Tony Gilroy on the Screenwriting of 'Andor'
By Bryan Young • September 21, 2022
Script Magazine caught up with screenwriter Tony Gilroy after the official launch event for the show and talked to him about his process, the structure of the show, and how he works.
Tony Gilroy is a writer’s writer, perhaps best known for the tour de force of Michael Clayton (2007, which he also directed). He’s also a working writer, and his career started with 1992’s romantic sports comedy classic The Cutting Edge, which still maintains its relevance and delight. In the months leading up to the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Tony Gilroy was asked to step in and rewrite scenes and direct reshoots in order to deliver the masterpiece that film turned out to be. When he stepped into a galaxy far, far away, he found a home in the material and he conceived of a prequel series to that film starring Diego Luna, reprising his role as Cassian Andor. Andor, a two season series on Disney+, tells the story of how Cassian got from his scrappy beginnings to sacrificing himself to save the galaxy.
Script Magazine caught up with him after the official launch event for the show and talked to him about his process, the structure of the show, and how he works.
SCRIPT Magazine: What made the Star Wars canvas right for you to tell a story like this? Where a lot of your stuff before feels a more grounded—and even the more fantastic stuff like the Bourne trilogy, still feels much more grounded—and this is in a galaxy far, far away, away...
Tony Gilroy: Grounded like The Devil’s Advocate? Or grounded like The Cutting Edge? I don't know if there's a common thread. I can't write a scene if I don't understand the reality of it, the reality coming in, the reality going out, it all has to be completely real to me. I don't remember if I used to be able to do that at the very beginning or not, but over the years, I’ve become incapable. If I don't know, I'm just not all in, I can't do it. Once I have it, I can do it. Because I start there all the time, everything is real to me, so everything that you're seeing, it's no different than the writing a scene for Michael Clayton or writing a scene for House of Cards. It's the same methodology. It's the same ethic. The interesting thing is to have a canvas that's eight times the size of any canvas I've ever had before
SCRIPT Magazine: You're working in a place where the fans are a very loud, vocal group, how do you write to manage them while maintaining your writer-ly integrity and not being overly precious about the material?
Tony Gilroy: We're doing a thing where we're basically saying all this stuff is real, we believe in it as much or more than anybody ever, there's absolutely nothing cynical about what we're doing. Without even analyzing what other people have done before, the whole team is saying we're gonna go down and get inside this thing in a way that no one ever has before. We're gonna go down and figure out what people do and how they live together and what it smells like, and we're gonna get really filthy with this... In a way, you could argue that we're taking it more seriously than anybody ever has before. The other part of it is we're also respecting things canonically, we're using canon. We're not going to violate accepted canon. The problem is that there's a lot of variations of canon. I have become aware over the years, there's many different levels, so somebody's ox is gonna get gored, I assume at some point, but within the day-to-day work of it, I think we're honoring it.
SCRIPT Magazine: The first three episodes of Andor feel very much like it was a movie put together, and you have parallel timelines going through Cassian’s past and his present and ending with both of those chapters of his life ending and starting new ones. At what point in your process does that structure come in? Do you just start writing? Do you have that structure mapped out first?
Tony Gilroy: The very, very, very first problem—‘cause I really like problems—is what do I do about his accent? How am I going to explain that? I thought that was something that we could legitimately address. What's the accent about? And that's probably the point of origin.
As I always do, I just do just tons and tons of sketching and just endless files of sketching and along the way, coming up with an origin story for him and then realizing I wanna get it in here, I don't want to carry it through the whole show. This first chapter is a very important chapter. These first three episodes are very unique in that sense, it was always a contained piece. I wanted to make it exciting. I think at some point, I must have come up with the cutting pattern, and then the interesting thing became how to really tell the young Cassian story, how to stretch that out, and how to get the most out of it. The breakthrough for me was that moment there where he sees himself in the mirror of the ship, and the idea that this boy had never really seen his face and then, with the coming Empire and its most outrageous contrasts, that image was there early for me, and then after that, it just built out, I guess...
SCRIPT Magazine: I did get to see the fourth episode as well, and the fourth episode is what really cemented to me that it feels like your touchstones are much more a sort of gritty ‘70s cinema. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it feels like it could have been written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. That's kind of how the Star Wars felt to me, especially in the scenes with Mon Mothma.
Tony Gilroy: Put that in print. I'll go with that all day long. Oh my God, that's the highest compliment you could give me...
SCRIPT Magazine: There was that scene between Mon Mothma and her husband that felt very much ripped out of William Holden scenes in Network in some ways... And I'm just wondering how you made that shift for Star Wars.
Tony Gilroy: That's the place I'm always at. The people that you're talking about are the benchmarks for me, so all that cinema, that reality and grit, the attitude of it, and the discipline of it. The shift is that they're letting me, do my thing in this world, I didn't change anything about what I'm doing, and I think that was the whole buy-in for Disney and the whole dance that goes into the six months while you're trying to figure out, 'yeah, let's do this,' and you're doing it... There's a moment of which there's no turning back, but there's a long period of time in a process like this where you could change your mind and go, 'Hey, wait, they don't really have the balls to make this now,' or, 'he's too outrageous for us.'
I'm just doing my thing and they're letting me do my thing in this world and I just found a really happy home here. The issues are so fantastic, they're not tied to current events, and yet they resonate. And it's just the ability to have a guaranteed audience, the ability to have the economics to pay for these scenes and get all these actors and do all this stuff, so the shift is more on Lucasfilm’s part than on my part. I haven't changed to come do the show.
SCRIPT Magazine: You’ve talked about the structure of the show and how it's two seasons, 12 episodes each. Season one is this one year of Cassian's life, season two bridges the next four up to Rogue One. How did you hit upon that structure? I think a lot of writers now are looking at creating shows and trying to figure out what's the length they should be aiming for.
Tony Gilroy: There's a new dial on the console that was never there 15 years ago. How long should my show be? What an amazing thing to have. All the tools that writers have before now, this is massive, new, and important. People have to decide. You see shows and they're stretching it out, they’re too flabby, they don't have enough material to cover it, you see some shows that are like, 'Oh my God, if they only had a little bit more.'
A lot of us were writing movies for a long time that we're really a little bit over stuff and you were really fighting to get stuff in and it worked the right way in the three-hour cut, and boy, at two-and-a-half, it doesn't really do the same thing. That decision and the flexibility of that decision is important. Even more so in some places that don't wanna go more than two seasons, the economics become too difficult if the show is too successful. Everybody needs so much money or whatever the reasons are. I don't think anybody cares. Right? And I think you can find a home for a four-episode show, you can find a home for a six-episode. 24 turns out to be the do-or-die number for us.
I just think that's an incredibly new exciting conversation for writers to be having, how long should your project be? Everybody's gotta be asking themselves that question every day now, I'll never stop asking that... That's a whole new question I ask myself when I want to go to work.
SCRIPT Magazine: How did you arrive on 24 episodes for this?
Tony Gilory: It was survival. We were in the midst of doing the first 12, and that 12 takes place over one year of [Cassian’s] life. The original buy-in was we'll do five seasons of this. We got up in Scotland a year and a half ago, and we were still shooting. Diego [Luna] and I were just looking at each other going, 'We’ll die, we will literally die in five years. I'll be too old. And it's just, it's too too hard to do what we're doing.'
I think when people see all 12 episodes, they'll understand that that was impossible. But there was a panic, 'Oh my God, are we gonna be one and done? And can we put an ending on this or... ? Wow.'
Our shooting blocks are blocks of three, so four blocks of three per season... We have directors come in and they do a block of three and we structure the writing that way, we organize it mentally, even in this first season, that's how we've done it, and I was like, 'We have four years to cover, and we have four blocks, what if we jumped one year with each block, what would that do? We've already established all of our characters, we've already set the machinery deeply in motion.' And when it sketched out, it just looked great, it really looked elegant.
Everybody we brought in was like, 'Oh, we love that.' And so that's what we're doing. It also allows, from a screenwriting point of view, we'll jump a year and come in on three episodes, and then we'll jump another year and then go to the next year. These year-long gaps and how you drop the needle when you come back and what you say and what you leave out is, from a storytelling point of view, rather brand new... After 35 years of screenwriting, it’s a completely brand new, fresh experience for me and very exciting.
SCRIPT Magazine: What sort of tools do you use as your go-to? You say you do a lot of sketching, is that something in your notebook or the computer?
Tony Gilroy: In the computer to myself. I almost have a partnership with myself, but I'm just talking to myself. A lot of my sketching—almost all of work—starts with dialogue. And the other drivers that come in on the show. I realize that I can't plot anything. My first place to go is talk, and I'll plot through dialogue all the time... I'm trying to think of that interior question.
SCRIPT Magazine: And are you using Final Draft or other software?
Tony Gilroy: Over the last 10 years, I've definitely gotten to the point where I stay in Word all the way through until I go to script. I'm doing everything on Word. When I go to Final Draft, I save it as a dress-up thing, like, 'OK, now it's gonna happen.' I have a writer's assistant and actually, in the last month, I had to rewrite some scripts very quickly for some production reasons. I did them in Word in my outline. So it's about a 23-30 page outline. And literally within two hours, my assistant will send that back to me in a Final Draft form that I can then turn that, then I can go to work on that. But I stay in Word, I don't know, just 'cause I stay looser and I'm much more careful when I go to Final Draft, I get a little... It has to be perfect.
SCRIPT Magazine: Do you have any parting words of wisdom for writers on our way out?
Tony Gilroy: It's a very, very exciting time right now to be a writer, there's certainly a lot of work out there. There's an unbelievable amount of content out there. I don't know that much about room writing, and a lot of young writers I know are getting pulled into rooms and it's a lot of room writing. What I want to say is that I think it's good for people to remember that in the end, you're gonna have to do it on your own. And I think that collaboration and collaborative writing is really good, but I wonder if people are not spending too much time in a community and not enough time on their own... That's one fear I have.
The other thing to ask is how long should your show be...Is it a 45-minute bit? Is this a 17-year show? What is it and that conversation with yourself is an opportunity I just I wish I had had 30 years ago when I was starting. I really do. It's very exciting and it's a good time to be a writer.
The first three episode of Andor are currently streaming on Disney+, new episodes come out on Wednesdays.