistant went to someone, “Why are they being so hard on the actor?” We were like, “Do you not realize?” She went, “Realize what?” We were like, “Do you know the weird thing about the thing you just saw?” She went, “What, the actor?” We said, “That’s CGI. That’s completely computer generated.” She was like, “Oh, I didn’t realize.” That made us all look at each other and feel a lot better. We were like, “Oh, maybe we’re going to get away with this? Maybe it’s going to be OK?”
Tell you what, the process was really hard and this idea that computers are going to somehow replace actors is … We’re not there. It was like a year-and-a-half of blood, sweat and tears.
You also have another CGI character with Princess Leia very briefly at the end. Was Carrie Fisher a part of that in some way? It is one of her last appearances on screen, right before she died.
We had another actress play Carrie for the line. We shot about 34 different takes, all different options. Carrie knew we were doing it. I had never met Carrie but Kathy knew her really well. Kathy said, “When it’s at a point where we’re happy, I’ll take it round Carrie’s house and we’ll show her.”
Kathy went there with a laptop and showed her the shot. We were all really nervous, like waiting on the end of the phone. She said that Carrie watched it and thought it was real footage of her and thought we had taken something from “A New Hope” and somehow cut it out and put it somewhere else. She didn’t really remember filming that shot. Kathy had to explain, “No, it’s all computer graphics. They completely recreated you.” She was really impressed and so we were like, “OK, good.”
I just figured I’ll get to see Carrie down the line at some point and we can talk about this and I can thank her personally. Then, obviously, the opportunity never came.
“Star Wars” directors and writers have an ability to create iconic names. Was there anything that you got to name in this movie?
Yeah, so as a director you’re like, “I want to get my name in there,” but how do you do it? Gary was writing and he was naming loads of things. At one point he said, “It’s your turn to name something, Gareth.” I was really looking forward to this. I’m like, “OK, this is a big deal. I’ve got to pick a good name.” I was like, “What do you want me to name?” He said, “The end planet.” The whole third-act thing. I was like, “OK, let me think about it. OK, give me a moment.”
I go over to get a coffee from Starbucks. I’m thinking, “What could be the name? It could be this. Maybe we could use that?” Then at the very end, she gives me the drink and they must have asked my name and I must have said, “It’s Gareth,” but they heard “Scarif.” They wrote Scarif on the cup and I was like, “That sounds like ‘Star Wars.’”
I went back in and I just give it to Gary and went, “It’s called Scarif.”