INTERVIEW

"Star Wars" insider Bill Slavicsek on how "The Mandalorian" has redeemed the universe

Longtime game developer on "playing in George Lucas' driveway" and how "The Mandalorian" has rescued "Star Wars"

By Chauncey DeVega

Published January 2, 2021 3:30PM (EST)

The Mandalorian (Disney+)
The Mandalorian (Disney+)

The Disney+ series "The Mandalorian" has been both a critical triumph and commercial success. In my judgment, it's the most compelling live-action story in the "Star Wars" universe since 1983's "Return of The Jedi".  

To that end, the story in "The Mandalorian's" first two seasons about a mysterious bounty hunter and "the child" (who is actually more than 50 years old) he's entrusted with as they navigate their way through a dangerous world — rife with "scum and villainy," where the remnants of the evil Empire still terrorize the galaxy — has accomplished something difficult in science fiction and other genre entertainment.

Longtime and serious "Star Wars" aficionados are enthusiastic about "The Mandalorian's" attention to detail and obvious love and respect for George Lucas's "Star Wars" universe. More casual "Star Wars" fans can enjoy the series for its story of family, friendship and adventure, and of course for "baby Yoda," aka Grogu, "the Child," a character described by legendary film director Werner Herzog as "heartbreakingly beautiful."

"The Mandalorian" also embraces the core aesthetic and storytelling conventions of "Star Wars," which are drawn from classic American Westerns, Saturday morning serials from the 1940s and 1950s, samurai films ("The Mandalorian" is a clear homage to the cult classic 1970s Japanese "Lone Wolf and Cub" stories), and space operas like "Flash Gordon."

While respecting the mythic roots of "Star Wars," the creators of "The Mandalorian" have also done something different: the anthology goes beyond the constraints of the "mono-myth" and archetypal hero's journey that largely defined George Lucas' original films, along with their sequels and prequels. The result is a live-action "Star Wars" TV show that is firmly of that world, while free to explore different parts of it.

Where does "The Mandalorian" go next? Why is it such a compelling TV series and story? Is there such a thing as too much "fan service" in a genre film or TV series? Why has "The Mandalorian" been such a success, compared to the most recent "Star Wars" films? Disney and Lucasfilm have recently announced plans for 11 new TV series and at least three more feature films. At what point does "Star Wars" become overexposed and made into something common, a parody of itself?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Bill Slavicsek, one of the writers and developers of the much-beloved "Star Wars" roleplaying game from West End Games. He is also the author of the "Star Wars Sourcebook," "A Guide to the Star Wars Universe," many guides to RPGs and, more recently, "Defining a Galaxy: 30 Years in a Galaxy Far, Far Away."

Slaviscek's work continues to influence the "Star Wars" universe, as seen in films and TV series such as the film "Rogue One" and the TV series "Rebels," as well as "The Mandalorian." He was one of the main game designers for the Dungeons and Dragons RPGs and is currently the lead writer for the massively multi-player RPG Elder Scrolls Online.

Fair warning: This conversation contains spoilers for Season Two of "The Mandalorian," which is now available on the Disney+ streaming service.

How did the first two seasons of "The Mandalorian" make you feel?

I have been really impressed with "The Mandalorian." It is very good continuation of the work that was done with the animated series "The Clone Wars" and "Rebels." Part of that success is because of Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni. With "The Mandalorian," Jon Favreau is also part of that success. He is definitely a huge fan of the "Star Wars" universe.  

"The Mandalorian" has many moments where it draws on your work in the original West End "Star Wars" roleplaying game. How does it feel to see those ideas on the screen?

It always humbles and excites me when I see the work we did on the "Star Wars" roleplaying game from all those years ago being utilized in Star Wars films and now TV shows. There were many examples of that, during "Rebels" especially. "Rebels" really felt to me as if the writers were playing their own version of the roleplaying game, but in the form of a television series. I have the same feelings when I watch "The Mandalorian." For example, in the first episode of Season Two of "The Mandalorian," we actually get to see Gamorreans fighting — and they are using vibroblades. That was a small detail which half the audience likely would not understand. But for those who do, that is pretty cool.  

"The Mandalorian" is a clear continuation of George Lucas' original vision of "Star Wars" as an American Western combined with Japanese samurai films in the form of a space opera. Serious "Star Wars" fans have much to love with "The Mandalorian," while casual fans can enjoy the show too. How is that balance being achieved?

It is a level of attention to detail. The writers of "The Mandalorian" know how to use the tools in the "Star Wars" toolbox, and they are doing it with great skill. It is not unlike the way we created the original West End Games "Star Wars" roleplaying modules. We looked at what was left over from the sketches from the original films — things that were not used on the screen — and asked ourselves, what can we turn that into? "The Mandalorian" is doing the same thing. It makes me want to watch the TV show just to see what is going to happen next.

How is the high quality of storytelling and universe-building on "The Mandalorian" being maintained?

I am not totally on the inside of how the "Star Wars" TV shows and movies are being made right now. But as I can see from the outside looking in, Dave Filoni worked with George Lucas on the "Clone Wars" animated TV show. He was also the principal person behind the "Rebels" animated TV show as well. "The Mandalorian" is the next step for him with live action. They have a great deal of trust in him. They also have a great deal of trust in Jon Favreau, who is writing almost all the episodes himself. I can also see Dave's hand in each of the episodes as well, and to my eyes they are really a good team.

They are both working with the story group at Lucasfilm to make sure that everything matches with the "Star Wars" continuity, but Filoni and Favreau both know their stuff when it comes to "Star Wars". In my opinion, both of them are "Star Wars" fans who are getting to play.

What does it mean to "play" in the "Star Wars" universe?

You want to tell a good story — but you want to tell a good "Star Wars" story. "Star Wars" was modeled after the western, as well as Japanese samurai movies. It is also a space opera, which means big dramatic stories. "Star Wars" is also a personal story. The best "Star Wars" stories come from that personal narrative. "The Mandalorian," for example, has been the personal story of Din Djarin and the Child bonding together and figuring out what to do next.

I was told long ago when I was working on "Star Wars" that we get to play with George Lucas' toys. We are playing in his driveway, but someday he is going to back his truck up. It is the next "Star Wars" movie, and it is going to run over your toys. But they are great toys. The creators of "The Mandalorian" are now putting those toys on the screen. Now they really exist.

Character development is also why "The Mandalorian" is so compelling.

It is easier to do those kinds of long story arcs in a television series than in movies. Movies have limited time, by their very nature. There is story development throughout the original "Star Wars" trilogy. There was certainly lots of character development in what became known as the Expanded Universe. There is so much character development in "The Mandalorian" because it now, over two seasons, has approximately 16 hours of storytelling. That is more time than the original trilogy.

Why has Grogu "the Child" become such a pop culture phenomenon?

The character works for the same reason that Yoda did. They gave Grogu a great amount of presence. The character is fun and cute to look at, but the show is doing interesting things with him. Grogu using the Force, playing with the little silver ball, eating whatever he can get his hands on, whether it is sentient or not. When Grogu was throwing the Stormtroopers around it made us, the viewers, believe that he was a real person. The actors are helping with that as well. Grogu's presence is a testament to the current technology, but also to the performances that the writers and directors can get out of a character with it.

"The Mandalorian" is a cohesive story. The last "Star Wars" sequel trilogy was not. It was literally written by different people who were not coordinating with one another on a cohesive story. The last of those films, "The Rise of Skywalker," was obviously written by committee, in a desperate effort to correct the blowback and negative reaction among so many "Star Wars" fans to "The Last Jedi." How do you make sense of the cohesiveness of "The Mandalorian," as compared to the last "Star Wars" trilogy?

The last three "Star Wars" films surprised me, at least from the outside looking in, especially given the Lucasfilm story group. I am not sure how or why they came to the decisions to do the last three "Star Wars" movies the way they did. By comparison, "The Mandalorian" is being done the way "The Clone Wars" and "Rebels" animated shows were. There is a clear vision, a clear arc, and the show is building towards something. As we did with the "Star Wars" roleplaying game, which I believe that Dave and Jon are fans of, that is how you apply the lessons of storytelling. That is not necessarily true of the people who did the last "Star Wars" trilogy.

Given the richness of that universe and all its possibilities, how hard is it to write a good "Star Wars" movie or TV show?

First, it is hard to write a good story. But when you have people working on these films who are actually fans — that's why the Marvel movies, for the most part, work. They are being truthful to the source material which they grew up with. Whereas comic book movies in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s were people saying, "Oh, I can do a comic book movie! I'm not a fan, but I know I can do it better." They failed miserably at the task. As far as I understand it, everyone who worked on the three newer "Star Wars" trilogy movies were fans. But sometimes things do not work out. When you try to serve too many masters, you can't please everybody. That having been said, I like "Rogue One." I think it is a good "Star Wars" movie. There are elements of the new trilogy that I like and enjoy. I do not agree with everything they did with the new trilogy, but I do not think that the films are as bad as the prequels, in my estimation.

Do you think that there will be a critical reappraisal of the "Star Wars" prequels, given the hostile reaction to the last "Star Wars" trilogy?

No. There are elements of the "Star Wars" prequels that are fantastic. But as a whole I think some of the storytelling that was present in the original three films was lost. I enjoyed the Han Solo movie ["Solo," released in 2018]. My biggest issue with it was the way they introduced Chewbacca to Han. I didn't think it was earned. Why did he need Han to tell him how to knock over a pillar? He could have done it anytime he wanted to. But other than that I thought they did a decent job with it. I liked the story, and I thought that Lando Calrissian was done well.

Are there any particular moments when the magic of the "Star Wars" roleplaying game that you helped to write and develop is best crystallized on the screen with "The Mandalorian"?  

In general, the sensibilities of the whole show go in that direction. Watching Boba Fett fight with the gaffi stick for example — we always wanted to see that happen and we got to see it. Having Gamorreans go at each other with vibroblades. The Dark Saber being wielded. We always imagined more than the movies got to show us, for various reasons. We always wanted to see Boba Fett fire his rocket. Now we've gotten to see his rocket get fired several times on "The Mandalorian." I also believe that the creators of "The Mandalorian" are sitting in a room and saying, "What can we fix?" Everyone will tell you, as much as they like Boba Fett, that what happened to him in "Return of the Jedi" was silly. "The Mandalorian's" writers have gone out of their way in this season to restore the coolness that is Boba Fett.

In terms of "fan service," how much is enough? When does it become distracting?

If it's done well and it serves the story, I do not think that there can be too much. It's like the old Warner Bros. cartoons. They work on different levels, and you want them to work on different levels. You want the kid to be able to watch it, and you want the adult to laugh at the slightly raunchy jokes.

I feel like "The Mandalorian" is doing a great job of that balancing act. There was another little element that just made me go "Oh, they know their stuff," which was when the Stormtroopers fell off the platform through the magnetic shielding on the cruiser. Those are little touches, but the show is getting them right.

What about the complaints by some that "The Mandalorian," like the last three "Star Wars" films, is making the universe too small by introducing Luke Skywalker as the Jedi who will train Grogu?

I agree that the "Star Wars" universe needs to get bigger, and I think they've been doing a really good job with that on "The Mandalorian" as well. There are going to be multiple shows set in the time period as "The Mandalorian." If none of them touch on what Luke, Leia and Han are doing, then we are missing a big part of what's going on in the "Star Wars" universe at the time.

With the announcement of all the new films and TV series, is "Star Wars" in danger of becoming overexposed, where "Star Wars" is no longer something special?

"Star Wars" is a universe just like Marvel is a universe. If the various "Star Wars" projects are all treated with the same level of respect and effort, they will all be fun and worth watching. This is a great time to be a "Star Wars" fan. I have no problem with them trying this. If something's bad, that will be a shame. All the new "Star Wars" stories are not going to hit, but I would rather them take the shot than put it on a shelf and not play with it.

If you had your way, should the "Star Wars" films go far into the future or far into the past? What time period would you want to explore?

I'm enjoying "The Mandalorian" and the way it's starting to show us what happened after "Return of the Jedi" and before Episode VII. The whole mention of Grand Admiral Thrawn and going back to the original Timothy Zahn novels is something I appreciate. That character has been brought back even though he is now slightly different than before. It is going to be cool to see Thrawn develop into a live-action villain. I am also looking forward to seeing the High Republic stories and what happens there. That seems like an interesting era to explore in "Star Wars." Beyond that, for the next set of movies, I think it might be worth going into a new era. "Rogue Squadron" has been announced as the next film, which will still be in the era of the Empire, I would imagine.  

If I had my way, I would want "Star Wars" to go into the future and try to come up with something new. But that does not mean I do not want to see all the other "Star Wars" stories which have been announced.

Given your rich background, if asked by Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau and the other principals involved in creating these new "Star Wars" stories, what advice would you give?

Keep telling good stories. That's the key. Don't try to hit everything all at once. There is room in these series, so use it, take your time and build the world up, whichever world or part of the universe you are dealing with at any given time. I would continue, just the way Kevin Feige has taken over and become the person behind the Marvel universe, I would like to see Jon Favreau and David Filoni become the linchpins to the Star Wars universe, because they're certainly hitting the mark with "The Mandalorian."

 


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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