Most people working at Disney+ had no idea this was coming.
When the second-season finale of The Mandalorian aired on Dec. 18, 2020, a mid-credits scene revealed a spinoff series titled The Book of Boba Fett. That this happened just a week after Disney had revealed 10 new Star Wars shows in development during its Investor Day livestream made the announcement all the more baffling — didn’t the company just present its Star Wars slate? Is The Mandalorian canceled? Confused reporters flooded the email inboxes of equally confused publicists, and showrunner Jon Favreau was quickly booked on Good Morning America to clear things up.
“Even Disney didn’t know we were going to drop it like that,” marvels The Book of Boba Fett co-showrunner Robert Rodriguez. “I got to see the inner workings, and [Favreau and writer-producer-director Dave Filoni] kept this a secret from everybody.”
Well, not quite everybody (the studio’s top executives and business affairs were in the loop), but still … that Disney+ would make a show that even shocked many at Disney+ indicates the level of secrecy at the heart of Favreau and Filoni’s closely guarded corner of the Star Wars galaxy — not to mention their rather surprising amount of freedom, given the number of Star Wars theatrical projects developed under talents ranging from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins that have buckled under the weight of reported creative differences. It’s a privilege the duo undoubtedly has earned given The Mandalorian is credited for both reinvigorating the Star Wars brand and successfully launching Disney+ in 2019. The series became the first non-Netflix show to top Nielsen’s weekly streaming chart during its second season, helping propel the nascent streamer to more than 100 million subscribers globally in less than two years.
Now comes The Book of Boba Fett (premiering Dec. 29) as the first of many post-Mandalorian live-action Star Wars series out of Disney+’s gate. The Mandalorian season three and Obi-Wan Kenobi are landing in 2022. But Boba Fett could be key to helping prove the franchise can successfully expand Star Wars TV beyond Mando and his instantly iconic ward, Baby Yoda, and Disney undoubtedly hopes the show will provide another buzzy jolt to Disney+’s subscriber growth, which has turned sluggish in recent months (as has been the case for many other streaming services).
Boba Fett was designed by Star Wars creator George Lucas, art director Joe Johnston and legendary illustrator Ralph McQuarrie for 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. The terse, green-helmeted bounty hunter was based loosely on Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Westerns (right down to jangling spurs on his boots). Fett then suffered a rather ignoble death by falling into the toothy Sarlacc pit in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Yet after purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney had other plans for Fett rather than letting the character “slowly digest for 1,000 years.” A Boba Fett feature film was put into development, with Simon Kinberg, Josh Trank and James Mangold reportedly attached over the years, yet the movie never got off the ground.
Fett finally was resurrected in The Mandalorian season two episode “The Tragedy,” with New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison (who portrayed Fett’s father, Jango, in the Star Wars prequels) reprising the role. Favreau approached his longtime friend Rodriguez to direct the key episode. “He crushed it,” Favreau says. “We loved his interpretation of the character, and I pitched him and the studio the idea of doing more.”
For the 53-year-old Rodriguez, a longtime Star Wars fan, the experience was like being inducted into the Jedi Order. “I can’t even say this is a dream come true because I wouldn’t have even thought to dream this,” Rodriguez says during a sit-down at his Troublemaker Studios in Austin. The Alita: Battle Angel and Sin City director is arguably a perfect fit for Favreau and Filoni’s Star Wars hub, even though the devoutly independent filmmaker says he normally doesn’t like to get involved with franchises unless they’re his creation (such as his four Spy Kids films).
“I usually avoid premier properties — you’ll never be able to please everybody, it’s a losing game,” Rodriguez says. “I’d rather go do something I’ve created so nobody can say, ‘Hey, that’s wrong because …’ I created it, so it can be anything I want it to be. I love that freedom. That changed with Boba because he was a character that was always underserved. It was a character way more popular than he should have been, based on [his limited screen time]. So it’s almost like starting with an original character. You can kind of do anything you want, so long as you make him cool and don’t make him a buffoon.”
Filoni, who headed the acclaimed The Clone Wars animated series, has a theory as to why fans have remained fascinated with Fett despite him having only six minutes of screen time in the original trilogy. “I think the design of the costume, especially the helmet, is iconic,” he says. “The details, from the dent on the crown of the helmet, the emblems, scuff marks, cloak and braids all spoke of a greater story and adventure that the character had experienced. I think it was always fun to imagine what those adventures were. Now we get to tell some of them.”
If the Book of Boba Fett teaser trailers released so far seem a bit less than epic, it’s due to a deliberate act of restraint: The producers have only revealed footage from the seven-episode season’s opening minutes. “We can’t use the second half of the first episode because it gives so much away,” Rodriguez says. But the basics are that Boba and his assassin partner Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen) have taken over Jabba the Hutt’s palace on Tatooine, a move that sends them on a journey into the previously unseen Star Wars underworld of crime families.
“Boba gives us a direct connection to the Star Wars saga since he was involved in that story,” Filoni says. “This creates a nice crossover point for both classic characters and new characters. Much of The Mandalorian was new, or had not been seen onscreen. Through Boba Fett, we can weave some of those characters and tales together using a character we know but don’t know a lot about.”
Rodriguez adds that the character specifically “invites a whole world from the underworld in with him.
“Things turn up you don’t expect, you see things we couldn’t believe we got to do,” he says. “Every episode has big surprises.”
The producers’ hints combine to suggest some familiar faces (or helmets) might be showing up, especially if the series not only flashes back to how Fett escaped the Sarlacc pit, as fans hope, but, just perhaps, to other moments during Fett’s unseen time during the original trilogy-era as well.
The Book of Boba Fett is unusual for a franchise action series in that it stars a 60-year-old (Morrison) and a 58-year-old (Wen, who somehow looks like she still gets carded in bars). “You never feel like they’re an older cast; they’re so youthful and energized,” Rodriguez says. “Tem and I work out together — he really is Boba Fett. And for Wen, I would design whole sequences just to end on her and the look she would give Boba because she’s so badass. Tem knows this is his moment and she knows this is her moment, and when you get actors like that, they go for it and it’s palpable.”
Adds Filoni: “Tem brings the intensity and sense of weathered experience that a well-traveled bounty hunter needs while maintaining a sense of fun and adventure. He had more dialogue than Fett has ever had to deliver, but it’s also a very physical role, and Tem was there for it, training and enduring a lot of action.”
Wen’s character was introduced in the first season of Mandalorian and then was seemingly killed off. “There was no ‘seemingly,'” she says with a laugh. “It was very clear at the time.” But Favreau and Filoni had a change of heart and decided to concoct a storyline whereby Boba revived Fennec and the duo teamed up. When Wen made her deal to return, she thought she was simply signing on to more Mandalorian. “They’re so secretive that when dealing with the contracts, there isn’t even a title for the show; it’s all under pseudonym,” she says. “I naturally assumed I was doing Mandalorian season three until I showed up on set.” Wen adds that the spinoff feels more gritty than the other series. “We’ve always dealt with the Empire and the Jedis; this was about these gangster families and has a rawness to it,” she says. “It’s quite different from The Mandalorian, which is more like a Western.”
Part of the show’s challenge will be distinguishing Fett from Disney+’s other stoic, helmeted bounty hunter. Mando was a character inspired by Boba Fett without technically being Boba Fett, right down to Mando freezing his captured fugitives in carbonite. One difference will come as a bit of a relief: Unlike Mando, whose creed mandates that he conceal his identity, Fett doesn’t seem to have any particular qualms about removing his helmet, freeing the spinoff from the flagship series’ oft-frustrating insistence on hiding star Pedro Pascal’s face.
Rodriguez also points out that Fett’s scant prior screen time leaves a lot of wiggle room for invention. The filmmakers seized onto King Conan and The Godfather as specific inspirations. “Boba bites off more than he can chew, and we definitely do not make it easy for him,” Rodriguez says. “It’s easy to sit on the throne; it’s not easy to stay on. So what’s it like for a bounty hunter to have to suddenly become a leader? Where’s the push and pull in that? What is he trying to become? We really go in depth into the character.”
For Rodriguez, joining Star Wars has roots going back decades, and his career has intersected with the franchise in unexpected ways. While many genre filmmakers cite The Empire Strikes Back as an influential favorite, Rodriguez was perhaps even more impacted by an hourlong making-of special about Empire that aired on CBS. A 12-year-old Rodriguez taped the special on a VCR and “wore out that tape for years,” he says. “That’s really what got me into filmmaking. Just seeing the craftsmanship the movie took. There’s no CG — it was all models and stop motion. It made me want to go do that stuff.”
Fast-forward to 2001, when Rodriguez was sound mixing Spy Kids at Skywalker Ranch. Since his debut with 1992’s El Mariachi, which he famously shot for just $7,000, the filmmaker has typically worn many hats — IMDb credits him with crew positions ranging from soundtrack composer (on 17 projects) to editor (30 projects) to camera operator (11 projects). When Lucas heard a young filmmaker was mixing his film’s sound himself at the Marin County studio, he invited Rodriguez up to his office for a chat.
“George said, ‘You should check out these digital cameras I’m using’ and showed me some greenscreen tricks — and that’s what got me into shooting digital,” Rodriguez says. “He was a mentor at a stage where I went from doing films like From Dusk Till Dawn and Desperado to doing [the pioneering all-greenscreen-filmed] Sin City.”
In addition to sharing a love of technical innovation, Lucas and Rodriguez also have in common a sort of insider-outsider status — they strive to make popular films for wide audiences while maintaining their independence and control in hubs far from Hollywood. Rodriguez shoots most of his work in Austin (though Boba Fett was in Los Angeles), helping fuel the region’s production boom.
As Rodriguez tells it, his Lucas-inspired segue into digital filmmaking eventually led to getting hired to direct writer-producer James Cameron’s long-gestating passion project Alita: Battle Angel in 2019, a live-action anime adaptation that was widely praised for its CG work (and became the biggest production ever shot in Texas). “Jon saw Alita and that got me into Mandalorian,” Rodriguez says. “But the only reason I started doing high-tech filmmaking way back when, in Austin of all places, was because of George.”
So, as a certain Sith Lord once intoned, the circle is now complete. Asked if he discussed The Book of Boba Fett with Lucas during shooting, Rodriguez goes still. “I can’t tell you,” he says, and you don’t need Jedi mind powers to figure that one out.
Filming for The Book of Boba Fett began in late November 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic, which played to Rodriguez’s strengths as an indie filmmaker accustomed to plowing forward and improvising amid uncertain conditions. “I came out of the gate firing away — ‘Let’s shoot, shoot, shoot because we might not be here next week, we might get shut down,'” he says. “But we never got shut down. So I was showing sequences already edited to Jon and Dave after the first three weeks, and they were like, ‘I can’t believe how much you shot already.’ We kept shooting every day like it was going to be our last day.”
The pandemic also impacted the show’s creative, as it incentivized the team to provide some escapist relief for fans. “It was a bleak time that spurred us on even more to just make everything as entertaining as possible,” Rodriguez says. While the budget for the project isn’t known, it’s likely somewhere in the ballpark of the $100 million Disney spent for The Mandalorian’s debut.
Rodriguez wound up directing nearly half of the episodes himself — three of the “big ones,” as he puts it — as well as voicing two characters (including The Mayor, whose voiceover is heard in the trailer). Before shooting sequences, Wen says the father of five would pre-vis ideas by filming with action figures in his backyard with his kids — once again drawing on his 12-year-old self — then show the footage to the actors with sound effects.
Rodriguez had to adhere to certain Star Wars standards, however, which sometimes meant coloring inside the lines. “There was nobody going, ‘These are the rules.’ It was more like me saying, ‘This color feels very safe and we want it to feel more dangerous, so can we change it to this color?'” he says. “And they go, ‘These are the colors we’ve used, so let’s try one of these out.’ But I can’t reveal what.”
So revealing a color would be a spoiler?
“It’ll be evident when you see the show.”
Looking forward, Rodriguez has recently finished filming an action-thriller, Hypnotic, starring Ben Affleck. He’s developing a modern-day, female-led Zorro reboot directed by his sister, Rebecca Rodriguez. He also recently signed an overall deal with HBO Max and has partnered with Cinedigm to relaunch his self-curated El Rey cable channel, which focused on indie genre titles, as a streaming service. A much-speculated Alita sequel also is still possible. “Jim and I talked about it recently, and we’re still very interested,” he says. “I told him, ‘Let me deliver Boba and then let’s figure out a pitch.'”
As for bounty hunter’s future, it’s never been clear whether Boba Fett is meant to be a limited or a recurring series and, no surprise, the producers aren’t saying. Rodriguez thinks there’s a good chance this is only the beginning of the Fett’s return, though the director is currently signed for the debut season alone. “If people really love it, I’m sure they’d want to make more,” he says.
And if they do, fans might literally be the first to know.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.