Conversations for Change: NCWIT Summit: The Power of Storytelling by Dave Filoni

MO PHONG: And we’re not done yet, so it was a great reminder for all of us that we also have a role to play and we are in the role of changing lives. So this is super important, and we are so fortunate today to have another speaker from the entertainment industry and prominent creator of positive and empowering female characters of the Star Wars franchise, Dave Filoni. Dave is an animation director, voice actor, writer and animator. He is most known for his work on Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The latter series surpassed a rare industry milestone of 100 episodes and have won four Emmy Awards. Congratulations. [audience applause] Presently, he is the executive producer on the series Star Wars Rebels. So please welcome, Dave Filoni, who will talk to us about the power of storytelling in Hollywood. [audience applause] [upbeat bass music]

DAVE FILONI: Thank you so much for having me, it’s funny that voice actor is listed, I basically play dying stormtroopers. So, here’s how I’m gonna go, look out, ah! Like, that’s usually me, it’s not, it’s not like this exceptional skill but suddenly I’m a voice actor, so thank you I mean, I’ll take it. [audience laughing] Thank you for that great introduction, I have to say it was a little overwhelming being here and hearing about all the technology and women’s roles and expanding roles, it’s something that we’ve been discussing, frankly at Lucasfilm since I got there in 2005. It’s just something when you’re storytelling and maybe it’s a social unconscious, you look at the world and there’s just a lack of balance. And we talk a lot in our stories about balance in the force. And I think maybe that’s what we find manifesting, maybe this organization is another way that things are finding the balance. And we’re in desperate need of balance in our world today. When I look at Star Wars dating back to 1977, we have one of the most probably famous female characters of all time, in all film, Princess Leia. A lot of people I’ve talked to in recent days, have tried to say well, she’s a princess that needed rescued. I have no idea why people think that, if I look at Leia, when we first find her, what does she do? The very first thing we see her in, she’s loading the stolen plans of the Death Star into R2-D2. If you don’t know Star Wars, this will be all spoiler related, so I’m sorry, sorry in advance. [audience laughing] But please watch it, it’s a really good, entertaining film. But I’m gonna go over a lot of it, if you don’t know Star Wars, you’ll be able to follow along I hope. If you do, this will be cooler, I don’t know. Anyway, she loads the plans of the Death Star into R2-D2. That gets overlooked, that is the single most important move anybody does in that franchise. If she doesn’t come up with this plan to load these data tapes into R2-D2, they’re done, they lose right there. That goes right by everybody, right? And then she sacrifices herself and gets captured while R2-D2 gets to go away. She’s a brilliant strategist. What’s the next thing she does? She only meets the most important arch-villain in the entire franchise, Darth Vader. But she talks right back to him, she says, “Darth Vader, “only you would be so bold, “the Imperial Senate will not sit still for this.” She’s going on at him, he’s like overwhelmed, he’s like “You are part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor! “Take her away!” I can’t talk to her, we know Anakin now, Anakin’s not… I mean Anakin is smart in some ways, but he’s not that bright, he can’t go toe to toe with her. He’s gonna get rid of her, I can’t talk to her, ’cause she’s smart, she’s gonna outwit him. She’s very independent that way, she does it again when we bring in Peter Cushing. Peter Cushing plays famous villains throughout the history of Hollywood. Right? Very intelligent, very arch-villain, and she just, “Governor Tarkin, “I should’ve know someone’s holding Vader’s leash.” You know, it’s like she’s condescending to him right away, she has a sense of stature. Have you ever noticed Carrie Fisher does this brilliant thing, when she talks to Vader and Tarkin, she uses a British accent. When she talks to Han and Luke, she’s more herself. She even puts on a front for these guys, she’s part of the Imperial Senate, she’s a senator, what is she, like, 18? In that film, that’s pretty revolutionary for the time, no one’s doing that. So she does all these things but then people say, well, but, she’s in jail and Tarkin has no recourse but to terminate her, right? Immediately. She lied to us, she deceived them, she says, “the Rebel base is over there, like, idiots.” “we went over there, it’s not there.” “I told you she would never give the Rebellion away willingly, right?” You’re getting a little taste of the film here, so that’s the voice acting part. [audience laughing] Thank you, but all my voices are the same so it’s not that great. What happens is, she’s in that prison cell, right? Is she depressed when you see her? Is she down, is she like, how has my life lead up to this? Is she being reflective or is she someone that’s sitting there thinking, how am I going to get out of here? I need to figure a way out of here. And then the door opens and here comes this knuckle head in this kind of loose armor, and she’s like, “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” She’s just sitting there casually, she doesn’t look like someone in prison, I’ve never seen a prisoner sit like that. Like in any film, anywhere you watch, they’re usually detained, or depressed, or beaten up. She’s just sitting there and she looks at this guy like, “This is a lousy stormtrooper.” That’s like her first assessment. [audience laughing] “You’re a lousy stormtrooper, look at you.” And then Luke’s like, “Oh, I’m Luke Skywalker, I’m here to rescue you.” What does that mean? Luke Skywalker? I don’t watch these movies, who are you? “Ben Kenobi, oh you’re Ben Kenobi, okay, I can use you.” She’s instantly thinking, she could sit outside in the hallway and the other genius is there, Han Solo, right? [audience laughs] Han’s really cool, but they didn’t guard the door, they’re not that smart. He didn’t lie to the Imperials as well as she did. So she assess the situation in the hallway under gunfire, and she grabs Luke’s blaster, she says, “What a rescue, when you came into this place, “did you have a plan for getting out?” And Hans’ like, “He’s the brains, sweetheart.” That’s his answer, great, that’s really gonna help. Luke’s just like, “Well, I didn’t know anything.” And so she takes a gun, blasts a hole there, “Into the garbage chute, Flyboy!” and they get out. Right? It’s because of her. She didn’t need rescue, she rescued them, immediately. Just take note of that, when you get down the hallway she’s like, “I don’t know who you are, where you came from, “but from now on, you listen to one person, me.” And she takes charge. Princess Leia, not your typical princess. All right. [laughs] [audience applause] It’s no wonder then like, as a young boy watching this portrayal, I can always point to two female characters that made a huge impression on me, one, would be Leia, the other would be the character of Eowyn from Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. I won’t go into that, it’s not my franchise but, [audience laughs] Lin will appreciate that I don’t. But the idea that Eowyn slew the Witch King, slayed him, blew my mind as a kid. I had to go back and read that chapter several times in a row right there, because as a young boy, I had never come in contact with that concept. That this woman, took out this main terrifying villain. All the men were afraid of him, go look at that different franchise and come back to Star Wars please. But, it’s worth looking at, because as an artist you’re just gonna absorb everything around you. But it really got me thinking, we have other characters now, when you see Rey, inspired now probably because J.J. like me has an experience when he was young with Princess Leia with other characters. If we can put these characters out there, right? If you see it, you can become it, that idea, that notion of inspiring people, I think it’s a very powerful thing. A little more backstory for me being a story-teller in my experience with that, I think people don’t give a lot of thought to the things they say. We now have a chance in life to kind of look back at the way we were all raised, at the tropes that are out there, and kind of challenge those idea. And I played a lot of sports growing up, and something that I recall quite frequently when I was growing up playing sports is a simple phrase, “Stop being such a girl.” “Don’t be a girl.” All right, I didn’t think about it, a little boy growing up, I don’t know what that means, what, am I not to be weak? Start to think of all the negative connotations there, I didn’t think of that stuff. It wasn’t till years later, you know, we just accept that, that’s just accepted. That’s happening today, everywhere. Ball parks, football fields, wherever you have sports being played, or frankly not even in sports, just out there in the world, where someone’s expressing emotion. And my wife has been integral here, I have to give her credit. We would talk a lot, one of the things I love about Anna is she is immensely intelligent, and far better story-teller than I am. And she really would discuss with me, women’s issues about equality, not just in the world but on film. And it made me start to look at things and why would I gravitate to telling the story because I did or creating the characters I did. And she brought up this fact “Well, stop being a girl.” and I looked at it and the first step for you as a story-teller is try to listen to other people. And what they have to say, and take their viewpoint as serious and important. And not be ashamed when you realize that you’ve done some of these terrible things. I have to admit to you, I would have said that, probably, many times growing up and not thought anything of it. You wanna start to affect, change then, you have to kind of forgive yourself for this foolish behavior. And say now I wanna be a part of the change. That dynamic is wrong because what we’re saying when we say these simple words in this moment is we’re devaluing people. We’re making people as lesser and that can get into a story, it can get into a movie, we have to get rid of these ideas, like, “that’s a man’s job, that’s not your place.” We have to start acknowledging these things that get said and we have to start changing them in our stories, in our vocabulary as people, all right? And for me that was kind of a very big moment, it teaches, it made me open my eyes and kind of look at everything around me and not just depictions of characters on screen but just the world around me, which is reflective as a story-teller, you’re absorbing things, you’re giving out. So you have think, “How am I going to change these things?” “What does it mean to be a…” You know, I think of myself as a very, I like to think liberal-minded. But was I as much in practice, as I was in theory for what I thought I was. We have to be diligent to break these types of age-old biases. So in 2005, I got an amazing opportunity, I was hired by Lucasfilm to work directly with George Lucas on the TV series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. A big thrill for me, obviously, I’m a big Star Wars fan. George was great, I could get into that to different talk entirely, but George is great. And one of the things that George wanted to do right off the bat, was he wanted to give Anakin Skywalker kind of the great hero, the guy, a young girl apprentice. So there’s several things challenging about that, not the least of which is Anakin didn’t even ever having canon the idea he had an apprentice, let alone that it would be a girl. I didn’t care, I thought that’s a great idea because I didn’t just wanna make Luke Skywalker again. I wanted a character that have different challenges and could have a different story than Luke. But you know, and for George it wasn’t, I mean obviously, it was his idea. For fans, this was a very different idea. The general public as a whole are gonna look at that and say, “why?” And George thought he was gonna come back, “well, why not?” In fact if you’re resistant to it, he’s probably more likely to go ahead and try and do it. Because it means that the story’s worth telling, something we haven’t hit yet. So the next problem for me became, well, I thought this was a good idea. The girl’s 14 years old, I have zero perspective on that. I don’t know what that’s like to be a 14 year old girl. When I was a 14 year old boy, I didn’t interact with many 14 year old girls, ’cause I was shy, so very little experience with this whatsoever. I’ve talked to the women on the staff, we’re very lucky, it looks from, to have a lot of women I had working with us in the films. I had an assistant that I was working with that I would try to like, I would try to be like the Anakin and see if she could react a certain way, certain things. For our dynamics. But ultimately, I just resolved, well, the girl’s a Jedi. I know what Jedi are like, I’ll just write a 14 year old Jedi, and see how that goes. And that’s what George and the writers and I did, we wrote a young Jedi that had challenges, that grew up in a world where she was a peacekeeper and then had to be a warrior, which is a very big change, she had fears, but she was intelligent, she could overcome her problems, she was very book-smart, Anakin was a very street-smart, how do you resolve the two of those things? It was an evolving role for her, she was technically intelligent, could solve a lot of problems in a different way than Anakin could. And we just created this character, and there was this funny assumption by a lot of people, ’cause the older fans, they’re complaining, “Why is this, you’re making it for kids?” That’s the funniest thing that anybody ever says to me, “You’re making Star Wars for kids.” I’m like, “yeah.” Okay. [audience laughing] How old were you when you saw Star Wars? And they’re “Oh, the first time I saw Star Wars, “I was seven years old, and my dad took me.” And I’m like, “Uh-huh.” [audience laughing] “And you wanna rob this experience from kids today, why?” “And make it all dark and sinister and evil, okay, okay.” Anyway, back to Ahsoka. There’s this assumption, that young girls are gonna like the character Ahsoka, we relate that right? Apples to apples, of course we make the young girl character so all the young girls will like Ahsoka. It’s almost to say like, “But what about the boys?” This absurd notion, so what we found was this amazing thing, it will shock none of you. That when you create a strong, independent, intelligent character that shows no fear, that can do amazing things. Boys and girls like her. That’s what happens. [audience applause] I met so many boys, little boys, they’ll come to me and say, “My favorite character is Ahsoka Tano, “because she’s not afraid, because she’s Anakin’s friend, “because she does things and she’s a Jedi.” That’s the example that we wanted to set. And even with the older fans, I went from having a lot of these older guys do, “Why is it a girl?” to being like “You’re not gonna kill her, are you?” [audience laughs] I’m like, “Why, what, wow, you care, suddenly you care, “why do you care?” “Well, she’s just a really interesting character.” “Really?” “You’re interested now?” “‘Cause before you were complaining–” “Yeah, well, that’s before, “well, we didn’t know her as character.” I’m like, “Oh ho ho, wow, really?” “So you mean you shouldn’t have judged this until “you saw it, that’s interesting, it’s really interesting.” [audience laughing] And this is what we tried to do with the Star Wars saga, we’ve tried to create more female characters that could represent so many things because what we’re trying to do isn’t just create one type of character. We’re trying to create a diverse range of characters. Especially female characters that are strong, that are independent. When you look at Rey, on The Force Awakens, she’s a female lead in a whole new chapter of the Star Wars saga. We haven’t done a movie for 10 years, and here comes a Star Wars film, and here comes Rey, and it’s, what is it? Is it panic in the streets? “Oh my gosh, a female lead in a Star Wars movie.” And then the trailer for Rogue One comes out and it’s another female lead. “Oh my gosh, how unfair.” We’ve had probably two million straight films, cinematic roles where men have been leads and now we’ve done two in a row that are women. Too bad, oh well. [audience laughing] Maybe there are more coming, I don’t know. This idea that, and I run into it sometimes, when working with writers is like, “Well, we just made on of those.” “Made one of what?” “We just made a female lead.” “Uh-huh, we can make another one.” “Really?” “Yes, we can.” There’s more than one women in the world, there’s more than one women here in the world. Why is that so strange? If we made five men heroes in a row, no one would blink. See, I’m relating that to “stop being a girl”. You see, you don’t think about it. It’s not the normal reaction, as we were saying the statistics earlier, five to one, and if you have more women in the room we up the percentage. I want to up that percentage in a huge way. But I also wanna get these men that are in this privileged position to tell these stories right now. To change their dynamic, and to start looking at stories and characters to just make great interesting characters. And stop doing the same thing, over and over and over and over again. If that’s your experience, fine. [audience applause] We have to be a part of this change, at least I feel. You know Rey, she impresses Han Solo. He’s like the guy’s guy, impresses him, impresses everyone in the audience. She goes up with Kylo Ren, she punks him right away. Like, he’s supposed to be this great guy, wiped out all these people, I don’t know, she took that lightsaber and was like, “I’m gonna take you out.” and she did, and I’m all for it and she looks strong. It’s not that she doesn’t show any fear, she looks like this is an intense moment in her life, and we’re there with her because of that. Because she’s a real feeling dimensional person. That’s what we want, a real feeling dimensional person. I react sometimes as a story-teller, I have to be honest with this idea that strong female character. Because I feel like that marginalizes every other type of character that’s a women, it says they’re weak. That’s not what I want. That’s one type of character, I want dimensional diverse characters. I want characters of women of every race, every age, every description, what have you doing interesting things, and being dynamic, that’s what we’re dedicated to at Lucasfilm, I can assure you. And we’ve been dedicated to this since, I’ve been there 2005, and I have to believe looking at the evidence with Princess Leia that we’ve been doing that all along. And this is just in part of the mythos of our world, this need, this role, we are fulfilling it on screen. You’re doing it in a very real way, a very impressive way, a way that I think, frankly, being here with you just this small amount of time has inspired me to continue to look at what we’re doing, and to challenge that in our stories. So it’s not just one way, where we make Rey or Ahsoka or Hera and Sabine and say here, you’re inspired by that. I’m so inspired by just listening to you all talk about the issues, the progress you’ve made, some of the advancements that, you’ve made technologically, blow my mind, and think how can we reflect that reality in our storytelling. That’s a combined effort, you see, between the story and the reality and how can that not be inspirational to kids. That short clip of your documentary, which forgive me, I haven’t seen is absolutely inspiring in a way that I just… If anything that I did had 1% of that inspiration in it, I’d be so proud, that’s amazing to me. I think we could tell stories that reflect that reality, of those real heroes in this real world that are making great strides. Under the leadership of Kathy Kennedy, now going into the future of Lucasfilm, we have many of the top men and women in their fields working together at Lucasfilm to tell these dynamic stories. We are trying to create an environment, where it’s my hope, to kind of, just like Luke, all he did was open that door, right? He just opened that door and let Leia out and she’s been, went gangbusters. So I just wanna be a part of Lucasfilm of opening this door, to a new generation of film-makers, of women that come into Lucasfilm and can be creative. Where they can find their voice, they can tell their stories, and where they can get the support they need, to be the true visionaries, that we know they will be in the future. So thank you so much for taking time to listen to me, I’ve always said with Star Wars, it’s far better to watch it than it is to listen to anybody talk about it. So true to that, we have made a clip for you that will display, many of our female characters, not just our Rey and Leia, but from our animated series as well. And believe me, I think it’s a strong future for Star Wars. Our force for women characters, strong women characters, intelligent women characters, characters of all description, it won’t just stop with two movies. It’s something we’re dedicated to for the foreseeable future because they’re just great characters. Thank you so much. [audience applause] [suspenseful music]


Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?

Huh? Oh, the uniform. I’m Luke Skywalker, I’m here to rescue you. [explosion] [epic music]

This is some rescue. [blaster fires]

What the hell are you doing?

Somebody has to save our skins.

You know, I could have ordered you to take me alone.

You don’t exactly outrank me anymore.

In my book, experience outranks everything.

Hmph, then I definitely outrank you.

Electrical overload!

I can fix that.

The coolant’s leaking.

Try transferring auxiliary power to the secondary tank.

Secondary tank. I got it. [bright music]

These doors are heavily secured by the government.

It won’t be secured for long.

Good, gently. [bright music] [grunts] [explosion]

The emperor’s made a critical error and the time for our attack has come.

When you have gotten past the energy shield, proceed directly to the rendezvous point. Understood?

ALL: Yeah.

Get out there and stop those droids! [lightsaber zapping]

Follow me, boys! [rhythmic music] [screams] [lightsaber zapping] [explosion]

Alderaan is ours, and we will keep reminding them until we get it back!

On your own from the age of 15, reckless, aggressive and undisciplined.

This is a Rebellion, isn’t? [explosion] I rebel. [audience cheering]

Just relax, concentrate.

What about Padme?

She seems to be on top of things. [growling]

Hey! We need a pilot!

We’ve got one! [spacecraft flying]

Here we go! [inspirational music]

Hang on!

The belonging you seek is not behind you. It is ahead. I am no Jedi but I know the force. [lightsaber zapping]

I remember a time when Jedi were not generals, but peacekeepers. [lightsaber zapping]

We will not condone a course of action that will lead us to war.

Will I ever see you again?

What does your heart tell you? [epic music]


Follow me.

You are making a mistake.

Maybe, but I have to sort this out on my own, without the council. And without you.

Rey, may the force be with you. [lightsaber zaps]

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