Werner Herzog may already qualify as the unlikeliest cinema citizen to visit the Star Wars universe since the late Alec Guinness wore Obi-Wan Kenobi’s robes but on Wednesday night the German filmmaking icon also became the brand’s most unexpectedly impassioned apostle as he hailed The Mandalorian as “cinema back at its best” and hailed its creator, Jon Favreau, as the force to be reckoned with in filmmaking.
Herzog, the esteemed director of Aguirre,the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man, has never watched a Star Wars film but he quickly accepted Favreau’s invitation to portray a key figure of menace in the pilot of The Mandalorian, the big-budget Lucasfilm production that provided the centerpiece offering for the Disney+ subscription streaming service launch this week. Why? The irascible filmmaker told the packed house at a special El Capitan screening of The Mandalorian that it was due to Favreau, whom he views as a kindred spirit and as a gifted peer.
“When you invited me, I knew in less than 60 seconds that this was going to be big,” Herzog said during an onstage panel after Favreau asked about his experience on the project. “I saw the universe. I saw costumes. I saw the round horizon. I saw the spacecraft. I saw an entire universe. And I knew this was really big.”
Herzog finished that thought with a playful observation that might have resonated better with Guinness, the legendary British actor who was far less charmed by his payday-driven foray into the Jedi storytelling: “Secondly, when Jon described a little bit about the character — yes it’s a dark, dark sort of figure that shouldn’t be trusted at all — I knew it was going to be easy.”
Herzog said that with a wink but then quickly toggled back to his impassioned mode.
“I enjoyed every single moment of it. And I think It’s beyond what we are seeing on the screen. It’s cinema back at its best. On the big fantasy films actors were acting almost like robots in front of green screens, you didn’t see the world that you were inhabiting. Now [with The Mandalorian] the actors see the entire universe in which they are operating and the camera does the same. The camera sees it as well so cinema is back to its very life, where it had been. And it becomes very, very Iivey it’s not robotic. It’s got very, very intense life in it.”
Herzog was referring in part to the innovative real-time rendering system devised by Industrial Light & Magic using some conceptual approaches and tech advancements from the world of video game production. The system allowed actors to “see” the digitally augmented environs around them in a new way by using video screens to extend the set with virtual reality representations that give the actors a sense of the place and space around them.
The show’s title star, Pedro Pascal, also praised the visual wizardry that helped the actors sense their surroundings in a profoundly upgraded way. “You wouldn’t believe how little they leave to the imagination,” Pascal said with a wry summary of the contextual benefits.
Herzog’s praise of Favreau went beyond the gizmo innovations, however.
“It sounds like science fiction but it is way beyond that because what you are creating goes beyond that because what you’re creating is an entire universe,” Herzog said. “And this universe is filled with new mythology. Not very often in cultural history have we had new mythologies. We had it with ancient Greek mythology, we had it in antiquity, but very rarely…and it’s also a world filled of fantasy, full of fever dreams, full of new characters you never expected so it’s a wonderful possibility for filmmaking. [There] can’t be a better universe than the one that you inhabit with your characters.”
The Mandalorian is set in the years after Return of the Jedi and the fiery funeral of Darth Vader on the forest moon of Endor. The Emperor has been (literally) overthrown and lawless has quickly filled the vacuum left by the toppled regime in many parts of the galaxy. Among the menacing figures in the underworld is the helmeted mystery man called the Mandalorian is a ruthless bounty hunter from an intimidating race that famously yielded the cloned bounty hunters Boba Fett and Jango Fett, both major fan-favorite characters over the brand’s four decades.
Herzog’s effusive praise may have been inspired on some level by the recent criticisms leveled at Disney’s other sequel-driven spectacle brand, Marvel Studios. When The Irishman director bemoaned the lack of cinematic value represented by Marvel Studios and its formulaic spectacle films (first in an Empire interview and then in a New York Times op-ed piece) his critique was confined to superhero factory. But Favreau directed the brand’s first hits, Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and is closely associated with the studio’ early success.
By any measure, The Mandalorian is already a historic success for Disney+ and time will tell if Herzog’s is correct that the first live-action Star Wars television series also represents a cinematic milestone as well.
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