Least Effort Fixes for Rogue One

Happy 2017, y’all! Today we’re going to talk about Rogue One, editing, and least effort fixes. If you haven’t seen Rogue One yet, I’m sorry, but I’m about to spoil a good chunk of the film. Feel free to check back next week, when we’ll talk about something else presumably!

It’s time for some game theory. (Sorry/not sorry.)

I’ve seen Rogue One twice now, the first time at a midnight showing, and the second while recovering from a New Year’s hangover. This is where you want me to say “I liked it!” or “It was terrible!” but I can’t. It was, in many ways, a better movie than The Force Awakens; in many ways it was worse. In concept it’s a daring, bold film. Edwards’ cinematography is top notch, and I love his sense of monstrosity and scale, which he showed off in 2014’s Godzilla. The film felt expansive and space operatic in a way The Force Awakens really didn’t; The Force Awakens showed a cramped Galaxy that just didn’t quite fit together, while, though I can pick a few nits (how fast can you get from Yavin to Scarif in hyperspace, anyway? Where was Cassian’s ship on Jedah?) Rogue One’s spaces are navigable and consistent. Nothing feels too small or too big, even the stuff that really is too big.

Rogue One also does some true EU-quality worldbuilding through background visuals: the relationship between the Jedi and Jedah, the fact that the Emperor’s crimson guards’ uniforms are copies of the red Kyber Temple guardian uniforms, the scripture written on the crystals Saw’s team rescues from the Imperial shipment, the interplay between the crystals and the Force, and most significantly the canonization of the old EU feature that Kyber crystals, used for Jedi lightsabers, were part of the Death Star design, which makes the Death Star itself a sort of religious symbol (and, indeed, it appears in the final act as a sort of warped fascist technocratic God), the thematic interplay between Saw (“Call me Sol”) Gerrera and Darth Vader—there is so much richness here. Rogue One has powerful points to make, about scale, about faith, and about destiny; thematically, technically, and in storytelling. Rogue One tries things The Force Awakens didn’t dare.

And yet! I loved the characters in TFA from their earliest appearances, while I found myself struggling to care during the first act and a half of Rogue One. By the final battle sequence on Scarif, the film had me—but that’s an hour and a half into the show! I don’t think this was the actors’ fault; I found Felicity Jones expressive and riveting, Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang deliver brilliant performances; Riz Ahmed didn’t have much to do but he did it well, and Alan Tudyck’s K2SO worked really well. Diego Luna has a stand-out moment in the cargo shuttle arguing with Jyn about the ethics of the Rebellion. But I didn’t feel pulled along dramatically as I did by TFA, even at the height of TFAs’ absurdity. The characters are loosely connected at best, is part of it; they don’t have that moment of party cohesion so key to, for example, Guardians of the Galaxy. But an even bigger problem, for me, is that the film doesn’t know where it wants to go, or how to get there. When Saw asks Jyn “what do you want,” about thirty minutes into the film, we don’t know the answer.

These two movies remind me of the difference between an extremely well-written book on the technical level—sharp sentence work that does what’s needed and no more, flexible and muscular and graceful as appropriate, worldbuilding folded into drama and dialogue, dialogue itself that feels speakable and believable—but which, for whatever reason, the reader puts down halfway through, and a clunky book that nevertheless compels the reader to turn the page, and finish—even if they kind of hate themselves afterward and will never mention the book in polite company.  The problem is, errors in sentence-level writing are easy to spot and fix. “Stop using that word! No, hm, why that construction here. You could cut eight words from that sentence, and you obviously want to. Let that image go.” Fixing good writing with bad storytelling, though, that’s hard! Because good writing takes time. For careful writers, refactoring a complete manuscript feels like death. You’ve done work you care about, you’ve made the structure’s bricks by hand, and now you need to bring in the wrecking ball? Arrrgh!

Which is similar to the challenge of reshooting a movie. Scene production is expensive! You want to do as little of it as possible. Similarly: if you work hard for your prose, you want to keep as much of it as you can. So, assuming technical competence in filmmaking, or writing: how can you take a project from not working, to working, with the least possible effort? How do you 80-20 this expensive piece of art? You identify choke points. You find the small exhaust port, just above the main port, where…. well, you get the idea. If the problem is “this arc exists for no reason”—how do you give it a reason? Ideally, while changing as little as possible?

As I see it, this film has three key tangles, two of which could be fixed with minimal reshoots, and one of which is harder, but also more of a take-it-or-leave-it thing.

Show Us Jyn; Make Galen a Reveal

Adult Jyn never has a chance to shine. The first five minutes of Rogue One do beautiful, efficient work. We know exactly what everyone wants—to survive, to protect one another—and those desires almost kill them all. Jyn escapes with a lesson: love, and trust, and die. Then we cut forward fifteen years. Jyn’s in prison. We don’t know what she’s been doing all this time. She’s not enjoying any part of her shitty life. She’s not happy to be in prison—but she doesn’t do anything to escape. (Compare Steve McQueen’s similarly misanthropic character in the opening of The Great Escape, who makes his first attempt in the first five minutes.) When the Rebellion springs Jyn, we get a whole pile of information and back story: “Empire building a superweapon! Need to talk with your old buddy Saw! Put you back in prison! Also your father is alive and working on the Death Star!” All of which seems to be much more about who Jyn is (defined, for the most part, by the men in her life), rather than what she can do. For that matter, we don’t know what she can do. We’ve only seen her hit some rebels with a shovel, and sit moodily. Everyone in Jyn’s life is more important than her. And to make matters worse, we don’t get much of a sense of Jyn’s particularity until the firefight on Jedah—even then, she saves a kid, which is great, and beats up some stormtroopers, but that doesn’t characterize her as anything other than a generic “good guy.” The line about the blaster in Cassian’s ship is far more effective.

[One thing I think about when I start working on a story, on a character: what do they enjoy, what captivates them, about the life they’re living? Readers want to have fun; they like people who are having fun! The catch is, fun can mean a lot of things. Some people enjoy their own misery—the narrator of Notes from the Underground belongs in this category, as does Philip Marlowe. Some characters who seem to hate life (Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive) actually have a profound love of louche nihilistic disaffection. Self-hatred is a hard sell in a protagonist, unless you show that they like self hatred. If they don’t like at least some part of their existence, why haven’t they changed already? When we meet Baru, in The Traitor Baru Cormorant, she loves her family, and watching birds; even after she loses everything and ends up living in a crapsack colonialst world under constant threat of torture-murder, she really likes using people. Katniss loves her sister, enjoys hunting, and I get the impression at the beginning of The Hunger Games that she’d be perfectly happy to spend the rest of her life in District 12.]

So we need to make the opening about Jyn, not about Galen or Saw; to do this, we need to convey to the viewer what Jyn likes, what drives her emotionally. “Freedom” seems a natural choice. Jyn’s core song is “Me and Bobby McGee.” (Actually, it might be “One Jump Ahead” from Aladdin.) To keep the focus on Jyn Erso, we remove Galen: at the beginning of the film, Jyn thinks her Dad is dead. Jyn is sprung from jail, as seen, and taken to the comm room in Yavin 4.

Mon Mothma: “Welcome back to the rebellion.”

Jyn: “I’m not in the rebellion any more. I left.” (possibly “I rebelled” if you really want to save that line.)

MM: “And we rescued you.”

J: “Thanks for that. Why?”

MM: “Are you really asking why you were rescued?”

J: “I’ve been in prison a year and a half. There were other rebels in there. You came for me because you need something. What?”

MM’s uncomfortable, but the point can’t be denied: “When did you last hear from Saw Gerrera?”

J: (beat)

J: “That’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.” [Callback spotters in the audience go wild]

General Rando: “We think the Empire is building something. An enormous weapon. A planet killer. Saw Gerrera captured a defector from the project.”

J: “So, ask Saw. You’re friends.”

GR: “Not any more.”

MM: “Saw Gerrera split with the Rebellion. He’s an extremist. But he raised you. He will talk to you.”

J: “When I last saw him, he gave me a blaster and told me to fend for myself.”

GR: “We sent people to Saw; they came back in body bags. You fought together for ten years. He’ll meet with you, if he meets with anyone.”

J: “Why should I help you?”

MM: “Because we rescued you.”

J: “This is not my fight.”

GR: “You can help us, or we’ll send you right back to that cell.”

J: “If I do this, you’ll give me a ship, and let me go. And you won’t follow me.”

GR: (glowers, does that jaw muscle thing.)

MM: Very well.

Or, you know, something like that. Jyn has a clear core objective, with minimal pipe-laying: go to Jedah, get the plans, GTFO of the Rebellion forever. (I love that line about how flags don’t matter if you don’t look up.) Jyn knows Jedah is enormously dangerous; she knows Saw might kill her. But if this gets the Rebellion off her back, so be it. Jyn is a selfish loner; we know she has a heart of gold, but it’s buried deep down.

(I’d personally change the prison break a bit, so the rebels’ attack gives Jyn an opening to make a break for it—almost like what happens in the film, but with a slight change of emphasis so Jyn does most of the escaping herself before the rebels find her, thus giving her a chance to shine, and establishing her love of freedom and her desire to stay the hell out of the rebellion—and then change the Jedah sequences she she leads Cassian around, since after all this is Saw Gerrera territory and she’s the resident Saw expert—but we’re talking about least-effort fixes here, and you could almost fix the Mon Mothma conversation with Aftereffects and a rainy afternoon.)

This saves the revelation that Galen Erso is alive, and working for the Empire, for the next act, when we really need it. Saw’s religious awe at the coincidence of Jyn’s arrival makes a lot more sense now—how can the Ersos have come back to haunt me after all these years?—and plays in to the central theme of destiny-as-bear-trap. When Saw asks what Jyn wants, we should know the answer is, “freedom,” and “to be left alone.”

But the hologram changes everything.

Jyn learns her father is alive, and worked on the Death Star, and placed a flaw in the plans. He’ll help the rebels if they can extract him. Then Jedah blows up. Everyone leaves. We know things now that we did not know before, and the act break leaves us in profound uncertainty. What comes next?

Getting to Edou Should be a Conflict that Jyn Wins

The scene leading up to Our Heroes’ trip to Edou (sucky rain planet) is one of the most tangled and weird in the film. There has to be a transition scene bridging the two planets, but everyone wants to go to the same place. They have different reasons for getting there—Jyn wants to rescue Dad, but Cassian wants to kill him. But Cassian can’t say that. Yet a scene must have conflict! So the argument between Jyn and Cassian about Edou comes off as a “I say your three cent titanium tax doesn’t go too far enough” moment on the iMax screen. What if, instead, Cassian wants to go back to Yavin to report; Jyn argues, no, we have to rescue my father. Jyn used to want to disappear; now, she wants her family. Cassian thought Galen was dead—now he’s a living collaborator! Jyn claims her father was secretly sabotaging the Death Star—but, Cassian points out, the Death Star works just fine! Finally, as in the film, Cassian sets course for Edou. But when Cassian fills in Rebel High Command, General Rando orders him to execute Galen, not rescue him.  The Death Star is too dangerous. Erso must be destroyed. DUN DUN DUUUUUN!

Now, instead of frontloading Galen’s survival and Cassian’s betrayal, both enter the story as new information at an already tense moment, driving our heroes to dramatic action (and conflict). Yes, we lose a little by not having Cassian’s orders to kill Galen hanging over his entire relationship with Jyn, but then, Cassian’s introduction features him shooting a buddy in the back; we know he’ll do the same to Jyn if the situation requires. Having him receive the kill order here would feel like the dramatic flowering of a seeded tendency to Just Follow Orders and Do the Needful Thing. These two small fixes get us a lot, and all they ask in return is a reshot scene in a U-Wing cargo hold.

From there, everything proceeds exactly as shot. With one addition: Galen, dying, tells Jyn she can find the Death Star plans on Scarif. Jyn goes back, tries to rally the rebellion, fails, and the movie proceeds more or less to credits.

It’s not a perfect fix, but playing the film through in my head, I think these two changes make Jyn a clearer, more active character, and transform muddled, pipe-heavy scenes into lean, active ones. All the acts, at least, have purpose, and each phase of action feels markedly different from the one before.

There’s a risk, of course—Galen being alive again, then dead, might incur whiplash. But the current sequence is a bit whiplash-inducing too!

The Unrelated and Expensive Thing

The last of these really isn’t as important, and is a bit more expensive to fix, but, essentially: every single rebel on and orbiting Scarif in the final act wants that planetary shield down, from the moment the Rebel Fleet arrives and the Imperials slam it shut. Gold Wing spends most of the battle bombing the shield! Yet we spend at least three characters and about ten minutes of screen time trying to tell the Rebels that they need to take the shield down. Which they already knew! I mean, how else were they planning to get the plans off Scarif?

This doesn’t really matter, because it’s background logic; we know what Our Heroes need to do, and why it’s hard for them to do it, which is all drama requires. If I was writing this, I’d remove the planetary shield entirely; Our Heroes arrive under a Star Destroyer’s guns, which is plenty intimidating. Then, as the Rogues attack the beach, the Imperials have total air superiority—until the Rebel fleet jumps in. But the Rebels can’t help our Rogues much—because Star Destroyers (even small Victories like the ones over Scarif) have a lot of fighters on board. The shuttle blows up, plus Our Heroes are cut off by waves of stormtroopers, so they have to beam the plans up to the fleet; perhaps the base starts jamming rebel transmissions, and the jamming switch is the thing Chirrut has to turn off.

All this would be an easy fix on the page; removing a planetary shield is a job for the delete key, and most of the battle descriptions could continue unchanged. Unfortunately, the same fix on the big screen would cost tens of millions of SFX dollars. Perhaps we could make the sequence less clunky with a few changed lines of dialogue, though: Chirrut needs to turn off the jammer, and maybe the Mon Cal cruiser has to drop its *own* shields briefly, or hold still, or aim its antennas, or do something special, to receive such a huge file.

Still, action’s a lot easier to fix on the page.

Doing It Yourself

Obviously there are bigger fixes, but several of those (tie the characters more closely, give Jyn and Director Krennick some screen time to get to hate each other, have a more elaborate heist or war plot) amount to “shoot a different movie;” the question here is, having shot this one, how do you fix it? And I think these changes would be noticeable, dramatic improvements. In fact, I suspect some of them were even part of the director’s cut of the film. The Yavin IV briefing with Mon Mothma, in specific, is so overstuffed, and Jyn’s reaction to seeing her father is so powerful, that I wonder if Galen wasn’t presumed dead in the first act of the director’s cut, before executive interference.

This is a fun exercise when watching movies; it’s tremendously useful when approaching a manuscript. The more I’ve written, the smaller my structural edits tend to be; writing Two Serpents Rise I dragged work all over the damn place, moved a decent chunk of the climax to the first act, and rejoiced in demolition and architecture. Edits on Four Roads Cross were far more contained, focusing on stating character objectives directly for the reader, and adding more emotional resonance. Edits for Highway Kind, my next book, trended similarly: a few tight alterations fixed many issues at once. It’s easy to say “they should have made a different movie,” or “written a different book,” but it’s also useful to ask, “what would have made the book I read, or the movie I saw, work?”

5 Responses to “Least Effort Fixes for Rogue One”

  1. Cecilia Tan

    Having read the article about how they worked out all the action and its timing right down to how long it would take for bay doors to close and approach sequences for ships before they wrote any dialogue I’m fairly amazed the script they ended up with works at all. I feel the way you do comparing it to The Force Awakens — we somehow know and care about all the TFA characters (even Kylo Ren) within seconds of their appearances but here they’re ciphers. I almost thought that was intentional, like we shouldn’t get too attached to them because they’re not going to be in any future films, but having seen the recent talk about script development I think it’s more likely character was an afterthought in a script with a Forgone Conclusion. I still liked it but I cried remarkably little for a film with that much tragic but noble death in it. (For comparison I cried my eyes out at much worse films i.e. Keanu Reeves’s fantasy take on 47 Samurai.)

  2. TomB

    Let me play Devil’s Advocate for a moment:

    What if Jyn was in jail because she had lost her purpose? Didn’t like being in jail, but didn’t have anyplace much else to go – a bit despondent and hopeless. Then along come the Rebels and punch down the door, giving her a convenient opportunity to escape, even not having a place to go. Too much like work to try to break out entire (or maybe has failed before) but not too much to take an opportunistic shot.

    I identified with Daisy in TFA and Jyn in RO for precisely the same reason: Both leads were strong actresses. Daisy didn’t win me over with her brilliant dialogue or even the depth of her character’s reactions to situations, but instead by the simple intensity and focus she brought to the role. Jyn won me over by having a character which wasn’t prone to accepting sacred cows, commands from on high, or to trusting in the agendas of others. (Possibly something she’s seen much of with Krennic and her Father, then with her issues with Saw.)

    John Boyega, on the other hand, had hardly anything to work with around which to generate intensity. I found him New Hope Luke weak and looking to find a way to give the role some traction.

    Cassian could have been improved by showing more remorse and psychological trauma from shooting yet another friend or ally (when he blasted the guy who couldn’t climb). That would have foreshadowed why he decided to ignore his repeatedly given orders to kill Galen.

    K2-SO was charming for having the best lines and some good action moments. He also had a couple of moments of depth or at least awareness that added to his charm.

    Chirrut Imwe I liked because Donnie is pretty good and sells the role, but also because it shows us another type of Force user than simply a Jedi or Sith. That’s a big step (the EU had lots of them). He’s also a tragic character – not for being blind, but for having to experience the loss of the temple at Jedah. His walk through the firing was an inspiring scene and actually a good thought for someone truly in tune with the swirl and flow of the Force.

    Look to TFA – We have Han and Chewie, but we’ve made Chewie old and slow and a bit of a baby when wounded and Han… well, I hate to say it… but Han SHOULD HAVE shot first. Or perhaps just detonated a charge and knocked the bridge down. He should know the Vader story and he darn well knew what Ben did to Luke’s nascent Jedi…. that should have told him a normal individual, even Han Solo, wasn’t going to pull Ben back to the light. Han and Chewie were rather cheapened by TFA, methinks.

    The shield generator was a bit stupid. If you really wanted it down, aim a frigate at the gateway, abandon ship, and watch the fireworks. That’s in essence what they did with Star Destroyer billiards. It didn’t take much wit to see this tactic and I’m surprised the otherwise feisty and bold Mon Cal Admiral didn’t use this approach.

    As to why the on-planet Rebels needed to tell the fleet: They knew the shuttle had been lost (or likely would be) and that they weren’t going to be easily able to evac once they had the drive. Telling the fleet to drop the shield left them a plan B. They really should have had this already in the Op Plan, but one gets the impression since their mission was impromptu and unsanctioned that they didn’t have an Op Plan and the fleet didn’t really either. They went, then the fleet went, and everyone was making stuff up as they went along. That explains why the battle over Scarif was such a muddle – nobody planned it – the strike force was ad hoc and off the reservation, the fleet movement was impromptu, and the Imperials weren’t expecting the attack or the fleet and didn’t really have a plan to deal with the threats as such (other than ‘send TIE fighters’ and ‘kill anyone on the ground’).

    There are bigger issues to the overall plot:
    a) No item as important as the death star has only one set of plans. Even a prototype would have some earlier plans filed somewhere else, if for no other reason than that if Scarif is attacked, the plans can simply be melted.
    b) When did Galen lose his brain? Did he think Krennic wouldn’t hunt down his daughter just because he said it? There’s no way he could depend on Krennic to keep his word, so him working on the death start was a horrible decision where he sold out his values of pacifism for nothing.
    c) The show made the Rebel leaders and generals look weak and fearful in RO, yet in a New Hope they seemed pretty ready to try to fight. Would they really change so fast? Seems doubtful.
    d) Mon Mothma got the file from the fleet with the plans. Why in New Hope would she then say ‘Many Bothan Spies….’ when she should have been thanking a Rebel special operations action? (Answer: This one isn’t fixable without an edit of NH)

    At least at the end of RO, I could feel that the characters had an arc that I could sort of describe:
    Jyn – Lost family, had her guardian boot her out in the cold, had some problems with authority, and didn’t really have a life goal or aim, then got a chance to save her Dad and then carry out his final wish and in doing so, become someone that meant something. Found friends and respect along the way.
    Cassian – Seen too much, done too much evil in the service of good, traumatized a bit, and wanting to have something that makes all the evil worthwhile – which he found in Jyn and the mission.
    K2S0 – Hangin out with Cassian, doing what he’s told, but having his 0.02 Credits on the subject (and BTW, the Rebels need to capture more of these bots as he was lethal…).
    Chirrut Imwe – Temple priest or whatever exactly he was, force user, one of the last protectors of the Temple and Jedah. Possibly one of the least preachy and annoying force users yet seen in the franchise as well as an incredible fighter for a guy who didn’t have a lightsaber to deflect blasters or cut people in half. Died making the play that helped facilitate the plans being liberated (a good end, a worthy death).
    Chirrut’s Buddy – Temple guard, lots of anger to work out on the Empire, got a chance to do something important with his life

    Contrast that with TFA and I got Ridley’s arc and Boyega had a weak one (excape from Empire and try to become something different). Ben was mostly whiny and a poor villain – he had some cool Force powers, but he was like an angsty teenager with anger control issues. Poe had an understandable arc (ace pilot, survivor, Rebel agent) but really didn’t have much dramatic meat to work with.

    There’s more to come after TFA, unlike RO. That’s maybe why TFA feels so much like a starting point, rather than something complete as a story unit itself. RO at least felt complete.

    • Scubafinch

      @TomB Some good points, but this one:

      “d) Mon Mothma got the file from the fleet with the plans. Why in New Hope would she then say ‘Many Bothan Spies….’ when she should have been thanking a Rebel special operations action? (Answer: This one isn’t fixable without an edit of NH)”.

      Mon Mothma wasn’t in A New Hope but Return of the Jedi, and the “Bothan Spies” quote refers to the second Death Star.

  3. Vladimir Barash

    Wonderful post, Max!

    I think your fix suggestions are good; I also think it’s interesting to think about the entire role of Rogue One in the Star Wars canon (I know, this is a big one). For me, it really felt like it was playing a role the Lucas prequels *should* have played, but did not. A missing puzzle piece. In the context of this framing, I wasn’t particularly worried about Jyn’s weak character motivation at first. Towards the end of the film, however, I started to get annoyed about how passive & reactive her character was.

    I am not sure if making Galen a reveal would have really worked for me, personally, but I see the dramatic value in it. It just seems so obvious that the Empire would have co-opted him in the end that I would not consider it much of a reveal, maybe? I don’t know.

    I saw the movie once, and can’t escape the “tabletop one-shot” mental framing (I believe you applied the West End D6 tabletop game framing to TFA in a previous post :)). I’m thinking less of West End with RO and more of Fate. The characters in the movie felt bound by very powerful aspects with a bajillion Fate Points to spend on those aspects. So they a) succeeded against improbable odds, but b) had a frustratingly limited amount of free will. This felt both dramatically exciting and character-level disappointing. I want to see more Jyn! More Chirrut and Baze! More K-2SO! But those characters are retired, the players have moved on to another campaign. :/

    Anyway, this is all to say a) I like your fixes, b) I am interested in the role RO plays in the SW canon and how that role affects character motivation! I will now end this rambly post and do some actual work 🙂

  4. Marie Brennan

    Ever since my high school fencing classes I’ve though of least-effort fixes as “angulation” — a thing you do when you’ve gotten into close quarters with your opponent and don’t have enough room to get point arrival with your blade in a normal fashion (“point arrival” being what you need to depress the tip if you’re fencing tournament foil or epee; slashing only counts in sabre). You’re working within constrained space, so you break the line of your arm and come in at an odd angle in order to hit your target. In fiction, that’s me looking for what angle I can use to make my story strike home without having to move much else around.

    Rogue One frustrated me so much because it’s clear somebody tried to do a bunch of fixes on it, and as a result we got a combination of stump ends from the original version and insufficiently-developed inserts for the new version. All the foundations for a great story are there, but I’m with you: I wasn’t really invested until Scarif, and the story did nothing to make me care about the characters a tenth as much as I did in TFA. My own suggested fixes (hero side, villain side) would have required a lot more alteration than yours would have, but we agree on the core problems, I think.


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