Inside the greatest Star Wars film you’ll never see – the Rogue One director’s cut

Terence Malick does Star Wars: a scene from Rogue One
Terence Malick does Star Wars: a scene from Rogue One - Lucasfilm

Promoting his new movie, The Creator, director Gareth Edwards has come out all lightsabers blazing. “The stuff that is out there on the internet about what happened on that film – there is so much inaccuracy about the whole thing,” he told the industry podcast The Business last week.

“That film” isn’t The Creator – a pretty, if somewhat vacant, rumination on artificial intelligence. Edwards was referring to his previous project, December 2016’s Rogue One – generally agreed to be the best Star Wars not to involve George Lucas (and to be better than several involving George Lucas).

“Inaccuracy” is one way of putting it. Another would be that Rogue One, which tells the story of the theft of the Death Star plans so crucial in the original Star Wars, has spawned a dense mythology regarding the authorship of the final cut. Even though Edwards is credited as director, Bourne Identity writer Tony Gilroy famously came in and put his stamp on the project. To this day, the question lingers: whose movie is it really?

Edwards acknowledges Gilroy’s contribution in his new interview. Yet it is equally apparent that he is eager not to be written out of his own Star Wars story.

“Tony came in, and he did a lot of great work, for sure. No doubt about it. But we all worked together until the last minute of that movie. … The very last thing that we filmed in the pickup shoot was the Darth Vader corridor scene. I did all of that stuff.”

Edwards’s comments were, in the first instance, directed at the internet hive mind, which has decided that Rogue One is Gilroy’s triumph rather than Edwards’s. However, the remarks can also be interpreted as a shot across the bows of Gilroy, who hasn’t been slow about claiming credit for Rogue One – and who asserted ownership over its characters and themes with his Disney+ prequel, Andor.

Gilroy’s version of events is that Rogue One was in chaos when Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy contacted him in early 2016. “They were in such a swamp,” he has said. “They were in so much terrible, terrible trouble that all you could do was improve their position.” Asked if we’ll ever see a director’s cut of the film, he was unequivocal: “That was the absolute best possible version you could ever have,” Gilroy told The Hollywood Reporter in March 2023. “Oh my God. No. No.”

We’ll never know for sure, but it is widely understood that the concluding third of the movie is Gilroy’s work. He retooled the script and brought back stars Diego Luna (later to appear in Andor) and Felicity Jones for six weeks of reshoots. At this point, Edwards had already submitted a radically different director’s cut – which Disney felt didn’t hold together.

Gareth Edwards with Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy and Rogue One stars Diego Luna and Riz Ahmed
Gareth Edwards with Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy and Rogue One stars Diego Luna and Riz Ahmed - Jonathan Olley

The most significant change is one of tone. Gilroy, who was paid $200,000 a week by Disney and received a co-writer credit, inserted a scene in which Luna’s rebel leader, Cassian Andor, kills a spy so that the Empire does not learn of his subterfuge. It’s a shocking break with the franchise’s wholesomeness that signals to the audience that we’re in a Galaxy far, far away from the Star Wars of Jar Jar Binks and of JJ Abrams’s cheesy The Force Awakens. Gilroy also changed the ending, in which Andor and Jones’s renegade heroine, Jyn Erso, obtain the Death Star plans.

Originally, the script allowed the duo to essentially swan into the sunset. Gilroy felt it was important to go darker. “If you look at Rogue, all the difficulty with Rogue, all the confusion of it … and all the mess, and in the end when you get in there, it’s actually very, very simple to solve,” Gilroy said of the film. “Because you sort of go, ‘This is a movie where, folks, just look. Everyone is going to die.’ So it’s a movie about sacrifice.”

Edwards has never publicly contradicted Gilroy. Indeed, he has never complained about his experiences around Rogue One at all. In his interviews for The Creator, he has held to that diplomatic line: to even be considered for a Star Wars project is an honour, he insists. He’s happy to have been part of the journey. If he’s annoyed at Gilroy for putting himself at the centre of Rogue One, he has kept those feelings to himself.

Felicity Jones in a scene from the Rogue One trailer that isn't in the finished film
Felicity Jones in a scene from the Rogue One trailer that isn't in the finished film - Lucasfilm

“Someone who gets that opportunity to make a Star Wars film and then starts complaining about it, I don’t think many people have that much empathy for that kind of person. I so don’t want to be them,” he said. “It was a dream come true. I’m proud of the movie we all made,” said Edwards. “What goes into Fight Club stays in Fight Club kind of thing. It’s like that. I just want to sound grateful for what happened and not talk negatively about anything.”

Still, you wonder if he isn’t being too humble. Rogue One clearly benefitted from Gilroy’s gimlet-eyed intervention. The final third is where the story comes together – it is often meandering up to that point – and Rogue One fully earns its downbeat ending. Plus, without Gilroy’s work on Rogue One, he would never have been motivated to make the fantastic Andor – by far the best of the Disney+ Star Wars spin-offs (though, given the competition, that is faint praise). So much of our understanding of the Andor character is, after all, rooted in that scene in which he kills the spy.

Felicity Jones in Rogue One
Felicity Jones in Rogue One - Jonathan Olley

Yet, though Gilroy’s contribution is essential, a lot of the magic of Rogue One indisputably comes from Edwards. With his break-out 2010 indie film Monsters and his 2014 Godzilla adaptation, the director showed a unique talent for directing big CGI set pieces (on Monsters, he created the titular tentacled apparitions using off-the-shelf software).

That is likewise the case in Rogue One, which is visually stunning but with a dreamy sensibility that sets it apart from the rest of the Star Wars franchise. That this is Star Wars with a twist is announced at the very start when Imperial apparatchik Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) pays an unwelcome visit to Erso’s father, Death Star inventor Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), on their remote hideaway of Lah’mu.

He descends from his spaceship onto the dark, lush grass. Raindrops glimmer on his cape. It’s as if Thin Red Line director Terence Malick or Full Metal Jacket-era Stanley Kubrick were doing Star Wars. Equally jaw-dropping is a shot of Star Destroyer over the desert planet of Jedha (it’s Star Wars: there has to be a desert planet). We know Star Destroyers are huge – but no one has come close to Edwards in conveying the sheer, menacing vastness of the Empire’s engines of conquest and destruction.

Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic
Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic - Lucasfilm

There could have been more, too. An early trailer, released when Gilroy was still mucking about with the guts of the film, depicts Erso facing off against a TIE fighter. It is a teasing glimpse of the alternative Rogue One we might have had.

Those flourishes are as essential to the tone as Gilroy’s third act and his decision to kill off Jyn and Andor. Rogue One wouldn’t work without that wrenching conclusion. Yet, nor would it function without those epic early scenes. It’s also worth noting, moreover, that the most striking sequence of all, in which Darth Vader boards the Rebel ship carrying the Death Star plans and butchers half a dozen soldiers, was suggested not by Gilroy or Edwards but by the movie’s editor, Jabez Olssen.

Rogue One, this stitched-together Frankenstein movie, is more than the sum of its components. Against all reasonable expectations, the opposing sensibilities of the arty Edwards and more Hollywood Gilroy brought out the best in each other. Without Gilroy, Rogue One wouldn’t have that dark noir energy – and its stunning ending. However, minus Edwards, Rogue One would have been just another blockbuster about his’n her anti-heroes  – of which Hollywood has no lack.

He filtered it through his unique sci-fi sensibility – one that owes as much to Seventies prog rock album covers and classic genre artists such as Chris Foss as to George Lucas. Nearly a decade on, it’s clear Rogue One inhabits a category all its own. It’s avant-garde Star Wars – a triumph that belongs as much to the humble Gareth Edwards as the spotlight-hogging Tony Gilroy.

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