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My Gareth Edwards (Rogue One producer) story posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

19 Apr

Gareth Edwards discusses never giving up, not letting fear get in the way, and the importance of remaining fluid.

British screenwriter, director, producer, cinematographer and visual effects artist Gareth Edwards became recognized as a maverick for digital storytelling in 2010 with his feature debut, Monsters.

Edwards then directed Godzilla in 2014, and that work led to his job directing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in 2016.

In his keynote address at Austin’s SXSW Conference this year, Edwards told his audience that directing the Star Wars movie fulfilled a lifelong dream. Creative Screenwriting was fortunate enough to be present, as he discussed the inspiration of Star Wars, not letting fear get in the way, and the importance of remaining fluid.
Inspiration

My dad was a bit of a film buff. When I was very young, my parents forced me to watch this film that was kind of artistic and groundbreaking and sort of revolutionary at the same time. Some of you might have heard of it; it’s called Star Wars.

I instantly knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Right there and then I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going join the Rebel Alliance and help blow up the Death Star.

Filmmaking Lessons

I had a book called The Steven Spielberg Story. This thing was my Bible. There was a chapter inside about how he got to make films. There’s like a little checklist. So I did all those things.

I made films with my father’s camera—check. I went to university—check. I made a professional short film—check. Then I sent it to Hollywood producers and I got given a very polite rejection letter.

So I did this kind of ‘low-budget passion project’ called Rogue One: Star Wars. It’s an amazing thing; it’s living the dream. This is Star Wars, this is what we were promised as kids; this is what they promised in the brochures.

Gary Whitta who was the storywriter on the film, was naming everything, and said “Gareth you’ve got to name something.” So I go off and I go to a very well known coffee shop. They finally give me my coffee and when they ask me for my name, I told the barista “It’s Gareth” but they wrote ‘Scarif’ on my coffee. Scarif became the name of the tropical planet occupied by the Imperial Army in the movie.

I was very lucky that I managed to make Star Wars. You know, it’s not enough to make a good Star Wars film, you need to keep trying to make a really great one.

I remember one of the last things we ever shot was that Darth Vader scene. It was an idea from my editor Jabez Olssen, who pitched it to co-producer Kathleen Kennedy, and she went for it.

We said ‘We’ve got to see Darth Vader one more time at the end,’ and she went for it. So we had three days on the set.

I gave myself one cameo in Rogue One at the very end, when Darth Vader is pursuing Princess Leia. There is a guy, a rebel soldier who I feel saves the day. As they’re going down the corridor, he pulls the lever that launches the ship: that was me.

So never ever ever listen to anybody when they tell you something is ‘impossible.’ Because if you never give up, you can sometimes join the Rebel Alliance and blow up the Death Star.

We had a choice of whether to put this guy K-2 in a suit or use CGI. We tried the guy in the suit thing. But there’s a reason that C-3PO moves kind of the way he does: because his suit is so restrictive. So we ended up going CGI and doing motion capture.

Alan Tudyk is very much responsible for K-2’s character. He was the funniest guy I’ve met. On set he was given complete free range to tell any jokes that he wanted to.

Warning: This section contains plot spoilers!

The Ending

We wrote the first draft and just assumed that a lot of people were going to die, but not the essential characters: they would never let us kill them—that would never be allowed. So for the first draft in development, they survived.

But as soon as everyone read it, Kathleen Kennedy said “Surely they should die, right?” And we said “Ooh, can we do it?”

I kept waiting for them to go back on that decision, and throughout the whole process—honestly until the last week—we kept waiting for that little note that said: “You know, I know it’s cool they die and everything, but…”

It never came; so we got to do it.

Picking your Scenes

If you could have a time machine and send yourself the film before you start making it, you would realize ‘Oh, I don’t need that, I don’t need that, and I don’t need that.’

You hear people talk about that Vader scene, but when we shot it I didn’t think it was a special moment in the film; it just felt like something we needed to do. It just was another scene amongst all the others. It was only in the premiere when it got such a reaction and people started saying things afterwards, I went ‘OK.’
Advice for Screenwriters

Don’t let the fear of doing something bad get in the way; get them out and get them done.

And avoid excuses. If you do anything in your life towards your dream, you have succeeded way more than someone who just quit and never did it. You can’t really fail. The second you start, you won. You did something with your life.

The Journey

The journey is as important—actually more important and is more rewarding—than the destination. I think if I’d seen this guy on stage who made all these films I’d be very jealous of that guy. But as that guy on stage now, I’m actually jealous of the guy who is at the beginning. That’s an exciting adventure that’s ahead and don’t let it pass by. Enjoy it.
Remaining Fluid

I think at the start of this process we said we should be really fluid and let the film speak to us, and see what the film needs to be, and change things and keep adapting.

It used to be that a film had a pre-production, production and post-production. They were all completely separate. And now because of digital technology everything is blending together.

We had edit-suite cutting before we had even written a script. We were just starting to build stuff together and have a look and see how the storyboards might work, and we were writing when we were in the thick of end of post-production.

It just became this completely fluid thing.

For instance, that Darth Vader scene, that got suggested in September—pretty late in the day. Everything was fluid, and it’s an insane way to make a film, it’s really exhausting. But if it leads to the result, and people don’t shout at you from across the street and say you’ve ruined their childhoods, I will take that.

Please also see my story as it appears on Creative Screenwriting magazine’s website: 

https://creativescreenwriting.com/rogue-one/

 

 

My interview with O’Haver and Turner posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

24 Mar

Netflix’s original biopic The Most Hated Woman in America is about the life and death of atheist crusader Madalyn Murray O’Hair. played by Melissa Leo, founded the American Atheists movement, and led the controversial legal battle which culminated in the Supreme Court’s ban on official Bible reading in American public schools in 1963. This, together with regular appearances on television talk shows where she delivered foul-mouthed diatribes against her opponents, led to her being referred to as “The most hated woman in America”.

Writer-director Tommy O’Haver and his co-writer Irene Turner researched their screenplay from primary sources to recreate this much-publicized true story. Creative Screenwriting spoke with them about portraying the essence of the truth, flashbacks, and getting the death right.

Which of you came up with the idea for the screenplay?

Tommy O’Haver: It actually was neither of us!

Our producers, Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman, had seen our previous film, An American Crime, which I directed and Irene and I co-wrote, and they liked it a lot. We sat down with them and they pitched us a movie about Madalyn Murray O’Hair. So we jumped into the research and thought the story was incredible. I was amazed that it hadn’t been told in a film yet, and we were all in.

Irene Turner: She was just such a polarizing, inspiring, strong and difficult woman. And Tommy and I said “we definitely must do this.”

How did you research the story?

Tommy: Luckily there’s a ton of articles and writings on Madalyn and television appearances. There’s just so much material out there on her and her family and life. So that’s where it started.

Irene: For some stories, the tricky thing is just flushing out what little you know. But in this case the tricky thing was sifting through, what seems to be the most important details to bring out in a short amount of time. Because she wrote so much about herself, and people wrote so much about her, that it was sometimes overwhelming.

Tommy: Sometimes the stories were contradictory in fact.

Irene: For example, her relationship with her son, Bill Murray Jr. In newspaper articles and interviews he has talked about it from one perspective, while she spoke about it from a different perspective. That’s the biggest thing, trying to figure out the truth of that relationship from what they both said about each other.

Tommy: And you have to assume that probably the truth was somewhere in the middle; at least that’s what we extrapolated.

What of her other relationships?

Tommy: She had a very conflicted relationship with both of her parents. In fact, it’s hard to say whom she fought with the most. I think Madalyn basically fought with everybody. We tended to soften her relationship with her mother for narrative purposes.

Irene: But she was definitely closer to her mother, and also her mother lived longer. So there was a definite tie there that she did not have with her father.

Tommy: A lot of people, in fact even their son Bill Jr., said that Madalyn’s biggest issue wasn’t necessarily with God, it was with men in general. She had a lot of bad relationships with men. There’s an allusion to that in the script, with a brief quote from Madalyn. I’m glad that comes through.

Madalyn’s granddaughter, Robin Eileen Murray, disappeared in 1995 with Madalyn. How did you create her character (for actress Juno Temple) when so little is known about her?

Tommy: It’s interesting, because Melissa Leo as Madalyn is obviously the centerpiece of the movie, but it’s very much an ensemble. There are so many characters around her that are interesting.

On the page a lot of those characters maybe didn’t feel underwritten per se, but they didn’t sort of jump out as important as they are. So it was amazing bringing actors into the mix and then having them give those characters flesh.

Juno Temple doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue. But just her presence brings this force to this character who is very integral to the entire story.

Could the same be said of Jon Garth Murray (portrayed by actor Michael Chernus)?

Tommy: It was a very similar situation to Robin, where on the page he only had a few lines, and he was always being berated by his mother. It almost read as comic relief on the page.

Then when I got Michael Chernus involved, he came in and seemed to inhabit the role. He did a lot of research. I sent him videos and articles, and things like that; I did this with everyone. Then he came back to me and said ‘I think he’s kind of a sad person and I really feel for this guy.’

So a character that maybe felt slightly one-dimensional in a quick read becomes a real person through the magic of production.

Dichotomy made Madalyn a compelling character—unlikeable, but interesting. How did you go about fictionalizing her?

Tommy: A lot of her lines are direct quotes from Madalyn herself. Some of the best lines are things she actually said.

In terms of process, it was about letting the actor discover their version of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. I provided Melissa Leo with a lot of research, and we discussed the character several times, but she sort of fell in love with her, and said ‘I’m going to do my version of Madalyn Murray O’Hair which I would hope if she were alive, she would respect.’

Irene: When we’re writing we’re portraying as much of the truth and the essence of the truth as we can find.

I love Madalyn. I’m glad she wasn’t my mother, but she was a fighter and an iconoclast and someone who just never gave up. Some of her anger at the establishment I totally get. The idea is you bring as much truth as you can, and as you work with the actors they bring another layer. They’re the ones who have to take the words and to interpret them. You just try and keep getting at the truth as much as you can.

Tommy: Gary Karr (portrayed by actor Rory Cochrane) really was a wild card. He was unpredictable; he was tough and scary.

Irene: It was nice to able to write a character that volatile.

Tommy: He’s kind of a contrast to David Waters, (portrayed by actor Josh Lucas,who’s all about control.

Tell me about how you created Danny Fry (portrayed by Alex Frost.)

Irene: The tragic thing about Danny is he seems to be a grafter, just a small time con man who tried to get into some schemes that he screwed up. He had a daughter that he cared about that he was trying to get back to.

Clearly the whole kidnapping was way above his pay grade in terms of being a criminal. It was great as a screenwriter to have this contrasting third guy who really kind of wishes he hadn’t gotten himself into this, and doesn’t know how to get out of it.

He’s actually not that hardened and is much newer to crime and much more vulnerable.

The flashbacks in the film really provide so much backstory about Madalyn and Waters’ relationship. How did you write the Christmas party scene, when Madalyn tells her guests about Waters’ criminal past?

Tommy: That was a written and more physical representation of what actually happened. She used her newsletter to mar his name, and he was furious. She wrote some diatribe about him in the American Atheists Newsletter that totally embarrassed and infuriated him, and set him on this path of revenge.

Irene: He had also stolen money from her.

Tommy: Yes, it was in an earlier draft. But it was very complicated, and for simplification purposes, we ended up dropping that subplot.

Irene: But she had embarrassed him. So we took the essence of that, which was the embarrassment in a public setting.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?

Irene: Getting her death right. What happens when someone who has spent her whole time as an atheist faces death? That seemed really important to me. It’s a small thing, but it’s also a huge thing. It’s like sticking the landing in Olympic gymnastics. You better get that right.

There were other things that were probably harder to discover, but that’s the one that just felt the most important, and in that sense the most difficult.

And what was the easiest part?

Irene: Stealing dialogue from Madalyn!

Tommy: I was going to say the exact same thing. Finding great lines from Madalyn. Because she was an incredibly intelligent, witty person, and she had a lot of great lines.

Irene: We’d find stuff and we’d just laugh.

Tommy: It was only difficult in deciding which ones to use and which ones not to use.

It surprised me in the movie when Madalyn says “In the end, family is everything.” Did she want her family around her to control them, or were they meaningful to her?

Irene: She loved her kids and her grandchild so much. She just had so many of her own issues. If you read her diary you see that she was so vulnerable. She cared so much that they would succeed and be happy. She just was her own worst enemy.

Please also see my interview as it appears on Creative Screenwriting magazine’s website at: 

https://creativescreenwriting.com/most-hated/

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