Director talks Star Wars: The Clone Wars

It had been three years since the final live-action “Star Wars” film, “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” was released in cinemas, so when it was announced that Lucasfilm was working on a CG-animated feature film called “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” that would in 2008 finally depict the oft-referenced Clone Wars saga, fans’ interests were piqued. However, when the film was released this past summer, “The Clone Wars” was met with mixed reactions from both critics and fans alike.

On the heels of the modest success of the film, Cartoon Network and Lusanfilm is launching a 22-episode weekly series — also called called “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” -- that continues the saga where the film left off. The show premiered its first two episodes last week, and airs new episodes every Friday night on America’s Cartoon Network.

“The Clone Wars” will feature such “Star Wars” mainstays Anakin, Padame, Obi-Wan and Yoda, as well as new or lesser known characters such as Jedi Master Plo Koon, General Rex, the evil Asajj Ventress and Ahsoka Tano, the little known Padawan of Anakin Skywalker. The show also boasts a voice cast that includes film star Samuel L. Jackson (“Iron Man,” “Jumper”) as Mace Windu, Seth Green (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” ”Robot Chicken”) as Jedi Master Kit Fisto and “Star Wars” legend Anthony Daniels reprising his role as the iconic C-3PO.

CBR News had the opportunity to talk to series Supervising Producer David Filoni, who also directed the recent film. Filoni spoke to us about the fans’ reactions to “The Clone Wars,” the new series, Anakin’s Padawan, and what it’s like to work with the Jedi Master, George Lucas himself.

CBR: George Lucas has stated that all the ideas for Star Wars are essentially “in his head,” rather than written down in a kind of series bible. As such, how much freedom do you have to come up with your own, fresh stories?

David Filoni: It’s true. It’s a really interesting collaboration. In the beginning [writer] Henry Gilroy and I came up with a whole bunch of premises for stories that we might like seeing in The Clone Wars period. We sent those all to George and he either said yes or no. That’s where we got a lot of the early story. I think as George saw what we were doing with an animated series called “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” the level of detail and what we can do visually, he got more interested and came up with more story ideas of his own. He was also finishing “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” when we started. Literally, my first week working on the project that movie was in theaters, to give you a sense of the time-line of when we started working on this.

I think George needed to cool down from the big media event of that release and that’s when we got him really interested in this. He’s very involved with all the stories and coming up with the ideas. But if I said, hey, I’d like to do an episode like this based on this other movie, he’ll always consider it and come back to me with ideas based on that. It’s turned out to be a really interesting collaboration over the years.

As a longtime fan, what is it like to grow up and work with George Lucas developing the saga and the Star Wars Universe?

It’s pretty bizarre, I got to say. It’s not anything I ever thought would happen. It wasn’t going to happen until George crated an animation division. I was in the right place at the right time and I was really fortunate to have the opportunity. It’s been a great experience. George is a really good teacher and I think he really wants to pass on a lot of the knowledge he has about filmmaking, not just to me but to a lot of people we have here working in animation. It’s been a really big plus for all of us. His editorial technique and the way he puts a film together, I can’t say how valuable that knowledge is to me and how it’s changed what I do for the better.

At the same time, it is a job I have to do and I take it very seriously on that level. I know the amount of work and the amount of people I have to lead. It’s important to me in that way. But every now and then, I’ll step back and kind of get that third person view of George and myself standing next to an Avid [digital editing suite] and looking at shots of “Star Wars” and think, that’s pretty cool. It can’t exist there everyday but it’s a lot of fun.

You directed the “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” film that was released this summer. Were you surprised by fans’ mixed reactions to it, and how do you think it adds to the over-all “Star Wars” Saga?

I found it really interesting. As a fan of “Star Wars” for so long, I always knew there would be debate. No matter what you do with “Star Wars,” you’re going to have a huge debate about it. I actually think its part of the fun of being a fan; having the big arguments over “I like this” and “I didn’t like that” or “this aspect fit with what I thought” but “this aspect didn’t.” I think one of the greatest things is that people are still talking about “Star Wars.” “Anakin has a Padawan? I’ve never heard of that before?” But now everybody is talking about the fact that Anakin has a Padawan and the movie introduced that idea.

It didn’t just introduce ideas about whom these new characters are but it introduced this whole other look for “Star Wars.” I think it probably always was going to take people by surprise because it’s CG. It’s kind of a new frontier for the “Star Wars” universe. They’ve dabbled in cartoons before, as far back as “The Star Wars Holiday Special” and more recently with the previous Cartoon Network “Star Wars: Clone Wars” series, but it’s never been this large a format. George was so heavily involved with the film and wanted it to be a whole new experience for “Star Wars” fans.

My take on it is it’s a really exciting time to be a “Star Wars” fan. Fans thought after “Revenge Of the Sith” that there wouldn’t be any more “Star Wars.” But even now with the video game, “The Force Unleashed” and talk of the new live-action series, it’s just a good time to be a “Star Wars” fan.

Will fans that haven’t seen the film yet be able to follow along with the series, and can new fans watch the show and understand what’s going on?

Well I think that you can definitely just tune in and watch the series without having seen the film. Like anything, the more you know about the characters the better. The film obviously introduces some of the very new characters like Ahsoka, Anakin’s new Padawan, and shows you the beginning of their relationship as a master and apprentice. The series is very episodic, in that each episode is a very self-contained story. Sometimes the stories build up to little arcs. They’re telling the overall nature of the war, but you can tune in and watch any of them and understand the story and the message of that particular episode. With “Star Wars,” because it’s so well known, you will know some of the characters like Anakin and Obi-Wan, the basics that the casual fan knows are really obvious in the series.

I think that’s something that when we made this I was very aware of. In talking with George, he made it very clear the differences between writing stories that are within the world that kind of only speak to people that know the Star Wars Universe and an audience that just wants to tune in and watch a fantastic story. Some fans forget that when they first saw “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” they had no idea what a TIE Fighter or an X-Wing was. Or where they were built and who designed them. None of that was really important. It’s part of the myth that’s grown up around “Star Wars” now thirty years later.

But when you create these stories, it’s really good to keep your mind set on how we can still be like “A New Hope” and tell a fantastic story and have a Death Star, Wookiees, The Empire, Rebels and things like that. If you don’t have a history book on you, it’ll be okay, you’ll still understand the story. That’s one way to look at it when you write a story about Star Wars.

Do you consider “The Clone Wars” canon or part of the Expanded Universe? Is the old Cartoon Network show canon? How do the two relate and where do the two series fit in the Star Wars Universe?

That’s one of the biggest debates in Star Wars, what counts? The idea of what is canon? When I talk to George I know that he considers his movies, this series and his live-action series canon. And yet as a fan, I bring him a lot of information that is in the Expanded Universe and say, well this was done and this was done too. I get that information in front of him to see how he wants to use it or review it. I’ll try to add little touches and things that I know that the fans that are well versed in the Expanded Universe will know; what we can work in from the Expanded Universe really does gel.

But there’s never an implicit connection between the micro-series that Cartoon Network did previously and the series that we’re doing now. I personally as a fan never think of it as discrediting any of the other material, it’s just that other material is from a different point of view, a different look at the war and take on the war. It’s an ever-Expanding Universe in a lot of ways.

Will there be episodes done from different points of view, maybe seen through the eyes of the Separatists?

An episode from the Separatist’s point of view, I think, is a great idea and it’s something we’ve played around with. We’ve gotten close to doing that. But we haven’t done one that’s particularly, a day in the life of General Grievous, or everything from a Battle Droid’s point of view, though we’ve discussed it. I think one of the nice things about doing a series is that we can use these different points of view, which I think is important and it really ties in with something Obi-Wan Kenobi always says, “The truth we cling to depends largely on our own point of view.” Well, what is this Separatist’s point of view? Because I always thought as a fan that it was interesting that Dooku claimed that the Senate was corrupt, that his being a separatist is a completely just cause. Well, he’s telling the truth. From a certain point of view, the Senate is corrupt. I think that I’m very open to telling those stories and figuring out the best way to do one like that.

Is it difficult to plan a series when everyone basically already knows the story’s outcome?

As far as knowing what the end is, I think one of the things about the prequels was that we were all just waiting for Anakin to become Darth Vader. I wanted to see him in that suit again and hear that voice. That’s what we wanted more than anything. It is a challenge because we know what happens to Anakin, we know what happens to Obi-Wan. We even know that the Clones betray them all. But I think we’re building up interesting characters within this storyline, within this part of the saga where we don’t know what happens.

We know what happens to the Clones but, specifically what happens to Captain Rex? We know what happens to the Jedi but specifically, what happens to Ahsoka Tano? And the fans are already asking those questions. I think that if we play the story correctly, knowing that there is this title-wave of dramatic experience, for both the Clones, the Jedi and the Republic coming at the end, the questions become which of these characters will survive that? Will any of them survive that? Even Asajj Ventress, there’s been a version of what happens to her in the comic books and sometimes there were different versions of what happened to her. So how does she meet her end, if she does?

I think that starting to see the “Star Wars” saga through those characters as opposed to the big classic ones we all know like Yoda, Anakin, and Obi-Wan, though they’re always there, will be compelling and will keep the audience wondering. We also get little pieces of the puzzle along the way that tell you more about Palpatine and tell you more about Anakin’s relationship with him. Things like that that help so that the next time you watch “Revenge of the Sith” you say, “Oh I see; now I understand even better why that occurred”.

And the Battle Droids are interesting. My take on the Battle Droids, personally, is that the standard Battle Droids were built at a time before war. They were built to protect freighter convoys. That lends a bit to their goofiness. They’re not a serious as the world that’s coming, the world of the Empire. I think as we move forward in the war you start to see that the droids start to change. Not necessarily the “Roger, Roger” droids, but the Super Battle Droids are already more menacing than the regular Battle Droids and the Destroyer Droids are more menacing than the Super Battle Droids. And we have more diabolical droids. It’s kind of like as the war goes on, the Jedi don’t realize the serious nature of the Universe being created around them by all of these evil forces. It’s a progressive thing and at the point that we’re at right now, we’re kind of more in the high-time adventure part of The Clone Wars, where maybe it will end in a month or two, at least that the Jedi hope.

Though it's early in the series' run, have you given any thought to how you’ll end the series? How you will make it link up to “Revenge of the Sith?”

It’s actually something I’m constantly working on now. I’ve given how all this wraps up and how do I connect this to “Revenge of the Sith” a lot of thought. I have a nice commute home where I’ve thought about it. I’ve shot it all in my head about five different ways and had different endings and different outcomes for things. I’ve talked to George about it a little bit. But I’m really working out frankly, how it works for me. A lot of time I like to give it to him and then get his thoughts on it. He likes when I come at him with ideas.

Yeah, I’m always working on what the big overall story is. I think especially now that we have a lot of episodes under our belts. We know what we’re doing with the series more clearly and what George wants the series to be. It was a big question, what is a Star Wars television series like and how does that work? We know how some of these stories come out, we know what happens to the Jedi and we know what happens to the clones. We know the Empire gets formed. But how do you create a series and suspend the interest knowing those facts? That’s one of the things that we keep working on. I hit different people up with different questions. It’s exciting and I definitely have an ending to this whole thing that I think is growing and I like very much. I’ll be working on that pretty soon, plotting things out even if it doesn’t happen that way at the end, we’re always working on an idea for the story.

Let’s talk about the voice actors on the show.

With my actors it is a very collaborative process, it’s a lot of fun to work with them. I like discussing the characters with them before we start. I usually give them a big breakdown of what the episode is about and what some of the secondary meanings are. I have a big discussion with Ian Abercrombie (“Army of Darkness,” Birds of Prey”), who plays Chancellor Palpatine, before anything he says because Palpatine has such a duel role. He’s always saying one thing but intending another. Ian will come in with a lot of ideas about that character and we’ll sit down and have a little pow-wow about it. I do the same with a lot of them.

Matt Lanter (“Heroes”), who plays Anakin, always has a lot of questions and ideas. For guys like Matt, James Arnold Taylor (“TMNT”) and Catherine Taber, who are playing three of the big classics in Padame, Anakin and Obi-Wan, it’s important. I told them when we started that while they are playing well-known characters that they really have to be that character in their own right. James can sound remarkably like Ewan McGregor but Ewan was playing Obi-Wan with a hint of Alec Guinness. So for James, sometimes it’s more important that he play Obi-Wan with a hint of Ewan McGregor. It’s still Obi-Wan because he’s defined also through actions, attitude and personality not just the tone of the voice. Many different people have played different versions of Anakin and now Matt is playing our most resent version. It’s an exciting Anakin. He’s different and more of a hero than the darkness we saw in the movies, which is a great aspect of Anakin that we’ll hopefully get to see towards the end.

It’s all how they approach it. If they have a way that they want to say that line that’s better and it sounds more inspired, then I say go for it. Hearing the stories about [“Empire Strikes Back” director Irvin] Kershner on the set with Harrison Ford trying to get that line when Leia says, “I love you” and Han says, “I know” -- how they shot that like ten or fifteen times before they got to “I know.” That’s some of the magic to me that we need to shoot for. It’s all part of the inspiration of making it.

You drew a cover for Dark Horse’s “Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Slaves of the Republic” comic book. Did you enjoy that and will the new series tie-in with the comic?

Randy Stradley [Creative Director, Dark Horse Comics] asked if I would do that. Henry Gilroy was writing the comic book and I worked with him on season one of the series. So it was a great opportunity for me to do a comic book cover. It was something that I had never gotten to do and it was the first painting that I really had time to do in like three years. Everything I had worked on up to this show was all hand-drawn animation. So I still draw and doodle a lot every day and will do some quick board studies and stuff for people but to get to do a full out painting is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. That was a real thrill, I loved doing it and I would love doing it again. I got to say I was incredibly rusty when I sat down with a pencil and paper and I was terrified. I thought, “This is going to look terrible.” But I was able to work it out and I was pleased. It was a way to get an image out that I hadn’t been able to get into the actual show.

That’s kind of the reality of our medium now. There are so many different forms that you can get images out in, comic books, novels, video games or the Internet. That Star Wars is in all of those means I try to communicate with the different groups as best as I can and give them answers as timely as I can. You know, because Henry is involved with the comic book and he knows the series so well, I’m sure that it ties-in pretty well. We do our best to keep all the canon that fans love together and coordinated. It’s a big task, because you have all those outlets you have a lot of areas to cover. And it’s exciting and a great opportunity.

Finally, what should kids take away from this series? Is there a deeper message?

Well, I think we have a variety of messages; again that’s what’s interesting about the series. At the end of the day when you’re telling a story, I think the interesting thing is that you are taking something home. You’re telling a story. When you first saw “A New Hope,” you were in the theatre and Obi-Wan out of nowhere says, “Use the force, Luke.” I mean, that really moved people. I think people forget that. It was amazing. “Wow, he’s alive and that’s inspiring Luke!” Luke has to believe in himself, believe in his own abilities and not rely on a targeting computer. I really took that message home as a kid. I really understood it. I think we can tell a lot of similar folk tales, stories and little tiny myths with what we’re doing in “The Clone Wars.”

There’s a scene where Yoda is talking to the clones, and the kind of perspective that he’s giving them as someone who’s been around for hundreds of years, someone who had probably been in war a long time ago, before. Someone that’s telling them that their programming, what their told they’re supposed to do isn’t necessarily right. They can look at that in different ways but they need to believe in themselves. I think those are all interesting things and while kids obviously like Lightsabers and the Blasters and the things I liked as a kid, I think they’re going to learn what some of these other Jedi Masters are like. They have their own beliefs. Obi-Wan had great lines like, “Who’s the fool, the fool, or the fool that follows him?” I want to try to bring some of those ideas into the series that were in the classic “Star Wars” scenes for me. Maybe when they play they’ll want to be the good guy more than the bad guy. It seems hard, a lot of kids like Darth Maul. He’s got the cool tattoos and Vader’s got the neat outfit. So it’s hard to beat the villains.

“Star Wars: The Clone Wars” continues the saga Friday nights at 9PM (EST) on Cartoon Network.

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