‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ head writer talks about George Lucas, religion and the show’s lifespan

March 19, 2011 | 8:24 a.m.

The third-season finale of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” is coming April 1 on Cartoon Network with the highly anticipated appearance of Chewbacca (an episode that features contributions from Peter Mayhew), but something else has been happening with the animated show — a shift in the overall the tone and more and more intensity. That was especially the case with the recent “Mortis” story arc, a three-episode tale that presented Anakin with nightmarish visions of his future and, in a profound surprise, offered a deep new exploration of The Force and revelations about the mysterious Overlords.  The architect behind the trilogy of episodes was writer Christian Taylor, who has since been named head writer on the show. I caught up with  Taylor — whose credits include “Lost” and “Six Feet Under” — to talk about the Jedi show’s past, present and future.

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"Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (Lucasfilm)

GB: When fans of a certain age think of “Star Wars,” they think of the films and the past but it must be really energizing for you to see the emphasis that George Lucas has put on “The Clone Wars” and the resources that are behind it. This is the “Star Wars” that matters too,  for most youngsters that are aware of the Jedi universe.

christian taylor Star Wars: The Clone Wars head writer talks about George Lucas, religion and the shows lifespan

Christian Taylor (Lucas Campelo)

CT: Well, Dave Filoni is the genius behind it — as is, of course, George [Lucas] — and he’s such a great guy and such a talented guy. My catch-phrase is that he’s the James Cameron of animation because what they do is phenomenal and technologically breaking down barriers and it’s never been done before.  The show as I’ve been on it — my episodes from three years ago just started and they were breaking major technical barriers then —  and I’ve seen the latest footage of stuff that they’re going to do for the next season and what they can physically do now is so much better. The thing that is amazing is that George is completely involved in the show. The first time I got invited up, the show had been running for two years and they had never done a writers’ conference before they, they had sort of just got spec work from different writers so there we were, there were like eight of us, working at the main house and you’d come and be sitting there at a meeting with George Lucas.  It was two things at the same time: Your head would be thinking, “This is George Lucas!” and it seemed incredibly normal at the same time.

GB: Talk a bit about your working experience with the series.

CT: I’ve been working on the show for the past three years and it is amazing that, due to the complexity of producing the episodes, only now are the first episodes I wrote showing.  The first year that I started was actually Season Three for the “Clone Wars.”  We have since written seasons four and five.  The third season was the first year that “The Clone Wars” had a writers’ room and worked very much like an episodic TV writers room would — but it was crammed into less than 10 days with George steering the stories.  For this I helped developed every upcoming story.  Cut to three years later and I am the head writer on the show.  I am incredibly lucky that I get to play in this sandpit!

GB: It’s interesting to hear the show described by fans of different ages. There is a divide but plenty of passion — there doesn’t seem to be any apathy when it comes to “Star Wars” fans and their expression of ownership.

CT: The thing for me personally is that, as we all did, I grew up with “Star Wars” but it was never my religion. That allowed me to access this show and not feel like, “Oh, this is not really ‘Star Wars'” or “‘This is some different type of ‘Star Wars.'” I just accessed it from the point of view of these characters and everything that you could do with your writing that was fantastic in this world and with these characters. And you could write anything and [the animators] could actually make it. That’s sometimes a very frustrating time in television: [The producers] can’t actually do what you write because of schedule or money or technical ability. Dave has created this machine and the artists that are there are top notch and they can realize anything that you write. The episodes that I just wrote, there was a planet that changed from a dead planet to a live planet. They couldn’t do that until my episode and even then, afterward, Dave said, ‘Well, we didn’t get as right as we should have but now we can do that so much better and we learned from it.’ And as far as working in this established universe and in a workplace that — as you said — has this energy and this assurance and you know what you work on is going to be seen by a lot of people, all of that is very inspiring. And you know that what you do is also going to inspire a lot of people.  The great thing about doing this show is the fact that now there’s a whole new generation of “Star Wars” fans. There would be established fans, like you and me; the religious, hard-core fans; and then this whole new bunch of kids who have never even seen the films. Not to be cynical, but it’s a brilliant marketing tool. It’s also a way for these kids to access this universe and then go see the films. It’s a win-win situation which is really lovely and it’s not often that way in television as a writer. [Laughs.] I’ve had many shows that have failed because they can’t get the audience and I’ve done stuff that I’ve developed which i thought would make a great show but executives didn’t believe in it. It’s lovely to be playing in a winning tournament.

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"Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (Lucasfilm)

GB: You mentioned the gradations of fans — from the casual to the absolutely possessed,  from the young newcomer to the longtime follower — how do you service all of those different nations?

CT:  It’s funny, when we came in George said there are three things: “There’s the father, the son and the holy ghost.” He said “There’s the father, who’s me, there’s the son who is through licensing and then there’s the holy ghost.”  So when it’s authorized by George Lucas it’s canon. When it’s by “the son” — that’s the whole load of things made by the machine — and there is a lot of creativity there but it’s just not authored by George. The holy ghost is what fans provide and expect. So for us, we really have only one master to answer to. You’re not going to answer to the fans and nor would they want that, really. We can’t change something because some of the fans think that wouldn’t happen. In one of my episodes, one of the criticisms that I would hear a lot and found to be fascinating was, ‘Why is Ahsoka being a mechanic?” I was like, ‘What are you talking about, of course she can be a mechanic. Carrie Fisher was a mechanic. Leia was a mechanic, she’s fixing ships in ‘Star Wars.'” But you can’t get into that [sort of conversation]. You only have to answer to George and in that universe you’re trying to write things that are true to character and will hopefully inspire people in a good way. We get these outlines for “Clone Wars” and George has built the outline with you. You’re doing three outlines a day [during the writers’ conference] for nine days and that’s intense. I was teasing George at one point — “You’re expecting us, these TV writers, to write an hour of story and it’s condensed into 22 minutes.” They’re used to working with animators but to have writers building three stories a day; that’s unheard of in the world of  TV. The mission is you’re writing stories for fans but authorized by George and still trying to somehow be cutting-edge.

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"Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (Lucasfilm)

GB: How would you characterize the fan feedback that reaches you? Indignant fans generally write far more e-mails than satisfied fans, especially since the happiest viewers you have may also be the youngest…

CT: Dave gets most of the flak of this as far as fan outrage but I think the fans generally love the show. If they’re being cynical … that comes across and some people will never be satisfied. And there’s no one who is ever satisfied with everything and nor should they be. For me, I feel you just write the best story and the best characters and pick the stories that are most inspiring for the kids. I never patronize in my writing. I don’t write for kids. The show succeeds best when it doesn’t write to kids, it just writes in the vein of “Star Wars,” which is accessible to kids. If there’s something just past their grasp they say, “Oh, I’ll read up on that” or “I’ll ask someone about that.” I have five nieces and nephews and I have close relationships with them. The youngest of my nieces has just started watching the show and I like talking to her about it all. Writing for an established and beloved franchise is like standing on a cliff, if you look down at the fans you will get some serious writers block.  I like to write from the heart and the emotion and trust that it will all add up to a great story that will inspire the fans.

GB: Every project brings surprises with it.  Tell me about a surprise you found along the path with this endeavor, either in the material itself or perhaps in craft or your approach to it.

CT: I remember sitting in the room and George talked about The Force, he did his monologue. I wished I had recorded it on my iPhone, it was so iconic, but I probably would have been fired if I had done that. And it was all so thought out and incredibly articulated. There’s a rhyme and reason to it, it’s not just fluff, and it fits very much in with my spiritual path of Buddhism and the true teachings of Christianity, not the bigoted, twisted version of Christianity. Then we sort of got to pick what we wanted to do and I thought, “What am I going to ask for? Am I going to pick the C-3PO arc or the Asoka? And I decided to pick the scariest one, the one everyone had been joking about as the frightening one. I knew it would terrible or really wonderful. And it was wonderful. It’s very operatic, very Wagnerian, it’s big and it’s epic. It was controversial as well. I knew it would be an interesting failure or an interesting success. Later when I went to see the first real screening of it, up at the Stag Theatre [at Skywalker Ranch] with the crew and everything, I sat there and thought, “I wrote that?” You forget because it was three years ago when I put it on paper. I was happy with the way it fit into things that came before it. Some people, I knew, would get upset about this or that, but that’s “Clone Wars.”

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"Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (Lucasfilm)

GB: You’re talking about the “Mortis” arc. Can you reflect a bit more on it?

CT: The “Mortis” arc, it was an incredible challenge.  It was a chance for George to explore aspects of The Force that had never been discussed before and was a spiritual universe outside of the traditional “Star Wars” we know and love…. This arc introduces characters called Overlords who are Force wielders who use The Force in ways that we haven’t seen before.  They are not gods  but powerful beings who can manipulate The Force unlike any other… and with that comes great danger and complications.  Putting Anakin, “The Chosen One,” into that mix is a recipe for some juicy revelations, action and an awesome power struggle.  It was an amazing operatic arc to write and to see animated and was one that has been both controversial and embraced by fans in a frenzy of postings — the most of any “Clone Wars” episode to date, I was told.  I am very proud of it, especially that we get to see Darth Vader in a flash forward.  How many writers get do that?

GB: The arc stirred people up, to be sure, but it did feel like new ground for this show at this point.

CT: I don’t talk about The Force in my day-to-day life or anything like that but it was a powerful experience for me and I did feel like, well, not that I was channeling it but that it was coming from an emotional place.  The idea that there’s this universe and these characters and they have these gods and they can do this — all of that was a little more interesting to me than the clones and the war and running around doing that stuff. So I’ve picked those sort of episodes as we’ve gone along. That’s the interesting thing for me.

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"Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (Lucasfilm)

GB: The Clone Wars is the big chunk of time that has created a canvas with plenty of blank spots.  Still, when looking at the previously established canon, do you ever feel boxed in by the fact that you are writing about characters whose past and future are, in many cases, known to the audience? Do you get frustrated with the range of possibility when it comes to consequences available for your core characters?

CT: This show, and it’s a good thing, has a life. It’s going to have to end in a certain amount of time. There are very clear categories of what you can and can’t do within that world.  And there are things that are frustrating. Anakin can never fight with General Grievous, for instance, and, you know, that’s fine. I think that’s actually why George has allowed us to go into sort of emotional stories because that’s the territory you can go in. It’s a weird, interesting way to build a show because you have an ending already out there. But we also have characters in the show whose final fate is not known, like Ahsoka. We’ve discussed it obviously but the fans have no idea. The great thing is there is such a machine there for us. There’s a guy called Gary Scheppke that you call up as a writer and you can say, “I want to do this, but has this happened before?” I know maybe 25% of the stuff from watching the movies and the series so far. He’ll say, “You can do this, but not that, and you can’t use that ship because of this….” So that’s great. There’s a gatekeeper for that. With Dave its a similar thing, he’s a huge fan. He’s read all of the extended-universe stuff and I don’t [know] any of that. He knows it all but he’s not a slave to it because with George, if it didn’t come from him it never existed as far as the conversation about the stories we can tell. Dave knows everything, though, so he can create a world within in the world. I find it kind of easy to find imaginative things that don’t bump people. It’s come easy to me to find the logical thing to do with these characters and they are so clearly established. You know Anakin and Obi-Wan and they are a certain way and they present themselves when you take them into new situations. But clearly the show can’t go on forever. And that’s a good thing. Shows that can go on forever, those are the ones that sort of implode.

— Geoff Boucher

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