‘The Mandalorian’ Director: Baby Yoda ‘Steals the Show’
Deborah Chow, who directed the latest episode of the Disney Plus “Star Wars” series, talks about kitchen-sink shootouts and Werner Herzog’s abiding attachment to Baby Yoda.
[This article contains spoilers for the Disney Plus series “The Mandalorian.”]
With each new episode, “The Mandalorian” has taken surprising turns into the unexplored reaches of the “Star Wars” universe. At its outset, this Disney Plus series, created by Jon Favreau, promised the adventures of its title character, a laconic but highly proficient bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal) traveling the galaxy in search of his next payday.
Yet that premise took an unexpected twist at the end of its first episode, when the Mandalorian discovered that the lucrative prey he’d been chasing was a baby with the ability to use the Force and seemingly of the same species as Yoda, the Jedi master. (For the sake of simplicity, we’ll call this character Baby Yoda.)
In the latest episode, titled “Chapter 3: The Sin,” the Mandalorian returned Baby Yoda to the client who sought him (Werner Herzog). But wracked by guilt and nebulous memories of his past, the Mandalorian fought his way back to retrieve the baby and escape into the skies. Now he finds himself on the run from all the other mercenaries seeking him and the mysterious infant he rescued.
This episode was directed by Deborah Chow (“Better Call Saul,” “American Gods,” “Mr. Robot”), who will also direct an upcoming Disney Plus series about another “Star Wars” Jedi master, Obi-Wan Kenobi. In a telephone interview on Friday, she discussed the making of “Chapter 3: The Sin” and the serendipity of directing both Werner Herzog and Baby Yoda. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
This third episode felt like it was tying together an opening arc that potentially upends the audience’s expectations of the story that “The Mandalorian” might tell. How did you prepare to direct it?
I had a great episode in that I get to show the character’s moral turning point — the moment when everything changes for him. It’s all been building up to that moment in the cockpit [when the Mandalorian decides to return for the baby]. Jon knew that was an incredibly pivotal scene — that’s the point of no return, once he makes that decision. Right there, he’s changing his entire life.
Had the first two episodes been shot when your work began? Did you have a proof of concept for what the series would look like?
Not at all, actually. We didn’t shoot in order. We block-shot Episodes 1 and 3 together. So both [Dave Filoni, an executive producer who also directed the premiere] and I, simultaneously, we were the first ones to go, and there was nothing yet. We had done a lot of prep, and we were really involved in each other’s work and aware of what the other was doing. Those first few weeks of any production, you’re just trying to define it and see what works.
Were there any films or other works you looked at for reference as you prepared for your episode?
For Episode 3, when I first read the script, it felt like a Western and a samurai movie. So I watched a lot of Kurosawa — there’s obviously a pretty strong “Yojimbo” feel going on with the street battle. And obviously a lot of those were George [Lucas]’s references. I also brought in a little of John Woo’s “Hard Boiled,” with the baby in that movie. I had grown up with a lot of that — my dad was Chinese and I grew up with a lot of Hong Kong action movies.
You’re often working with characters who are masked. Does that present particular challenges, for your actors or for you as a director?
It’s definitely more challenging. A lot of the way we worked with Pedro — and that’s part of what Dave and I were trying to get the hang of when we started shooting — is his physicality became incredibly important. We had to develop a language, a physicality. There’s a lot of stillness in the character. All his movement is intentional. There’s no fidgeting or relaxing, so that any time, even if he makes a small move or turns his head, it becomes meaningful. We couldn’t do it with his face or with his eyes. It also becomes critical, as a director, to use the camera to support that emotionally, to help convey what he’s feeling a lot of the times.
How long did it take to stage the big shootout sequence that concludes the episode?
That was a large undertaking, to say the least. [Laughs.] It was pretty fast and furious, in terms of the time we had to get through it. The kitchen sink is in that scene. There’s droids, there’s puppets, there’s flying Mandos. There’s explosions and moving speeders. On the one hand, it was a huge challenge. On the other hand, it was amazing. Everything is out here and it was a giant playground.
Knowing that you’re going to be directing Werner Herzog in your episode, did you treat him any differently, or do you think of him as just one more player in your company?
Normally, you just approach them as actors, but Werner is special. One of the weirdest moments I had on set, in my life, was trying to direct Werner with the baby. How did I end up with Werner Herzog and Baby Yoda? That was amazing. Werner had absolutely fallen in love with the puppet. He, at some point, had literally forgotten that it wasn’t a real being and was talking to the child as though it was a real, existing creature.
Did you know from Day 1 what a phenomenon Baby Yoda would be?
I hoped, but you just never know. You get so close to it that you’re not sure you have any perspective on anything. With the baby, every time it came on set, the whole crew would respond to it. Even the grip department, every production assistant is coming to the monitors, trying to see it. We definitely knew there’s something special going on with this — we just hoped the rest of the world would feel the same way.
We’re all calling it “Baby Yoda” but — as far as we know — it’s not Yoda as a baby. What do you call it on set?
Um, I would definitely defer to Dave Filoni on this. [Laughs.] I’m not going to try to take this one on. I think he’s said it’s O.K. that people were calling it that for now. Because there’s no name out there, for now.
Are there lessons you’ve learned on “The Mandalorian” that you can take into the Obi-Wan series?
Absolutely. One of the biggest benefits is that I just spent the last year in the “Star Wars” universe and I had great mentors, coming in under Jon and Dave. Absorbing that, I feel, was the best training I could have had to take on the next one. So much of it just feeling it and understanding it, on an instinctual level, to know what’s right and what’s wrong with it. And there’s so much knowledge — every prop, every costume is important. Every detail really matters.