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Dave Filoni on How Ahsoka Brought Anakin Back With Hayden Christensen

Dave Filoni on How Ahsoka Brought Anakin Back With Hayden Christensen

It was a moment Star Wars fans had been waiting for: the reunion of Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson) and her former master, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). Who better to direct that episode of Ahsoka than Dave Filoni, who created the title character (alongside George Lucas) for the animated series The Clone Wars? For Filoni, who also wrote the episode, it was crucial to find a way to please longtime fans while also educating new viewers. Bringing Anakin into Ahsoka was part of that process.

“I wanted to find a way to realize some of those things that I had done in animation in live-action beyond the present-day versions of the characters of Ahsoka and Ezra and Sabine, who were older,” Filoni says of the animated Star Wars characters who were brought to life in this series. “So in my mind, bringing Anakin back was something to give context to the character of Ahsoka. If you had never seen The Clone Wars, how do I give you that context? And so having her confront her mentor, for the average person tuning in to understand her mentor was Darth Vader, which is a very big deal, made a lot of narrative sense. But then also, of course, the fan in me is thinking, ‘This will be really cool.’”

A little backstory for the uninitiated: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi Knight, is given an apprentice, Ahsoka Tano, during the Republic’s fight against the Separatist Alliance, known as the Clone Wars. Throughout the seven-season animated series, Ahsoka studies under Anakin as a Jedi Padawan, gets betrayed, leaves the Jedi Order and ultimately escapes Order 66, which is the directive given by Emperor Palpatine to kill all Jedi. Ahsoka turns up in another animated series, Rebels, before jumping to live-action first in The Mandalorian and then her own series.

The “Shadow Warrior” episode has been widely praised by the Star Wars fanbase — a community known for being some of the franchise’s harshest critics — and featured the live-action re-creations of two battle sequences from The Clone Wars, showing a much younger Ahsoka (played by Ariana Greenblatt) fighting alongside Anakin before he later turned to the Dark Side. The episode also gave Christensen and Dawson the opportunity to engage in a lightsaber battle in the World Between Worlds, which was first introduced in the animated series Rebels — not to mention the first live-action appearance of beloved clone Captain Rex.

“At the end of the day, it’s all from the same imagination, it’s all from the same love of Star Wars and adventure,” Filoni notes when asked about the differences between directing for animation and live-action. “In live-action, though, it’s all going to happen right in front of you in the moment. You can do a lot digitally later, but you have to be prepared to capture that moment. And in the animation, [you can control] every pose, posture, blink, expression, everything: If I don’t like the way something’s going, I can redo it, I can get there granularly and redraw it. Here, it’s trusting people to become the thing and to create a moment, which is a bit different.”

Though Filoni and Christensen had long talked about working together, Filoni wanted Skywalker’s appearance to be organic and not self-serving. “Maybe I’m just doing this because I’m going to enjoy watching Anakin talk to Ahsoka with the clones running around,” he says of his concerns. “But I felt there were enough good things there that I was really digging it and fans would, too.”

On a more technical level, the episode featured Ahsoka underwater — a challenge given the fact that Dawson is in a head prosthetic — and communicating with a giant space while-like creature, called purrgil, while standing on a wing of her spaceship, which is aloft. Filoni also was conscious of trying to make sure the more out-there elements didn’t take the viewer out of the story.

“All the technical details that this team had, I had confidence in them that they could overcome anything, and all I had to do was really be clear with what I was describing,” he says. “Selling the audience on giant space whales — it’s kind of tricky, it can be a little far out there, but I wanted it to feel naturalistic and real and believable.” To make it seem like the creature was actually floating in front of Dawson, the team set up five “gigantic” fans to create the effect of strong wind and drilled a piece of wood behind her foot to keep her from being “blown back off the stage.”

Another concern was that the episode itself is “a bit abstract.” Among other elements, it also features the World Between Worlds, first introduced in the animated series Rebels as a mystical realm, accessible only to Force users, that exists between time and space. Filoni worked closely with cinematographer Quyen Tran to stage in advance the scenes that found Ahsoka and Skywalker engaged in a lightsaber duel.

“What we are seeing is very impressionistic battles — how do you portray that?” he says of their approach to re-creating this world. “We did a lot of extensive pre-vis on it, just like I would the animation. When we got there on the day [of filming], we really knew what we were trying to capture. Her lighting in the more abstract battle scenes was going to play a major role of composition, so the lighting and the tonality of it had to be clear. And I want to know with a lot of certainty that all of this exterior, environmental influence was going to work. So I could really on the day focus on the performance and the actors.”

What’s unique about Anakin is Christensen originated the character in the prequels, but Filoni fleshed out the part of his life between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith to a degree that his turn to the Dark Side is given more context and foreshadowed more significantly. How did Filoni help Christensen reconcile the live-action and animated versions of the characters?

“What Hayden and I share is, we were both instructed and taught by George,” Filoni says. “And so the view of Anakin that I have is based on my collaboration with George Lucas when I worked on The Clone Wars. I was fortunate that we had the time to tell the story of Anakin Skywalker and flesh it out in a way that he really could be the hero that I imagined as a kid in the movies. You get a little of that [in the prequels], but because he’s descending into the dark side, you don’t get it in a major way. For Hayden, he really liked what we’d done on The Clone Wars, and we would talk about it. So we really had a common frame of reference for how this character could be and to kind of open him up.”

Jedi aren’t supposed to form emotional attachments, but Anakin does end up developing a bond with Ahsoka, in kind of a big brotherly sort of way.

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“But he also can he let go of attachments, if he sees that Ahsoka is self-sufficient, that she can defend herself,” which is ultimately the reason that Anakin shows up in Ahsoka, to teach her that lesson. “There was no question to me that he would just be the embodiment of this character. He invented it. I took it and did a version in animation but I never thought of it as different. I thought, ‘It’s just Anakin.’ And so the only thing I had to give him was the confidence that that was what this was and it’s all the same.” (Filoni demurs when asked if Christensen will appear in Season 2, which he is currently in the process of writing.)

For Filoni, another big challenge lay in the casting of the iconic characters, he notes, praising Dawson and Greenblatt for portraying Ahsoka at two very different stages of her life, along with the rest of the Ahsoka cast, who brought numerous Rebels character to life.

“The biggest challenge was finding the right people,” he says. “You write these scenes, you write these characters and you go, ‘Gosh, somebody’s got to play this.’ I have had a great version of these characters in animation. The voice actors are phenomenal and bring such life and dimension to every one of them. But [in Ahsoka], it’s going to be a different thing and, and someone has to embody it in a different way. Will the audience accept that? Will they accept the difference? Do they need to sound like them? Do they need to look like them? What’s the measure of that? When you, when you have these incredibly talented people, there’s a level of trust and you let go of things. It’s a great experience to get to be there and be a part of it and watch it and it, it’s released from your hands. It becomes something else. It comes alive in ways because everybody on set is doing their part to make it come alive, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

Filoni is also quick to credit his creative team, many of whom he’s worked with for two decades. “I would not be doing what I’m doing without them,” he says. “I couldn’t have told any good stories without them. It makes me sad sometimes that they’re not all here with me because they’re such a part of it. But you remember those people, they’re important to your process, they’re important to the stories. You make them a part of it. They got to come to set and you know, they get so excited and are so happy and they’re doing great things.”

Filoni also credits his mentor Lucas for helping him make the jump to live-action. “I’m watching these things that I had watched since I was a kid, or I had drawn in animation for years, jump to life, and I wouldn’t have been doing any of that if it wasn’t for George,” he says. “If George hadn’t inspired me while working on The Clone Wars to say, you know, live-action could be something that I could do, that I could challenge myself and perhaps find that in me, because I wasn’t trained in doing that. If there was any training I had, it was with working with him.”

A version of this story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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