Dave Filoni attended WonderCon for the Star Wars Rebels panel, and the executive producer sat down with Nerdist for an in-depth discussion about the upcoming animated series. Rebels focuses on the crew of a spaceship called Ghost; the ragtag bunch includes a droid, a Force-sensitive kid, a Jedi, a Twi’lek pilot, an artistic Mandalorian, and a big purple Lasat called Zeb. Filoni talks about the diverse ensemble cast and the challenges of appealing to new and old fans of Star Wars, and he also dropped a couple exclusive tidbits about the effects on the show and more details about the show’s villain, the Inquisitor.
NERDIST: One thing I am very much looking forward to in Rebels is that we have a group that’s diverse not only in gender but in age and race. Was that a very conscious decision going in or was it more, “we wrote good characters and this is what worked out?”
DAVE FILONI: A little bit of both. You look around at what’s been done, and there are a lot of characters that exist of a certain color, certain personality, and a certain age. You go, “We don’t want to be just Luke Skywalker again. We don’t want to be just a little blonde kid again.” I think George was way ahead of his time to have Leia be a brunette, frankly. My wife always brings that one up.
We’re trying to reach out to as many people as possible. The world is a much different place now, and I think it’s more universal than it’s ever been, thankfully. At one end of the range, we want to reach young kids. I’m very interested in, “what does it mean to have young kids that are growing up in this time of the Empire?” I think that’s a compelling question especially without Jedi to look after them and to look out for them. I was very much a kid when Star Wars first came out, so I think that’s a great point of view. I think Hera is more of the Captain Solo, and a renegade is a completely necessary character. Like I said [in the panel], it’s so often that women get put in these roles, and it never quite goes all the way. Guys often get to have all the romance, all the fun, all the action, and then still ride off into the sunset without the girl but knowing that the girl is in love with him.
Part of what I always said with Ahsoka [from Star Wars: The Clone Wars] is she’s not going to end up with any of these guys. I acknowledge the fact that it’s normal for young people to fall in love and to care about one another, but that I love the idea for people to know that there’s a broader horizon ahead of them if they choose to embrace it. It’s an important thing for all characters to look at so when they do finally decide to be with somebody in a relationship, it’s a meaningful thing and committed.
But Hera is very tough, obviously it was shown in the clip, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have a maternal side. I think she definitely likes a character like Ezra. She has the sense of how to talk to him, to get him to understand and listen a bit better than Kanan. Kanan has his own struggles as this guy who’s a Jedi. So, we’re able to mix all of these different ideas.
I’ve been stuck on this idea about Mandalorian girls. I’m not sure why. I just think Boba inhabits the area of icon so strongly, and Jango also, that I had a lot of fun making a character like Bo-Katan in Clone Wars. I felt like she was just getting going. So Sabine in some ways is like a follow up in her own right to the Nite Owls from Clone Wars and what they represented. She’s kind of renegade but also powerful, confident, strong, and artistic. That [art] was a very important aspect. There was always a lot modern art in our Mandalorians from Clone Wars, so we wanted Sabine to be expressive. That kind of hearkens back to Roman days when graffiti was a big way of speaking out.
I’ve been really stunned at the reaction to Sabine, because so many fans have already jumped on that. It was crazy. Another reason why I wanted her to be artistic was I’m aware of things like DeviantArt and the ways kids use social media to express their creativity, and I think she really hits that button somehow. Now, Zeb – people are wondering what Zeb is like, asking is that if he’s just our Chewbacca – but he’s really his own strong guy. He speaks, he’s not just going to bark at you. I love Chewie, but Zeb’s different.
We do see this broad range of characters. I don’t always think of it that way so I don’t know how planned it was. I’m glad you pointed out the ethnicities. Mixing that, I think, was something that we did consciously decide to do, but something I learned with Ahsoka that I really liked: I had little girls of all descriptions come up to me and say, “She’s just like me.” And I thought, “That’s such a great thing that she just appeals universally.” I’m hoping our characters have a lot of universal appeal. I want people to connect with them and enjoy this adventure they’re going to go on.
N: You have a great situation in that this is going to be somebody’s first Star Wars, but it also has a tone similar to A New Hope. What is it like to explore the time period, and what are some things you’re focusing on that will attract new fans and please existing ones?
DF: Something we really learned through the experience of making Clone Wars is that there are people that feel very strongly that it’s their touchstone to it [Star Wars]. Older fans always struggle with that one – and I am one of those older fans, so that’s fair of me to say – they often want to overlook the prequel generation. There’s a whole generation of prequel kids who love the prequels as much as they love A New Hope.
And I like it all. I really enjoy this universe, I enjoy these characters, I enjoy what they offer – they can be very dramatic and intense and yet very funny and light. I love that you can have Jawas and Ewoks alongside Darth Maul and Darth Sidious in the same world. I think that’s very true to how life is. It’s fun and exciting, and it can be terrible and sad.
[In Rebels,] we’re trying to do fun banter back and forth when our characters are in desperate situations and kind of have to make a joke because otherwise it’s just tragic. I think old fans and new fans will relate to that element. As an original fan, if you just see a TIE fighter scream across the screen – you haven’t seen that since probably ’96 on a screen of any kind unless you’re watching it at home and it’s never been new. I think we have that to offer. Joel Aron, my VFX lead, has done an amazing job at matching the original effects. Something I’ll talk about – I don’t know if I’ve told anyone this, so this might be somewhat exclusive: We had the lightsaber rendered – the effect you’ll see in this show, Joel Aron and I very consciously decided to make it like what you saw in the ’70s. And they changed it in updated editions. The blade is a lot steadier in the re-releases and in the prequels. In fact, the blades in the prequels actually are wide and then they taper to a very specific sword point. The lightsabers that we’re putting in Star Wars Rebels are very much the long thin slender blade that is just more like a fencing rapier. Much more like that.
And they oscillate. They actually quiver. Joel found the original guy that did the original effect, rotoed it and everything, because it was on a rod that spun. If you look at really old, original footage of Luke’s lightsaber when he turns it on, it kind of almost goes like that [waves hand] and flickers. That really motivates the humming sound of the lightsaber and how it fluctuates when it moves. Joel’s recreated that really well.
Something else, we put in the old kind of yellow-green flash contacts when the sabers hit in the old movies that weren’t as present in the new ones. We’ve gone very retro with our effects package for Rebels. I think old fans will like that, new fans won’t even know the difference. But yes, it’s always a big consideration. For a lot of kids, Rebels will be their introduction [to Star Wars]. It’s exciting, and it’s a huge responsibility, because we want to set things up well for everything that’s going to come.
N: This crew on the Ghost – that’s their home base and they’re going around trying to fight the Empire and fight oppression, and I imagine it’s like they’ve survived an apocalypse to some degree. I assume they have to scavenge for fuel and supplies. What are some of the challenges they’re facing while they’re out there fighting the good fight?
DF: Like you said, it’s a daily challenge to figure out how their day’s going to go. When the Empire takes over, it’s not seen as a bad thing. Around the galaxy, it’s kind of like a thank goodness the Clone Wars is over moment. Thank goodness now we have a strong sense of central government brought by Palpatine as Emperor now. This is good. We’re tired of fighting.
And so he has a long arm to control much of the galaxy completely unopposed. The Empire becomes a negative as word starts to reach different systems of different oppression, enslavement, and the terrible things the Empire comes to represent. And our rebels are very much on their own. In the movies you hear talk of a Rebel Alliance, but we have never mentioned the Rebel Alliance in terms of this show. There is no giant fleet; the rebels in Star Wars don’t really operate that way. They would only form up out of necessity because they’re so varied and from so many different systems that they have to a) have a good reason to get together, and b) if they do, the Empire will figure out where they are and wipe them out. They are a substantially underdog group.
It is connected, though, to ideas we set up in Clone Wars that came from George, which was that Anakin instigated Saw Gerrera and the Onderon rebels to become a pocket group of rebels. We could probably theorize there are groups like that out there. But how much do they get along with each other, and what are all their goals?
That’s a fun thing to ask yourself: what is the ultimate goal of the Rebel Alliance? Luke’s goal is to bring back his father, but the rebels, they’re trying to overthrow a government then put its place what, the Republic? ‘Cause that worked out great. But, it’s probably better than the Empire – we don’t know. I can tell you what’s not good is Stormtroopers in the streets running things. telling you what to do, locking down your doors. There are small ways, almost in like a Robin Hood way, that our rebels can affect things on a small scale.
N: One of the forces they’re going up against is the Inquisitor. Tell me more about him and creating a villain in this universe. It’s got to be a challenge.
DF: It’s always hard. It’s not just about giving someone a red lightsaber. You have to have such a good reason for doing it. And you have to figure out what makes them tick. To me, the Inquisitor, where he’s different is -maybe this is a big spoiler, you get two good ones today – he’s the kind of guy that can just look at you and from the way you stand, from the way you talk, he can tell where you’re from and what your tendencies are. He kind of analyzes you, takes things in, and knows how to defeat you.
N: So he’s rocking a little Sherlock.
DF: A lot like that. In swordplay, depending on how you counter him, he’ll know where you studied. He understands things. I find that Maul was a very physical villain. He would cut you down out of sheer ferocity. Vader is a villain who’s unique because he’s almost like this indifferent pillar of anger and fear and hate, and the only thing that breaks that is Luke, through love. He’s completely unique in that way. The Inquisitor is more in the intellectual realm. He’s a combatant, yes, but he’s actually somewhat elegant and he likes to dissect you down almost like a game because he’s learning. To him knowledge is power. The more he learns about you, the more he learns about how to defeat you and your friends. And that makes him a particularly nasty kind of spider to trap.
N: Though we may not see Palpatine directly appear in the series, do we see his influence? Is he referenced and in the background?
DF: I think that’s fair to say. He’s in the background the same way he’s in the background in the original films. When you see A New Hope, they say the Imperial Senate has been dismissed, and the Emperor is behind it. So, a lot of what we do now politically is that we’ll mention stuff that if you’re a kid watching you’re like, “Okay, let’s keep going,” but older fans will you realize “Oh, there’ s a lot going on here.” Palpatine is still running all the big themes in Rebels. He’s obviously around but not on screen, which in some ways makes the Emperor a bit more powerful and more potent. He’s a shadow villain.