An Interview with Star Wars: The Clone Wars Screenwriter and TV Series Writer Henry Gilroy
Henry, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for us here at GalacticBinder. For anyone who’s not aware, Henry is a very successful animation writer who’s worked on such shows as Batman, The Tick, House of Mouse, and Justice League. He also wrote the direct-to-dvd films Atlantis: Milo’s Return and Bionicle: Mask of Light. He worked as the story editor and head writer at Lucasfilm Animation on season one of the Clone Wars series and is the co-writer of the Clone Wars film as well.
GB: We understand that you started your career working in the editing department at Warner Bros. That must have been a great experience to learn about the craft of storytelling, but what led you to choose the keyboard over the editing bay?
HG: I always knew I was going to be a writer from about age 11, but in editorial I spent a lot of time studying the visual aspects of storytelling – clarity of narrative, dramatic or comedic reveals, pace, scene transition, voiceover and picture combinations, etc.... So I tended to get along with the directors better than the other writers because I always approached story visually. I would often start my stories with bombastic visuals. I trained as a photographer in high school, so I was always in love with telling stories with pictures. I probably would have been a comic book artist if I ever learned to draw.
GB: Were you always a writer at heart?
HG: Ever since I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. I remember seeing it at a drive in and when the credits rolled, bouncing in the backseat. I was exhilarated because I knew that I wanted to make other people feel the way I felt at that moment – It was inspiring to me that someone could make someone else feel that way just with telling a story. It’s funny, years later, I was at my first staff studio job, working at WB in the editorial department (while taking screenwriting classes at night) and Steven Spielberg came up behind me while I was reading track for his Tiny Toons show. He’d come by the studio every few months. Anyway, there I am with headphones on, deep in concentration and suddenly Spielberg is like 6 inches away looking over my shoulder. He was looking over my shoulder because I had the cover of the Raiders of the Lost Ark comic book adaptation pinned up above my editing table. After I recovered, we had this great conversation about the comic adaptation that Howard Chaykin did and Spielberg was so down to earth and excited about comics. George’s fascination with comics was very much like my own and it made me realize that even though I didn’t choose the literary path to writing, I could still be a great storyteller in cinema.
GB: The Clone Wars isn’t your first dip into the Star Wars pool. You also did the comic book adaptations of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Tell us what it was like working in the Star Wars universe in the comic book medium, and was that how you were “introduced” to the people at Lucasfilm?
HG: I felt really fortunate to be able to contribute to the fine tradition of the comics because I think the very nature of Star Wars translates very well to the medium. I know that George was much inspired by the serialized Flash Gordon newspaper strips of the 1940’s. As a matter of fact, you can see homages to the original strips all over the place. Chewbacca as the ape men, even the design of some of the starships are right out of the old Alex Raymond strips. It’s great stuff today, the visuals immediately transport you to Mongo or wherever Flash was fighting Ming on a given Sunday.
As far as how I was introduced to the folks at Lucasfilm, I had briefly met producer Catherine Winder at a Hollywood related function and we shared animation professional colleagues as friends so she had heard of me. When Catherine saw my credits on various television animated action adventure series combined with my Star Wars credits that was good enough to get me in the door.
GB: Even though the Clone Wars was developed as a property for the small screen, it appears to still capture the Star Wars “feel” and deliver a scope worthy of the big screen.
HG: Every story we wrote for Clone Wars was envisioned to be cinematic and epic in scope. We didn’t really think about it as tv, so much as it was Star Wars, which meant to us, great character stories with mythic resonance combined with the wonder and spectacle that is the Star Wars galaxy with its exotic planets, weird aliens, space battles, lightsaber duels, etc… Early on Dave and I even pitched to George using the 2:35 to 1 wide screen aspect ratio – to make it feel like Star Wars and make it very different from other cartoons. George immediately said to go for it. Catherine was a little hesitant about this for tv, but we talked her into it eventually.
GB: How hard was it to balance delivering awesome action to the fans while still maintaining a character driven story? Did Dave Filoni and George Lucas preach character at you above all else?
HG: For me, it’s not difficult at all because ideally the action should be motivated by character. To make it as big and bombastic and as meaningful just takes time to get right because we are juggling so many things and trying to make the stories feel like classic Star Wars with all the elements we want to see – space battles, lightsaber duels, intrigue, etc...
I tend to approach most of my stories mythically, I like to see the characters demonstrate the theme of the story through action. So, yeah…I’d rather see our heroes do something that addresses the theme rather than talk about it, which is what you get in a lot of shows where the characters stand around talking to each other.
As an example, sometimes George would approach us with a simple idea like, “Do an episode just about the clones.” So that was the genesis of an episode called: Rookies. So I wrote a one page premise of the story, handed it to Dave who inputed his ideas, then we sent it to George. Dave was always the one preaching character to me more than anyone. Sometimes George would be more preoccupied with plot, and Dave would really help me figure out the personal character stuff in the script stages. Interestingly, though, George would add most of his character stuff in editorial – he would leave the scripts alone, and always tell me when he put barely any notes on them, “Great!” However, once George and Dave had a rough visual incarnation of the movie in editorial, they would get in there and tear it up and make it what they wanted it to be, often changing it dramatically. It’s a very different way of working in animation and a lot of writers couldn’t handle seeing their work changed like that. Early on it was a shock, but I got used to it. Because I came from editorial, I understood the process, so it never really bothered me – primarily because their work almost always made the stories better, more Star Wars-y.
GB: Okay, we have to admit, when we heard about the idea for the film revolving around the concept of Jabba the Hutt having an infant son kidnapped, we said, “What? Huhn? Jabba the Hutt’s baby?” But then we realized this puts the Hutts square in the middle of a galactic free for all with the Jedi, Republic, Sith and Separatists - who are all at odds with each other in various ways already. How hard was it as a writer to keep all those balls in the air without this turning into a pile of mush?
HG: The basic scenario of the kidnapped Hutt story was inspired by an old Sonny Chiba samurai film I like called Shogun’s Shadow. It’s the story of this disgraced ronin who is charged with escorting the very young son of a shogun across the countryside and all these ninjas are trying to kill this poor kid. Anyway, there’s a lot of intrigue about who is really after the kid, trying to kill him. I thought the basic idea translated to Star Wars well.
How I related it to Anakin, felt very Star Wars to me, because George had established in the films that the Hutts had sold he and his mother into slavery. So, Anakin tends to hold onto negative experiences and their emotions, so I thought it could challenge him as a Jedi to have to protect this terrible little Huttlet that he naturally dislikes – because all the Hutts are criminals. The fact that he’s carrying Rotta around on his back is literally like a monkey on his back – and the fact that he will have to return to Tatooine and the source of his greatest loss could explore his reluctance to let go of those negative events. Anyway, there’s a chance at some growth at the end, because the Huttlet is really upset when it sees his father (Jabba) is about to kill Anakin and Ahsoka – because the little creature bonded to them, they took care of it. So ultimately, Anakin and Ahsoka’s compassion showed for the Hutts, ended up saving them. There was more material in the script that focused on Anakin’s relationship with the Hutts, but it was ultimately cut because it didn’t specifically address the plot.
GB: What are the biggest challenges of writing an animated version of Star Wars versus a live action project? It must be cool not having to worry about blowing up too much expensive stuff or writing something that would demand insane special effects!
HG: I never think about it being animated or live action. I just think about it being Star Wars. Of course, we had very limited resources early in the production of the series, so it was a challenge to make it feel as big as we all know Star Wars is. I think our crew did a tremendous job. Just about anything Dave and I could imagine, they would make happen. Our crew is truly extraordinary, because they would really collaborate. I would go to Kilian Plunkett or Russell Chong and ask them about a certain ship or suggest some cool droid and they would give me instant feedback I could put in the scripts. That blending of art and word really makes Star Wars rich.
GB: Okay, we know you can’t spill too many beans about surprises in the upcoming series, and we’re not aiming to get you in trouble with the boss… but how about the tiniest of morsels (a hint if you will) about something you know all of us fanboys are going to geek out over? For instance, how about a tantalizing clue about a new vehicle, beast, planet or weapon we’ll be seeing?
HG: We’re gonna see a bunch of new droids that the Separatists use. Specialized droids that are tasked with specific missions – super smart ones, super deadly ones. There’s a new ship the crew called ‘the juicer’ and we see it in the first part of the Malevolence trilogy. It’s a really deadly addition to the arsenal of the droid army. Here’s a good one -- Ever wonder what gundark looks like? You won’t have to much longer!!!
GB: By the way, how come you haven’t started www.henrygilroy.com? We’d love a place where we could keep up with what you’re up to!
HG: I’m working on a blog of sorts! However, you can see my writing every month. I am writing the Clone Wars comics from Dark Horse that I hope everyone will check out.
GB: Finally, here's a question we're asking to everyone we interview at GalacticBinder: If you were transported into the Star Wars universe... what era, location and/or setting/situation would you want to end up in, and what's the first thing you'd do and with whom? (Keep it somewhat clean, Henry!)
HG: If you asked me before I got this job, I would say I’d want to practice up my blaster and flying skills and go to work for Han Solo – he was gonna give Luke a job, why not me? Right? Now after working on the Clone Wars though, I’d want to share a drink with Obi-Wan near the end of the Clone Wars and hear all the stories from his point of view about Anakin and Ahsoka. Hell, I’d be buying drinks as long as Obi-Wan wanted to talk.
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