When the credits rolled on 2005's Revenge Of The Sith, it seemed to be the last of the big-screen Star Wars saga. But apparently not; lightsabers and grimacing droids return to theaters tomorrow with the release of the CGI film The Clone Wars. The story takes place before Sith and after Attack Of The Clones (2002): Jabba The Hutt's son has been kidnapped, and the Jedi, eager to make peace with the Tattooine clan, send Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and his new padawan to track the mini-Hutt down. Meanwhile—cue screen wipe—Count Dooku gathers more separatists for his rebellion against the Senate.
An admitted Star Wars junkie, 34-year-old Dave Filoni directs the film and acts as supervising director on the upcoming new Cartoon Network TV series of the same name. (George Lucas described the movie as "somewhat of an afterthought"—he needed a lead-in to the television show.) Though Filoni worked on seven episodes of Nickelodeon's animated Avatar: The Last Airbender, his IMDB page is pretty barren. Filoni recently sounded off to The A.V. Club on his first big gig, the insight he's gleaned from Lucas, and why nobody likes Battlestar Galactica.
The A.V. Club: CGI has been a big part of the Star Wars movies in the past, including the punch-ups of the originals and entire characters in the last three. Why make the leap to a full-blown CGI film?
David Filoni: Well, George Lucas was always curious about animation. He was involved with the early Pixar developers until that became the juggernaut it is now. I think the prequels got him interested in animation again. It's been brewing for a long time, and if you're going to make an animated film with a company, why not make it Star Wars? It has such a vast galaxy and so many stories to tell.
AVC: What was it like working on a project with such deep roots that you had no hand in creating?
DF: That's a challenge, I have to say, because you're dealing with something that most people know. I know it, and people talk about what a fan I am, but there are fans that eclipse me in every possible way. And you're aware of that when you walk in the door. My strategy basically was… I had a tremendous amount of respect for it. I had just come off a show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, which my friends Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko created, and they were very specific about what they wanted. So I had worked with people who were very driven toward their subject, and I had to help them achieve that vision. Working with George was similar in that respect. And I was glad that he was going to be there, because I wasn't just making my version of Star Wars, I would be making it as he envisioned it, and he was there teaching me how to go about it. But you bring a lot of yourself, and you hope it just adds to it.
AVC: You don't have many credits on the IMDB. How did you land this project, and what was the interview process like?
DF: I've been very fortunate in animation—when I get on a project, people tend to keep me, so I have long stays of work, rather than bouncing around. In the last eight years working, I haven't had a hiatus of more than a week. When I was working on Avatar, I talked a lot about Star Wars at work—a lot of people in animation talk about Star Wars at work. I wasn't even aware that this job was out there, but friends of mine in the animation industry who know I'm into Star Wars put me up for it. Lucasfilm called me out of the blue, and I almost hung up, because I thought it was a practical joke. This was right before Revenge Of The Sith came out. Here you are, a big Star Wars fan, talking about Star Wars all the time, and you have your master replica lightsaber, and then you get a call from Lucasfilm for a job? That's a little far-fetched, but luckily, I hung in there long enough to get to a meeting. Cathy Winder, the producer of The Clone Wars, was having a difficult time finding someone who fit all the criteria George had for the job. It was a very discreet position to be filled, and they'd gone through several candidates, so it just so happened that she finally talked to some people who knew me. I had never even heard of her. It was all very by-chance, at the end of the day.
AVC: There was a lot of praise for Revenge Of The Sith, because it, perhaps inadvertently, tapped into the zeitgeist of the Bush administration. Do you see the new story resonating with current events?
DF: I don't think too much allegorically—
AVC: Wait, did you say Al Gore-ically?
DF: [Laughs.] No, no. There was a good thing about him in The Onion the other day, where they were comparing him to Superman's father. That was brilliant. [Laughs.] But I'm sorry, I don't mean to diverge. There are always things that are relatable when it comes to dealing with myth, with a strong archetype. I don't shoot for them myself, but there are some undeniable things [in the new film]. When you see this young girl padawan going into a war, you wonder how this is affecting her, and all of us. It's interesting subject matter, it always has been, whether it's World War II or Vietnam.
AVC: What makes Star Wars so accessible? People are always saying, "Oh, I hate science fiction, but I love Star Wars."
DF: Star Wars arguably isn't strict sci-fi, though. There's a big fantasy element to it. So really it's a hybrid, with a lot of strong mythos that makes it very universal. I mean, I always tell people that Han Solo seems like this guy who grew up down the street from my house, who had his car up on blocks and seemed really cool. Whether it's a Cadillac or a Landspeeder, that's just the backdrop that the story's working in front of. It's the characters that people relate to most of all. My grandma knows who Anakin Skywalker is, and she's never seen Revenge Of The Sith. We could say that's because of me, and maybe that's more true than I know, but there's an awful lot of information about these characters out there. People seem to know who they are.
AVC: But there are shows like Battlestar Galactica that are also hybrids, that get critical and fan praise but don't do well in the ratings.
DF: Yeah, that's interesting. I wonder about that myself. There's something about Star Wars, and I don't know if it's just a secret that George knows. He's been teaching me a lot about Star Wars, and the one thing I know is that we try to keep it fun as well as dramatic. We don't try to do just any one thing. If we could figure out what the answer was… Usually when you hear something being called "the next Star Wars," you're like, "That was good, but it wasn't the next Star Wars."
AVC: What is it going to take for something to dethrone Star Wars?
DF: I think there are a lot of factors. I mean, you look at Batman right now, and the reaction it's getting. People talk about how much money it's making, but people keep going to it, that's what I notice. It's amazing, and the types of story it's telling, the intensity, it's interesting. It's gone beyond just the movie. That happened for Star Wars too.
AVC: The Phantom Menace was heavily criticized for having the new, totally CGI character Jar-Jar Binks. How do you reconcile that while making a movie that contains numerous new, totally CGI characters?
DF: It all depends on the character. You didn't get any pushback when Boba Fett showed up, because he's got a really cool helmet on. As a kid, I remember hearing about Boba Fett before I even saw Boba Fett. I think I even had the action figure because I sent away for it. Also, I remember when I was a kid, and Jabba the Hutt showed up, I thought "Really? That's what Jabba looks like? He's a big fat bug guy? I thought Boba Fett's boss would be cooler than that." But later I understood, and when the emperor showed up in Return Of The Jedi, my first reaction was "Oh, it's just an old guy." But then he was a really creepy scary old guy. I find that people actually want new characters. I understand there's hesitation, but new characters affect the ones we know.
AVC: You said you learned a lot about Star Wars from working with George Lucas. What specifically?
DF: We had finished up with a cut of an episode of The Clone Wars [TV show], and his big comment was that we were taking this stuff too seriously. And we were kind of like, "What is he talking about?" But we had forgotten one of the most important things about this whole thing, which is that there are light and funny moments. Like, Han Solo is actually very funny. When you talk about why people say they don't like science fiction but they love Star Wars, a lot of people love Han Solo. He's cocky, he's kind of a jerk sometimes, but he's funny. We were missing that whole dynamic. George is really a huge, huge, huge part of everything. When he writes a line or two for us, you go, "Yeah, that's Anakin, that's how he sounds."
AVC: When is enough going to be enough, as far as Star Wars is concerned?
DF: Oh, I don't know. I get asked that question a lot, as you can imagine. Totally valid. I don't know. I mean, the one thing I have noticed—now that I'm 34 and getting on in my years—is that there's a whole group of kids behind me, really young too, that are totally gung-ho about Star Wars—the same as I was at their age. There are stories that just keep coming back and coming back, not just Star Wars, but different superhero ones. Someone always wants to try a reboot of something. It's fascinating. It seems to be all over the place: When Transformers came out last year, I thought, There must be some guys my age, or a little bit older, that were like, "I must see that as a live-action movie."
†[The end] won't be up to me. It'll probably be the generation behind me who will want to talk about their Star Wars heroes. Mine were Luke and Han; theirs are Obi-Wan and Anakin.
AVC: But they still don't watch Battlestar Galactica.
DF: Really, that's surprising. I guess we could have a big nerd discussion about that. But again, Battlestar Galactica is something I knew as a kid. The minute you say that, I know exactly what you're talking about, even though it's a different version.
I love the Cylons on the old TV series. I thought they had an awesome design. I see them at the conventions alongside clone troopers, and I'm like, "Holy cow, there's a Centurion, and the little red light even moves." It's amazing.