Lucasfilm’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first of the Star Wars standalone films, became the seventh highest-grossing film of all time in the US, earning over $530 million at the domestic box office and another $523 million globally. Walt Disney Studios brings the film home on March 24 with Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere, while the Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD and On-Demand versions will launch on April 4.
Gary Whitta crafted the story for the film with John Knoll, while the subsequent screenplay was written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Whitta is a former video game journalist who served as editor-in-chief for PC Gamer and also worked as a story consultant for a long list of games, including Prey, Gears of War, Halo 5: Guardians and season one of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead.
“I wish I could tell you the story about me transitioning from one career to another, but fate dealt me this hand,” Whitta said. “I worked as a journalist for many years, and fortunately, I got to work in this business because my other big hobby is movies. I had a very comfortable career in video games and I never really thought about becoming something like a screen writer. But the truth is that I got laid off, so I wanted to try something new. I just started writing screenplays for a year, living on canned soup and noodles before I managed to get some interest in script writing.”
Whitta’s post-apocalyptic screenplay for The Book of Eli was featured in Hollywood’s prestigious “black list” in 2007, which eventually attracted directors Allen and Albert Hughes and actor Denzel Washington. That film was a blockbuster hit, which opened the door to additional screenplays such as M. Knight Shyamalan’s After Earth starring Will Smith. Rogue One is, without a doubt, the biggest film Whitta has worked on to date.
“Some people who know my video game background think that they can identify my scenes in Rogue One,” Whitta said. “There isn’t anything specifically like that, although subconsciously it’s entirely possible.”
For a long time, before Disney acquired the franchise from George Lucas, Star Wars was only available through video games. “The video games, especially Knights of the Old Republic, were great, and that is what helped us get through the time when films were not made,” Whitta said. “It certainly got my Star Wars imagination ticking.”
Whitta’s work in writing video games also came to play when crafting the Rogue One story. “There is a challenge when you write a Telltale game that comes from having to satisfy an interactive audience to hear the story,” Whitta said. “The audience is like another co-writer because they get to make the decisions for the character and they are almost helping to craft the story.”
Whitta also said that ability to make choices is very specific to video games, but creating characters in a story that people care about and making sure that there is enough fun stuff in there and appropriate to the piece is universal whether one’s writing a video game, TV show or movie. But there certainly was a challenge to step back into the original Star Wars universe and craft a compelling story.
“We certainly felt the weight of history on this,” Whitta said. “We were the first to do a standalone film and people weren’t sure what that meant and if they were going to see original Star Wars characters. But at the same time, the fact that we were so closely connected to the original tale, the one that started it all, we did it in such a way that we would tell a story that would change the way that when you go back and watch the first Star Wars film. You would have to look at it in a different way because now you know the events that happened immediately before.”
The other interesting thing about Rogue One is that the audience knows the ending because of Episode IV: A New Hope. Whitta compared this challenge to the scene in Apollo 13 when NASA engineers had to take what was available in the capsule and make something that works out of it.
“We watched the original film and wrote a lot of notes,” Whitta said. “There was a scene in the movie where someone said we have to find a tape, so there had to be a physical tape somewhere in the movie. When Rogue One comes out on Blu-ray we had to make sure when you watch it back-to-back that we don’t shock people with continuity issues.”
Rogue One was also a first to utilize virtual reality designed by ILMxLab to allow filmmakers to explore sets and ships virtually before they were physically built. Whitta worked in the Letterman Digital Arts Center building in San Francisco, which also houses ILMxLab. “(Director) Gareth (Edwards) and I would walk inside the rebel base in virtual reality and he would say things like ‘Can we make this corridor a little bit longer?’ Or ‘can we make sure that this wall can pop off so we can shoot it from the side with the camera?’ And they would say ‘yes.’ So, we walked around the set of the film before it was built, which was incredible.”
Whitta said the tower used in the final fight of the movie wasn’t as tall originally. After checking it out in VR, Edwards asked for it to be raised another 200 feet. And just like that, the VR operator said “hold on” and it rose higher.
Rogue One is also part of Electronic Arts’ Star Wars Battlefront franchise. There’s the X-Wing VR mission, as well as the Scarif DLC.
“I played the original Battlefront around the time when I was working on Scarif (scene) and I remember thinking that there is no way this does not end up in a video game,” Whitta said. “That is not why we did it, but we knew that there was going to be a great space battle.”
Whitta is excited about the potential virtual reality is opening up for storytelling, having played the HTC Vive experience Trials on Tatooine from ILMxLab. “I would like to see them, at some point in the future, opening up VR entirely,” Whitta said. “Time is very limited, but in the future, we will be walking around in Star Wars virtual worlds and starring in our own Star Wars films.”
Disney’s new directive to have all VR, video games, films and television shows to follow the official canon opens up new opportunities. “It is going to be interesting,” Whitta said. “Now everything is under the same roof, every Star Wars film is being made into storytelling. It’s no longer part of the expanded universe where they can do whatever they want. Everything now has to exist economically on the same parameters that are set up by the film.
Beyond that, they are able to do whatever they want. In VR we are getting better at interactive storytelling. The first Star Wars films had more stories. Story is what makes Star Wars great. I don’t want to randomly shoot guys without any context.”