It was a day long remembered: 30 October 2012. The day Disney announced it had bought Lucasfilm and would be releasing new Star Wars movies. Fans everywhere immediately began freaking out about the news, but one in particular saw it as an opportunity.
Jyn Erso in Rogue One. Image: Disney
That person is Gary Whitta, who previously wrote The Book of Eli and After Earth before being announced as the first writer on the first Star Wars standalone film. "I literally went from reading the news story on my phone to calling my agent and saying, 'Oh my god you gotta throw my hat in the ring,'" Whitta told us. "Now, I'm sure every writer in town was doing the same thing. I never seriously thought I'd get in that room."
Get in the room he did. Whitta told us that he was later summoned to a secret, very general meeting at Lucasfilm. "There was no talk of Rogue One or Death Star plans or anything like that," Whitta said. "Lucasfilm is a little like the CIA. They're very, very secretive. So I had the meeting and thought, that's it. I didn't think anything was going to come out of it."
That was until he got sent a document. In the document was John Knoll's story pitch for what would become Rogue One, about the Rebels who stole the original Death Star plans. "I thought that was a great idea," Whitta said. "And John is brilliant, but he's not a screenwriter, so they needed a writer to come in and take what he started and flesh it out into a full story. Why they hired me, I still couldn't tell you."
He has one idea, though. It happened in the second meeting after he'd read Knoll's document. "I told him, 'This movie reminds me a bit of Zero Dark Thirty,'" Whitta said, citing the strong female characters, on the ground, in a war zone, on a crucially important mission. "The moment I said that I saw a bit of recognition in John. He nodded, and I thought, 'I said something right there.'"
Later, after being hired, Whitta saw the PowerPoint presentation Knoll created to pitch the idea to Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. "There was a ton of Zero Dark Thirty footage in there," Whitta said. "So I did say the right thing. I made the right reference, and maybe that's one of the reasons why they felt I had the same sensibility for what the film would be as John's original vision was."
Though Whitta wrote the first drafts of the script, he got a "story by" credit with Knoll in the final film, while Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy got the screenwriting credit. This doesn't bother him, though, because he explains that with a movie this size, the more talent they can throw at it, the better.
"I think of Rogue One like a relay race," Whitta explains. "John ran the first leg. He handed the baton to me and I ran the second leg. Then as I started to get exhausted and run out of steam I handed the baton to Chris. Then Chris runs his leg and makes his contribution, which is a huge contribution as he created Chirrut, Baze and Bodhi, and then he takes it to Tony who takes it over the finish line."
"You're grateful to work with talented people," Whitta concluded. "Plus no one knows who did what. You just see the four names on the screen."
And for Whitta that started with nothing but a timely telephone call.
Rogue One is available on Blu-ray April 5.