Before the hotly anticipated premiere of Star Wars Rebels season 3, executive producer Dave Filoni filled us in on what to expect – including everyone’s favourite Rebel pilot that’s not Luke and a certain blue-skinned, red-eyed Imperial villain who’s made his way over from Star Wars Legends...
This article was first published in October 2016.
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Hey Dave, how are you doing?
I’m doing well!
We don’t know if it was on purpose or not, but just before we got switched through to you on the phone, the hold music stopped and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice cut in and said “The Force will be with you always.”
Oh, that’s funny. That’s my standard entrance, yeah.
That’s impressive, most impressive. Where are you at the moment with season 3 of Star Wars Rebels?
There’s still a lot of animation and lighting to be done on season 3 as well as music composition and sound design. Then we need to look at the next season and all the planning and writing that goes into that. There’s a lot of thought that goes into each step of the process. I’ve been able to focus a lot on story this year, which is pretty exciting. The story began with the childlike world of Ezra Bridger but has expanded as his world expanded and his story has expanded to reflect his growing up, and the audience growing with him.
One of the biggest things this season is the introduction of Grand Admiral Thrawn, a fan favourite from the old Expanded Universe. At what point was it decided to bring him back into the fold?
I felt that he might be a character that works really well in animation, especially during this time period. We never wanted him to be a character that was just there amongst the others, he needed to be a primary, and it needed to be done the right way.
Once he’s on the table, we have to say, okay, can we take that character from the Expanded Universe and portray him in a way that’s faithful to what the fans love about the character and what we love, and also serve the story of Rebels?
So it just turned out that we, Kiri Hart [Lucasfilm Story Development], Simon Kinberg [fellow writer and executive producer for Star Wars Rebels], and myself all felt that we could do that, and make Grand Admiral Thrawn a great, exciting part of Rebels.
What makes him interesting is the fact that he’s a tactician and studies the art and culture of other races to strategise his moves.
Yeah, that was a big one for me. My first encounter with the character was how analytical he was but in more of an arts and humanities way, you know?
He [Thrawn] wasn’t your classic, calculating villain that was cold and dispassionate. He had an appreciation of the arts, humanities and culture, and it was through the lens of those things that he would break down his opponents' weaknesses.
If you watch the film Patton (with George C. Scott), Patton was famous for talking about the history of warfare, and how that knowledge informed his tactical decisions. It's a compelling thing, this interest in the people that you’re fighting, and what makes them tick.
Sabine's background as an artist plays nicely into this. Thrawn is actually interested in her art, not dismissive of it.
This will be a little bit spoiler-y but I want fans to look for it—at a certain point in Thrawn’s office, he’s removed big pieces of art from walls that Sabine has painted. It’s almost like a Banksy thing. He has it in his office so he can study it and see if there are any clues to it. He’s a pretty fun villain - very different.
Absolutely. And in terms of casting his voice, it sounds like you’ve kept it in the family with Mads Mikkelsen’s [Galen Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story] brother Lars. How did that happen?
We went through several rounds of people that we considered. One of the things I’m most excited about isn’t just the reaction from fans about Thrawn appearing in Rebels, but when they heard his voice and said, “oh, yeah, that is him!” When you get it right it seems like an easy thing, but it’s a tremendous challenge. This is a character that fans have loved for years, thanks to Timothy Zahn's books. Everyone had created their own version of his voice in their heads, so trying to do that justice is a pretty daunting task. I had seen Lars in Sherlock Holmes, where he played the villain, and there was a calculating calmness to what he was doing. He's been spectacular in the role. Lars himself is a happy guy, and fun to talk to—completely opposite of what he’s performing. It’s a real find to have Lars be a part of Rebels. We are super fortunate.
Talking of fan favourites, Wedge is making an appearance, so you’ve got the fun task of filling out Wedge’s backstory.
We are always looking for little connections to the films and felt we could play around with Wedge’s beginnings as there was so little known about him. I love Wedge because he’s in all three of the Original Trilogy films. I also love how Wedge so easily ducks out of the fight against the Death Star when Luke’s like “get out of here Wedge, you’re no good to me back there!” and Wedge says “Sorry!” and he’s gone. He's the smartest pilot in the entire Rebellion because he’s not like “no, Luke, I’m going to hang in there for you!” He’s out. He’s out the door. I just find that to be really humorous. As a kid, it was always fun to see that Wedge was in each movie and that he’d survived the final battle. That was remarkable to us as kids. Most of us who grew up liking Star Wars all know Wedge, so to have an opportunity to explore his back story was something we couldn’t pass up.
Exactly, and you can paint a picture that he knows when to get out of a fight, which is how he lives past Return Of The Jedi—he knows when to get the hell out!
Yeah, I haven’t exploited that yet but it would be funny if we did. What he should do in Rebels is hang in too long!
There's a new character, Bendu...
It’s something that George and I used to work on. Sometimes the moments in The Clone Wars when things felt the most like Star Wars were when we were being very different and doing things you hadn’t seen.
George used to talk about how there wasn’t a snow planet in the first movie, it was in the second movie; there weren’t walkers in the first movie, they were in the second movie; you didn’t really see speeder bike troopers in the first and second movies, they were in the third movie.
It’s a very big challenge to come up with new things and ways to surprise the audience. We knew we wanted another mentor-like character for this Empire Strikes Back type period that Ezra goes through. That's what season 3 amounts to in my mind, a little bit more of an angsty time of growth for Ezra where his morality is challenged. His fears come to light and can be used against him. That is part of his journey. Aside from Kanan, we needed another Force mentor character. In a way, Ezra has several mentors - Kanan, Bendu, he had Ahsoka at one point, and now he has Maul who is always trying to influence him.
Bendu was an idea that came out of my years working with George on The Clone Wars, and creating things like the Mortis Force Gods, and the Priestesses. Nature itself can be very strong in the Force. I took inspiration from those lessons, as well as my love of Tolkien and characters like Tom Bombadil. Characters that are outside the primary story, but still influence the main characters. Who would a Tom Bombadil type character be in the Star Wars universe aside from Yoda? At one point Bendu was so big that I wanted the entire Rebel Base to sit on his back. The rebels would have come back from a mission and the base would have literally walked away. It was another way of messing with a character’s perception of the world.
That wasn’t very TV production-friendly for us to do a creature that large. He’d have to have been bigger than the Zillo Beast (from The Clone Wars), and that was a pain so we'd scaled him down a bit. Next, I needed an actor who could pull it off, be bizarre, and kind of threatening and mysterious all at the same time. From the very beginning, I thought Tom Baker would be perfect. He just has a way about him, with line reads, and performance, that’s so unique. I have to say that from the beginning, Tom understood and knew what the character was. He would add his own brand of flourish; a bit of humour with a wink, a bit of threatening with a glance, and he does it all with his voice. He’s just perfect for the role of Bendu. Tom Baker is a powerful Force wielder, no doubt.
He sure is, and he’s a geek favourite as well.
He’s the Doctor, and you can call him such and he’ll accept it too. He is the Doctor.
He wasn’t handing out jelly babies in the recording booth?
No, it came up, but he didn’t. My wife was a very large Doctor Who fan growing up, and at Star Wars Celebration Europe (2016) I was able to have lunch with Tom, and she got to meet him. She was completely enchanted. If he had said “have a jelly baby” she might have just collapsed. He was fantastic. One of those people that just doesn’t disappoint as far as what they’re like in real life.
Considering the Star Wars sandbox is such a big thing to play in, are there any characters that you think would be fun to play around with?
Bizarrely, I’ve had an opportunity to do that in The Clone Wars. Some of my favourite characters were in the Jedi Council, which largely sat around in chairs and didn’t do much in the movies. I was able to take Plo Koon, who was a design of a Jedi that I liked very much, and made him a pretty important character in The Clone Wars. He became a mentor to Ahsoka Tano.
On Rebels, I’ve been able to take all the learnings from my years at Lucasfilm working with George and try to apply them to a brand new show with new characters, and see if they fit into the universe. I think Rebels has been successful in that, so I feel fortunate. I've been able to fulfil many of my Star Wars dreams.
If there’s any frontier that’s left for me, it’s to see some of these characters realised in a live-action form.
In some ways that’s already happening, like with Saw Guerra, that we created for The Clone Wars, being a key player in Rogue One with Forest Whitaker portraying him. That's a really amazing thing.
Have you thought about the endpoint of Rebels, is it getting darker?
I don’t sit there and say “oh, it’s going to get darker", I just follow my feeling of how the story needs to progress, to make the stakes right and the tension work. It just so happens that it does need to get darker - whatever the stakes were have to get higher, the consequences have to be greater. I just look at it that way.
Since day one of making this show I’ve been beating a drum of “where are we going with this?” Everybody is thinking that, but I’m constantly bringing it up because I want to make sure that we can arc correctly towards it. It’s easy to get caught up in exciting side adventures, but you have to make sure you’re always serving Ezra, our main character.
Simon Kinberg has been a great leader in that regard. He's always one who can come into a room and say, “okay guys, but what about the family? What about Ezra, Kanan and Hera?”. He’s kind of our guru that way. It’s a big team effort that we have. We all love the show and we really care about these characters.
Vader seems to be largely absent from season 3. Is that because you want to give some space before he reappears on Rogue One?
No. We’re all aware that you don’t want to overuse a character like Vader. We want him to always be special. We have been incredibly lucky to have James Earl Jones doing Vader’s voice on the show, which is obviously important because his voice is so integral to the character of Vader.
I suppose some fans would want to see Vader everywhere, but he just can’t be commonplace. That's why he wasn’t in a bunch of episodes of Rebels. When he showed up it was really important that he was there. So we try to think of it that way.
If we’re going to use this icon [Darth Vader], let’s use the character wisely. I like to think that he’s a part of some of the best work that we’ve done in animation, especially in the season 2 finale last year.
Darth Maul is operating in the shadows…
Maul is a bit of an enigma in places. When you see him in The Phantom Menace, I don’t think anyone would have guessed the development that he was going to have via the animated series. We were all surprised back on The Clone Wars when George walked into the room and said “Darth Maul’s back”. I was like “yeah, how’s that going to happen?” But, you have to be the person that makes it happen and be believable. That’s the big challenge. A large part of that is having somebody who can pull off a character’s performance and Sam Witwer is incredibly dedicated to his role as Darth Maul.
He’s so inside the mind of the character, it helps tremendously to have him as the voice. Sam brings a vast Star Wars knowledge to the role and that's given us more freedom creatively to explore things with the character. He got so good that we just kept on evolving Maul's role. I think his storyline is going to be one of the more interesting and discussed in season 3, that’s for sure.