A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY
‘Rogue One’ Director Gareth Edwards Discusses the Film’s Trump ‘Fake News’ Backlash
The ‘Star Wars’ filmmaker sat down with Marlow Stern to talk about the hit film’s multiculturalism, how it triggered the alt-right, and why the Empire is more than just Nazis.
A month before president-elect Donald Trump pursed his lips, pointed at CNN’s Jim Acosta, and barked, “You are fake news!” one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the year became embroiled in a “fake news” controversy of its own.
Back in November, days after Trump’s shock election victory, Chris Weitz, one of the screenwriters of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, tweeted: “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human organization).” His co-writer, Gary Whitta, then replied, “Opposed by a multi-cultural group led by brave women.” After being relentlessly trolled by alt-right Trump stans, Weitz fired off a photo of a Rebel insignia with a safety pin through it, accompanied by the message: “Star Wars against hate. Spread it.” The message was retweeted by the inimitable Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, who has made it quite clear that he is no fan of the Trump administration.
White supremacists dug up the tweets a month later and posted them to the Reddit board r/altright. They eventually fell into the Twitter fingers of the alt-right Pizzagate crowd, including Jack Posobiec, who shared a fake news chyron falsely alleging that the Rogue One writers not only called Trump a Nazi, changed the ending of the upcoming film to “bash Trump.”
That bogus chyron’s message was spread by the rest of the silly alt-right conspiracy theorist crowd, e.g. Mike Cernovich and Tim Treadstone, with the latter tweeting, “Stop using your multiculturalism anti-American agenda in a science fiction Disney movie. We just want to enjoy a fun movie,” followed by the hashtag #DumpStarWars. The hashtag rose to become Twitter’s top trending topic, and the aggrieved racist nerd army found itself mocked by The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert, who joked, “How do you fit anti-Trump scenes into a movie that takes place in another galaxy? Did one of the stormtroopers try to grab someone by the wookie?”
Of course, like the far-right hashtivism campaigns against Starbucks and Broadway’s Hamilton before it, #DumpStarWars was a big ol’ dud. Rogue One rave reviews en route to a $530 million domestic take—making it the highest-grossing film of the year.
When I mention the nontroversy to Gareth Edwards (Godzilla), the talented director of Rogue One, he grins and shakes his head in embarrassment.
“There’s loads of fake news,” he says. “That’s the thing: no offense to anyone, but I just don’t believe anything I read on the internet. Having been under the magnifying glass a bit when it comes to Star Wars, you see stories written and think, ‘Where did that come from?’ and it makes you more cautious when you read other articles about other things. I mean, that was blatantly fake. I don’t know where that came from.” He laughs: “I forgot what the number is, but I think when it’s been copied-and-pasted twenty times, it becomes the truth... Or maybe it’s twenty-five times.”
Edwards’s film is now, of course, a resounding success. But it didn’t always look like it would be. Last summer, Rogue One was plagued by story after story about its reshoots, with The Hollywood Reporter maintaining that Disney executives felt its initial cut was “tonally off” with the rest of the Star Wars universe. The cumulative effect was that the film was in trouble—a narrative that Edwards asserts was always false.
“Imagine being a composer and you sit down in front of your piano or guitar, and you strum or start to play, but then you get something wrong and you want to go back—but you can’t. That’s what filmmaking is,” he tells me. “And now with digital technology, and with the high resources provided to you by the studio, you can be more flexible and fluid and change things. I feel like films are like children: you want your child to be a lawyer or doctor, but then the child comes into the world and starts to tell you what it wants to be, and you should try and listen. So you should listen to the film, try and steer it, and if you have the opportunity to fiddle around and tweak stuff, you should try to do it.”
I’m sitting across from Edwards at a hotel in downtown Austin, Texas, during SXSW to chat about his journey to Star Wars ahead of the film’s April 4 DVD and Blu-ray release. He’s squeezing in a bit of press while he’s in town to deliver a keynote speech during the popular film, music, and tech conference—a full-circle moment for the Brit, given that exactly seven years ago, the fest premiered his directorial debut, Monsters.
“They accepted my first movie, Monsters, when no one else would, so I feel really indebted to them,” he says. “When I did Monsters, it was a proper South by Southwest experience: we went out, partied, got drunk, saw some bands, saw other films. It’s seven years to the day. Yesterday, I met up with Scoot [McNairy] and Whitney [Able], who are the actors in Monsters and live in Austin. It was surreal to be here with them on the anniversary and realize that seven years had gone by. It’s crazy.”
Monsters, a sci-fi film about a photojournalist chaperoning his boss’s daughter through a post-apocalyptic, monster-infested wasteland, was shot for just $250,000 (with another quarter million for post-production), and had Edwards wearing many hats, serving as writer, director, cinematographer, production designer, and visual effects artist. He jokes, “I think it had the budget of one day’s catering on Star Wars!” which came with an overall price tag of $200 million.
When he was first throwing around ideas for Rogue One, Edwards says that the film was decidedly smaller in scope and budget than the end product.
“The film started off a lot smaller than it was,” he shares. “Things that were banded about were references to District 9—a lower-budget, more experimental-type film. Then, as Episode VII started to come out and was clearly going to be this massive hit, it gave us a lot more resources and allowed us to grow. To be honest, it’s very hard to do a version of Star Wars that isn’t epic; to me, that’s kind of what Star Wars is. I don’t know how you’d make a small version of Star Wars, as it seems like an oxymoron.”
And, while Edwards always knew that his film would feature a female heroine in the form of Jyn Erso, eventually brought to thrilling life by the Oscar-nominated actress Felicity Jones, he says that he followed the Alien/Ripley blueprint of writing Jyn as a man in order to avoid clichés.
“Alien is the benchmark. You watch Alien and there’s no part of me who thinks of Ripley as this woman—she’s just Ripley. We were very keen to not view this character as a woman, and have her do things because she’s a woman, and just view her as a really cool character that we like and we just happened to cast a female,” says Edwards. “We tried to do the trick they did on Alien where Ripley was written as a man’s role and at the last minute they cast a female. So at the start we tried to write Jyn as a guy, just to get it off the group, and then tried not to do anything to pander to the fact that she’s a female.”
Around the time the film’s far-right backlash reached its boiling point, Disney CEO Bob Iger, a prominent member of Trump’s presidential transition team, declared that Rogue One was “not a political movie.” But, given how candidate Trump rode a wave of xenophobia into the White House, the notion of a multicultural coalition—led by a woman and a Hispanic man—taking down the Empire seemed pretty darn political to viewers with any grasp of subtext.
“I’m happy for everyone to take whatever they want from the film, but I can’t claim that we sat down two years ago and somehow knew the landscape of politics and how things would turn out. What we were trying to do is we were trying to tell as timeless a story as possible—because that’s what George [Lucas] always did,” offers Edwards.
You’re not giving yourself nearly enough credit, I tell him, poking fun at his diplomatic response.
“We wanted it to feel diverse, and we wanted everyone to be represented in some way,” he concedes. “I grew up in the UK and what I find really weird is, when we used to play Star Wars in the playground, I never, ever wanted to be Han Solo because I had fair hair. I wanted to be Luke Skywalker because I was looking for someone on the screen who looked more like me, and Luke looked more like me. I think it’s about time where you can look on the screen and see more of the world. We were in a privileged position to do that, and I think it will be more and more common. Eventually we’ll look back on these sort of questions and think, ‘God, what kind of era was that when this was even a thing?’”
Eventually our chat turns to the evil Empire, which Star Wars creator George Lucas originally modeled after the Nazis—from his stormtroopers named after the Nazi stormtroopers (or Sturmabteilung) and the Imperial officers’ SS-like coats and insignias to the Great Jedi Purge, a genocide inspired by the Holocaust.
Filmmaker J.J. Abrams doubled down on the parallels when, describing his seventh installment Force Awakens, he shared that Supreme Leader Snoke and Sith lord Kylo Ren “came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again.” Edwards, on the other hand, sees the Empire as a stand-in for more than just the Nazis. The Death Star, after all, bears some similarities to the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki committed by America during World War II.
“The Death Star represents a superweapon and they use the superweapon as a warning shot, which is kind of what America did in World War II with the nuclear bomb. It’s a mistake to always think that everyone else is the bad guy because then you don’t realize that you can become like that. It’s realizing that anybody can become the Empire,” he says.
“If they’re just the Nazis, that’s an injustice to what they represent because the Empire is anyone in power who’s abusing their position,” Edwards continues. “It’s something that’s gone on throughout all of time. It’s that cycle of: there’s a revolution, people become empowered, and then people become corrupt and there’s time for another revolution. It’s this cycle of life that goes on and on, and Star Wars is the story of one of those cycles. So I think the Empire represents anybody who’s in power as a warning of: ‘Don’t let it go to your head.’”