The executive producer of Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ TV show discusses how the show will grow in its second season.
Warning: This story contains spoilers for Star Wars Rebels season 1 and the season 2 premiere.
Although the second season of the Disney XD animated series, set between Episodes III and IV, officially premiered June 20 with a one-hour movie, the rest of the season won’t start airing until this fall. That’s when fans will find out what missions the rebel crew of the starship Ghost will take on, what the Imperial military will do to stop the growing rebellion, and how some familiar faces from Star Wars: The Clone Wars—Filoni’s previous show—are coping with the end of their war and the rise of the Empire.
The famously tight-lipped Filoni couldn’t share many specifics about the second season—Lucasfilm is even more secretive than its sister company Marvel. But in an interview with the Daily Dot, he hinted at new villains and the journeys of fan-favorite heroes, discussed the collaborative environment among the show’s creative leads, and cryptically teased an upcoming Rebels event that he called “one of the most critical things I’ve ever drawn and staged at my job.”
How are you doing? It’s been awhile since we saw each other at Star Wars Celebration.
Oh, busy. Super busy, always, every day, all day. But it’s good. Things are going well.
How streamlined is your process at this point? Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced moving from The Clone Wars onto Rebels and how you’ve dealt with them?
There were a lot of changes, a lot of personnel changes, a lot of process changes. We don’t produce the show exactly the same as we did Clone Wars, that’s for sure. In a lot of ways, Clone Wars‘ scale is much, much larger: number of characters, shots, things like that. While we worked on Clone Wars, one thing that we were always driven at was how to be cost-effective and bring costs down. George [Lucas] had us working in a [more forward-looking] way of thinking than even a lot of feature films work, as far as pre-vis goes. There were a lot of things that we were playing with, conceptually shooting virtually and whatnot. So we have taken a lot of that experience and applied to Rebels and created a newer hybrid system.
Rebels is actually storyboarded with a combination of 2D and 3D, and then we still use pre-vis for a lot of flying shots. A lot of that is simply speed—we can go very quickly, and it doesn’t carry a major amount of overhead to do the drawing as opposed to creating all the [animation] assets and proxies up front that you need for the pre-vis system.
So we’re kind of developing our process and seeing what works and what doesn’t work.
It’s interest, they’re very similar shows in some ways and very different shows in others. To me, outside of the production process, the main difference is the type of story we’re telling, which on Rebels is continuous, with the same group of characters, and on Clone Wars was kind of a separate series of stories.
That also has a major impact, though, on production: Where [on] Clone Wars we would be able to design four episodes at a time, basically…so if we’re going to Geonosis we could design the assets and characters across four episodes. Rebels can be very different episode to episode, and we don’t always get a big bonus…we don’t stay in the same place long, is what I’m trying to say, which creates challenges. But I think it’s working out, and I definitely think both shows are at a quality that we want coming out of Lucasfilm Animation.
How do the two new Inquisitors that we saw in the season 2 trailer differ? What can you say about the different roles they’ll play for our heroes?
Not particularly. It’s important that, personality-wise, that they’re all somewhat unique. We’re explaining a little bit of who they are through the course of the season. But it’s not about them. They push our heroes, they move them forward, they represent in a lot of ways the dark side. Again, the main reason for having them is just [that] I didn’t want to undermine Darth Vader [and] have Vader in a losing situation week to week. I think we did a good job at putting Vader in a very winning situation at the very beginning of season 2, in the film [that premiered June 20]. He comes across as quite powerful and the Vader that you want to see.
The Inquisitors come in, and you’re going to learn how the impact of the death of the previous Inquisitor has affected these new guys, and a little bit more about their structure, and possibly, slipped in here and there, who they are and where they come from.
Do you want to stick with different villains every season, the way the first Inquisitor died in the season finale, or are you interested in, at some point, creating a more permanent villain (other than Darth Vader)?
It really just depends on the story, to be honest. It wasn’t so much a structural thing to say, “OK, we’re going to eliminate the Inquisitor at the end of this year and create new ones for next year.” I strongly felt that, if you look at the hierarchy of our villains, the Inquisitor in season 1 had failed a bunch of times, and that’s just not going to be tolerated. So he had to go at the end, and he knew that as a character. That’s why he willingly lets go of the bridge [in his final fight with Jedi-Knight-turned-rebel-fighter Kanan Jarrus]. Because if he doesn’t die there, Vader is going to do him in anyway, as a penalty for all his failures.
I thought it created a more believable world, even though…there’s a lot of times [when] people want to say [that] this is an animated show, and somehow say that that’s diminished compared to other Star Wars material like the films. But it never was with George, and it certainly isn’t here now. We think of it as just a medium that we’re telling our part of the Star Wars story in: animation. So I think it’s very consistent that you would see a character like him not be able to survive for all his failures. It made sense for the story.
We have discussed in the future having villains that do continue from season to season, but really that’s because that makes sense for their character arc and who they are. [There are some] really interesting ones coming up that I can’t say — oh, that’s such a bummer. I wish I could say, but I can’t. One in particular, you’ll be, I think, excited about. But we’ll have to wait and see.
Rebels does a great job of showing us the Imperial bureaucracy at work. What can we expect to see of Imperial life in season 2?
Not particularly. I mean, it’s funny. I have often pitched doing an episode completely from the Empire’s point of view. I think it’s something that people are really interested in. I think it’s something that would be unique, that we haven’t seen before. But so far, I haven’t really been able to get that to fly. People always want it to come back and be about the Ghost crew. I think eventually, though, we will make one. We just need the right story; we don’t have the right story to tell that angle yet.
But by default, by having episode-to-episode and seeing the same character like [Imperial Security Bureau Agent] Kallus quite a bit, you are getting to know these guys more. You are getting to experience a bit more of how the Empire operates when it’s not on the Death Star or chasing down Luke Skywalker and his band of rebels.
What’s interesting is it’s not just the Imperial lives and personality you’re getting. It’s also how the Rebellion works. You start to see that our rebels aren’t necessarily tied directly to [General Jan] Dodonna [from A New Hope]’s group of Rebels and where they are. Maybe they talk through someone like Fulcrum [the codename for The Clone Wars character Ahsoka Tano, now a rebel agent], but they are definitely not all hanging out together at any one time. They’re spread out and fighting small battles. And then you see how the Empire is trying to counter that.
And a big thing has to be—and we tried to express this with [Grand Moff] Tarkin [in his Rebels appearances]—that the Empire knows the Rebellion is there but they don’t see it as a really credible threat. And if you look at the Rebels, why would you? You have massive Star Destroyers and many, many TIE fighters, and all they’ve got are a couple cargo ships and one called the Ghost and later one called the Falcon. This is not a group that would put fear in a big military like the Empire.
So on that question of the early Rebellion’s dynamic, are we going to see any kind of shift in their scale or reach in season 2?
My feeling is that the rebels in season 2 are operating more like what I think the traditional Star Wars fan thought they would be operating in season 1. I think it was a surprise to people that in season 1 we were mainly dealing with a very small group of people on one ship. I think a lot of people thought, when they heard, “Oh, we’re making a show called Star Wars Rebels,” that it would be all about a group that has X-wings and Y-wings and is battling the Empire at large. You don’t really get to that “battling the Empire at large” until, in my mind, [after] the Death Star’s destruction. Because they don’t really have a major victory against the Empire, nor the resources to do it, for a while yet. But we’re showing a gathering of forces, and in season 2 you really start to see our guys have the challenge of working with a team of rebels and what those rebels’ goals actually are.
Kanan, in the premiere that we showed [on June 20], kind of struggled with this idea of stepping back into this formalized military/war situation. I think we’re going to cover those things, and I do think it’s more how people pictured the Rebellion actually working from the beginning. I think we’re finally getting their now.
You’ve said that Ahsoka is the Gandalf of Rebels, weaving in and out of the main characters’ lives as she goes on her own journey. Now that she has encountered Darth Vader, what kind of journey does that set her on? How does that revelation change her?
[laughs] Well, you’ll have to wait and see. Ahsoka—I’m very excited that she’s back. I was thrilled, and so was the rest of the team, with the response to her being back from fans. It’s kind of, in some ways, a bigger deal than we anticipated. People were so happy to have her back. It speaks to this idea that people want to know what happens to her. They’ve watched this life evolve since she was a 14-year-old Padawan, which is kind of interesting.
She is more—you have to look at it as, she’s moved from being very naive and brash, to coming into her responsibilities on Clone Wars, to making her own independent decisions—which were very fueled by the opinions of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker—to make the choice to walk away [from the Jedi Order at the end of the show], to now, the idea that she was still compelled to try and do good, and do good on grand scale, and help people, which is in her nature.
There are several questions that I think are important for fans to ask. One is, obviously, what does she know about Anakin, what does she believe about Anakin, and what does she know about Darth Vader? One is, is she a Jedi or is she not a Jedi? Because she had walked away from the Temple the last time anyone saw her [on The Clone Wars]. I tried to use this season, when she appears, if you listen to her and even then later you listen to [Clone Captain] Rex talking—because we all know Rex will appear in season 2 [as shown in a trailer]—they reference and talk about things that the fans have never seen that happened at the end of the Clone Wars.
It was a very subtle way for me to get some ideas that George and I had discussed with how that series was going to end [into the universe]—and if you think about it, that happened in the lives of these characters, so they have to make reference of it. I think it really gives them a rich sense of history, and then it gives fans of both series the ability to try to piece things together and say “What are they talking about?” and put them in a timeline. The same way that, you know, I as a kid listened to Obi-Wan talk about the Clone Wars [in A New Hope]. I had never seen it happen, but it was important to me, and an important part of Obi-Wan’s character and Anakin’s character, to know that it happened.
We’ve tried to do a bit of that. But mainly this year is about, with Ahsoka, she’s helping the crew of the Ghost, she’s interested in Ezra and Kanan, and ultimately she’s, of course, interested in Darth Vader and what he’s all about.
Tell me about Rex and the other old clone veterans who show up in season 2. How did you work with voice actor Dee Bradley Baker to establish what they would be like at an advanced age? How different should we expect them to be from the men we met in The Clone Wars?
Well, they’re older, which was a lot of fun doing the math and trying to figure out how old those guys were. Dee is so brilliant; I don’t have to direct him a lot to get him to what he wants to do. But I did push him a little bit with some of the clones, as far as their personalities on Rebels. I wanted to be a little bit more extreme and exaggerated than what we had done on Clone Wars, just to make them a little more interesting. You get older, you get a little bit more curmudgeonly or cranky. You kind of push your identity or you’re settled in your identity.
I think Rex is very true to who Rex is. But they’re all soldiers that, to some level, feel that they’ve worn out their usefulness. I always used to talk about, on Clone Wars, one of the possibly worst things for a clone was to survive their situation. Because then what do they do? They age so quickly. And then their situation, some of them were just decommissioned from the Imperial military. What do those guys do?
Well, growing up in Pittsburgh, a lot of times, older people would talk about [laughs] moving to Florida. That really factored in my mind of how you approach these guys in their RV [laughs]. My grandfather always liked fishing, would take us fishing. There’s a little bit of that in there. A bunch of old guys fishing, taking it easy, and trying to decide if they’re going to help our rebels and get wrapped up in what’s going on currently, or are they just going to let things go and slowly fade away. We’ll have to see.
You used to work one-on-one with George Lucas and then take his ideas to a team of writers. Now you’ve got the Lucasfilm Story Group. I know you’ve said you really enjoy working with them, but in what ways is it different from just talking to that one guy who started it all?
You know, it’s different but the same. With George, it was more…I would have some ideas for stories, and he would have some ideas for stories, and then we would debate and figure out which ones we were going to tell. If George wanted to tell a certain story, we were absolutely going to do that. Here, I think, there is a bit more debate, because no one would sit there and say they are the rule of what should and shouldn’t happen. We try to figure out how best to move the characters. But there’s a lot of mutual respect for the fact that we’re going to decide this largely as a group. We’re all going to give our opinion.
But it still feels very much the same now, you know, I have to say. Just like on Clone Wars, at the end of the day, I have to make the final decisions on what goes on. It was always that way with George, and it’s that way now here. The story team has a lot of respect for the amount of time I’ve been here, and they trust me with what I’m doing. At the end of the day, I make the call and tell the stories the way I think they should be told.
What’s great is that I can get a lot of immediate input and feedback at any time. I’m just in the middle of rewriting some important scenes while we’re shooting them, and I can shoot them off to any number of people and get a nice spread of feedback for how people think it works or doesn’t work. But at the end of the day, if I decide I want to go that way, there’s a lot of respect for my position that I can go that way.
Everybody has such a good intention toward Star Wars. Everybody grew up with it, everybody loves it, and we all just want to get it right.
It was great working with George, but largely, as he got busier and busier on different projects, I was left a lot to my own devices in the latter years of The Clone Wars. Which was fine, and he had prepared me for that, but at the same time, you know, I would make big changes on an entire episodes and not really have a soundboard for are they going to play or not until very late in the process. Because there [was] no time to watch everything [for George back then].
[On Rebels], I get more feedback. Feedback’s always good, but at the end of the day you have to make a decision and commit to something, and I was trained well by George to do that.
It’s still fun, still feels like Star Wars to me, so…[laughs] I’m happy and very grateful that I have the people I do around me. Because film-making, storytelling, is a group process. It’s different, depending on who’s around you, you’ll have more success, or not, if people understand what you’re doing and you understand what they’re saying. You need a good group of people, and at Lucasfilm I’ve always had that, whether it was George or the current group of people.
Let me throw you a curveball question. We’re coming up on Force Friday, when all this new Star Wars merchandise is going on sale. If you could create one Rebels-related toy or piece of merchandise that doesn’t exist yet, what would it be?
Oh man…boy I don’t know. That’s a hard one. They do make a lot of things that I like. They’re making that great Ahsoka Black Series figure [from Hasbro], so I really like that. I guess for me, it would just be, since I make these characters, I’d love just more figures. Clone Wars, they made a ton of figures, which was great to get a lot of people represented. I would love a more full-sized Ghost that kids could plug their Phantom [shuttle] into for [the 3 3/4-scale action figures]. That’d be pretty exciting. Usually at the top of my list is an Ahsoka figure, and they are making some really good ones right now, so I’m pretty excited about that.
I thought you would say Ezra’s laser slingshot. I feel like a lot of people could use that.
Ha! No. You know, I don’t know. I mean, maybe. Kids can probably make those on their own, you know? [laughs]
We’ll have to see. There’s some stuff coming up that people don’t know about, that it’ll be interesting to see if they make. It’s an amazing world of Star Wars right now, and tons of things coming out. Lots of exciting stories and merchandise—which is a huge part of Star Wars. I mean, Star Wars figures are hand-in-hand with everything we do as fans, it seems.
We have AT-AT drivers in season 2, and the AT-AT driver is my favorite Imperial trooper. I would love for them to make a carded AT-AT driver from Rebels. That’d be kind of great. I still have my original Empire Strikes Back carded AT-AT driver on the card; I can see it right now in my office. So that’d be great. I’d love that, just on a small personal note.
Give me a nice cryptic tease of a specific event you’re really looking forward to fans seeing in season 2.
Ummm. Boy. I know exactly what it is.
You know, it was interesting. I was, oddly, up at Skywalker Ranch [in Marin County, north of Lucasfilm’s San Francisco offices], while Kathy [Kennedy] and J.J. [Abrams] were at Comic-Con doing their panel. I had the StarWars.com livestream updating on my computer while I was drawing and storyboarding probably one of the most critical things I’ve ever drawn and staged at my job at Lucasfilm. And I just found it to be a really interesting kind of crossover point, to see Kathy carrying forward this big movement of Star Wars now, and the fan excitement, and to be…literally I was drawing it in about the same place where I started Clone Wars in 2005.
[Lucasfilm] moved from the Ranch to Big Rock [a nearby studio] and then down to the Presidio [in San Francisco], but that day, because the Golden Gate Bridge was temporarily closed—they were doing some traffic changes—I went in and worked at the Ranch, which I hadn’t done in a long time. And it just so happened that I was drawing this really, really, really, really, really, really, really important moment that I had turned over in my head many times, dealing with Ahsoka. And all this was happening on this same day.
I’ll never forget that. That was really just a great day in my head for Star Wars. And I thought, “Wow, no one knows this is all happening.” But I never would have thought, when I started in 2005, that I would be there 10 years later, not just working on what I was, in that moment, but also witnessing this forward future for Star Wars on a scale that I don’t think any of us could have imagined in 2005.
It was kind of a nice point where all things came together for me. And that stuff that I staged, that particular scene, and everything surrounding it…I’m very excited for fans to see. That’s going to be a big one. When it happens, you can ask me, you’ll say, “Was this the thing?” and I’ll say, “Yeah,” and I can go into more detail about it.
Is that cryptic enough?
Oh, you are the master of cryptic, Dave. Thank you.
As long as I’m not too cryptic on screen! We try to be pretty clear on screen. Cryptic every once in a while, but you know…not too often.
Photo via Dave Filoni/Facebook