We sat down with The Mandalorian creator, director and writer Jon Favreau to chat about telling tales in the Star Wars universe.
As Disney+ series The Mandalorian gears up for its season three run on the streamer, we happily sat down for a chat with showrunner Jon Favreau to talk about the daunting task of breaking a story in the Star Wars Universe, how his experience on Marvel movies and other Disney projects helped with this and how he’s begun to introduce new directors to the world created by George Lucas.
Iris wipe to a very lovely London hotel, and your humble writer at the end of a long queue of journalists on a busy day of interviews for the writer/director-cum-executive producer. Pan across to a PR counting down the minutes, as we sit face-to-face and I try to get as many questions across as possible to a guy that clearly loves to talk about his work.
Film Stories: As a person who’s been involved with several projects that carry infamously deep lore, I wonder: are you a massive consumer of everything when you come into a project like The Mandalorian, or are you someone who prefers to consult experts?
Jon Favreau: It’s more of a process than a binary answer. First, it’s not just any IP that I will engage with, it has to be something that I already connect with and feel passion for – and that I could dedicate a big chunk of my life to doing something with, and contribute to what is already there. So just the selection of it… just me choosing to do it, subconsciously says that there’s something I have to contribute here that could be useful.
Before I do research I try to wrack my brain and make a list of all the things that I know, that I would want, that are important, that I remember without having to go back. Yeah. Whether that’s Star Wars, Jungle Book, Lion King or Iron Man I make that list. Memory has a way of prioritising things that are most relevant, so the things I remember are going to be more important in some regards than the things I research because they’ve surfaced themselves. Usually, it’s something to do with the zeitgeist understanding of who that character is, or what that property is.
The next step in the process is a lot of research, and then you start to talk to people who are experts. That was less so with Marvel, because Marvel were starting the MCU. Stan Lee had a playful sense, there were a lot of different people who contributed to stories, you could find something for everything, and it was very all over the place, whereas there was a singular vision around Star Wars for a great deal of time, and that was all about George Lucas.
I’m fortunate enough to be working with people who worked with George – like Dave Filoni and Doug Chang, John Knoll. So those people become a central group, and can look around. Thanks to the Internet and other experts, and people who are concentrating by the way on different aspects of what’s important within Star Wars, we can get a sense of it, and crowdsource it, and bounce off one another asking if it feels right.
But it has to feel playful and fun and inspiring. Because there was definitely a freedom George had, and a playfulness, when he told the stories that you don’t want to lose. You don’t want to feel bound by tradition [either], so it’s striking that balance of tone.
FS: How do you and Dave Filoni keep that fun because as the pressure builds and the attention starts to focus on you it must be hard? How does your working relationship make sure you keep the fun elements?
JF: I think we have fun with it and we know that Star Wars has to be fun. It has to be hopeful. It also has to be accessible to the next generation, because that’s what it was when we engaged with it. So that’s a litmus test.
It’s not that it always has to always be like that – I really enjoyed Andor quite a bit, I thought they did a great job, and I think Rogue One also had a tonal thing that feels more mature but still feels like Star Wars – but for our purposes, and with having a puppet as one of our leads, it has to feel a little bit more geared towards all ages.
We’d like to have many generations watch together, parents and children, so we have to map out where we think all of this is going bearing all of that in mind. But we also have to be flexible as things reveal themselves logically, as we learn from what we’re cutting it together, and – to some extent – how it’s embraced or not and how people feel about it.
Television has a back-and-forth that shapes the journey, and that’s part of the fun of it.
FS: So, was there a core concept in the centre of the planning board for season three that you built out from – a central idea – and what was that?
JF: There were a lot of things we laid out in the first season – like Mandalorians, can’t take the helmets off – and then people are curious about ‘well, I saw a lot of Mandalorians taking their helmets off in The Clone Wars, is it two different realities?’ And, you know, we took the path that ‘No, it’s the same reality, and now we have to deal with it.’
Like, let’s explore that further… Well, then tensions are created, and we start to look for allegories in the real world, historically.
George was always great about referencing – like Rome, when the Senate is dissolved, and now the Emperor has taken over the democracy disappears. We look for those patterns in the real world and try to use those as structural inspiration. So what happens with a warlike culture where its people have different levels of adherence to whatever their dogma is?
FS: So you’re interested in leaning into this idea of the fundamentalist aspect of what Mandalore is, and its culture?
JF: Yeah, I think we look to say: how does this play out? You have one group that clearly believes one thing, another group that believes another – but that wasn’t anywhere near Mandalore for all this stuff during Clone Wars, and there’s Bo-Katan Kryze [played by Katee Sackhoff] you know, who was there as part of the royal family? Who’s right, who’s wrong, which is the way?
Then the Darksaber is in the midst of it all, this symbolic totem… That is magical? Does it create leadership? Is it something that’s symbolic? Is it the will of the other Mandalorians to follow this thing? What does all of it mean? It has a tie together. What happened? Clearly, the planet’s not doing great. Up to this point, things haven’t been going wonderfully – even in The Clone Wars, the planet wasn’t looking so good from all the civil wars that were happening over centuries – so I think that becomes the inspiration, and how you resolve these conflicts and trains that are heading towards each other on the same track?
How do you work your way through it in a way that makes sense, but is also somewhat unexpected? How do you allow that to culminate in the story and pay off all the things that you set up throughout the seasons?
FS: I take it that Moff Gideon is going to return again this season as a central player in the events, but I’m interested to know how your working relationship with Giancarlo Esposito played into how you built the character – and from when you first worked with him on Revolution, what was it that interested you in him as an actor?
JF: On Revolution I was working with Eric Kripke, who’s now working on The Boys, right? And he’s also on there. So clearly, both of us were like: this is a guy that has a lot of potential as a collaborator on these on these stories,
FS: Yeah, he kind of goes from being ‘a guy’ that’s in lots of things – like 100+ credits at the time – and then Breaking Bad makes him ‘the guy’, then you get him on the Revolution pilot. What was it like to see him making that step into being a really engaging lead actor?
JF: Remember, the beginning of my career in the business was in the independent films of the 90s. And he was a huge factor in that – and then the work of Spike Lee. In every role he’s different. So he’s already like this chameleon: appealing, scary, dangerous and funny. He’s just continued to work and work and work throughout the decades, And then yeah, as you said, Gus Fring, Breaking Bad. He just brings this stoicism to this villain…
And here we are, where we could have him as a bigger-than-life theatrical character… You know, TV is an ongoing process where you’re seeing what you’re doing. It’s like a sports team: ‘what position is the strong position’ and you build your plays around that.
There’s a lot of stuff unresolved with Moff Gideon, and he’s such a compelling figure because he’s an ISB [Imperial Secret Police] officer. He has such knowledge. So he’s a wonderful excuse for you to get backstory and understand what the heck’s going on with the Empire at this point.
Like, is he acting on behalf of the Empire? Is he acting on behalf of himself? How does he fit in? How did he show up? How did he blow away Werner Hertzog’s character like that and show up with all of these stormtroopers and shiny armour when everybody else seems to be all ramshackle from the Empire not being around? So I think there are a lot of compelling questions that were asked, and now things start to piece together in a way that’s hopefully satisfying.
FS: And behind the camera with season three – and over all the seasons – you’ve had the chance to introduce a lot of new directorial talent into The Mandalorian. How does it feel for you as somebody in a senior position to give people access to that toy box of Star Wars? Is it something that you were looking to do when you first set up the show?
JF: I didn’t know that was going to be such a big part of it when we first set up the show. The truth is, though, you have to prioritise what you’re going to dedicate the limited cycles of attention that you have to. It became clear pretty quickly that the more writing I could do, the more consistent and measured the storytelling would be.
That meant we really had to have other directors step up and do a lot of that work. Then we got such great directors that it became clear that we wanted to allow variation in tone. Not quite as much as an anthology, but let them do their thing.
As you see the episodes from the first two seasons, you see that there’s a lot of tonal variation from one to the other. But, hopefully, because the voice is the same that creates a through-line. Dave and I are working so closely on the scripts, and we get to look at cuts of the story before it’s ever shot because of our pre-viz process. We get to watch it like an animated film beforehand and really vet the story.
FS: Talking of technology, you were very much the poster child for [virtual set FX technology] ‘The Volume’ on the first series. How did you feel about that technology when you first experienced it, and how do you feel it’s developed over the course of three seasons, in terms of what you’re capable of doing with it, and how it affects the storytelling?
JF: Well, it didn’t exist before we set out to do this, and a lot of the innovation came from this coming together of a lot of things that had been available but not combined. We were doing a lot of R&D with the tools for Lion King, trying to figure out if we could get a camera’s position to create parallax on even on a TV screen. If you look at Star Wars Gallery, you’ll see there’s some behind-the-scenes stuff of us playing with it. We were working with a lot of different teams trying to figure out if this could be done – Magnum Opus, ILM, Unreal. Everybody knew, in theory, it could, but in order for us to film this at the speed that we needed to, we built these tools to try to accommodate our specific set of requirements.
All the people that ILM were contributing to this process in a way that was outsize with what we were able to find in our budget, but thanks to Kathy Kennedy it became research and development for ‘Stagecraft’, which was a system that they were able to use with other productions as well.
So, we became a bit of a proving ground for that – and a lot of the de-ageing stuff, where we had to figure out how to make Luke [Skywalker] work. All that stuff that is now paying off with other productions, like Indiana Jones.
You know, that’s part of the tradition of Star Wars. You build tools to tell stories that you otherwise can’t. That’s how all that motion control, miniature work – as you know – was developed, and that was how ILM was first born: George Lucas built it to serve the purpose of telling a story that otherwise couldn’t be done.
FS: And The Mandalorian goes on beyond the currently commissioned series, do you think?
JF: Beyond the series? Like beyond season four? Yeah… Well, I hope so! I hope so. I really love the dynamic of these two characters that in theory don’t age. I think that there’s a lot of potential energy in that relationship, especially as the baby is no longer a baby, and starts to grow – but it happens so slowly that we could really play this out, hopefully for a while. But it all depends on the audience if they like what we’re doing. As long as they’re digging it, we’re digging making it and it’s a fun gig that I don’t want to walk away from any time soon.
FS: Jon Favreau, thank you!
The Mandalorian season three is streaming on Wednesdays on Disney+.
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