Rogue One did really well as a Star Wars spin-off film. Not only did it fill in the Death Star exhaust port plot-holes of A New Hope, but its gritty approach gave a new dimension to the franchise. Praised by many fans as one of the best films in the franchise, Rogue One became the second highest-grossing film of 2016.
However, what many don't know is that the film was actually based on a pitch for a Star Wars television series. Speaking in an interview with CBR during a visit to the San Francisco headquarters of ILM, visual effects supervisor John Knoll reveals the true origin story of Rogue One.
" It's longer than you might think — it was nine years. The first inklings of trying to tell that story happened in Summer 2003 when we were shooting on "Episode III" in Sydney. I had heard that Lucasfilm was developing stories for a potential live action TV series, and they were active in story development at the time. That was kind of intriguing, and I started thinking about, "What would be a fun thing to do as a one-hour episode as a live action ‘Star Wars' TV show?"
One thought was, "What about a ‘Mission Impossible'-style break-in into the most secure facility in the Empire to steal the Death Star plans? There could be a lot of tension of potentially being discovered and overcoming security measures. That could be a lot of fun!" I started tinkering with this idea internally. Then a day or two later, I asked Rick [McCallum], I heard you were developing this TV show. He started telling me about the era that it takes place in, and the themes of the show. As soon as he started going into that, I realized, actually, that idea has no place in that show, so I just dropped it completely.
It wasn't until Kathy [Kennedy] announced this new slate of "Star Wars" films that, in addition to "VII," "VIII" and "IX" that would be continuing the saga, that she also wanted to do these standalone adventure stories: stories that took place in the "Star Wars" universe but weren't necessarily connected to that through-line. A lot of us were really intrigued by it. "That sounds like fun." I thought that idea of the mission to steal the Death Star plans, telling that story could make a pretty good standalone feature as well."
Knoll continues his story (yes, it's much longer than you expect.)
"I sort of did an informal pitch to a friend of mine at lunch, once. I said, imagine this, and kind of took him through the story. I got such a good reaction to it. Another friend asked me about it, so I pitched it, but this time it was a little more elaborate version of it. I had been going through this mental exercise of kind of thinking through more of the plot mechanics, and who these characters were. Could I work this out into a full feature film? Finally, I had this 20-minute version that I could tell that had, I thought, pretty good story logic, and pretty good characters, and all was very exciting, just beautifully meets right up to "Episode IV."
A friend of mine said, "Okay, you really have to pitch this to Kathy. Make an appointment and go pitch it, because you have to." I realized as soon as he said that that if I don't, I'm always going to wonder what would have happened if I did? So I thought, "What the hell, I'll make the appointment, I'll see if I can do the pitch. If it doesn't go any further than that, at least I'll have done it."
So I made the appointment, and I did the pitch to Kathy and Kiri Hart, who's head of story [at Lucasfilm]. At the end — they listened to the whole thing very politely, and at the end, Kathy said, "All right, well, thank you." So I got up and left. I didn't hear anything for a little while. I thought, "All right, well, okay, I did it. I'm not going to wonder." About a week after, I got an email from Kiri: "We talked about this a lot, and we may want to do something with this." Then it snowballed into this."
Knoll's story is overwhelming long. Still it's amazing how long the visual effects director let the idea simmer and cook before pitching it to Kathleen. We probably wouldn't have had the same amazing movie with Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Forest Whitaker and the others had the idea made it as a television series.