Werner Herzog already qualified as the most unlikely cinema citizen to visit the Star Wars universe since the late Alec Guinness was wearing Obi-Wan Kenobi’s robes and on Wednesday night the German filmmaking icon also became the Jedi brand’s most unexpectedly impassioned apostle.
Herzog, the esteemed director of Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, hailed The Mandalorian as “cinema back at its best” and praised its primary creator, executive producer Jon Favreau, as a force to be reckoned with in filmmaking.
It was heady stuff for an elder statesman of film who concedes that he’s never actually watched a Star Wars movie. That didn’t make a difference when the 76-year-old accepted Favreau’s surprise invitation to join the new show’s cast to portray a key figure of menace in the pilot. Why? The reason, the irascible filmmaker told a packed El Capitan screening of The Mandalorian, was the vision and voice of Favreau, whom the Munich auteur views as a kindred spirit and as a gifted peer.
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“When you invited me, I knew in less than 60 seconds that this was going to be big,” Herzog said during an onstage panel after Favreau asked him to share some reflections about his experience on the project. “I saw the universe. I saw costumes. I saw the round horizon. I saw the spacecraft. I saw an entire universe. And I knew this was really big.”
Herzog finished that thought with a playful observation that might have resonated better with Guinness, the legendary British actor who was far less charmed by his payday-driven foray into the Jedi storytelling: “Secondly, when Jon described a little bit about the character — yes, it’s a dark, dark sort of figure that shouldn’t be trusted at all — I knew it was going to be easy.”
Herzog’s winking observation got a big laugh from the crowd and Favreau, too, but the senior filmmaker quickly toggled back into his impassioned mode.
“I enjoyed every single moment of it,” Herzog said. “And I think it’s beyond what we are seeing on the screen. It’s cinema back at its best. On the big fantasy films, actors were acting almost like robots in front of green screens, you didn’t see the world that you were inhabiting. Now [with The Mandalorian] the actors see the entire universe in which they are operating and the camera does the same. The camera sees it as well so cinema is back to its very life, where it had been. And it becomes very, very Iivey it’s not robotic. It’s got very, very intense life in it.”
Herzog was referring in part to the innovative real-time rendering system devised by Industrial Light & Magic using some conceptual approaches and tech advancements from the world of video game production. The system allowed actors to “see” the digitally augmented environs around them in a new way by using video screens to extend the set with virtual reality representations that give the actors a sense of the place and space around them.
The show’s title star, Pedro Pascal, also praised the visual wizardry that helped the actors sense their surroundings in a profoundly upgraded way. “You wouldn’t believe how little they leave to the imagination,” Pascal said with a wry summary of the contextual benefits.
Herzog’s effusive praise of Favreau went beyond the gizmo innovations, however.
“It sounds like science fiction but it is way beyond that because what you’re creating goes beyond that — what you’re creating is an entire universe,” Herzog said addressing Favreau. “And this universe is filled with new mythology. Not very often in cultural history have we had new mythologies. We had it with ancient Greek mythology, we had it in antiquity, but very rarely…and it’s also a world filled of fantasy, full of fever dreams, full of new characters you never expected so it’s a wonderful possibility for filmmaking. [There] can’t be a better universe than the one that you inhabit with your characters.”
Herzog’s praise clearly had a big impact on Favreau, who is having a banner year with the mega-success of The Lion King and his limited-but-lively acting work opposite Tom Holland in the Sony crowdpleaser Spider-Man: Far From Home. “This is already the best night of my life,” Favreau mused after the earnest Herzog spoke. Favreau was joined on stage by cast members Pascal, Herzog, Gina Carano, Carl Weathers, Emily Swallow, Omid Abtahi, Ming-Na Wen, and Julia Jones. Also on hand, Dave Filoni, Favreau’s creative copilot on the project (and director of the pilot) and Bryce Dallas Howard, another director for Season 1.
The evening was opened by Kathleen Kennedy, who recounted the giddy first meeting she had with Favreau regarding the project, which are an interstellar ode to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and 1970s, before bringing the panelists out.
The Mandalorian is a classic gunfighter tale of a taciturn loner but the big-budget Lucasfilm production is also riding shotgun for the biggest entertainment initiative for the Walt Disney Co. in decades. The series (which will post new episodes every Friday starting with the second episode which lands later this week) is the centerpiece offering for Disney+, which launched this week with big numbers and some technical bumps.
The Mandalorian is set in the years after Return of the Jedi and the fiery funeral of Darth Vader on the forest moon of Endor. The Emperor has been (literally) overthrown and lawless has quickly filled the vacuum left by the toppled regime in many parts of the galaxy. Among the menacing figures in the underworld is the helmeted mystery man called the Mandalorian who is a ruthless bounty hunter from an intimidating race that famously yielded the cloned bounty hunters Boba Fett and Jango Fett, both major fan-favorite characters over the brand’s four decades.
Herzog’s effusive praise may have been inspired on some level by the recent criticisms leveled at Disney’s other sequel-driven spectacle brand, Marvel Studios. When The Irishman director bemoaned the lack of cinematic value represented by Marvel Studios and its formulaic spectacle films (first in an Empire interview and then in a New York Times op-ed piece) his critique was confined to superhero factory. But Favreau directed the brand’s first hits, Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and is closely associated with the studio’ early success.
By any measure, The Mandalorian is already a historic success for Disney+ and time will tell if Herzog is correct when he suggests that the first live-action Star Wars television series in history also represents a cinematic milestone as well.
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