Scholars call it the monomyth, although most of us know it as the hero’s journey—the ancient storytelling structure about a nobody from nowhere who answers the call to adventure, befriends a wise elder, faces down impossible obstacles, and emerges not just victorious but as a champion for others.
Folklore, myths, and religious parables are filled with this narrative, of course, and the framework still defines some of our most beloved modern characters: Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Elliott from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Charlie Bucket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Nowhere is it used more than in Star Wars, where every film, book, and TV show plays as a variation on the arc.
There’s one hero’s journey connected to a galaxy far, far away that happens to be true—and it belongs to a guy named Dave Filoni.
Filoni is a cowboy-hat-wearing, hockey-loving, wolf-obsessed writer, director, and producer from Pittsburgh. He was a young animation director when George Lucas asked if he would join him and, together, create the Lucasfilm founder’s final run of Star Wars stories. That project was The Clone Wars animated series, which began in 2008 and ended abruptly after six seasons when Lucas sold the company to Disney in 2012. George moved on. Dave stayed. What Obi-Wan Kenobi was to Luke Skywalker, what Han Solo was to Rey, that’s what Lucas became to Filoni.
Fifteen years later, Filoni, 45, is not-so-jokingly known as The Chosen One, the carrier of the creator’s knowledge. He mixed that mentorship with his own skills and interests to craft the hit animated Rebels and Resistance shows, and now serves as executive producer and one of the directors of The Mandalorian, the live-action Star Wars TV series that the Disney+ streaming service made the centerpiece of its November 12 launch. In February, he will resurrect The Clone Wars for a seventh and final season. And you can expect to see Filoni’s name on other major projects in the years to come.
He’s become so beloved within the Star Wars fandom that people sometimes cosplay as him at conventions. That affection comes not just from the stories he’s told, but because he’s so clearly a fan too.
People from Filoni’s Western Pennsylvania neighborhood tend to stick to the familiar, but Star Wars made him dream of distant suns. He came to Southern California to make animation. Still, the journey from fanboy to Jedi master remains unbelievable to him. “I thought it was a practical joke,” he said, recalling the 2005 telephone call asking him to travel to San Francisco to meet Lucas about a job. At the time Filoni was a director and story artist on Nickelodeon’s mystical martial arts show Avatar: The Last Airbender. He thought the crew from SpongeBob SquarePants was punking him. Even when he grasped that it was real, he didn’t believe it was really real. “My whole expectation honestly was: I’m going to meet George Lucas, and I’ll have a great story when I’m in line to go see [Revenge of the Sith] that nobody else has. But I’m certainly not going to get this job,” Filoni said.
He flew to the Bay Area for the interview. The flight was late. His ride was late. He called ahead to let everyone know, but it felt like a disaster already. “Something fell off the Richmond Bridge and broke the sunroof on the car while I was on the phone with a person at Lucasfilm, and I was like, ‘Just keep driving! I’m going to meet George Lucas! Nothing’s going to stop me!’ ”
When he finally got to the Skywalker Ranch, Lucas invited him into his office and Filoni tried to answer his questions while memorizing the book titles on his shelves and making mental pictures of the knickknacks and art decorating the walls and tables. Lucas sat opposite him, flipping through Filoni’s portfolio of drawings. He seemed to be going through them fast.
“Then he shuts the portfolio and goes, ‘A Jedi Knight, in a situation where they’re bartering with somebody else, basically puts his lightsaber on the table and says, ‘Here’s how we’re going to do things,’ ” Filoni said. “He just starts describing how Jedi would be in negotiating situations, how it relates to the Force, and how they fit into The Clone Wars scenario.” It took the younger man a moment to understand. They were setting terms. The job was his.
Uprooting from Los Angeles to San Francisco was an easy choice for Filoni and his wife, Anne, a writer and teacher. For the next eight years, he worked side by side with Lucas, telling the battlefield stories of Anakin Skywalker before his transformation into Darth Vader, when he was fighting alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi and nurturing his own Padawan learner, the alien Ahsoka Tano, a young girl with distinctive white and blue “head tails” instead of hair, who was just as defiant and clever as her master. The metaphor couldn’t be more apt. Filoni was persuasive—he could push—and the trust he earned allowed him to translate Lucas’s vision in ways that strengthened them both.
“One day, George said, ‘Do you know why I enjoy working with you?’ And I said, ‘No, I have no idea,’ ” Filoni recalled. “He said, ‘Well, you listen to me.’ ” Filoni lets that sink in. “A lot of people think you need to come and impress someone. They think, I’m going to show you or do better. They don’t always think you impress somebody by listening.”
Lucas brought up the same point when VANITY FAIR asked him about Filoni. “I immediately found him to be very open-minded and a great listener, which are qualities I admire because it opens a person up to new experiences,” he said. Lucas didn’t want to take as much credit for Filoni’s success as Filoni was willing to give him: “I was just giving him advice along the way.” But Lucas guided Filoni to make the series more cinematic, and they shaped each story arc together. The advice he’d give Filoni going forward? “To stay open-minded and realize that there’s still a lot to learn. There’s always something to learn.”
One reason Lucas liked working with Dave Filoni? “Well, you listen to me.”
The Mandalorian creator Jon Favreau said Filoni “intuitively understands how to walk the line between learning and teaching.” The two became friends more than a decade ago when Filoni was finishing the first season of The Clone Wars and Favreau was at Skywalker Sound mixing 2008’s Iron Man. Filoni recruited Favreau to provide a voice on the animated show, playing the Mandalorian insurgent Pre Vizsla, part of the masked tribe of warriors from whom the bounty hunter Boba Fett was descended.
Favreau began creating a Star Wars TV show based on a similar gun-for-hire antihero, and he asked Filoni to both direct the first and a mid-season episode and join him as executive producer. Favreau wanted that direct connection to the Lucas style of storytelling, and Filoni was eager to finally try his hand at live action. “He’ll be very forthcoming with his thoughts and opinions if he thinks that I’m going down the wrong path or if he has something that he wants to present, but he’ll pivot suddenly to learning and questioning and understanding,” Favreau said. Making the show together, he added, felt like two kids playing with action figures in the backyard.
If Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy wants the insights of Lucas, she just calls him. They’ve known each other for a lifetime. To her, Filoni isn’t a vital resource because he’s a Lucas encyclopedia, but because he took what he learned from him about myth, filmmaking, and technology and applied them to his own heart. “There isn’t a thing that we do in the storytelling space that I don’t check with Dave,” Kennedy said. “What I find about Dave is you don’t just sit down and have a discussion about plot or review characters inside the Star Wars world. You end up having meaningful, thoughtful discussions about what it is we’re trying to say inside the storytelling. He has a lot of empathy.”
When Filoni expressed interest in directing live action, Kennedy dispatched him on fact-finding missions to the sets of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to watch how J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson did it. These days, Filoni is back at work with Favreau on season two of The Mandalorian while finalizing the encore of The Clone Wars. From there, anything is possible—except for leaving Lucasfilm. “It’s the Pittsburgh in me,” he said. “I got very comfortable.”
The hero’s journey always ends in transformation, of course. After all this time, Filoni has become the wise elder, and the things he learned along the way aren’t his to keep. There’s gray in his beard now—not as much as there is in Lucas’s, maybe, but someday he’ll be the one passing on what he knows to a generation who grew up loving his stories.
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