I mean this statement as no disrespect to other storytellers, but I have long said that Dave Filoni is the very best Star Wars storyteller out there right now.
He apprenticed under George Lucas for years, working very closely with the Star Wars creator on The Clone Wars, and it shows. Filoni’s grasp of the Force, the Jedi, and the themes of the Star Wars universe are perhaps second only to Lucas himself. Filoni has worked very closely on several terrific shows, including The Clone Wars, Rebels, and more recently, The Mandalorian.
But until The Mandalorian, Filoni had worked pretty much exclusively on animation, which is a different process. On the show, he works closely with Jon Favreau, as it seems the two of them are responsible for the story and direction of the well-received series. To date, Filoni has directed as many episodes of the series as anyone (three, as many as Rick Famuyiwa), and he has written more than anyone besides Jon Favreau (two). He directed the series premiere, he directed a nostalgic episode on Tatooine that grows more and more significant, and this season, he directed the live-action debut of Ahsoka Tano.
Suffice to say that fans have loved Filoni’s live-action direction. And if that’s true, then Star Wars creator George Lucas, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson deserve a lot of thanks for it, in addition to The Mandalorian showrunner Jon Favreau.
Filoni obviously learned a lot from GEORGE LUCAS, and while he was exclusively in animation and not looking to direct live-action, it nonetheless inspired confidence in him that he could do it. Here’s what he had to say recently on The Star Wars Show:
“The idea of taking characters that I’d worked with in animation and moving them into the live-action space is something that I became interested in directly because of my work with George. I hadn’t really aspired to be a live-action director in my career, I was just really focused on animation and learning that craft and art, but working with George, he gave me a lot of confidence to say, ‘well maybe this is something I could do.’ I didn’t know it it would ever happen. You need so many things to go right, and you need to be surrounded by the right people. It’s not just about what you’re gonna do and what you can bring to it; you have to have a team of people, whether it’s animation or live-action, that are all trying to make this awesome story happen in the way you want it. And I’ve been very fortunate to be aligned with the right people at every step of my career here at Lucasfilm.”
He said similar things in an interview with Deadline this fall, but he expanded a bit on the process that he and Lucas used that gave him confidence and education:
“Yeah, it was interesting [transitioning to live-action]. Doing live-action was something that hadn’t really occurred to me until I started working with George Lucas on The Clone Wars, and because of the way he taught me to look at movies and film and shooting and editing, it became something I was more and more interested in over the years working with him. He had us working on Clone Wars using a virtual production method where he had devised his own systems to, instead of doing storyboard drawings, we were virtually shooting on virtual sets and staging characters, and that was all a way that we could then edit animation with coverage and actual full-length of shots, and so the language of it was very familiar to him, and then he was teaching me what he was looking for and why he would cut something. It was the first time where I had ever really experienced, he’s a brilliant editor and would move things around where you never thought they would fit, but he would just try it. He’d tell me we could always put it back once we moved something but we never would, because he was usually right.”
As the years went on, a desire continued to grow in him to get into live-action a bit, and so he went to KATHY KENNEDY. She is one of the most accomplished and respected producers in the industry, having produced or worked on films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurrasic Park, Indiana Jones, and now the recent Star Wars movies. She has previously said that, “There isn’t a thing that we do in the storytelling space that I don’t check with Dave [Filoni].” And so at one point, Filoni told her that he wanted to get into live-action, a request she honored.
Kennedy put together a program for Filoni to learn about what it’s like to direct live-action material, having him shadow directors like J.J. ABRAMS (who directed The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker) and RIAN JOHNSON (who directed The Last Jedi). On this process, Filoni said, “I think it says a lot about how she looks at a long game and works patiently to achieve goals and find success, not just for the projects, but for people as well.”
It’s probably obvious to say that Filoni wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity he has right now if it weren’t for the company’s President, but it seems that Kennedy took on a more proactive role. Rather than just waiting to slot Filoni into a project down the road, she worked it out so that he could visit the sets of a number of films and learn.
In that same interview with Deadline mentioned earlier, Filoni continued:
“So [George] really piqued my interest, and then when Kathleen Kennedy came onboard and started running Lucasfilm, I expressed to her an interest then, and so that started kind of a long education and observation where she made it possible for me to visit the film sets on Episodes VII and VIII and Rogue One, and talk to Gareth and J.J. a bit about what they were doing.”
Of all the directors he shadowed and learned from, however, Filoni has singled out Rian Johnson as particularly helpful. In that Deadline interview, Filoni added:
“Rian Johnson, I gotta say, was really instrumental for me as far as just grabbing me and getting me right up next to the camera with him and the DP, blocking a scene. And he was very supportive of my early efforts. Because I’m the kind of person, if I show up on a big movie set, I just want to be invisible, I don’t want to bother anybody, they have a lot to do.”
But Johnson didn’t just let Filoni stand off to the side and blend in; he brought him right in and taught and instructed and showed him. This subject came up again in the recent book The Art of Star Wars: The Mandalorian by Phil Szostak, where Filoni said this:
“Rian Johnson had me right up next to him with the camera. He shoved lenses in my hand and said, ‘Look through here.’ He would bring me along to show me how to block a scene. Rian was so supportive of my interest in doing live-action, as was his producer, Ram Bergman. They really made me feel like this was something that I could do.”
And indeed it is something he now has done, working on The Mandalorian. Filoni enjoyed The Last Jedi, and he learned a lot from Rian Johnson.
And now with The Mandalorian, he has continued to learn greatly from JON FAVREAU, who has directed films like Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Jungle Book, The Lion King, and more. Regarding his relationship with Filoni, Favreau has said that, “I’m like a lawyer talking to a judge; I am to him as he was to George. I won’t do anything without Dave’s approval. And to his credit, he understands that Stars Wars needs to be fun and ever-evolving.” But Filoni has also spoken of how he has learned much from watching and working with Favreau, making a profitable partnership for both parties.
So if you like Dave Filoni’s live-action material so far, you have a long line of people to thank: George Lucas, Kathy Kennedy, Rian Johnson, Jon Favreau, and more. But it seems that Kennedy’s willingness to help Filoni learn the ropes, and Johnson’s incredibly accommodating collaboration with him, have helped Dave Filoni get more comfortable with the process. And I think that’s really cool.