On Nov. 12, Disney+ launched with a major offering for subscribers: the first live-action Star Wars show and the most meme-able new TV character on the internet. Executive producers Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni’s The Mandalorian, which stars Pedro Pascal as a mysterious bounty hunter, fueled Disney+ to impressive signup numbers (the service now reaches more than 60.5 million paid subscribers) and was rewarded with 15 Emmy nominations, including a drama series nom that is rare for a sci-fi show. Filoni, who for years has masterminded many of Star Wars‘ popular animated shows, is also nominated this year for Star Wars: Resistance. The pair took a break from postproduction on season two (due out in October) to recall keeping Baby Yoda (which they call The Child) a secret and George Lucas’ reaction to the series so far.
Go back to the morning of Nov. 12, before The Mandalorian debuted. Were you ready for the internet to explode with Baby Yoda memes?
DAVE FILONI I don’t think anything can prepare you for the reaction to be so all-encompassing. It seemed like everyone just fell in love with this little guy that we had known from the shoot. The first person who really clocked that it was going to be bigger than I realized was [castmember] Werner Herzog. We were so focused on making it and bringing it to life, but Werner was like, “This is really magical.”
Keeping The Child a secret meant not allowing merchandise to be made early, which left money on the table for Disney. Jon, what were those conversations like?
JON FAVREAU I thought it was very important to establish that there were going to be surprises. When you are promoting a film, you are putting your best stuff out there in the marketing campaign because you want everybody to show up that Friday. Television is different. You want to be able to build. You want word-of-mouth to spread. You want people to tune in and know that something is going to happen that they are going to want to talk about.
At the end of episode five, “The Gunslinger,” a mysterious figure shows up with spurs. Fans quickly noted that Boba Fett had similar spurs in the original trilogy. How much do you debate when to put in teases like that?
FILONI We try to layer in things in the universe of Star Wars to make it feel authentic, but also to give a little nod, clues, whatever they may be. They can be small to large. You can look at a movie and you recognize Club Obi-Wan in [Indiana Jones and the] Temple of Doom, and that’s a different kind of wink. Our things are always a little more in-universe. Jon and I love that stuff because we are fans. We both keep our eyes open for things that we like or little connective things that might mean something to people like us.
Dave, you are very close with George Lucas and are considered by many fans to be his heir apparent. What kind of feedback did he give you about season one?
FILONI Not a tremendous amount. We talk about other stuff. When I talk with him, I like to get more knowledge. He’ll give me some reminders, especially before I shoot something, about how many setups I should try to get in a day, and I might rack his brain for certain things about how to cover a scene. He’s been very complimentary. I think he’s enjoyed the show, and he said once [that] now he gets to watch it as a fan and watch it as a viewer. My job is to bring that knowledge forward and pass on what I’ve learned from him in every discipline to Jon and to the creative departments.
Given that your production involves a lot of virtual sets, will that make it easier to get back to filming a potential third season amid COVID-19 restrictions?
FAVREAU The fact that the set is much more contained is a benefit, because you can limit the number of people. A lot of the people controlling it are doing it remotely from what we call the Brain Bar, which is a bank of gaming computers, essentially. The amount of people near the camera could be much smaller than [usual]. We also shoot a lot outside, which is helpful, too. We build to a moment in filming more like an animated production, where we have a lot of storyboards, a lot of discussions and scouting in virtual reality. We use cinematic tools in VR much the same way we did for The Lion King and The Jungle Book. A lot of times the actors you are seeing on the screen aren’t actually there on set.
Emmy nominee Giancarlo Esposito made a big impact with limited screen time this season. Did you make a promise that he’d have even more to do in season two?
FAVREAU I had worked with him on Jungle Book, and we worked on a show together called Revolution. That was me being able to reach out to him and call in a favor. We knew that he would bring a theatrical nature but also an emotional grounding, because he is such a fantastic actor. I think Star Wars relies upon the actors to really ground it, because it could otherwise feel like something frivolous. You really need a couple of heavy hitters in there to bring reality to the world.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And The Odds Are…
Perhaps the biggest twist of the drama race is the inclusion of The Mandalorian. The Disney+ Star Wars series from Jon Favreau, part Western and part IP machine, gave the new platform Baby Yoda, heat for the young streamer and, now, a daunting 15-nomination haul at its first Emmys. As the only freshman series in a race full of aging and returning nominees and even one former winner (The Handmaid’s Tale), the element of surprise could certainly work in its favor. But are TV Academy voters ready to embrace a space opera in which the titular lead rarely shows his face in the night’s most competitive category? Game of Thrones proved that fantasy was not off the table, but the former Emmy champ was undeniably embedded in the zeitgeist. This probably isn’t The Mandalorian‘s year. — MICHAEL O’CONNELL
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.