Star Wars was a significant swath of Salt Lake Comic Con’s FanX 2017, with multiple panels including one that featured Gary Whitta, co-screenwriter for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
At the panel “Inside Rogue One”, Whitta spoke about writing the first standalone film among the Star Wars movies and his process in getting there.
Whitta couldn’t finish his sentence when talking about the end of Rogue One, when main characters Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor join the rest of the Rogue One team in paying the ultimate sacrifice in delivering the Death Star plans into Rebel hands. Whitta got emotional.
As it was when he saw the film the first time – he “almost cried,” Whitta said. He was watching the opening scene, child Jyn run towards her farm home as an Imperial shuttle flew overhead.
“Because, s—, that was the first thing I wrote,” Whitta remarked, “and it’s real now.”
Whitta wrote the scene in his initial draft and it survived each subsequent one because director Gareth Edwards liked it that much, Whitta said.
“There were complaints about no crawl,” acknowledged Matt Martin, Lucasfilm Story Group executive and co-panelist with Whitta, before saying: “You get to watch the crawl.”
But there was “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” a trademark in each of the other seven Star Wars films – and writing that also touched Whitta. It did stay among the many things that he, Edwards and other Rogue One makers considered that had been in previous Star Wars films but didn’t end up in Rogue One, including John Williams scoring the music and screen wipes for scene transitions.
“As fans, we wanted those things we grew up with but then we thought, ‘we don’t need it,’” he added. “It was a different type of film. … I know people don’t like that, but I stand by that (Rogue One) didn’t need a crawl.”
The scene saw Jyn’s mother killed and father, taken by Death Star director Orson Krennic, on assignment from the Empire. It was her “Bruce Wayne” moment, Whitta said, pointing out that every film series telling Wayne’s story sees his parents killed because that origin is essential for the conveying of the protagonist to audiences.
“It’s the genesis of why (Jyn) hated the Empire,” Whitta added. “It (gives) personal motivations other than big weapons to destroy.”
When it came to the script, “the bones were basically the same,” Whitta said. Jyn as the protagonist and the presence of K-2SO were always at play, and the former Imperial droid always died. Though they eventually shared the same fate, that wasn’t the case with Jyn and other Rogue One members besides K-2SO. They lived on in the next draft, which was Whitta’s.
“I didn’t know what Disney would want,” he said. “But there were so many hoops to jump through, I thought ‘maybe this is the universe telling me ‘I need to kill her.’’”
Then Chris Weitz, the other co-screenwriter, came on board and told Edwards that the protagonists needed to die.
“And God bless Kathy and Disney, they agreed,” Whitta remembered.
It meant the audience may have been progressively despairing over the increasing number of Rogue One members lost. Attendees at the screening were asking “what’s going on,” Whitta said.
“K-2, you think ‘OK, the droid dies.’ Then Bodhi (Rook) dies. Wait! Then Baze (Malbus) and Chirrut (Imwe). Wait? What? Not Jyn!… Yes, Jyn,” Whitta said with verve, noting that Edwards was effective in making the deaths be felt emotionally while not getting in the way of the story.
Remarking on Jyn and Cassian’s deaths, “it’s beautiful” is all Whittta could muster before choking up.
Matt Martin remarked that each death had a “useful point.”
Whitta was standing in line at a Popeye’s Fried Chicken, when he read the news on his phone Disney’s announcement of purchasing Lucasfilm and produce to make a new trilogy. The first thing he did after that: he called his agent.
“I wouldn’t have thought I was on their long list, let alone their short list,” Whitta said.
But a call came and Whitta would learn that “working for Lucasfilm is like working for the CIA,” he said.
The assistant to Kiri Hart, Lucasfilm senior vice president for development who oversaw Whitta, told Whitta that he would be sent a document that was password-protected. And that after he received it, he would be called with a password (it was 16 digits, Martin said). Whitta remained inside his house all day in anticipation – except for five minutes. And that was when he was called. In the voicemail, he was told that he would be called back that Monday. (Yet he “spent the whole weekend bouncing off walls” and tried to crack the document, he said.)
But a call came on Monday and, after seeing that the document concerned a feature film, he called Lucasfilm back, saying that he must have been sent the wrong one.
“And I thought, ‘that was a great story – who doesn’t want to get that story?” Whitta recalled.
Soon after, Whitta was at Lucasfilm headquarters, in the same room as Knoll, with it being Whitta’s turn, as the prospective screenwriter, to give his thoughts about how to flesh out the script. He thought to “couch it in the language of a World War II man-on-a-mission story,” which are films he loves. He told Knoll and other interviewers that Star Wars got him into writing. And at one point, he said that he envisioned the film being parallel to Zero Dark Thirty, which told the story of the investigation, raid, and killing of terrorist titan Osama bin Laden that has a strong, female character like Jyn.
“John nodded as if this was a good idea – and when he pitched the idea to Kathleen, he said the same thing,” Whitta said. “Maybe that’s why they hired me.”
Edwards would take time from lunch while directing Godzilla and worked with Whitta on finding the emotional and family elements of the story, particularly since the film was “militaristic” but the entire series is a family saga with a fallen man redeemed through his son, Whitta said. That led to Jyn having a father, Galen Erso, who also was the one who designed a technical error in the Death Star that made it possible for Luke’s torpedoes to reach the space station’s core.
“That was my idea,” Whitta said. “I got tired of seeing online complaints of the plot hole.”
With an office at Lucasfilm for a year, Whitta enjoyed consulting routinely with chief men for the Story Group. And Whitta did his own homework, watching A New Hope again – and that’s why the plans are tapes in Rogue One, since the blueprints are called “stolen data tapes” in A New Hope.
Photo credit: IMDb