The veteran screenwriter and co-creator of Lucasfilm's new animated series talks exclusively with StarWars.com.
With the launch of Star Wars Rebels, a new era begins for a galaxy far, far away. Set between the prequel and original film trilogies, the canonical animated series tells the story of a small band of heroes -- Kanan, Ezra, Zeb, Sabine, Hera, and their grumpy droid, Chopper -- who dare to fight back against the Empire, eventually resulting in the formation of the Rebel Alliance. Filling in a hugely important gap in the overall Star Wars saga, the show's look is inspired by the work of original trilogy concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, and its place in the timeline allows for the inclusion of stormtroopers, haughty Imperial officers, and lots of TIE fighters -- core elements of Star Wars villainy that we haven't seen onscreen for a long time. But it also recalls the feel and tone of classic Star Wars, from a sense of wonder to genuine heart. That's easier said than done, and that particular success comes courtesy of the show’s creators, including executive producer Simon Kinberg.
A veteran screenwriter and producer with blockbuster credits including Sherlock Holmes and X-Men: Days of Future Past, Kinberg is one of the major creative forces shaping the future of Star Wars. And that future arrives with the one-hour premiere episode of Star Wars Rebels, “Spark of Rebellion,” which he wrote. In celebration of the show’s debut, StarWars.com caught up with Kinberg about developing the series, why Zeb has a British accent, and what it’s like to add to the Star Wars bible.
StarWars.com: Before we delve into "Spark of Rebellion," can you talk about how you came to Lucasfilm and got involved with Star Wars Rebels?
Simon Kinberg: Forever, I’ve been a fan of Star Wars and I’ve been a huge fan of [Lucasfilm president] Kathy Kennedy. Star Wars, I never had access to, but Kathy I’d met a bit over the years, and had always wanted to work with her just because I’ve loved so many of her films.
When she was coming to work at Lucasfilm we had a meeting. She said, "I’m going to be working on Star Wars, and is it something you might be interested in?" And I said, "Uh, yeah." We just started having casual conversations, which led to a meeting with George Lucas.
StarWars.com: Oh, wow.
Simon Kinberg: Yeah. It was one of the most thrilling and daunting meetings of my life, as you can imagine. That meeting was about working on the films. I was really excited about it, and signed on to write one of the movies, which I’m gonna do, and to be part of the community of writers who were talking generally about what to do with the new Lucasfilm and Star Wars properties. That’s how I ended up a consultant on [Star Wars:] Episode VII.
It was about a few months after that -- I’d been meeting with them, talking about the movies -- that Kiri Hart, who heads up the Story Group, actually e-mailed me. "Hey, one of the first things we’re going to do is an animated show for Disney networks." She knew that I had a five- and nine-year-old. Two boys. And she knows that Star Wars is a big point of connection for me and my kids. She thought, because of that, it might be a great, fun thing to work on that could access my love for Star Wars, and also theirs.
At [San Diego] Comic-Con [this year], I was standing on the convention floor where they had the huge booth for Rebels. A massive video screen in the middle, huge posters of all the characters, life-size models of the characters. It was really the biggest footprint at Comic-Con this year. It was kind of astounding. I was standing there, in awe of it, just looking up at these characters that hadn’t existed a year and a half before, and suddenly were the new generation of Star Wars characters. I scrolled back to find that initial e-mail from Kiri that sort of set it all in motion, at least for me.
At the time, when I first read that e-mail, they had a general sense of the show, but none of the specifics in terms of the characters and stories, and really, the world of it. So, yeah, I wrote back to that e-mail, "Absolutely, anything with Star Wars, I’m interested in. I really like the idea of being able to do something that would be targeted toward my kids and a new generation of Star Wars fans." And then we just started meeting: me, and Kiri, and [creative executive] Rayne Roberts, the Story Group, and [associate producer] Carrie Beck. We just built it from the ground up, together.
One of the first things they said was, they had the paradigm of the A-Team, where they wanted it to be a group. We [agreed], from the beginning, that we wanted it to be the origin story of the Rebel Alliance. So, they really loved the structure of the ensemble crew doing missions week to week, and being a little bit on the outskirts of the law the way that the A-Team was. I think the thing I brought to it, initially, was focusing those characters as a family. The A-Team is a different model, because they’re all roughly the same age. They’re all adults, and their dynamic is as friends and peers. I thought it would be great if this crew could be built around the different archetypes of family members. So you have the father, the mother, the older brother, the middle sister, the little brother who’s the sort of runt of the litter, and the pet. I mean, Chopper is the family dog or cat.
StarWars.com: Definitely the cat, I would say.
Simon Kinberg: [Laughs] Yeah, that was [executive producer] Dave Filoni’s interpretation. It was always a cat for him.
So, that’s how it began. I mean, it really began with them being like, it’s A-Team, it’s the rebels, my saying that I think it would be great if they felt like a family, and that I felt like the way into the show, emotionally, would be that youngest brother. Not just because the youngest is a little bit the underdog and, also, maybe the closest in age to the core viewers of the show. But also because I just felt like part of what works so brilliantly in the original Star Wars movies is having someone who’s an outsider, and sort of innocent, and naïve to the world, being brought into it. And that’s the eyes and ears of the audience. That for me, is what Ezra provides to the show. Now, he’s a much less innocent character than Luke. He’s actually a more broken character in some ways, a more rebellious character. He’s a criminal when we meet him. So, it’s a different vibe, it’s a totally different thing. But just narratively, structurally, you enter into the world with a main character that is as ignorant of the world as you are.
StarWars.com: As a writer, what appealed to you most about this point in the timeline? Because with Star Wars, you can really tell any kind of story, and the timeline spans thousands of years.
Simon Kinberg: A few things. One is that the stories that had the biggest impact on me in my entire life, whether novels or movie or TV or comic books, were the original Star Wars films. So, [I enjoyed] the possibility of telling a chapter that was not only close in chronological proximity to the original films, but also telling part of the untold story that would deepen the original films. Being close to A New Hope was very important to me. Partly because you can use the imagery, the vehicles, a lot of the world creation from the original films. And then also, frankly, being able to use some of the characters from the original films. I’m not allowed to say which ones we use, but a few of them people know about already. That appeal of that is like, being able to write the greatest fan fiction of all time and actually see it animated.
But you know, it’s interesting. Because part of the challenge, which is really fun and healthy, of creating a whole show where the main characters are not from any of the Star Wars movies, is that you have to make sure that those characters can compete with these classic, iconic characters that are a part of our collective consciousness now. So when we have guest stars from the original movies, it’s a great, almost test for our new characters, where you can feel if our characters have the same depth and nuance as the original characters because you want to write everyone on the same level. And are you as a writer as excited to write Ezra, Sabine , Hera, Kanan, and Zeb as you are to write C-3PO or Obi-Wan? It’s a fun challenge and the hope, obviously, is that these characters will become what the original characters became, which is sort of an indelible part of the collective consciousness.
StarWars.com: How did you develop the core cast of characters and figure out who each of them really are? For example, how do you decide that Zeb is going to be the tough guy, but he actually has a heart and is intelligent?
Simon Kinberg: The first approach was, "How do we build a family on this ship?" Then, pretty quickly, we got to the traditional two parents; the eldest sibling being the muscle, the most physical, the big brother; the sister being a little bit more the rebellious, maybe sassy character, who has a little bit more attitude than the other siblings because she’s in the middle and wants to stand out; and then the youngest, who’s in some ways the most trouble, and really trying to find a place for himself in a family that already exists. I think that’s the experience of being the youngest in a family. You’re entering into a house and a unit that has already been functional and existing without you, and you have to find a place and a purpose within it.
Then, within each [character]…all the Star Wars stories -- animated, the [Expanded Universe] -- the thing they’ve done so well is create these really unique, specific, idiosyncratic characters. So, using Zeb as an example, you start with someone who in a generic sense is the bruiser, the muscle, the older brother, and then you want to go against that type to make him feel more dimensional and more real. Even the accent was something that was a very concerted choice to make him feel a little bit elevated even though, physically, he feels like he’s going to be the least sophisticated of the group. He has that sort of British accent that gives you the sense that he’s not just a small-town bumpkin and not just the dumb muscle, he actually is someone that comes from a planet of educated people and he himself is educated. And part of the fun and tension and comedy of the show is the expectation that when people meet him, they will have the same assumptions that anyone would have when they see the big bruiser brother. That’s frustrating for him and annoying for him, and he’s constantly trying to prove people wrong. That’s especially true in his relationship with Ezra, where Ezra treats him like the dumb muscle, and that’s the source of a lot of conflict and comedy between the two of them.
So, the first layer is, what’s the prototype, and then the second layer is, how do we play against that type so that you surprise the audience and make him feel dimensional, and then the third layer is, what’s the emotional backstory that’s underpinning that character, so that he’s not just a sort of collection of character traits? There’s something deeper there, there’s like a wound. All of the characters in the show, and I think this is true of maybe all great characters, are carrying some emotional baggage or some weight that makes the fight very personal for them. Each of them has lost someone they cared about, and in almost all cases someone they were related to, to the Empire. It’s that loss that makes it hard for them to trust and reconnect with a new family, and it is that loss that really motivates them to essentially give up their lives to fight against this seemingly insurmountable enemy. In the case of Zeb, he has a personal history where the Empire took out people he really cared about. So, him knocking stormtroopers’ heads together on the one hand is really fun, and it’s got this swashbucking adventure [feel] of the original films, but there is something deeper there that is motivating those actions.
StarWars.com: What was the goal when creating the main villains, Agent Kallus and the Inquisitor, and the dynamic between them?
Simon Kinberg: Part of what’s interesting about the Star Wars world is, villains are complex, obviously, and they occupy, as in life, different roles within different organizations. Kallus, I would say, is more of the military, political character, whereas the Inquisitor is more of a spiritual villain. The Inquisitor is much more focused on the Jedi, and Kallus is much more focused on the rebels. So, there is somewhat of a conflict between them, because their agendas are slightly different. And I think each believes that their agenda is more important to the Empire. I think with Kallus you have the possibility for a little more conscience, a little more humanity -- someone who has a potentially complex relationship to the Empire -- versus the Inquisitor, who’s much more of an attack dog, and someone who doesn’t have the same kind of conscience and won’t ever question his mission.
StarWars.com: Did you know early on that you wanted to have one villain focused on the rebels and a dark side user, as well?
Simon Kinberg: We did. We knew from the beginning that we wanted there to be a more human, military aspect to the villainy of the show, and then a more supernatural aspect to the villains, as well. So, we always did think of splitting it. I think the part of the villains that was probably the most challenging, and ultimately the most fulfilling, was how to visualize the Inquisitor: how to create an image for a dark side villain that could compete with, obviously, Vader, and then Darth Maul. Darth Maul is a character who has a lot of resonance with new-generation Star Wars fans and is a cool-looking character. We wanted to create something that could essentially hang with those characters.
StarWars.com: That’s one thing I was curious about. I always think of the Empire as a human operation, and the Inquisitor isn’t human. He’s Pau’an. Was there any discussion on what it means to have a character related to the Empire who is not human?
Simon Kinberg: There was definitely talk about it and potential development with it as the show evolves.
StarWars.com: So, not to put too much pressure on you, but "Spark of Rebellion" specifically kicks off a new era of Star Wars, which I would say also includes Episode VII. Is that something you’re conscious of while you’re working on it, and what does it mean to you to play a really big role in it?
Simon Kinberg: It is the most daunting, surreal, exciting experience of my professional life, for sure. You know, I thought working in other universes that had a lot of history, and I had personal affection for, like Sherlock Holmes or the X-Men movies, would prepare me for it. But the truth is, there is nothing and has never been anything like Star Wars. It is, I would argue, the biggest popular story of the last century. There is a religion around Star Wars that is different than even the fanaticism around comic books and other media. The only thing I can compare it to, and I’ve said it before, is if I were a rabbi or a priest and somebody said, "You can write another book of the Bible." [Laughs] That would be the responsibility and opportunity.
StarWars.com: Right. It’s like, “Tell us what comes next, and fill in the blanks, and live up to everything that came before.”
Simon Kinberg: Yeah. Here’s the thing. When you’re actually inside the experience of writing something, in some ways you’re just writing. Ultimately, you fall in love with the characters and you get excited about the story, and you’re sitting there in your sweatpants or pajamas, and you do get a little lost in it. You do, in a good way, forget the staggering responsibility of what you’re doing. And then, frankly, with Star Wars, there are many moments where I hit the cursor button and the character name pops up on Final Draft, and it has a character’s name from the original movies. The cursor’s just blinking there underneath that character’s name, waiting for me to write dialogue to put into the mouth of a character that was as real to me when I was a kid as my parents were, and were part of my dreams since before I can remember speaking. So every now and then, I do have these pinch-yourself moments where I do feel the awesome responsibility and opportunity of expanding the stories and telling histories of history that I’m making up with the people at Lucasfilm. It is as daunting as one would imagine and as exciting.
StarWars.com: I’m glad to see you’ve kept it together.
Simon Kinberg: [Laughs] Well, just barely.
Come back next week for part two of StarWars.com's interview with Simon Kinberg!
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm's senior content writer, and spends his days writing stuff for and around StarWars.com. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.