With its lived-in feel and measured pace, Andor is a very different kind of Star Wars show, and its showrunner, Tony Gilroy, is a very different kind of Star Wars creator. Not only did he have minimal interest in the franchise until he came on as a script doctor for 2016’s Rogue One, his extensive resumé as a writer and director favored the realistic and earthbound – writing the Bourne movies was about as fantastical as he’d gotten. (On the other hand, Gilroy did co-write 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate, in which Keanu Reeves becomes Satan’s lawyer, and was one of six credited writers on Michael Bay’s Armageddon.) Gilroy recently spoke with Rolling Stone about making Andor feel real, and why he’s not interested in following up on his directorial debut, 2007’s classic legal thriller Michael Clayton.
You did a British Film Institute master class on screenwriting, and you advised writers to start with a small idea. What was the small idea here?
Well, the ask [from Lucasfilm] was, “We want do a show about Cassian Andor, and we want to do five seasons. So we want to take it back five years.” That’s the playground that everybody was being asked to play in.
So one thing was clear: The guy at the end, who’s gonna sacrifice himself for the galaxy, is complicated and he is dangerous and he is certainly smudged-up and morally complicated, but he’s really quite a remarkable package of skills and intelligence. And if you’re gonna do a show and it’s gonna go for five years and you’re gonna track him, you want to start him as plausibly far away as you can from the person that we know from Rogue One. So what does that mean? Where is he? How big a hole can I put him in? What’s his life like? I mean, I wanted to explain his accent. And that took me into an origin story that seemed interesting and progressed into what you’ve seen now.
And it’s a show where war is coming. What happens in the five years before war comes? One side is highly organized. The Empire is extremely organized, and it’s a textbook play of the consolidation of power. What happens on the other side? I knew I needed someone very much like the character that Stellan Skarsgård plays. You know, who are the people that are out there building the networks, who are anticipating what’s happening? Who are the people that are so outraged and so afraid of what’s going on, and either vengeful or mindful? There must be some people that are trying to connect that together, someone like Stellan’s character, who’d been tilling that field for a long time and was a combination talent scout, organizer, and behind-the-scenes puppeteer.
The first three episodes are a tidy little tight story there. It’s not very expansive in a way, but you can see how we’re gonna begin to go huge in four, and we’re gonna just get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.
You avoided reading the Bourne books when you did those movies. I wonder to what degree you wanted to keep your innocence about the Star Wars universe and to what extent you really had to actually study this stuff, just to make it all make sense.
That’s a really interesting question and a really complicated answer, because it’s a really delicate balance. I learned a lot on Rogue about a certain period of time, and I also learned a lot about rules and canon and what you can do. So by the time we talked about Andor I knew a lot about the ground-level stuff. I have five years to worry about, and those five years are really potent historically. They’re certainly potent dramatically. There’s some really big canonical moments that have to be incorporated, but there’s also just a fascinating and huge amount of undiscovered [material]. What’s behind the door? What’s in the other room?
The other part of the answer is, it’s very difficult. When Mandalorian came on, I was really excited to watch what they’re doing, and it was really fun. After a while, as we started going [with our show], I [decided to wait] till we’re done to come back and watch more. We’re in such a different lane and it can be disorienting, tonally more than anything else.
We also have so many people involved [with Andor]. This is such a huge endeavor. So we have a real mix — people who come on with absolutely no prior experience with Star Wars whatsoever, and people that are full-on cultist, obsessional, Star Wars people. And there’s also the very great benefit of the sort of Vatican in San Francisco [the Star Wars story group at Lucasfilm], who give us a way of checking our work constantly. So we’re doing that all the time, with everything from props to wardrobe and costumes and the ships and the rest of it.
You realized that you would never be able to do five seasons as planned, and decided to condense the four remaining seasons into one. What’s it been like to make that shift?
I was just like, “I wonder what would happen if we now sped up our storytelling,” ’cause we’ve done such a rigorous job along the way of being so detailed. “What happens now if we take a different tempo and use each block of three as a year, and we leave these huge gaps in between, and we make the negative space of that really, really huge and fantastic and important?” And we went and told [Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy], ’cause we didn’t have any idea of what the expectation was. And they were like, “No, we’re into that.” And it’s an entirely new narrative toy that I never would’ve had the chance to play with.
It feels like streaming is opening a lot of new structural possibilities.
You know, everyone’s deciding, “What’s the proper length of my story?” I mean, people are dialing in the frame for their stories. No dramatist ever had that opportunity before 15 years ago. And now it’s becoming even more liberated.
There was talk initially of you directing the whole show in addition to showrunning it. What did you lose and what did you perhaps gain by not ending up directing this thing?
I gained survival. [Laughs.] This show is just a maximally imaginative experience. Every single thing we do has to be designed. Every environment that we go to — and we’re gonna go to a lot of different environments — you gotta design the culture, their music. How do they eat? How do they dress?
What’s really funny about what you’re saying is this is exactly the same thing George Lucas said about why it was so hard to do these movies.
Oh, really? I didn’t know that. But I mean, I’m sure. Because it just is. You can never say, “Oh, they’re going to the bodega.” Because what’s the bodega look like on Coruscant? And that just launches 40 people and 17 meetings. What are the products? What are they selling? Everybody had their hands full. There was plenty of work to go around. [Laughs.]
Even as a sort of non-Star Wars person, do you have a favorite movie?
Nah, I don’t wanna get into that. I mean I vividly remember when I saw the first one in ’77 in Boston, I think the week after it came out. That was a blowback experience. But no, I don’t have a good answer for that.
Tell me about the new droid, B2EMO.
I wanted that. It wasn’t a mandate from anybody or anything like that. We wanted a salvage droid. But I also thought, you know, a droid that’s an old dog. Let’s have a dog. Let’s have that emotional component and see how it goes. And again, that’s something you tiptoe forward on to. You don’t want it to be kitschy or cute. You really want it to be emotional. [Creature effects artist] Neil Scanlan and the creatures department — it’s so much fun to go up there, and they’re so great.
You’re shooting Season Two in November. So is that all written?
Well it’s certainly known. Yeah. The writing process is super-complicated, ’cause we really try to get everything just absolutely perfect, and it’s 700 pages of original material. It’s an incredible amount of scene work and actors. I’m expecting the last script from my brother [screenwriter and director Dan Gilroy] in a week on his block. I owe my three scripts, but they’re all sketched out. We know exactly what we’re doing, but the moment-to-moment details of it will probably still be being hammered out through April.
Is there a mental trick you use to make all this real for you as you’re writing?
It’s the same thing as always. It’s making people that feel fully dimensional in your imagination and really understanding them. And it doesn’t matter — people talk about villains or writing women or writing creatures or whatever; it’s an empathetic interest in what is motivating that particular character.
There’s a couple buy-ins that are tough on Star Wars that you get used to pretty quickly — you know, the physics of some of it and whatever. But the whole goal every day from every department is, “Let’s make this a real place.”
So I don’t know. Whatever trick that is, is the same trick I’ve been fooling myself with.
It’s called “writing,” I guess. Finally, have you thought about doing anything more in the Michael Clayton universe? A prequel, a sequel, a series, a novel — anything?
No, I have vigorously swatted away every single possible attempt at having a Michael Clayton TV show. And I’ve seen a few shows that certainly resembled a Michael Clayton TV show! [Laughs.] That was such a perfect experience for me and it was such an important thing for me. It sort of re-virginized my career in a way, and gave me credibility. I don’t wanna mess with that. It’s such a nice thing to have in your portfolio. Why fuck it up? Why dilute it? There are other ways to make money.
Same thing with Nightcrawler. We’ve been fighting that off too. Danny [Gilroy, who wrote and directed the movie] feels the same way that I do. You do the thing and it’s exactly what you wanted to do and it’s perfect. And it lands culturally the way you want to land. And it’s like, “Let’s take our beautiful thing and let’s scuff it up.” I don’t wanna do that.