This time last year, as we were preparing to dig into the delights of The Force Awakens, long-time fans knew that at the very least the thought of doing a seventh episode and a third trilogy had been percolating for decades. For many of those years, fans could only dream of Episode VII becoming a reality, but the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in late 2012 brought that reality home. Little did we know that not only were further saga episodes being prepped but stand-alone episodes, designed to fill in many of the gaps that Lucas had steered clear of, were also being prepared. The first of those is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”
No longer described as part of an anthology, Rogue One is more properly identified as a Star Wars story. An apt description and fitting perfectly the opening words to every movie so far – “A Long Time Ago, In A Galaxy Far, Far Away.” It all but screams ‘once upon a time’, and leads us into the action and adventure that Star Wars brings. And the mind behind the story of Rogue One is very well entrenched in the execution of the saga.
John Knoll has been a key component of the onscreen saga for almost 20 years. Working for ILM since 1986 and Captain EO, Knoll came up with the initial idea for Rogue One back in 2003 while working on Revenge of the Sith. Taking that idea to producer Rick McCallum with a view to using it for the then in development live action series the idea was nixed, but the thought never went away. When Lucas sold the company to Disney and the stand-alone movies arose, Knoll dusted off the concept and took it to Kathleen Kennedy and story group head Kiri Hart. Impressed by what was essentially a fully-formed concept, further down the developmental line than the ideas George Lucas had been discussing with Kennedy, the project was greenlit and Rogue One became a reality.
With pre-production in an advanced stage on The Force Awakens the build up to pre-production on Rogue One began in earnest. Nuneaton-born Gareth Edwards, best known for the micro-budget Monsters and the mega budget Godzilla, was announced as director while London-born Gary Whitta came on board to write the script, later replaced by Chris Weitz. In October 2014 cinematographer Greig Fraser revealed that he would be joining the film and in March of 2015 the title of the film was revealed to be Rogue One as well as the announcement of Felicity Jones being cast as Jyn Erso. By May Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed and Diego Luna joined the cast of the film with Forest Whitaker coming on board in June 2015. July saw Genevieve O’Reilly return as Mon Mothma, reprising her role from Revenge of the Sith and James Earl Jones returned as the voice of Darth Vader.
Shooting under the production name of Los Alamos, principal photography began at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire on 8th August 2015, taking in a number of locations around the world. These included Laamu Atoll in the Maldives, Iceland and Jordan. Canary Wharf underground station was also used, shot and prepared at high speed over two nights between midnight and 4.00am, doubling as an Imperial location.
The style of the film was clear from the beginning. A boots-on-the-ground, in the trenches depiction of a Star Wars film. The ‘War’ in Star Wars. As Gareth Edwards explained, “It’s the reality of war. Good guys are bad. Bad guys are good. It’s complicated, layered; a very rich scenario in which to set a movie.” A different style to the black and white hats of the original trilogy and more shading to what was always a complicated story. And to add to that the lack of a scroll-up – a Star Wars staple rendered largely redundant given the huge similarity to the content of the scroll up of the original film – and Rogue One, while very clearly being Star Wars right down to its DNA, is set to be distinctly different.
Post-production presented its own challenges. While 11th February 2016 saw Disney executives pronounce that the film was “virtually completed” several weeks of pre-scheduled reshoots began in mid-June 2016 with post-production wrapping on 28th November 2016. Rumours surfaced that a troubled production had led to seven weeks of reshoots with over 20 sets being rebuilt while others claimed as much as 70% of the movie had been reshot. Either way, the footage shown through the teasers, trailers and over 20 TV spots show a cohesive and confident film. And if the reshoots had been overseen by screenwriter Tony Gilroy as claimed, would Edwards be so front and centre on the promotional tour as he has been?
In lieu of the maestro John Williams on musical score March 2015 Alexandre Desplat announced as the composer of the score. However, scheduling conflicts saw Michael Giacchino take the baton. Of the score Giacchino said “It is a film that is in many ways a really great World War II movie, and I loved that about it. But it also has this huge, huge heart at the center of it, and that was the one thing I just didn’t want to discount. Yes, it’s an action movie, and it’s a Star Wars film, and it has all the things that you would come to expect and love about that, but I didn’t want to forget that it was also an incredibly emotional movie as well. That was what really pulled me in.” With only 4 weeks to score the film the pressure was on.
And now the final push. Promotion is running hot with ads everywhere and the business of box office comes to the fore. With estimates for North American ranging between $100–150 million and a worldwide final take of $1.5 billion (two estimates I believe to be somewhat conservative) there’s little doubt that Rogue One is going to end the year not only as one of the top grossing films of 2016 but also a classic film in the Star Wars tradition. In the same way that A New Hope launched the saga entries, its immediate prequel Rogue One launches the stand-alone series. If it makes half the impact of its predecessor we’re in for one heck of a ride.