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Star Wars: Rebels: Dave Filoni interview

A Q&A with series creator Dave Filoni.

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Disney XD; Vincent Sandoval/Getty Images

Start the Imperial march — the man in black has come back.

Star Wars: Rebels begins its second season on Wednesday night (Disney XD, 9:30 p.m.) following an appearance in a special this summer from the galaxy’s No. 1 villain: Darth Vader, himself. With fans in a sustained state of ecstatic frenzy awaiting the release of J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens in December, this animated series chronicling the birth of the Rebellion has become a vital part of the canon in this ever-expanding universe.

RELATED: 12 Exclusive EW Looks at Star Wars: The Force Awakens

When the series returns for its second season tonight, fans will be treated to another figure from the past – Captain Rex and some of his clone brethren, now a little older, maybe a little wiser, but no less hardened and battle-ready after being rendered obsolete by the Empire. Now that Ahsoka Tano (voiced by Ashley Eckstein), the apprentice from The Clone Wars, is allied with the crew of The Ghost, she is the connection to the whatever good remains beneath the chest-plate of what once was Anakin Skywalker.

Although Vader is not a constant presence in the show, his shadow still looms large.

Entertainment Weekly spoke with series mastermind Dave Filoni, previously known for creating the animated The Clone Wars series, about bringing back James Earl Jones as the dark lord of the Sith — and how his series may eventually crossover with the films.

As a primer, here’s an exclusive video preview of what to expect from Season 2 – including Sarah Michelle Gellar as the inquisitor The Seventh Sister (her husband, Freddie Prinze Jr. voices the Force-sensitive Rebel Kanan Jarrus) and a glimpse of some other familiar faces.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I want to start by talking about getting James Earl Jones back as Darth Vader. Tell me about working with him, getting him involved. What was the first outreach like?

Dave Filoni: It was not going to happen unless we had James doing the voice. His voice is Vader, right? So if we couldn’t get him, I just don’t know if it would be worth doing at that point. So, luckily for us, Lucasfilm has such a long history with its actors and there are people who have been there a long time. I really have to give a lot of credit to Lynne Hale at Lucasfilm, because Lynne reached out to James and explained our situation. And I have to say, he was incredible gracious with his time, he was really fun to work with.

What was it like directing Vader for the special?

Honestly, it was like, directing him — what am I to do? He is Darth Vader. And yet his first question was, “Now, Dave, you’ll have to help me; I haven’t done this in a long time.” It had been 10 years since he did the voice [for Revenge of the Sith.]

He was recording remotely?

We had him piped through at Skywalker Sound — he was on the big screen in the theater — and [sound designer] Matt Wood had adjusted everything so that anything he said was already modulated like Vader. So [Jones] says, “Dave, you’ll have to help me, because I haven’t done this in a long time,” and I’m like, “You’re doing it. You’re doing it!”

Sounds like a dream come true for a Star Wars fan.

What was really fun for me was that I would read in the other characters around him, and you know, it is one of those times — I have to admit — that is surreal. But it was fantastic, and it lends all of the weight and gravitas that you want the character to have, and we’re very thankful to have had James do it.

One thing I noticed about James Earl Jones is that this Vader sounds different from all of the other Vader sound-alikes that you see in video games and such. Whenever I hear an imitation of Vader, it’s very stiff, and very stoic. And this had a more… relaxed quality to it. How would you describe it?

It’s a real challenge to have someone perform a character vs. imitate a character. On Rebels, we’re saying things that have never been said by Darth Vader before exactly that way. I think the difference is that people are performing him when it’s not James based on their perception of who they think Darth Vader is. James invented the performance, and is Darth Vader, so he is constantly establishing what the rules are.

Vader’s in a different place in this series, too. He’s got swagger.

Vader, in this time period, has no remorse. He’s guilt-filled, but there’s no spark of hope, there’s no spark of kindness; this is a Vader driven to destroy.

Scary Vader!

Scary Vader. Part of it is the ease from which he commands, which makes him very evil. It’s something Jason Isaacs and I talked about for the Inquisitor in Season 1. You don’t need to shout to be an effective villain. Sometimes a villain is very quiet — it makes them more deadly, more intellectual.

He’s not threatened either. Not in crisis.

With our Vader, the rebels on our show are just specks. They are a troublesome thing that he’s been brought in to deal with. What changes is, he realizes there’s some connection between Ahsoka Tano and these rebels, and that becomes, now, a prize worthy of a long setup in story.

Which is a connection to that part of him that wasn’t evil.

That’s exactly right. Which is important. The good person that Anakin Skywalker was is known to Ahsoka Tano. He taught her. And as she lives on, she carries that with her. So it’s an interesting thing, and definitely something he’d want to crush.

The coldest moment, I think, in his appearance in Rebels is when he orders the burning of Tarkin Town, which is just a village of refugees. And the Imperials say, “We don’t think the Rebels are hiding out there, and Vader’s like: “I know.”

Exactly! It just goes to show you his lack of care for life at that point. He’s going to waste no time, and he knows what buttons to push, and he knows their compassion will be their undoing, that if they burn this town, it will draw them to react, and that’s what he wants.

That’s shows the breadth of his calculation, too.

It’s something that we put in there, the idea that Vader would instigate certain things and then allow the rebels to lead him where he wants to go is something you see him also implement in A New Hope. Allow the Millennium Falcon to escape; they will lead us to the rebel base. And Tarkin warns him, I hope you’re right about this. But we thought, well, this is an Anakin strategy. We’re always seeking to show little, tiny ways that the Anakin Skywalker we worked so long to establish on Clone Wars is still in there in Vader.

NEXT PAGE: How Rebels may eventually connect to the Star Wars movies.

[pagebreak]

With Rebels, you’re bridging Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. You’ve got Ahsoka from The Clone Wars and Darth Vader now meeting, or at least aware of each other again. Since all of this is canon, what’s it like connecting parts of the  larger Star Wars narrative?

It’s a challenge I’ve been dealing with since I worked on Clone Wars, where I was between two movies much closer together. So in this world, at least, I think I have more room. And I have more new characters. There are some very tough things, like when the crawl [in the original 1977 movie] talks about the Rebels having their first major victory against the Empire, that kind of limits what you can do.

You’re showing the two sides aren’t at all evenly matched – at least at the start.

I think a lot of people fall into thinking that [Star Wars] is like a World War II scenario and they forget that it’s more like a revolution. The Rebels are not always as well equipped as you’d like them to be; why are the reasons this is? Well, if they’d try to fight the Empire in open combat, they would probably lose constantly. They don’t have the hardware, the machines, the equipment to do that. If they become a big force, they’re easily targeted by the Empire.

They turn their smallness into a strength in a way.

The Empire is designed, when you look at its equipment and ships and military, to take out like-minded giant military forces. They aren’t well equipped to take out pockets of resistance that blend into the population. So that’s a little bit of the story we’re telling, which obviously changes by the time you get to A New Hope, where you have a lot of X-wings and Y-wings. But even in Empire, they’re on the run. The rebels are a mobile group. I mean, how do you hold a planet within an Empire? They’d probably send a bunch of Star Destroyers there to destroy you.

Yeah, or just destroy the planet.

[Laughs] Yeah, destroy the whole planet! Well that was the Death Star’s plan, right? “These people are complaining…? GET RID OF THE WHOLE PLANET!”

What’s it like writing these stories now with the new films coming out? Is there a lot of collaboration and cooperation? I know, obviously, Simon Kinberg, who was involved with breaking the story for the new trilogy, was involved in the creation of Rebels, and Kiri Hart, director of story at Lucasfilm, has to make sure everything aligns.  How would you describe her role?

It’s a lot of fun! Kiri is not a person that puts herself forward very much, but she is a super important part of this whole thing. She loves Star Wars. She deeply cares about these stories and these characters, and the tradition at Lucasfilm. And so for me, it’s great to have her there. I sit down and talk Star Wars with her all the time.

As a fan, just geeking out, or strictly to coordinate with the movies and books?

Our offices are right next to each other, and we’re both very busy, but I can just pop in and say, hey, what about this? And she’s like, “That’s cool, do it,” or “Oh, we’re covering that somewhere else.” She is keeping track of so many things, but it’s great, because it’s really binding the universe together in a way it never has been before.

You’ve got J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens this Decemeber, then Gareth Edwards is directing Rogue One, about stealing the original Death Star plans — which comes close to your timeline in Rebels. Then Rian Johnson is prepping Episode VIII. So what are the links between your show and their films?

It’s about awareness, is what I’ve been telling people. I think fans think, oh, we’re planting Easter eggs all over the place, which I do not think is true. What we’re doing is we’re being aware of the overall story and all these characters, and what Gareth’s doing, what J.J.’s doing, what Rian’s doing, being aware of the places they’re going and the type of characters they’re meeting, because the last thing we want to do is start repeating everything. So part of it is an awareness of the history of Star Wars and seeing, “Oh, wow, it’s interesting that [their story] goes there. So maybe we do this and keep our thing different.” It’s as much about that as it is saying, “Wouldn’t it be neat if so-and-so appeared in that.”

So it’s more about staying out of each other’s way than crossing over?

You always have to be careful — it’s a fine line, because you don’t want a small universe, and yet, when I go to the Star Wars galaxy to watch it, I want to see certain people. And they live in that galaxy, so why wouldn’t you see, for example, Lando Calrissian in Season 1 of Rebels? The story was a story that would fit a guy like him. It’s as much about generation bridging as it is character development, and… I don’t know how Kiri keeps it all straight, but she does, and she’s got a great team of people working with her.

Has there ever been an incident where she’s like, “Emergency meeting! Hold on, we missed a trick and now the storylines are clashing!”

[Laughs.] Oddly, no. I mean, as much as every meeting is an emergency meeting on Star Wars, at this point. You just have to make sure that everybody’s on the same page, that the people that have been delegated to have these jobs of oversight, controlling story, are all aware of the same page, and then you check in. And I mean, you can tell really quickly when you watch or read these stories if it’s in the vein of what we’re trying to do, and then you try to correct it and you move on.

Are you involved with the films in any way? Are you laying any groundwork for these other movies in Rebels?

It really depends. Something like The Force Awakens, which is a time period so far after what I’m doing… it doesn’t really directly effect, but you have to be aware of it and what stories they’re doing so that, as I said, you’re not repeating things. Everything’s unique and sits in its own space. Gareth’s movie’s a lot closer as far as his time period, so it’s a little more natural to think of as the same galaxy. But crossovers and stuff like that, it doesn’t. His day-to-day doesn’t really effect my day-to-day, because my characters aren’t in his story and his characters aren’t in my story, so…

Not at all?

No, not really. I would say that — not to be spoilerific — but if you were looking for something like that, a connection with what happen on my show, I would make sure that it happened after Rogue One was out. See what I mean? Because you want everything to be special in the moment that it happens. I would never want to rob them… Don’t steal the coolness.

So down the road, there may be some more?

I would say, as we move forward with this whole thing, it’s much more possible as we go to have those type of connections. Right now we just have to be very careful because we’re taking our first steps, not just with new animated content, but with the film content. And we want everything to be special in its own right. But I suppose, down the line — try to imagine the scenario 10 years from now, 20 years from now, when you have filmmakers who grew up on everything from Clone Wars to Force Awakens to Rogue One, they’re probably going to want to tell stories based on all of those stories. I mean, that’s the hope, right? If anything, we’re at the evergreen moment when there’s as much space as possible.

Literally, and in the sense of the timeline. In the future, they may not be able to avoid intersecting.

Twenty years from now, it’s going to be like, “Well, we’ve got five days and six hours between these two events happening, so you could tell the story of how they went and got burgers in between battles!”