Gary Whitta on Exploring the Force and Giving Ackbar His Moment in Marvel’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi Comic

Gary Whitta on Exploring the Force and Giving Ackbar His Moment in Marvel’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi Comic 1

If you loved Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there’s good reason to be excited for Marvel’s comic-book adaptation. Aside from the fact that it’s penned by Rogue One scribe Gary Whitta, the series promises to be more than a mere retelling of the film’s story: Whitta and artist Michael Walsh will be adding select new scenes and perspectives into the story — a “jazz riff,” as he told StarWars.com, on the tale. (In addition, the series places Whitta in a unique category as the only person on Earth with writing credits for a Star Wars live-action movie (Rogue One), TV episode (Star Wars Rebels), book (From a Certain Point of View), and comic. To quote Supreme Leader Snoke, that’s “something truly special.”) Marking today’s arrival of issue #1, StarWars.com spoke with Whitta about his new status as a Star Wars writer record-holder, finally getting to pen Skywalkers, and paying tribute to his favorite Mon Calamari.

StarWars.com: First, how does it feel to be the only person to have written [or contributed to] a Star Wars movie, comic, book, and TV episode? What’s that like?

Gary Whitta: It’s funny. I can’t even remember how that came about in terms of realizing it. Either it occurred to me, or somebody pointed it out to me along the way, and I said, “That can’t be right, can it?” ‘Cause there’s obviously lots of writers out there who have done Star Wars in different mediums, but I’m one of the few that’s lucky enough to have done one of the movies, and once you narrow it down to just the writers who’ve done the movies, it suddenly becomes a way, way, way shorter list.

StarWars.com: Yeah. Right.

Gary Whitta: And then I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky that the work that I did on Rogue [One], I think Kiri [Hart] and other people at Lucasfilm that I worked with were happy enough with me to invite me to stick around for more, so I did some [Star Wars] Rebels and then the fiction anthology came up. I feel like once you are in the Lucasfilm family, if they like you and trust you, you’ll always be asked to do more. Star Wars is one of those things that it could be almost anything and I would have a hard time turning it down if it’s in the Star Wars universe, because I’m such a fan. It just kind of worked out that way. I thought that’s kind of cool, but I mean surely, if anyone, George [Lucas] must have written stuff for other things.

StarWars.com: I don’t think he did…

Gary Whitta: I remember when I was a kid, reading the Star Wars novelization that he is credited as the writer of — I think it was actually ghostwritten and they just slapped him name on it. [Note: It was ghostwritten. Alan Dean Foster wrote the novelization. — Ed.] I don’t remember the details, but yeah, it’s a weird thing and now people are joking, “Well, you gotta do a video game, you gotta do this and that,” like keep adding and bolting pieces on for as long as they want to ask me to do things in the Star Wars universe. I think I would always have a very hard time saying no. It really just kinda happened by accident. As bragging rights go, the 10-year-old version of me is certainly very, very impressed with grown-up Gary right at this moment. [Laughs]

StarWars.com: You might be the answer to a Jeopardy question one day.

Gary Whitta: I know. Isn’t it funny? That’s right, even in the realm of trivia it’s kind of a weird distinction to have.

Gary Whitta on Exploring the Force and Giving Ackbar His Moment in Marvel’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi Comic 2

StarWars.com: So how did the opportunity [to write the comic] come about?

Gary Whitta: I have to go back and remember. I got to know [former comics editor] Heather Antos at Marvel and we became chatty online. I don’t remember how that even started. Strangely enough, we became friendly playing Player Unknown Battlegrounds together. We played a few games together online and got friendly through that and continued to chat, and Heather obviously [oversaw] a lot of the Marvel comic adaptations and the whole comic side of storytelling in the Star Wars universe, and obviously knew me through our prior online friendship and the work that I’ve done in the Star Wars universe prior to that, and said, “Would you be interested in doing this?” And like I said, it’s always hard for me to say no if it’s something in the Star Wars universe. And I will say that part of the appeal certainly is — as cool as it is to have written for Rogue One, and for Rebels, and some really, really cool Star Wars stuff — the Skywalker saga is always considered the crown jewel, the really special piece of it all. It’s the piece that we all grow up with and Rogue One [is] kind of saga-adjacent in that it very specifically tees up the first film and shows you how [Leia and Luke] ended up with the plan, and we got Vader in there. I think of all the other pieces that I’ve done — aside from Rebels — that was as close as I was going to get to it, because obviously the episodes are their own thing. And so when they mentioned “Do you want to do this” I said yes right away, but then I remember thinking, “What is actually the opportunity here?” Because the story has already been told and I’ve had some skepticism in the past about these adaptations. “Are you going to just retell the exact same story in comic book form? If so, what’s the appeal of that outside of hardcore Star Wars fans who will consume everything?” But in actually working on the comic, we kind of figured out how to do it in a way that is interesting and hopefully somewhat different, but still faithful to the movie in all the right places. It was really just the opportunity to sit down [and write the Skywalker saga]. Again, even in a secondhand way because I’m really just following in [writer and director] Rian [Johnson]’s footprints, I’m following the map he has already laid out in the film. I still get to write Luke Skywalker and some of the newer characters from the new films that I really love, like Kylo. It’s just really fun to play around with that stuff.

As much as I love Rogue, some of my favorite stuff in the Star Wars universe, just as a fan, is the stuff that speaks to the mysteries of the Force and the Jedi spirituality of it all. I love the militarism of Star Wars, as well, and the whole Empire versus the Rebellion, and [in Rogue One] we got to really, really get into that. That was really fun and shows that side of the universe in a really fun way. I never really got to do the Jedi stuff. I may have spoken about this in interviews before. Some of the very, very early versions of Rogue One that I worked on had a bit more Jedi and Force stuff in there than we eventually realized was needed or appropriate for that story, so it ended up getting moved aside and we found other interesting ways to get the Force in there without making a big deal. So I’ve always wanted to scratch that itch and play around with the more spiritual, more Force-centric side of the Star Wars universe, and this is obviously the perfect opportunity to do that, because Rian went in really deep and added new layers to the Force and new things that we hadn’t seen before. So that’s been really fun.

StarWars.com: That’s interesting. What did you think of Last Jedi when you saw it, especially its view of the Force and spirituality in the Star Wars universe?

Gary Whitta: I think I’m still figuring that out. I think it’s one of those movies that, because it’s so different from what a lot of people expected, including myself — and I knew a little about what to expect because Rian is a friend and he and I spoke a little about it in a very broad sense when he was first embarking on the journey of making that film. I remember him telling me, “I want it to be this and that,” and I got the broad strokes of it, but it wasn’t until I saw what he actually did that I had the opportunity to think, “What do I think about this?” It took me a while. I thought about the movie a lot, and obviously had read the script multiple times in the process of doing [the adaptation]. By the time I saw the film, I already knew I was doing the comics, so I was already in the process of thinking about it a lot, and I think what he did is really, really courageous and bold, and I think as he said in the past, was kind of necessary for the evolution and the growth of Star Wars going forward. I personally — I don’t speak for Lucasfilm here or for anyone else — just me personally, my view as a fan is that you cannot keep mining the past and mining nostalgia to tell these stories. At some point you’ve gotta start moving forward. And I think Rian very much, he expressly says that. You know, when Kylo says to Rey — I can’t remember the exact wording now…

StarWars.com: “Let the past die.”

Gary Whitta: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” Obviously, there’s something very metatextual going on there, as well. As Kylo is imparting that wisdom to Rey like Rian is also imparting that message to the audience. And I know it’s been controversial and the film has been a little polarizing among the fanbase for that reason, but in thinking about it more and more, I really feel like a lot of the stuff he did was kind of necessary for the evolution of the saga, and I think he added a lot of depth and spirituality and complexity. I think there’s the whole idea that you should never meet your heroes because they never turn out to be who you think they’re going to be… There’s a great line from Firefly when Mal says, “Everyone who’s ever had a statue built of them was some kind of son of a bitch or other.” And I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that, and I think Rian was trying to say that in the same way. There’s a really interesting subtext in the movie about how the image of the heroes we that have — the version that you look at when you look up at the statue, the myth that gets built around the man — is often very different to the reality of the man himself, who is often tortured and complex and very different from the version of the mythologized or the idealized version of that character that you’ve built up in your mind. So I think there’s a lot of really, really smart stuff going on there, that kind of commentary. I’m old enough to recognize Luke Skywalker — the old Luke Skywalker — in myself. You know, as you get older, you start thinking more about the choices you’ve made and the regrets that you have. You’re thinking more about the flaws and mistakes you’ve made in your life and I think that’s a very mature and a very sophisticated way to think about the growth of that character, rather than just the super-heroic version of him, the idealized version of him that I think some fans might have wanted to see.

Gary Whitta on Exploring the Force and Giving Ackbar His Moment in Marvel’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi Comic 3

StarWars.com: I found it to be a very personal movie. From the stuff you’re saying about Luke and looking at yourself as you get older, to the last shot of the stable boy looking up at the stars. I see that and I think, “Well, that’s every kid who watches Star Wars and then gets inspired to do something bigger.”

Gary Whitta: Yeah. I’m actually really, really glad that Rian added that kind of grace note to the end of the film. I think the film would have left a very different taste in my mouth if he hadn’t done that. Because again, as worthy and as sophisticated as a lot of the stuff that he did in terms of making a distinction between the man and the myth, we still want to believe in heroes. The point that I think he was making in that final shot is yes, as much as there is a huge divide between the reality and the myth, that doesn’t undercut the value of the myth. Myth still has incredible power to inspire and help create the next generation of Luke Skywalkers, or whoever it’s going to be that comes next. So I thought that was a really, really important final shot to have, to make the point that even though Luke was, in reality, this kind of very flawed and broken character by the end — he’s obviously redeemed by the very heroic sacrificial act that he makes at the end — but more than that, the point is that the myth is what really endures. The man dies. Old Jedi never die, they just fade away, right? [Laughs] But they leave this residual thing behind them, not just in the energy of the Force, but in the imagination and the minds of the next generation. I think one of the reasons that final image is so powerful is, we all were that kid, right? We all had the cardboard tube or the broomstick or whatever it was, right? We all came home from that movie or watching it on VHS or whatever, and then we all wanted to be that kid. So I thought that was a really, really nice moment at the end.

StarWars.com: Since you know Rian a little bit, have you talked to him about doing this? Or do you think you’ll run anything by him?

Gary Whitta: Only just to say, “Hey, I’m doing it!” He was like, “Oh, that’s really cool!” and he was pleased for me. But I haven’t felt the need. And you know, I went in and read an earlier version of the script — it had some interesting stuff in it that we may or may not use. But as much as that channel is open, I haven’t felt the need to say to him like, “Hey, what do you think if I do this or that?” I’m just kinda getting on with it. And nor has he said, “If you’re going to do this, just make sure you don’t do this or that.” I think he understands, as we all do, that each piece of this is its own thing. Nothing I do is going to in any way going to undermine or change the tone or intent or the message of the film. The film is going to be the film no matter what. Each version of that [story], Lucasfilm has encouraged each person who now will adapt it, whether it’s Jason Fry doing the novelization or me doing the comic, to jazz riff on it a little bit. And again, the essential melody is the same. There’s nothing in the comic that would fundamentally change or alter your impression of what you saw in the film. It’s not my job and I wouldn’t presume to go away and say, “Well, here’s how I would have done it!” and do some radically different ending for Luke or anything like that. [Laughs] I certainly feel honor-bound to not stray too far from the essential themes and the message and the intent of the film, and in fact I think it’s gonna be, for the large part, in many ways a very faithful adaptation. There’s a lot of stuff in the comics that you will absolutely recognize note-for-note from the film. There are other things that I’ve tried to slightly reinterpret. We don’t have room in the comic to add a lot of stuff, because it’s a really long film and it’s very, very dense.

StarWars.com: There’s a lot of movie in there, yeah.

Gary Whitta: There’s a lot, a lot of movie in there. Not just in terms of the running time — it’s the longest one — but even beyond that, like Rian puts more in per minute than in most other films. There’s so much to unpack. So Marvel said, “This is how many pages you have. It’s going to be this many issues and this many pages per issue.” So my first thoughts was, “Well, how do we fit it all in?” I don’t want to just do a condensed version of the film, but certain things you do have to condense. There are beats and moments, things that aren’t necessary to the story that are in the film that you might not see in the comic, because I do have to do a shorthand version of certain things to make it all fit. And at the same time I do want to have room to do some of my own stuff. Like, the very first scene in issue 1 of the comic is an entirely original scene that is not in the film or in any other version of The Last Jedi. I think every issue has at least one thing like that. “Well, here’s something you didn’t see!” Like, this is something that is not fundamentally different, but different enough that it’s interesting and you don’t just feel like you’re seeing a different [story]. What you don’t want is just the storyboard of the film that you saw with dialogue balloons. What’s the point of that?

StarWars.com: I think you want something that adds to it and also takes advantage of the format that you’re working in, right?

Gary Whitta: Yeah, yeah, and that’s actually part of the fun, because you know, my first language is film writing, like screenwriting and cinema. I consider that my native language, it’s obviously Rian’s as well, and there are certain things that Rian does in the film to tell the story that are very, very filmic. He’s obviously a great student of cinema and there’s a lot of references there to classy movies that influenced him. Just certain clever little tricks and things that he does, little techniques and styles that help tell the story, but which are so specific to cinema that I have to figure out in the comic. “Well, what’s the comic version of that? What gimmick or technique do we use that’s unique to the language of comics?” In the scenes where Rey and Kylo have their Force connection, I thought that thing that Rian did was quite brilliant, where even though they’re in different scenes their eye lines match up. I thought it was really, really clever. I don’t know how to make that particular gimmick work for a comic, so I’m working right now on what’s the comic version of that. You can get the sense that both of them feel like they’re in the same room with each other even though they’re not. So Rian had the matching eye line, that very, very clever trick. What can we do in comics that kinda does that, how can we leverage the visual language of comics to get that same idea across? So we look, anytime there’s something like that in the film, and try to figure out how to make that work in the visual language of comics that’s unique to our version.

StarWars.com: So what do you think — without spoiling it — the comic form could bring to the story?

Gary Whitta: It’s a good question. I think the answer lies in how much fidelity I feel like the comic has to have to the film. Like, I would never do this: For example, when Kylo tells Rey, “Well, your parents are nobody and that’s the end of that mystery.” It would be very easy if I wanted — it would never get through Lucasfilm anyway — but if I wanted to, I could have a little thought bubble of Kylo going, “Ha ha ha! She believed my deception! That’s not really true.” But that example is something that would completely undermine Rian’s authorial intent and even though it exists separately from the film, I don’t think it’s my job to [editorialize], even though I actually personally agree with that decision. I thought it was a brilliant choice that Rian had made to have that be the answer to that question. Even if I hadn’t though, I don’t feel like I have the authority to assert my own preferences as a fan on that and go against his, and go, “No, here’s how I would have done it.” And so, there’s a very, very narrow track when you do an adaptation like this, so you want to be faithful to what was in the movie — and again, Lucasfilm is going to police that, as well, because they don’t want some writer going off the reservation with a radically different kind of fan-fiction version of the film that now has fans asking, “Wait, so what is this? Are they saying it could be this or that?” I don’t want to confuse people, but at the same time trying to find those moments, whether it be adding an existing scene or, commonly, as I’m doing in this one, retelling an existing scene that you saw from the film, but from the perspective of another character. So it’s the same scene, but there’s a point of view shift.

I want to make sure that anything I do is considered additive rather than reinventing or undermining or in a contrarian way, saying, “No, it’s not this, but that.” It’s a narrow band. I mean, even if Lucasfilm said, “Go nuts! Go totally reinvent the film! Have Luke live if you want! Do whatever you want!” [Laughs] I would never do it. I don’t feel like it’s my place or anyone’s place to reinvent the film or second guess the choices that Rian made. There’s the sweet spot somewhere in the middle that is, existentially, and in all the ways that matter, completely faithful to Rian’s intent in the story that he wanted to tell, but hopefully still adds enough new stuff that people feel that they’re not just reading the storyboard, right?

Gary Whitta on Exploring the Force and Giving Ackbar His Moment in Marvel’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi Comic 4

StarWars.com: So when the press release came out, it said that there was going to be stuff in the adaptation that’s not in the movie, and you mentioned some new scenes. Do they come from things that were cut from the movie, are they things that you thought of that just work within the story? Where, essentially, are they coming from?

Gary Whitta: So if you see something that’s entirely new… When you see the comic, for example, that opening scene I added was of my own invention. That wasn’t something from Rian saying, “I wanted to do this but I didn’t, but maybe you could use it,” or an earlier version of a script that had a scene. I know the novelization did this — there were some scenes in the earlier version of the script that ended up in the novelization, and they were cool scenes. I think they either were cut for time or whatever reason and the novel, where time is less of a concern, you can kind of indulge yourself a little bit more. I think the novel is the right place to add all that extra stuff. In the comic, we’re much more limited by a very, very finite amount of space. We know we have this many pages, no more, no less, and everything’s got to fit. I think there’s a couple of specific lines or moments from earlier versions of the script… There was one line that I remember when I read an early version of the script. I loved it, it was a line that Rose had, and I loved it. I thought, “Oh, what a great line!” But it’s not in the final movie! Somewhere along the way, whether or not it was shot and cut or just never shot, I don’t know, but it’s not in the final cut of the film, but I always remembered it. So it’s in the comic.

Sometimes it just might be one moment, it might be a line, or it might be a different perspective, and a lot of the dialogue I am kind of… I don’t think people just want to reread every line of the dialogue the way it was spoken in the film. There are certainly some scenes where it’s so on-point that I wouldn’t dare change it. I think there are other scenes and other lines where maybe it’s less important and there’s more opportunity for me to go in and redo it a little bit. Again, I would never try to rewrite Rian, and I think the fact that it’s in a different medium allows me to kind of riff on it a little bit more. A lot of it is just for space. There’s a lot of very wordy dialogue in the film that in comic format would be difficult to trudge through, and so I’ve tried to shorthand certain things, get to the heart of it more quickly. Sometimes I do just kind of amuse myself. “Oh, I wanna write this!” and “Wouldn’t it be cool if a character said that?” I don’t think there’s any scene in the comic that is just word-for-word, shot-for-shot the way it was in the film. Everything’s got a little bit of a shimmy. Again, sometimes it’s very minor. Other times it might be like the scene that you saw, but because it is from the point of view of a different character you might read it a little more [closely].

When I went to the set of The Force Awakens, the first thing I had to do was put on the Admiral Ackbar mask, and I did. [Laughs] It was a big deal, and I’ve always loved that character, and I was kinda saddened that he dies [so quickly]. 

StarWars.com: Yeah.

Gary Whitta: And so in the issue that I’m working on right now, [I’m] just trying to find a space, just give him a little bit of a moment before he dies, just put the focus on him for a moment. Again, that doesn’t undermine. In the canon of the film, it’s something that might have actually happened in the film, it’s just the camera wasn’t on him at the moment. In the comic, I can put the camera on him for a moment. It doesn’t undermine or change anything. It’s additive, hopefully. If you, like me, were sad to see Ackbar go the way that he went, you might like the comic version a little bit better.

StarWars.com: That sounds great. And I think people’s minds are going to be blown when Snoke survives in your version.

Gary Whitta: [Laughs] Yeah, like I said, Snoke survives, and he’s Rey’s grandfather and everything. There’s a lot of big reveals that we’re gonna get to. [Laughs]

You’re dealing with this weird scenario where the film is canon, right? And the comic kind of is, too, even though a character might say something in the comic version of a scene that they don’t say in the film. So which version is canon? Well, obviously the film, and the comic is just kind of a riff on it, so anything that I do is not going to undermine or fundamentally change the message or the intent of the film. It’s just a look at it from a different point of view. A really easy one for me to fall into was the scene with Maz when she’s on the hologram. In my version in the comic you’re on her side of that conversation.

Gary Whitta on Exploring the Force and Giving Ackbar His Moment in Marvel’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi Comic 5

StarWars.com: Oh, cool.

Gary Whitta: And Poe and Finn and Rose are in the hologram, and you actually get to see what the union dispute is. It’s fun stuff like that. I look at it as like adding an extra camera that wasn’t on set on the day and what that camera sees is what goes into the comic, but the camera is still on Rian’s set. It’s not fundamentally changing anything.

StarWars.com: I can’t wait to read it. I hope that they send you some kind of plaque or something for the first guy to hit all the bases in Star Wars writing.

Gary Whitta: [Laughs] Yeah, I still feel like I need to do a video game because I’m from a video game background, and I feel a lot of the storytelling in video games is just as valid and just as cool as anything else, so I feel like that is still a itch I might want to scratch. Again, the list of people who have written for the films and then outside of the films — I think as soon as I did Rebels it became a unique thing, because I don’t think that anyone’s ever written for film and television directly. As a guy who grew up loving this stuff to be able to have left even a small fingerprint on four different iterations of Star Wars is something really, really cool.

StarWars.com: Yeah. That’s awesome. Well, I will forward this the article on to the games team when it comes out so they’re aware.

Gary Whitta: When it comes out, I’m sure I’ll send it to all the people I know working on Star Wars games. “If you want to make it five-for-five, that would be very cool.”

Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content strategist of online, the editor of StarWars.com, and a writer. 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.

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