Gary Whitta is known to us all for a wide and varied range of work within the Star Wars galaxy. This includes co-writing ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’, writing multiple episodes of Disney XD’s animated series ‘Star Wars: Rebels’ and his contribution to the short fiction anthology ‘Star Wars: From a Certian Point of View’. In recent months, the main focus of his work has been the Marvel Comics adaptation of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi‘. Gary recently took time out from his hectic schedule to talk to Mark Alders about his latest work.
Hi Gary, Star Wars means a lot of different things to different people, depending on when they saw it, what toys they had, who they saw it with, so what IS Star Wars to you?
For me it’s always been a boundless source of creative inspiration and just sheer magical escapism and joy. The first time I saw the original Star Wars I had the same reaction that so many film-makers of my generation had; that beyond being transported by the film, I immediately knew that whatever it was making me feel — that sense of awe and wonder — I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to give that to other people. So decades later, to actually be able to do that, to be even a small part of creating not just something like Star Wars but ACTUALLY STAR WARS is the fulfillment of a dream beyond anything I could have imagined.
How and when were you approached about doing the comic adaptation of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’?
Well I was already a part of the Lucasfilm “family” by that point, and when Lucasfilm finds people they’re comfortable working with, that they feel “get” Star Wars the same way they do, and can trust to keep secrets (very important!) they’ll come back to you again. I had already done Rogue One and Rebels, and I’m friends with Rian, so it felt like a natural fit.
Turning a movie into a comic book, and a lengthy one at that, must be a daunting prospect. How do you approach a project like this?
Lucasfilm were very insistent that the comic not just be a straight replay of the movie in comics form, but that I try to find different ways to approach the existing material and to add new things that would give readers a different experience than the film itself, but without contradicting or changing anything fundamental to it. I can’t just decide that Kylo Ren or Rey or Luke would do or say or think something majorly different than they do in the film, but I can riff and build on what Rian already laid down. A lot of the stuff I’ve added or interpreted is really very minor but because it’s Star Wars even little things are a big deal so something as minor as giving Admiral Ackbar a final moment before he died (I’m a huge Ackbar fan!) was received in a major — and I’m glad to say very positive — way by the fans.
How closely did you work with artist Michael Walsh about the style of the issues?
I’m very grateful that Marvel paired me with Mike, who I’d not worked with before, as he was totally open to working in a collaborative way that is perhaps a little different than what he’s used to with more experienced or traditional comic’s writers. The scripts I give him aren’t broken down into specific panels but instead blocks of pages and/or scenes, because honestly Mike is way better at understanding how sequential art works than I am, so his sense of how things can best be broken down into panels for maximum impact is infinitely better than mine. He’s surprised me with things that I never would have thought of myself, things that make the panels and the flow of action really pop off the page. Having said that a lot of the bigger visual ideas in how to approach scenes did come from me, like the different approach to Rey and Kylo’s Force connection, and how to present some of the movie’s bigger moments like Holdo’s hyperspace sacrifice, although ultimately it’s always Mike who takes a couple of lines of my scene description and works to make it into something spectacular on the finished page. It’s been a really great collaboration and I hope I get to work with Mike more in the future. I also have to give a shout out to our colorist Mike Spicer who has done incredible work giving life to these pages through his dynamic coloring work.
The fans have been quite vocal about their criticism for the film, were you surprised by this?
I think what you mean by that when you say “the fans” is actually “a very noisy minority of fans”. Look, I would not necessarily have made every choice that Rian made because I’m not the same person or writer or fan that he is, but I respect and admire and appreciate and support every choice he did make. The film he wrote is far braver and more mature and more challenging than I could ever have written. I suspect that I would have written a more fan service-driven film that would have appeased some of that noisy minority but ultimately would have been a lesser and less important film because of it. Frankly I’m disgusted by the treatment that Rian has received, he’s not just one of the most talented film-makers working today but one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet in any walk of life, and both he and the film he made deserve far better.
With all the criticism, I can imagine it must have felt like a huge pressure on yourself to get things right in the eyes of the fans, did you make any edits to your adaptation as a result of the fan feedback?
Nothing I did was in any way prompted by fan feedback; I made most of my big creative decisions on the adaptation and started writing before the film was even released. My approach when writing is not to worry about what other people want to see but what I want to see, and then hope that my own instincts as a Star Wars fan are on-point enough that other fans agree with the choices I made. You’ll not only drive yourself crazy worrying about what the fans want, you’ll wind up telling an inferior story. So all of the editorial decisions I made were driven by things I wanted to see, but without upending any of Rian’s intent. So for example by flipping the POV in the Rey/Luke scenes from Rey to Luke, it gave me a chance to approach those scenes in a new way and add to them but without altering anything fundamental about them — and also it gave me a chance to write new dialogue for Luke Skywalker, which has always been a dream of mine. And some of it is simply motivated by making the best of what the comic’s medium has to offer. Hearing a character’s thoughts in a movie is really cheesy, but comics allow you to do that kind of internal monologue in a way that is totally accepted and traditional to the form. So I was able to get inside Luke’s head a little bit more and have him express his inner thoughts in a way that the movie might never have allowed.
In any Star Wars adaptation, it’s the pieces we don’t see that really draw fans, how much free reign to Lucasfilm allow you with adding little extras to the comic?
The general rule is that you can bend things but not break them. So I can add and interpret and riff and take a different approach but I can’t do anything that would fundamentally change the film’s intent or rewrite canon. And I can’t do anything that might conflict with the movies still to come. Lucasfilm are very good at guiding that process literally on a line-by-line level. They’ve been great to work with and generally I’d say I got to do everything I wanted to in the comic, it’s been a very good experience.
The most enjoyable part of the issues for me, was Luke’s internal dialogue. Did you always know you wanted to focus so much time on Luke’s thoughts?
Again, that was a product of the comics medium allowing me to get inside his head in a way that the movie might not have. A lot of it is simply taking the subtext already present in Rian’s film and bringing it out into the daylight via those additional scenes and inner monologue. Luke’s strained relationship with the Force and his isolated existence are such great fodder for internal conflict that I was able to flesh out by getting inside his head during those moments of solitude. And yes if I’m being honest I really just wanted to write for Luke Goddamn Skywalker so I did that every chance I got.
Were you able to sit with Rian Johnson to discuss any of the story with him?
I could have because Rian’s a friend and I know he would have made himself available to me had I asked, but honestly I never felt like I needed to. We discussed me working on the comic in general but I knew the stuff I was adding was pretty harmless and unlikely to cause offense so I never ran anything by him and he was not at all protective about it, happy just to see what I had gone and done after it was done. Sometimes I’m so excited about a page that Michael has drawn that I’ll send it to Rian just to kind of show off, and he’s always been so supportive and appreciative of the work. Rian’s really the only person other than myself whose approval I care about on this project, so I’m glad that so far he’s been so supportive or everything we’ve done in the comic.
I can’t imagine any of the adaptation was easy but was there any part of the film you found particularly difficult to adapt?
There are some things that Rian does in the movie that are very specific to the cinematic medium but which would not work the same way in comics, so I had to find a new way to approach those parts of the adaptation. For example, there’s a very subtle trick Rian pulls when Rey and Kylo have their Force connection — what I call ForceTime — moments. Even though they’re in different locations their eye lines match up across the different shots so it seems like they’re looking at each other even though they’re in separate scenes. That simply doesn’t translate to sequential panels in the same way, so I had the idea of literally showing what both Rey and Kylo are seeing, which is that they seem to have appeared in each other’s environments. I think it works really well.
After reading your work on The Last Jedi, I have a sneaky feeling I know the answer to this one, but who was your favourite character to write?
As a serious Ackbar fan I really enjoyed just that one simple grace note I was able to give him before he died. But for the most part writing for Luke ‘Goddamn’ Skywalker has to be up there with the favorite things I’ve ever had the privilege to do as a writer.
What upcoming projects can we look forward from you in the future, Star Wars or otherwise?
Most of the stuff I’m writing at the moment is protected by non-disclosure agreements but there are a couple of fiction projects of my own that I’m really excited about. One is an anthology of new short science fiction and the other is a SF novel that I’m about halfway through writing right now. Hopefully you’ll come back and ask me about both of those when they’re done, even though they’re not Star Wars related!
Thank you so much Gary for taking the time to speak to me and Jedi News, it’s been an absolute pleasure! You are a fantastic ambassador for Star Wars and I really hope we are able to enjoy a lot more of your work set in a galaxy far, far away! May the force be with you…
And also with you…
Team Jedi News would like to extend our thanks to Gary for taking time out to talk to us. We hope you all agree that the comic has been a great addition to the film itself. Issue 5 of Marvel Comics adaptation of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ was released today, with the final installment scheduled for 12th September 2018.