Usually the name Star Wars attached to anything will guarantee success. But back in 2008, the animated theatrical release Star Wars: The Clone Wars didn’t exactly receive galactic acceptance. Modest box office and critical barbs like “stilted and overblown,” “cloying” and “visually forgettable” buffeted the film like so many asteroids against the Millennium Falcon.
When the Clone Wars series debuted on Cartoon Network soon after, the skeptics still had to be won over. But now in its fifth season, and about to air its 100th episode this Saturday at 9:30am, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a bona fide hit, having established itself as a, er, force to be reckoned with in George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away.
I spoke with Dave Filoni, the mastermind and director behind Clone Wars, to get his thoughts about the journey to 100 episodes, what has won the fans over, and just a little about what that Disney purchase of Lucasfilm might mean for his show.
Channel Guide Magazine: So, what are your thoughts on reaching 100 episodes?
Dave Filoni: It’s amazing. It’s just flown by. When we used to talk about doing 100 episodes, George would always throw that number out. I almost thought, “Uh huh. Well, that’ll be amazing.” I was on King of the Hill, and I can remember when The Simpsons hit 100 episodes and thought, “Wow, that’s incredible,” and it just blows my mind how quickly we have just ran to this marker, and frankly passed it. We just keep making episodes. It’s pretty fun, and we’re in no shortage of stories, that’s for sure.
CGM: Is there an endgame in mind for the series?
DF: George and I have definitely had some talks about the end of the show, at least what would happen to who I always think of as the main characters for Clone Wars, which would be Rex and Ahsoka. We definitely have something in mind for those characters, which I think is really exciting. But because of the way we’ve told our stories, they’ve been rather spread out, they’re not always about those two characters. The idea of this show, which eventually comes down to telling adventure-filled stories in the Star Wars universe, that could go on almost indefinitely.
CGM: Throughout the five seasons, have things gone pretty much the way you envisioned from the start?
DF: I would say so. I’ve always had a rough idea of the trajectory of some of the characters, but as you tell stories that evolves significantly, and one of the things that really changes that I almost didn’t expect is how some of the characters have crossed over. Their arcs have changed dramatically. For example, the character Asajj Ventress had a dynamic change when she suddenly became more of a gray character than an evil character. So that change affected some things that I had been thinking originally about that character. Those types of directional changes are always brought about by George, which I think is very exciting that he’s been that involved with our series to get down to a character level with us. I never, ever saw it in the beginning of this show that we would bring back Darth Maul. That was not even a consideration of mine, and again George is kind of the big X factor in the room. He’ll say, “Let’s do this.” It’s always a really dynamic idea. As he was in Phantom Menace a fantastic villain, [Maul] has become a really great villain for our series, shaping a lot of what we actually did with some of the main cast. Those sort of things you can’t really plan for, and are now a great part of this show.
CGM: Yeah, as fun as it was to see Darth Maul back, it sort of puts Obi-Wan in a bad light. Between Darth Maul and Darth Vader, he’s just not good at finishing people off.
DF: (laughs) Yeah, that’s kind of a good joke. His nickname should be The Finisher, especially when it comes to Sith Lords evidently. We brought that up in the writers room, we were all kind of — I mean, you don’t want to laugh at him, because we love Obi-Wan as a character — but it is almost a character flaw. Now, slicing Maul in half, I think he had good reason to believe that this guy was pretty much done in. Short of the bewitching magic we use in Clone Wars, he probably would have been done in. It’s one of the things we’ve had to explain is what’s the purpose of that and where is it going? It’s an interesting situation for us, because we have a character from the movies finally that nobody knows what happens to him. That’s kind of a big deal. With Obi-Wan and Anakin, people always say, “Well, that was a great episode, but we know that they’re not going to die.” But Maul was dead, and now we brought him back, so what ultimately happens to this orphaned Sith Lord and how much does he play into messing with Palpatine’s plans or Obi-Wan and Anakin plans, the fans will get to see a good piece of that this season.
CGM: When the movie came out to introduce the series, there were definitely some detractors. Have you found acceptance as time has gone on?
DF: Actually, yeah. Absolutely. It’s one of the most interesting things about our show. It would’ve been easy to say, “Well, we made an animated show and just stuck the Star Wars logo on it and a lot of people watched it.” Where we started an animated series on the scale that we were trying to do it, especially using CG animation, really hadn’t been attempted before. We weren’t avoiding things like human characters and cloth and multitudes of characters on the screen, and when you’re doing a television production, those are things you usually want to shy away from. Really, it was 2005, 2006 when we started the production, and a lot of things at that time — the ability to animate human characters, for instance — were just really coming into their own on the big screen in a way that the audience was really accepting them as believable. Now, I think everything has changed dramatically. Forget story, just look at the animation alone that’s on a weekly episode of Clone Wars versus what you saw in the movie Clone Wars. The weekly episode is significantly better than the movie was, quality-wise, and how many times do you ever say that? … That’s been one thing, and the fans have really responded to that. The style looks better now because everything is animated and lit better than it used to be. But also we’ve kind of taken the stories from what is traditionally thought of as a kids’ medium in animation — in America, at least — and we had stories that are more just traditional action-adventure fare in Season 1. We’ve changed it into a pretty dramatic series dealing with a lot of issues and pretty much trying to fit in with what George has always done with his films and trying to reach up to that level. The fans have acknowledged that and come along. If anything, I think there’s still a whole group of fans and people that saw the movie or images from the movie and said, “Well, that’s just not my thing” and they’re really missing out at this point, because if they tuned into any of the episodes now they would see something that I think they’re not expecting, which is a pretty high-quality series for television.
CGM: Given the technological improvements, and I’m sure just having gotten into a rhythm with the show, is it difficult to go back and look at the movie or those early episodes?
DF: Well, I think as an artist you’re always critical of your work. It’s like anything, when you make a painting and you finish it, hopefully you’ve learned enough in the process that you could then go back and do that painting and improve upon it the next time you did it. But sometimes you just have to accept the learning experience for what it is and move on. Though I will say that I am a person that really, really understands why George likes to make Special Editions, and if he were to grant me the ability to upgrade my own movie, I would definitely do it because we could do everything in that movie better now than we did it back in 2005. But I always have to appreciate that that was the starting point for us. Indeed it was not just us creating an animated series for the first time at Lucasfilm, it was also the Lucasfilm Animation’s first effort. So coming from pretty much nothing — when I got here I think we had six total employees in the animation division to now we have about 80 people on Clone Wars alone. That’s pretty significant growth. It’s exciting to see the change that’s gone with it, quality-wise, interest-wise. Kids coming out of college all know our studio now. They didn’t even really know we had an animation division back in 2005, so trying to get portfolios was kind of an interesting thing because everyone just thought we were ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) and we’re not. And we’re not LucasArts, we’re a different division, so we’ve made a name for ourselves now. The fan pressure was always there, but for me personally, we had to impress George Lucas, which was no easy task. Also it was important to me to live up to the expectations that all the guys working at ILM have. They’re famous for their visual effects, they’re famous for their high quality levels, especially in the Star Wars films, and we wanted to live up to that stamp of quality. We finally are nowadays. I think we’re there on some level, and I think there’s room to improve it as always.
CGM: What can we expect to see in the 100th episode?
DF: It deals with one of the subjects fans have come to love most in our series, which is one of the Clones. We took these all-alike characters from the films, where the Clones are pretty much a background element. But in our series we’ve really put them in the forefront and used them to tell the story of the everyday soldier, the infantry, the guy that just goes out and has none of the abilities of the Jedi or protections and just puts himself in harm’s way. It revolves around one of these characters who let’s just say is far away from the rest of his troopers, and in an extreme circumstance. When you’re in an extreme circumstance, one of the characters that could probably help you is R2-D2. A Clone will come into contact with R2-D2, and they will have an exciting adventure. Anytime we do something with R2, it’s great because he’s one of the core characters of the original trilogy. He’s an enigma to me, because he has no facial expression, no voice. He’s ultimately just a trashcan, right? But he emotes as well as any actor onscreen. You do get to the point where you refer to R2 as an actor, because he is who he is. In the films and in our show, he’s pretty much the same little guy. It’s always fun to do an adventure that really centers with R2 as the lead, and now having one of our mainstay characters in the Clones partnered up with him made for a really exciting episode.
CGM: How has the move from Friday nights to Saturday mornings affected your viewership?
DF: You know, it really hasn’t, and that’s kind of been surprising because we thought honestly a lot of what our show is gets pretty intense at times, so you always wonder how audiences will respond to that. When you say “Saturday morning cartoons,” you think a lot more in the Looney Tunes realm of things, let’s just be honest. I remember getting up on Saturday mornings when I was a kid and I think the most intense action show I watched was Dungeons & Dragons, which was a great show, by the way. But Clone Wars is a different cup of tea altogether. But [the change] really hasn’t affected it. In fact, in some cases our ratings have gone up. I don’t know if that’s because all the kids that go out on Friday nights are up in the morning on Saturday and ready to watch Clone Wars, but it seems that way. I’ve been surprised at audience reactions, it seems in some ways stronger than Friday. With DVRs now, too, I’ve even talked to some people who record the Saturday episode and will wait till the following Friday to watch it because their family was in such a groove of watching it on Fridays. Whatever works for people.
CGM: Lastly, what do you think the effect of the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm will be on your production?
DF: It’s a big move for us, it’s an exciting move. I always looked at it as I just think it really shows you how much George believes in the company even beyond him. He wanted to ensure the future of the franchise, the future of all his employees. I’ve spent a lot of time with George, so it’s fun to talk to him about what the possible futures are of everything. I think it means a lot of great things for us and for Star Wars fans. People always looked at the third prequel as the end of Star Wars, and then we were really fortunate enough to get to make Clone Wars and we proved that wasn’t true because we’ve been carrying the torch for five seasons, saying, “No, people want to see more of these stories.” Look at the explosion. They announce Episode VII, and it’s some of the biggest entertainment news I’ve ever seen. I find it incredibly exciting. I’m really excited about Kathleen Kennedy and what she’s going to bring to Lucasfilm, and the history she has with George speaks for itself. It’s an exciting time to be here, and like everyone else I’m just waiting to see what’s going to happen with all the details. It’s a big change for us, but I think an exciting change.
CGM: Do you foresee George Lucas still being involved with your show?
DF: I have no idea, but my experience with George is that over the years he’s always said, “You know, I’m just going to set this up and you guys can go do your thing.” I’ve seen they’ve given him the title of consultant for the future, and you can’t get rid of him. He always comes around. I joke with him all the time. I looked at him and said, “So I don’t have to take your notes anymore?” (laughs) No matter how busy he’s been — in the middle of Red Tails or whatever he’s been doing — he either comes in to watch Clone Wars or we send him a DVD. He’s always kind and makes notes, pretty timely notes for us to keep our production on schedule. I wouldn’t want to lose that. I told him that I’ll just call him and ask him questions about what we’re doing because he is Star Wars. The fact that George is here, and basically asking Yoda’s opinion of how the galaxy is run is a strong thing that will be at Lucasfilm. As long as George is around, why wouldn’t you want to know what he thinks?
Photo: © 2012 Lucasfilm