Star Wars Resistance takes its final flight

November 4, 2019 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from our longer interview with the executive producers of Star Wars ResistanceBrandon Auman, Justin Ridge and Athena Portillo from Issue 39 of Backstory.


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Star Wars Resistance
By Danny Munso

The early word on Star Wars Resistance before it debuted in late 2018 was the animated series was really just for kids, but that assessment couldn’t have been more misguided. While the show is still aimed at children — and definitely more so than its animated predecessors The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels — there is a weightiness now as it heads into season two that was not there in the initial batch of episodes. For executive producer and head writer Brandon Auman, the exact moment things changed is clear. “With any show, it takes a few episodes to get a feel for it and get a sense of the characters and where it’s going,” he says. “But for me, season one really started to come together when the First Order showed up.” The appearance of the villainous faction at the heart of the latest Star Wars film trilogy served to link up Resistance with the current slate of movies that culminated when the season-one finale overlapped directly with the events from 2015’s The Force Awakens. It also heightened the drama in the show itself. In season one, main character Kaz Xiono (voiced by Christopher Sean) was dispatched to the massive aircraft refueling station Colossus to investigate First Order activities under the tutelage of former Rebellion member Jarek Yeager (Scott Lawrence), who wants no part of this new fight. Kaz joins Yeager’s team of mechanics, including Tam (Suzie McGrath) and Neeku (Josh Brener), as a cover while he tries to figure out the First Order’s plans. Eventually, the First Order presence on the Colossus becomes overbearing and they try to take control of the station, but once Kaz and his crew discover the First Order’s true nefarious intentions, they begin to fight back. Then in the finale, they discover the Colossus is actually a giant spaceship and blast off into space, where they head meet up with the Resistance.

While season one was confined mainly to life on the Colossus, season two provided a blank slate in terms of the types of stories and worlds the writers wanted to explore. Planning for each season of Resistance begins the same way: with Auman and executive producer/supervising director Justin Ridge free associating on where they’d like the tale to go. “We sit down and talk through what we want the emotional arc to be for the season and where we want to end up by the end of season two,” Ridge says. “We want to have a nice through-line for the season and don’t want to feel lost or anything as we go on.” In addition to plotting the season as a whole, Auman and Ridge will specifically hammer out plans for the first batch of four or five episodes, which they will then pitch to a group at Lucasfilm that includes fellow executive producer Athena Yvette Portillo (more on her soon!), series creator and head of animation Dave Filoni, VP of animation and live-action series Carrie Beck, among others. “We’ll gauge it from there in terms of, Is this the direction we should be going in?” Auman says. “A lot of times Filoni will add things, so it’s a very collaborative effort. For season two, we had a lot of ideas because it’s such a big canvas so we had a lot of big, ambitious ideas—some we could do and some we couldn’t.”

After they get a consensus on a story direction, Auman and Ridge will gather the writers for three-day summits at Skywalker Ranch. “We get together in the main house there and just start talking story,” Auman says. “We usually try to come up with one to two solid stories a day. We’ll already have pitched those stories so we have an idea where they’re going, but sometimes things go in different directions with the writers or things get more detailed.” As things solidify and writers are assigned an episode, they’re handed a beat sheet listing the main story points and that writer is responsible for turning in three drafts of the script, with Auman looking over each version as it proceeds. Ridge’s role as EP and supervising director takes him in dozens of directions, as he works with every department—from writing to design to animation to everything in between. But he’s a director at heart, having helmed some of the better episodes of Clone Wars and Rebels before taking over for Filoni as supervising director on the latter series halfway through its run. Therefore, he gets fairly hands-on with the directors in the same way Auman does with the writers. “What I personally like to do is sit down with each of the directors and storyboard artists and go through the script page by page—go through every single set piece, every single section and just talk through it: Let’s shoot on this part of the set, or for the emotional part of the scene, let’s try to shoot this way. Beat by beat, I’ll sit down and just brainstorm with them and have a good conversation about what I’m expecting from the episode. Then the director works with the story artists for the next few weeks and we do a pass with thumbnails, which is the first time I see the footage. So I’ll have notes on that. I’m hands-on, but I’m not a micromanager. I also like to give them their space to creatively contribute to their own episodes.”

Now would be a good time to introduce Resistance’s third executive producer. Portillo is one of the longest tenured employees at Lucasfilm, having started as an intern in 1996. She returned to the company in 2006 to be part of the team for Clone Wars, and she has been an instrumental part of the animation division ever since, producing over 200 episodes between that series, Rebels and Resistance. She’s also become a favorite of the fans, both because of her origin story and the genuine love of Star Wars she exudes in interviews and convention appearances. Her role in the series is different from Auman and Ridge, who run the creative side. Portillo runs production, dealing with budgets, contracts and schedules. So what, then, is her role in the story meetings? “I call myself the buzzkill,” she laughs, noting that after the stories are pitched, Filoni will often look at her and ask what she’s calculating in terms of how doable their ideas are. “I’m the one who creates a cheat sheet where I know how many man days are required for design and assets. I have certain allotments that have been agreed upon with the animation companies overseas, so I’m the one who has to say, ‘I don’t think we can add the fifth character you want. If we do, we have to eliminate this.’ It’s those types of moments when you have the writers look at you and go, ‘Come on, Athena! Can we please get that in there?’ That’s what I mean by buzzkill. I’m shouting out the budget and schedule while they’re coming up with the cool creative ideas.”

Portillo is clearly being humble, as her role actually does impact the story. Take season two’s epic second episode, “A Quick Salvage Run.” The Colossus crew has a run-in with the First Order near the Resistance base on the planet D’Qar. Just as the end of season one overlapped with The Force Awakens, the beginning of this one will do the same with The Last Jedi because those two films take place back to back. In the beginning of The Last Jedi, we see Resistance forces being evacuated from D’Qar, and this episode of Resistance picks up not long afterward. The episode ends with a massive space battle between the Colossus crew and the First Order, the largest we’ve seen on Resistance to this point. For Portillo, it’s an easy decision to allot sizable resources for such an important story point. “If it’s important to the story, then we’re going to get it done regardless of what it takes,” she says. “Sometimes that calls for conversations with the animation studios, and they understand why it’s important. We also always make sure the season openers and endings are the most epic. Some episodes we’re allowed to have epic parameters—and by “epic” I mean 20 percent more of what you can typically have in an episode. So if it’s something they really want, we’ll characterize that as an epic and they just know that for the next episode, we won’t be able to have as many characters if we’re borrowing from this episode.”

That crossover with The Last Jedi happened in a natural and organic way during the creative process. Resistance EPs are given early access to the feature scripts so they can plan accordingly, particularly since it was long known that season two would run parallel to Jedi at least for a while. However, there is another major feature connection in that episode that wasn’t quite as obvious: Kaz and the others are trying to refill on coaxium, the substance that allows them to jump to hyperspace and ditch the First Order. Coaxium is a relatively new substance in the world of Star Wars, introduced in 2018’s Solo. Because the Resistance crew works almost a year in advance, Solo hadn’t been released when they were breaking the story for that particular episode. When the subject of refueling came up, Lucasfilm Story Group member Pablo Hidalgo, who sits in on all the writer conferences, made the cool connection to coaxium and it was able to be worked in. “I definitely have to give that one to Pablo,” Auman says. “He showed us imagery and told us how it would all work. I love doing stuff like that. I love linking up movies and the larger galaxy, and I know fans love that stuff as well. I know when I get excited about that stuff, it’s the inner fanboy in me, so I know the fans will get excited as well.”

Season one contained a massive plot twist that was greeted with universal praise from all corners of Star Wars devotees. Tam, who had thus far been a loyal friend and partner of Kaz and Yeager, ends up defecting to the First Order in the finale. It’s a stunning moment and one we really haven’t seen in the Star Wars universe to this point, where a good guy willingly joins the bad guys. Of course, it’s more complicated and layered than that, but the twist worked because the writers built in a season’s worth of frustrations for Tam. She knew Kaz and Yeager — who were secretly working for the Resistance — were keeping a major secret from her, yet every time she asked, they denied it. When she finally finds out what they’ve been up to right under her nose, she feels betrayed and let’s that hurt influence her decision to join the First Order. It’s a choice that makes complete sense to the audience—and made sense to the writers, who had not decided Tam would defect until the last minute. “We had talked about her arc early on, but we didn’t necessarily know she would go with them,” Auman says. “We wanted to see where the stories would take us as well, because sometimes they come to life and the characters go in different directions. But we were looking and realized, Wow, Tam isn’t going to stay with them, and we watched that happen. It was just logical that Tam would feel betrayed and hurt.”

Auman dips into Tam’s deeper character motivations—some of which haven’t even been explored onscreen yet—to show how deeply the creators think about their story and characters. “Tam’s grandfather used to work for the Empire, and when the Empire collapsed Tam’s family fell into poverty. She started racing to make money, but she felt Yeager was keeping her down. All these characters have realistic motivations, and we’ve just been following where it’s been taking us, and it just seemed to go in that direction. It wouldn’t feel right if she decided to stay after everything that happened.” When describing what is in store for the rest of season two, Ridge actually gives Kaz and Tam co-billing, as the perspectives through which the show will be told and the first few episodes bear that out. Not only do we see what is going on with the Colossus crew, we are getting unique insights into what life in the First Order is like. “This season is really about both Kaz and Tam,” Ridge says. “I feel like we’ve developed this really rich world where every character has this backstory. And I would love to tell every character’s backstory, but the way we balance it is who is this story really about? This season it’s all in service of Kaz and Tam. We’re going to start getting more glimpses into [Tam’s] adventure and journey into the First Order.”

This season also ups the stakes in major ways. Kaz will be recruited to join the Aces, a group of elite pilots based out of the Colossus. Yeager will be forced to join the fight in ways he swore he never would again. And as teased in the season’s trailer, the Colossus crew is even on the radar of Kylo Ren, leader of the First Order. “Season two is definitely more dire and darker and more serious because they’re in the middle of war now and the First Order is actively looking for them,” Auman says. “They’re one of the few Resistance cells out there that the First Order is actively hunting. The stakes are raised and things become much more dangerous.” Sadly for fans, season two will also be the final season for the series. The decision makes sense when viewed through the lens of the new film trilogy. December will see the release of The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth and final film in the Skywalker saga. Because of that — and for story reasons yet to be revealed (although some fans think they have spotted a certain Colossus in the latest Episode IX trailer) — the EPs thought it best that Resistance’s story wraps before the events of the final movie. Portillo points out that some major sequences of season two were even held until key moments from Skywalker were completed so they could include elements of them in the show. “When we developed and first started season one, I think our hope, like with any show, is you want to go on for 10 years,” Ridge adds. “But when we were developing season two, it made more sense that this all needs to fit in the time period right before Episode IX. We love these characters and would love to see more stories with them in the future, but for this arc it made sense to end it now.”

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