John Swartz has always been a bit of a rebel.
But the odds of a kid from Columbus actually growing up to fight the Empire were about as likely as those of a certain Tatooine farmboy. Fortunately fate had big plans for both.
Though not exactly a household name, Swartz’s role in the Star Wars universe couldn’t be more complete, short of an action figure. As a producer at Lucasfilm, he’s had a hand in shaping the past four cinematic installments amid impossibly high expectations, and a fair amount of controversy. You can’t exactly kill Han Solo and Luke Skywalker without rubbing a few folks the wrong way. And even bringing back our favorite scoundrel later this month with the second story outside the iconic episodic structure hasn’t been without its challenges on both sides of the camera.
But you’d never get a hint of apprehension or ego from Swartz. Even after peppering him with questions requiring peak geek knowledge of minutiae, he was as cool as Lando Calrissian’s new cape.
Despite the obvious obstacles, Rogue One probably posed the greatest risk in ways nearly too numerous to recount. It was the first story to break from the familiar saga. It required faithfully reconstructing sets no one had seen in 40 years. It was a story about the origin of the Jedi, without any Jedi.
“There are certain elements that are inherent to the saga movies. They’re always going to be dark side versus light side, Force-centric stories,” explained Swartz. “It was very freeing to know we could make a story in a completely different context and sort of throw out everything you assume about a Star Wars movie, then add it back in slowly. We could make a genre movie—a heist film, a spy thriller, a war film.”
Executive producer and fellow Midwesterner John Knoll suggested the backstory of the Death Star and the plot to steal the plans. (Knoll made a name for himself in visual effects, including work on the previous Star Wars prequels—you know, after he and his brother Thomas created a little application back in the ’80s called Photoshop.) That’s when the ideas and artwork for Rogue One really took off.
“We landed on that story, about a father and daughter. The father was the architect of the Death Star, the flaw was intentional, he would be redeemed in her eyes, and both become heroes in the process,” he recalled. “We were going to tell a story with characters people didn’t know centered around events everyone did. Stealing the Death Star plans is the first story told in Star Wars in the opening crawl, before A New Hope even starts. But it was terrifying as well. We had to update it where we could, but also not break what made it special.”
Aside from modern visual effects, there were more subtle departures from the expected. Criticisms of heavy-handed political subplots in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are seldom heard regarding Rogue One. Not unlike Ron Moore’s less recent reimagination of Battlestar Galactica, the first Star Wars story was rooted in the ’70s, but not bound by it. Realistic battlefield cinematography of a beach assault and an ancient city under military occupation created a historic and contemporary context that didn’t seem so long ago or far, far away. It illustrated what science fiction visionaries from Jules Verne to Gene Roddenberry also achieved, providing a productive place to discuss real world issues—where the good guys and the bad guys aren’t always so clear.
“We had early conversations about whether or not we could kill the characters. It was a question we posed to Disney and they were very supportive, which is not something you get to do in big franchise movies,” Swartz noted. “We knew immediately it would differentiate Rogue One from the other Star Wars movies, and many blockbusters out there.”
Also unlike most movie franchises, Rogue One’s practical effects and classic camera techniques stitched the story and characters seamlessly together into a finished film with a timeless quality. Cassian Andor’s back alley introduction on Jedha City is every bit as dramatic as Orson Welles emerging from the shadowy streets of postwar Vienna in The Third Man—yet Andor’s easy execution of an injured informant is far less ambiguous than whether Han shot first. It’s often forgotten in hindsight, the idea of breaking out of the familiar Star Wars saga was once regarded by fans as its own sort of suicide mission.
“If the characters were going to make the ultimate sacrifice at the end of the film, we had to work backward from that,” he recalled. “It was so important as we got deeper into the development process that they each had something for which they had to atone, a need for redemption.”
The commercial and critical acclaim of Rogue One provided a prototype for Solo, an idea already underway before its predecessor was even in the can.
“There were a lot of projects being discussed as Rogue was in development, including Solo. Larry Kasdan has been an integral part of Star Wars and this is a story he wanted to tell,” Swartz said. (Among his many credits, Lawrence Kasdan was co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back. So naturally the origin story of the legendary smuggler was irresistible.) “With the saga films and the Star Wars stories, there is a specific feel that stems from the filmmakers involved. But Rogue One opened the door to telling a different kind of story. That’s what you’re going to see in Solo.”
Even after a streak of success, Swartz hasn’t forgotten how his first foray into filmmaking nearly fizzled, and the serendipity that changed his life. He and some friends whipped up a short called Detonate for Ohio University’s annual “Shootout” about the accidental activation of a bomb built into a suitcase. Oh, and it was a musical, all the more impressive having been entirely written, shot, and edited by amateurs in just two days. The only rub was that their project came in five minutes past the deadline and was disqualified.
Disappointed and undeterred, they submitted it to MTVU’s Best Film on Campus competition in 2004. Detonate eventually earned top honors, selected as a finalist by internet audiences, and recognized by industry judges Joel Schumacher, Allison Anders, and Gus Van Sant. (Swartz’s follow-up feature Relative Obscurity also won the best of festival award, the Silver Chris, at the Columbus International Film + Video Festival in 2007.)
“That ridiculous 48-hour short essentially made my career,” he chided. “We only submitted it because we were disqualified, just because we wanted to show it. But we won and I got an internship at MTV Films, and returned to work there for two years after college.”
The position proved pivotal and Swartz’s enthusiasm didn’t go unnoticed. His reputation and connections soon earned him an assistant role under Kathleen Kennedy, who cofounded Amblin Entertainment with Steven Spielberg and her future husband Frank Marshall, making her one of the highest-grossing producers in the industry. Every time you see that little logo of Elliot and E.T. on a bike riding across the moon? Yep, that’s Amblin. (For everyone who thinks Swartz’s success is simply an exception, it’s also worth noting Kennedy was once Spielberg’s secretary.)
Kennedy’s move to Lucasfilm, ultimately becoming company president, put Swartz in the right place at the right time to make his worth known. Fetching coffee isn’t part of his job description anymore, but his unassuming Ohio upbringing means he’d probably offer you one anyway.
“What I find really remarkable about Midwesterners is how they pursue their passions. We have so many transplants in Hollywood. It’s amazing how often I come across people from Ohio or surrounding states that have all pursued the same dream,” Swartz explained. “It’s a hard thing to quantify, but you do recognize the same qualities in those people—a Midwestern work ethic. They’re recognized for the different perspective they bring to what they do. They’re honest, hard-working, and it’s a great network that you find out here. Where they grew up, and how they grew up, still has an impact on their success.”
Solo: A Star Wars Story hits theaters everywhere May 25.