I know from having worked in a creative field long enough that inactivity is more detrimental than wasting your time on something that doesn't go anywhere because it will lead to something else. The creative process is one of emergence.
Since the start of his career in the ‘90s as a long-shot, barrel-chested character actor from Queens, Jon Favreau has transformed himself into a Hollywood titan—a hit-making helmer prized for his ability to fuse cutting edge technology and old school camera tricks to tell stories in multiple genres that audiences love. But as talented as he is as a director, producer, and actor, he owes his career first to his skill as a writer. It’s what first launched his career (along with good pal Vince Vaughn) in 1996 with his script for the indie hit Swingers. Many blockbusters later, Favreau returned to the empty page with a spec idea for a streaming series that has become a pop-cultural phenomenon and unexpectedly reanimated cinema’s crown jewel franchise, Star Wars.
When The Mandalorian first aired in November 2019, it showed Favreau’s ability to understand changes in the medium without failing the primary goal of telling a great story. Just like with Swingers or 2014’s film Chef, Favreau went alone into the writer’s trench to hammer out an idea that had been gestating in his head (including the name Grogu), but that no one had asked for or knew they wanted. He was driven, as he says he always is, by a passion for the project. Indeed, he wrote the first two spec scripts not so much for Disney as for his childhood self—the 12-year-old boy who was forever changed in 1977 by Star Wars.
Favreau spoke with the Writer Guild of America West website about the origins of The Mandalorian, how the brainstorming collaboration of writer, director, and animator Dave Filoni was crucial to navigating the Star Wars universe and why, to him, writing is still the hardest—and potentially most rewarding—discipline.
(Spoiler alert: The following Q&A contains key plot points for season 2 of The Mandalorian.)
You’ve talked a lot about working in the space where technology and storytelling overlap and The Mandalorian is obviously right in that sweet spot. From a writing perspective, how do you avoid losing sight of story when you have all this technology to play with?
Writing for cinema has always been a dance between technology and story. You've always been limited and get presented opportunities by whatever the technology available in the day is. And you're influenced by what others have done before you and what you can innovate for those stories because you're competing always as a writer. Writers are only limited by the imaginations of their readers, but when you're presenting it for the screen, you have to work your way through the interface of the screen. I'm very fortunate to be following in the footsteps of George Lucas, who found a really magical balance between those two elements and was able to evoke something that felt very archetypal in spite of the fact that it was cutting edge technology…Part of it is clinging very closely to the Hero's Journey and the Monomyth. That becomes a guiding light and borrowing that from George becomes a North Star for us.
You basically wrote the first few episodes of The Mandalorian totally spec and then took them to Disney, right?
Yeah. I had a pitch for a concept of following the archetypes that influenced George Lucas whether it was the Western, the samurai film, the World War II film, earlier space operas, cliffhangers, Flash Gordon—looking at the films and the archetypes that influenced George was a way for us to make a smaller story that would work for the scale of the small screen and get back to the basics.
My pitch was very simple at first and Kathy Kennedy was receptive to the ideas I was presenting. I always found it easier to write than to develop as a way to present what my vision was for something. If you're developing material, you're having to advocate for ideas in the abstract, which is such a difficult thing to do. At this point in my career, I would rather just to write it out and know that I might be wasting my time if it's not going to get made, but at least I know that if it is made, it's going to adhere to a format and structure that I would like to dedicate my time to.
Also, I know enough as a writer, I don't have the facility...it's very difficult for me to write on demand. I find it the most daunting of all the disciplines that I have…writing is the one that is potentially the most rewarding, but also the most challenging because if it doesn't come to you, there are no shortcuts. You have to either write or not write. And so if I have the inspiration to write, I often don't wait for permission, I just start to go because I know that I'm not always able to do it.
Once you’ve struck a vein of gold you go.
Yeah. I'm not going to stand on ceremony. I would rather write and waste my time because it always leads to something else good. I know from having worked in a creative field long enough that inactivity is more detrimental than wasting your time on something that doesn't go anywhere because it will lead to something else. The creative process is one of emergence. There are things that I did earlier in my career that I see culminating now. It's fascinating to look at somebody like Jim Cameron, where you see the emergence of ideas for Avatar or Titanic popping up in earlier works of his, whether it's archetypes, characters, plot points, settings, technologies, in separate projects. Your life's work is one big project.
I see it as a continuum. As long as I'm being creative and I have a discipline where I am doing things and making things, the process is the valuable part.
It's never pointless?
I don't think so. It's hard to tell that to somebody starting out, because everything is so project-oriented and success or failure, or getting hired, or not hired, or being celebrated or ignored. You get caught up. I find with people that I look up to who are more experienced I am, they seem to arrive at a much more circumspect attitude about the whole process. You start to realize that you're just one small voice in a chorus of people who are creating at the same time you are. That's something that I've grown to appreciate more as I get older.
Having said that, when you dove in alone and started these spec scripts for Mandalorian, how pumped were you? Did you know something good was happening immediately?
Yeah, I was having a great time. First of all, I feel very gratified when I'm actually able to write something because that tap isn't always available. It’s exciting because I still have a lot of reverence for it…when it's going well, it feels like something I'm very grateful for.
The other thing was, I was paired up with somebody who I had collaborated with in the past, Dave Filoni. I've found, if you have a very good collaborator...even though I was actually writing the episodes, there were many, many hours of conversations, and I would show him things I was writing, and he was giving me a tremendous amount of feedback and helping guide me through the world of Star Wars. He had studied under George for I think a decade working on the animated shows, so I felt like I had a direct connection to the source code of this whole world with him.
Did you have this arc planned out from the very beginning? Specifically, was the appearance of Luke Skywalker, revealing that the story was essentially a few years after Return of the Jedi, always a set idea from the jump, or something that you arrived on after working with the material?
No. The story unfolded as I wrote it. The Mandalorian inherits a great deal from existing Star Wars stories, and when I write, that context is always a consideration. It became clear that, within the established continuity, certain things were likely to transpire.
Are you concerned, having placed the story right in the midst of the saga, with the latest films having revealed Skywalker's future, that you’re at all penned in narratively?
We have a tremendous amount of freedom afforded to us because of the gap in time between the films. Dave Filoni and I are in constant discussion regarding how each story choice is impacted by, and would impact, existing Star Wars material.
And you mentioned how, at the beginning of the writing process, he started drawing images?
Because he's an animator, he started to do some sketches of moments, and then eventually, it would go to the art department and [design supervisor] Doug Chiang, so Lucasfilm art would start to generate images from the stuff I was writing. Even though the writing was a very solitary thing, there was a lot of creative collaboration on a larger level. Just having a receptive, understanding, appreciative audience for the beginnings of it, that put a lot of wind in my sails and continues to be the engine of the show.
You have to be very prolific in this new medium because so much writing is required when you're putting that many hours television on the air. It requires creativity, which is a lot different than the burnishing of one piece of material as you do for theatrical. Here, it's a river of writing and it's not something where I have a big writing staff. I've taken on a lot of that responsibility myself, which isn't to say that it's not a collaborative process, but the actual typing out of it, where the rubber hits the road, ends up falling on your shoulders when you're staring at your computer.
Having an understanding of how story fits into, not just our series, but the Star Wars universe, that's something that requires a very collaborative approach. That collaboration is what inspires me to be able to go home and type and write scenes alone. We found a very interesting, cool balance that's about as fulfilling as anything I've ever worked on in my whole career.
At the end of each show, those illustrations are a great draft storyboard, giving the viewer the sense that the curtain is being pulled back to the process a bit.
Absolutely. We also made the choice to not edit out things that didn't make it to air or that changed, so it really shows the writer's notes and this idea of this ongoing, pulpy writing process whereby you're creating the story as you go, and people are waiting for the next chapter to come out…We think about it as novels or books, but there's something really pure about this back and forth between an audience and storytellers that seems, in a weird way, through technology, to emulate the campfire storytelling. I really like the back and forth with the audience and I love the back and forth with the artists, directors and other people that I'm collaborating with. I'm writing for other directors most of the time, and that's something I've never experienced either.
Directing became a way for me to chef my writing through the process, but now there's the collaboration, so you get this very immediate gratification of writing something, sending it to somebody else to read, getting their feedback, or even getting artwork, and that artwork becomes a reflection of what you've written. You're not having to wait a year to see it on the screen, you're actually getting a glimpse of it right then and there, and that inspires you.
Writing is a learning process. Unfortunately, generally, you have to wait for something to actually get produced that you've written…Until you've actually seen your material go through the gauntlet of the editing process and the rewriting that comes in post-production, and wind up on the big screen, you don't really have a full grasp of what writing for the screen is. Often it takes a full career to have enough experiences to learn those lessons. But in this case, there's a feedback loop that's so immediate that it's actually affecting the way that you're writing moving forward, based on what you're seeing and also the feedback from the audience.
And this immediate world of streaming, where it goes out there and you get immediate feedback, is so different than movies, where you could sit in the back of the theater or read reviews. Here, there's a conversation that's flowing around you and it just depends to what extent you want to bend your ear to that, or isolate yourself from it, depending on what will most fully support you creatively. Some people like to wall themselves off, which I sometimes do. And some people like to really just wade into it. Now you can listen to every water cooler in every office, essentially, thanks to the internet.
How have you handled the internet water cooler with The Mandalorian?
You have to be selective about it. With television, you're part of a cultural conversation that's very immediate. So there's some of it that I'm exposed to and I really enjoy. And there's some of it that we make sure that we filter it in a way that doesn't become daunting.
I'm used to it from Marvel, because when we were starting a project, we’d cut together a trailer pretty early on in the process and then show it at Comic-Con. There’s something really cool about putting a small sample of what you're doing out there to your core audience and seeing if they are sparked to it. Because, at the end of the day, it's a conversation with that audience. And those fans are who you're speaking to. And if you're doing something that they're not feeling, you're not doing your job right.
With regard to story, I have to ask, how in the hell did you make Grogu [aka Baby Yoda] work? I mean, especially early on, you have this mysterious, dangerous, laconic gunslinger caring for, essentially, this green stuffy and it. On the page, you’d think that might not fly. Was there any trick in navigating that?
A lot of the credit goes to the combination of creative people working on it along with us being able to keep the secret so there was a sense of discovery. To be able to surprise people in this moment in history is very challenging. So there's a certain delight in surprise of the discovery. We also benefited a tremendous amount from the fact that in Star Wars, you will forgive puppetry. Whereas, if you presented it in a new format, I don't know that it would have been as readily accepted.
We've benefited from legacy building, very sophisticated animatronics. ILM blending the things we couldn't do with CGI in an invisible way was really helpful. Werner Herzog on the set, encouraging us to use the puppet and not use as much CGI as we thought we would have to to help blend over the rough spots was a big deal [in an anecdote Favreau has recounted Hertzog called the team cowards for shooting a back up version of a scene he was in with Grogu, insisting they should believe in themselves and what they were doing].
That was a character I was thinking about for a long time before this series, an idea that I had had that when the streaming service began, that was part of the initial pitch. That was a character I thought would fit well into Star Wars, but it wasn't until it was drawn and rendered, that it started to work. And if you look at Disney gallery, which shows behind the scenes, we do a deep dive on it, showing how it developed over time. It was finding the right look with the artists, that was also a big deal. So there was the tradition of that relationship as well of the juxtaposition of this hardened gunslinger up next to this very emotive, vulnerable child seemed like it had a lot of good story tension.
When, where, and how do you write? What are your quirks or rituals while writing? Do you listen to music? Are you in a cafe? Are you in bed? How do you do it?
The thing I've landed on now is writing before I'm fully awake. In other words, before the emails, before your brain is bombarded with the world, where you have your wits about you, because you're awake enough that you're not disoriented, but your brain hasn't hardened for the day yet. There's a trick I originally used for writer's block where you get writing even if you have to get through some nonsense, a few pages of nonsense. Just get the pump primed and write. The hard part is like, how do you write you? You write. That's how you do it. It's easier said than done. But the only way to write is to write. That's unlike anything else I do in this field. My best time is to just have that laptop close by, I have a composition notebook that looks like the old notebooks that you would have in grade school where you can't rip pages out, otherwise the whole thing falls apart, so you don't edit yourself, and it's also not like a beautifully bound journal. It's very inexpensive and you don't think twice about writing things in, so you could go on long tears of notes. I don't do my actual writing in that. That's how I collect. I do research. I take notes, I write down thoughts, I write down ideas. I have stacks and stacks of these, and you can't rip a page out, so even the stuff that isn't worth saving is still in there and documented over time. So I have my notebook for the project I'm working on, and I have my laptop, and I boot up the computer, and I just start to go. And I find that no matter how hard of a time you're having writing, if you could pop that computer open early enough in the morning, you will be less reticent to start writing things out.
I find that the longer I stay away from the writing, the harder it is to start again, because you kind of have to load that data onto your RAM, onto your brain. And so it takes time to get back in that mindset, especially as I am now running a TV show, I have to spend a lot of time thinking about the episodes that are coming out, thinking about the ones that we're filming, and then also, thinking about the future.
The Mandalorian must have you in prime writing shape. I mean, this has been a tremendous amount of writing.
It's very fulfilling because it's not something I knew I could do. We present ourselves with challenges. But, again, even though my name is on a lot of the episodes, realize that there's a whole supportive creative community around this project, whether it's people who are reading and giving notes, or people who are helping me research, or people who are making drawings, or directors that are interpreting it, or editors that are ultimately rewriting it later through the editorial process with us. There are a lot of hands. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but the actual sitting down and tapping out the work is where much of it starts. And it's something I really appreciate that I'm able to return back to really the beginning of my filmmaking process. After being an actor, my first step was writing all the way back to Swingers. It feels like a return back to the thing that got me into this field. I'm very grateful to have this opportunity to work at a time when television has expanded our ability to create so much.
© 2021 Writers Guild of America West