Yesterday at Star Wars Celebration, the official Star Wars convention currently being held in snowy Chicago, fans were treated to something genuinely new: a peek at “The Mandalorian,” the first-ever live-action “Star Wars” television series and the first flagship series on the soon-to-launch direct-to-consumer Disney+ platform. And as both the first step into a new corner of the “Star Wars” galaxy and the initial offering for a game changing service, what we were shown exceeded expectations. Disney+ already has its “Game of Thrones” and it hasn’t even started yet.
After a brief intro from Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy (who serves as an executive producer on the series), creator, writer and showrunner Jon Favreau was joined on stage by executive producer and director Dave Filoni (making his live-action debut), who more or less served as the emcees for the hourlong panel. The two have a jovial, brotherly charm, coming from the fact that Filoni directed Favreau, who appeared on Filoni’s “The Clone Wars” animated series (as a Mandalorian!) and you could tell they were very excited to finally tell people about the project.
Favreau said that he was compelled to see “what happened after the celebration at the end of ‘Return of the Jedi.’ What would happen and what type of characters would survive before the New Republic took over? You have chaos taking over the galaxy.” He said that this setting provided “a rich environment and tone.” Inspired by “old westerns and samurai films,” as well as the “post-Civil War old west” (the character of the Mandalorian was often described in the panel as a “gunslinger”), Faveau was inspired by a rich melting pot of ideas. Amongst the other “elements” he wanted to contribute to this new series was “everything from the original trilogy, the prequels, the sequels, ‘Clone Wars,’ even bringing in things from Legends” (the decommissioned official “extended universe” that Disney jettisoned after purchasing Lucasfilm). Filoni noted that they even tipped their collective hat to the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special,” which marked the first appearance of Boba Fett (you can see that influence in The Mandalorian’s pronged weapon that looks like a cross between a shotgun and a tuning fork).
One of the more interesting anecdotes that Filoni and Favreau shared was that the Mandalorian’s ship, The Razorcrest, was brought to life via models. Favreau joked that Guillermo del Toro taught him to “make practical effects so that you can have them in your place” and that “you can’t hang a QuickTime file up in your office,” so they built a miniature Razorcrest, first as a kind of test, and then to actually appear in the show, with Jon Knoll, an absolute visual effects legend at Industrial Light & Magic, building the motion control rig that photographed the miniature ship. It seemed to really bring out some enthusiasm at ILM, with Favreau joking that “a lot of people came out of the woodwork” to be a part of it. They then showed lighting passes on the ship, including a really cool pass with just the ship’s engines firing (thanks to flickering LED lights). The mood and texture of these test alone was jaw-dropping; seeing them composited into a final shot will be pretty transcendent.
And, of course, we were introduced to the cast of the show. Pedro Pascal is playing the titular “bounty hunter and gunfighter” (according to Favreau). Pascal described him as “a mysterious gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy. I would say he has moral questionable.” Also, quipped Pascal: “He’s a bad-ass.”
Meanwhile, former MMA fighter Gina Carano plays another new character named Cara Dune, another soul searching for stability in the post-war galaxy. “She’s an ex-Rebel shock trooper,” Carano said. “I’m a bit of a loner. I’m having trouble reintegrating myself into society.” (Carano seemed very excited to be a part of the project but also very scared about spilling any secrets prematurely.)
And Carl Weathers, who was also on hand for the panel (“I’m really happy to be here, of all the things I’ve been involved with, I don’t think anything has come close to this”), is playing a character called Greef Karga. “He’s a guy who is running a group of bounty hunters,” Weathers explained. “The Mandalorian is a guy he figures can get the job done so he hires him and sends him out there.” (More on this in a minute.)
But the actors were joined on set one day by some very special guests: members of the 501st Legion, a group of amateur Stormtroopers that are recognized by Lucasfilm and called on for special events or charity functions. “We had production meetings and after seeing the set we realized that we didn’t have Stormtroopers and there were only so many uniforms we had and thought it wasn’t going to do the trick for the storytelling,” Favreau said. “But I know a bunch of Stormtroopers,” Filoni interjected. So the team called on the 501st. Filoni said that he wasn’t worried about the costumes. “They held up,” he said. They initially weren’t even told what they were needed for. “They said, ‘What for?’ And we said, ‘Just come down,’ Filoni said. To which Jon Favreau responded, “I didn’t realize that they weren’t told what it was for.” Later, he said they were “so polite and nice.” And Carano seemed genuinely shocked at the level of detail in their handmade costumes and Weathers expressed even more admiration: “They work really hard. They were on point the entire time they were there. It was so cool. I learned stuff from watching those guys and women.” Well said!
There were also two batches of footage that they showed: initially they showed a kind of behind-the-scenes sizzle, showcasing the talent behind the camera (including directors Bryce Dallas Howard and Taika Waititi) as well as in front of it, with rough, approximate shots that might end up in the series. Then, at the end of the panel, as people were streaming out of the auditorium, Favreau told everybody to turn around and sit down because he had some “real” footage to show them. And it was pretty great.
This “real” footage started with a fairly prolonged scene. The Mandalorian was in some kind of cantina-like space, sitting across from Greef. Greef is offering him jobs, which are too low for the Mandalorian’s liking. He asks for a bigger job but Greef says that this one is more dangerous. The Mandalorian takes it anyway.
We then cut to him visiting a hole in the wall (he’s scanned by the same robot that Jabba has at his palace), taking an audience with an unnamed character played by the great German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Herzog is surrounded by dirty Stormtroopers and a weaselly guy in a lab coat named Dr. Pershing (played by Omid Abthai). The bounty that Herzog gives him requires him to bring back the mark alive but, hey, if the target dies, he understands.
From there we were treated to a really fabulous montage, featuring (but not limited to) shots of the Razorcrest flying through deep space, Cara Dune kicking ass, Giancarlo Esposito as an unnamed character flanked by Death Troopers (the super scary Stormtroopers first introduced in "Rogue One"), another shot of Esposito piloting a TIE Fighter, lots of creatures (including the same kind of creature Salacious Crumb is, plus various crazy monsters from the Mos Eisley Cantina), an assassin droid voiced by Waititi (rumored to be named IG-11) and the Mandalorian, running, hiding, shooting but never, ever taking off his helmet.
The footage made the show look huge, which is not an easy feat, especially considering it was shot entirely in Los Angeles. (It is the first “Star Wars” project filmed in the United States.) Still, this is the one of the few television series ILM has ever worked on and they seem to be working at the absolute top of their game. The tone definitely seems like it has wandered from the hopefulness of most “Star Wars” projects, and the amount of deep cut characters and references seems to lend it its own idiosyncratic, esoteric vibe. The television format seems to have freed the show’s creators from having to color inside the lines. It’s a show set in wild, untamed space, and the show feels like it is charting similarly adventurous ground. Must-see TV doesn’t even justly describe “The Mandalorian;” it is now one of the most rabidly anticipated events in all of pop culture. And for good reason too – it looks that good.
“The Mandalorian” launches with the rest of Disney+ on November 12.