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Q&A: ‘Andor’ Director Toby Haynes on ‘Star Wars’ Speeches, Prisons, and Callbacks

The ‘Andor’ EP and director of six Season 1 episodes (including Episode 10) explains how the prequel is picking up the stones of ‘Star Wars’ to see what’s underneath

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Spoiler warning

Toby Haynes is no stranger to dystopian sci-fi: The British TV director has helmed unsettling episodes of Utopia and Doctor Who (including the latter’s acclaimed two-part Season 5 finale), as well as Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning Season 4 standout, “USS Callister.” Prisons, and prison breaks, are something of a theme in Haynes’s work: Whether it’s the Doctor being freed from Pandorica, Jonathan Strange using a puddle to slip out of the jail he was hauled off to after confronting Mr. Norrell, or the crew of the Callister fleeting their virtual ship, Haynes is the guy for any genre job that involves a small-screen escape from confinement. That résumé made him a natural candidate to direct this week’s 10th episode of Andor, “One Way Out,” in which Cassian and his fellow inmates engineer an exit from the Imperial prison on Narkina 5.

Haynes, who’s also an executive producer of Andor, directed six of the 12 episodes in the Star Wars series’ first season—the first three and the most recent three, 8, 9, and 10. (Susanna White and Benjamin Caron split the other half.) On a Tuesday video call, I spoke to the BAFTA-nominated self-described Star Wars fanboy—who also directed the celebrated Season 2 finale of Sherlock, “The Reichenbach Falls”—about passing the baton between directors, Episode 10’s mic-drop monologues, the inspiration for the show’s oppressive prison, sneaking callbacks past Easter egg–averse creator Tony Gilroy, why aliens are so scarce in Andor, and more.

How have you and the other Andor directors managed to maintain the series’ visual style while handing off duties to one another?

For me it was easier because I directed the first three, and then this three was like a continuation, a kind of distilling of what I’d already done. And I think we were all given, to some extent, some freedom to shoot the show the way we wanted to. I know that my director of photography from the first block spoke to the other DOPs and kind of kept them aware of our lens choices and how we set up the style of the show. But we wanted a style that was very flexible, that could be cinematic but also could be energetic and wild and loose as well.

And I think a lot of those visual cues came straight from Rogue One. For me, one of the great things from Rogue One was seeing handheld [cameras] deployed so readily. I remember seeing that shot very early on walking through the market with Cassian, and it just felt so grounded and so natural, and I was very excited to see that in the Star Wars universe. And I couldn’t wait to do that kind of filmmaking in my episodes as well.

Tony was just very confident. I remember asking him as we got toward the shoot, “Do you want to know how I’m going to shoot this?” And he said, “Do you know how you’re going to shoot it?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” He said, “That’s all I need to know.” He was very inspiring. He would give you a lot of confidence, but then occasionally he would have very specific ideas about the kind of shots that he wants.

I remember in the fight scene in the opening of Episode 1, there was a shot that he wanted just to stay on Cassian’s closeup for the whole of that speech, with the guys approaching him from behind. And he had a very clear idea of the framing there. So occasionally he would be very prescriptive, but most of the time he gave us a complete blank page, really, to work with. And he was just like, “Go with confidence, go with your gut. If you storyboarded it, great. But if there’s a shot that you want to get that you know is going to nail it that’s not on the storyboard, go after that too.” He was very good at making sure the instinctive filmmaker within you was allowed to run loose.

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Speaking of speeches, Episode 10 features two tour de force showstoppers: one by Andy Serkis’s Kino that’s delivered while we get glimpses of the rest of the prison, and one by Stellan Skarsgård’s Luthen in a more continuous closeup. How did those monologues come together, and how many takes were required?

For the Andy speech, I remember they wrote the intercutting into the script, which meant when we came to film it, they only wanted to—just for scheduling purposes, to speed up the day—shoot the bits that were going to be on camera. But I would never do that as a director. I would always make sure that I’m giving myself the maximum flexibility when it comes to the edit.

And also, I think just from the performance side of things, it was much better for Andy to learn the whole thing and to deliver it. And so I got him to learn the whole thing. And we filmed it in single takes, and I think we did only about five passes at it, and I think he nailed it on pass two. He nailed it really quickly, and the rest of it was just noodling and getting little beats and here and there of nuance and stuff. But the energy, the emotion, that all came from take two. Andy was one of the best to work with. He has such energy and such a presence and really knows what he wants to do with a speech or a scene.

With the Stellan speech, that was really interesting. Again, Stellan had been building up to this speech throughout the whole season. I think he’d been in conversation with Tony during the writing of it and had a real clear take. Stellan is one of the cinema’s great powerhouse actors. He’s an intellectual Goliath, and I would’ve felt intimidated working with Stellan if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s so joyous to work with. So there’s a real imp in him. He loves to have fun, he loves to enjoy himself, but then gets serious so quickly. So when the cameras are rolling, the place that he goes to is absolutely incredible.

He took about three or four takes. And I think maybe about take five, we’d found something that was really working. And he delivered it, and he got to the end of it, he was really pleased with it, and it had all the power, the rage in there, and the emotion. But there was something that was bothering me about it. There was something that wasn’t quite landing. And usually as a director, you don’t have a long time to think about what might be bothering you at the back of your mind. You have as long as it takes to walk to the actor from the monitor, so that’s like five paces. You’ve got five paces to think about what you’re going to say before you’re standing in front of Stellan Skarsgård to say something intelligent to him.

And I remember walking from the monitors thinking, “What am I going to say? What am I going to say?” And then I realized what it was when I stood in front of him. I realized that we’d got it, but it felt like a speech. It felt like a big speech. And I said that to him. I said, “It’s absolutely great, but it feels like a speech.” And he went, “Oh my God, thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you.” And then he did three more takes, and it had all the spontaneity, it had so much more emotion. [We] really didn’t know whether he’d lost his way in the speech—it just felt like he was actually saying it for the first time. And we were lucky enough to film it.

Just before Luthen’s speech, his ISB mole, Lonni, takes a turbolift to see his handler. The trip takes a full three minutes, a great bit of world-building that also makes it seem like a descent into hell. How was it decided to make that last so long?

It’s really metaphorically important that you are in Luthen’s hands. This is his handler. He’s feeling very vulnerable. He wants to try and get out, he wants to say, “I’m out of here.” But he’s in the absolute grip of his handler. And his handler is saying, “You’re coming with me, and you’re going to descend into hell, and that’s where I’m going to take you. And you can’t escape and you can’t leave. You don’t have a choice here. You have to stick this one out, or we’re all damned.” It’s a really powerful conscious speech that’s going on, there’s a really powerful story line there that’s being explained to you, but there’s also a powerful thematic storytelling going on. That descent, the fact that he’s absolutely in his clutches. He’s in a kind of cell. The lift itself is a prison cell.

There were visual themes that I was trying to play with through that block, which was that we were cutting from a Mothma story back to Cassian in the prison. Cassian was always in the depths of the machine, the mechanics of the Empire, so there was always a sort of rumbling, there was always a sense of, this is the machine workings and the cogs in that machine are the people down there. And then you are up in the airier spaces, the more celestial world of the politicians. And so that had to feel more airy, more spacious, less atmospheric. It was trying to gauge that tonally so that you got a sense of where you were in the atmosphere of the story.

You didn’t direct the Aldhani episodes, so you really missed out on a trip to the wide-open spaces of the Scottish Highlands. These recent settings have been so restrictive and enclosed.

Yeah, I often end up with quite claustrophobic story lines, because I’ve worked on a lot of shows on which we don’t have the budget to go places. Doctor Who was always massive fantasy on a limited budget, which often makes for quite claustrophobic storytelling. And I’m in my wheelhouse when I’m in that world. Watching those episodes that were shot in Scotland, seeing a TIE fighter flying above those valleys and across the hills absolutely gave me a total thrill as a fan. Seeing them kick up dust as they swing past, that was a big moment for me.

What sources did you draw on for the look and feel of the prison on Narkina 5?

We were all big fans of 1970s cinema and 1970s sci-fi and fantasy. We never wanted to wear our Easter eggs on our sleeve. We wanted to be more subtle about what we were doing, calling back. One of our touchstone images was from THX 1138, and we wanted to evoke that antiseptic, claustrophobic atmosphere. That’s exactly where the white starkness of the prison comes out, with the black uniforms of the Empire really striking out, like shadows cutting into the scenery.

All the way through, Tony would have certain allergies to certain things. Like, “Don’t make things too Blade Runner-y.” So we could only go so far with certain stuff. And obviously, we want to keep it Star Wars, but you can tell that we’re all fanboys. You can tell [production designer] Luke Hull is a massive fanboy and very well-versed in the vernacular of 1970s sci-fi.

You snuck another ’70s callback into Episode 9, as the door closes on a captive Bix. Tell me about that homage to the torture scene in A New Hope.

Tony was always very nervous about doing any direct quotes from any of the films, but he wasn’t on set that day. [Laughs.] I sat next to Kathleen Kennedy on that day, and I said, “Look, I’ve absolutely got a moment here I’m going to have to do for myself. I don’t know if it’ll ever make the edit, but this is really calling back one of my favorite shots from A New Hope.” And she was like, “Go for it. We love that kind of stuff.” And I remember the first AD was looking at it going, “What is he going for now? Why is he doing this? This isn’t written in the script.” And I was like, “This is so important. This is going to be great.” And when the episode went out and I saw that somebody had tweeted and even done a cross-comparison with A New Hope and that it matched perfectly, I think it was my inner fanboy’s proudest day.

Bix and Cassian are actually incarcerated, but almost every character is a prisoner of sorts, which is so often illustrated through architecture and composition that emphasize how hemmed in and isolated even a privileged person like Mon Mothma is. Are you looking for every opportunity to convey that kind of confinement visually?

Yeah, I think you’ve said it better than I could there. That’s exactly what we were trying to do. But I’m looking for that opportunity with any scene that I would do. My favorite directors, they use the camera as part of the storytelling, and it’s not just about the words that people are saying. And that’s when TV or a film becomes less interesting to me. I want to be taken through a story visually as well as verbally. It’s almost too easy in some ways. Actually, what you end up doing is you have a plethora of those choices to use in the edit, and then you discard loads of them and just go for the ones that really hit the nail.

And I think that set that Mon Mothma is in—Luke Hull is an absolute genius. And that set was one of the most incredible sets to work on. Also, the screens on the outside of it as well meant that there was no blue screen there. That when you looked out at the views of Coruscant, you were seeing Coruscant through those windows. It was absolutely stunning.

After all the buildup to a prison break that we knew was coming, did you feel a lot of pressure to pay off that setup in Episode 10?

Yeah. I mean, the pressure was on, whichever episode you’re doing with this show. The ambition is so great, both in story terms as well as visually, that you’re completely on your toes as a director. You’ve really got to have your vision, have your bearings and where you are in the story. Because you’re not going to necessarily shoot in the right order. For me, there’s visual cues of where you are in the story. So the early part of the prison stuff, you’ve got those shots that are sweeping, it’s almost Kubrick-style camerawork, with the lights changing, the buzzing of the floor and everything. And that was very conscious to be more balletic with the camera work there. And then as you move through the story, the tension is slowly racking up until you get into Episode 10, which is very much more vibrant, very much more on the ground, running, and you’re immediately into more Steadicam and handheld shots. And so I always have a clear idea of where I am in the story visually, which informs the tempo energy-wise. And Episode 10 really did have to pay off. It couldn’t be a lame duck. It needs to excite, it needs to pull the audience along.

I feel like this is always the case with my work, that I want people to be intellectually engaged but not really see it coming and then suddenly find they’re gripped to the TV by their eyeballs. They can’t look away. And the pace of the work, the pace of the cutting, the storytelling beats as you are pulled along by your ankles through the story and just spat out at the end, and you’re like, “What the hell just happened?” I love doing that feeling. I’ve done that before with Sherlock and Black Mirror and on this. To be able to work on this kind of canvas, it was wonderful.

Andor’s dialogue is sometimes as intense as another series’ action scenes; I comped the effect of Episode 9’s last line to the feeling of watching two proton torpedoes take out the Death Star. What can you do as a director to make a seemingly unassuming line like Kino’s “Never more than 12” land like an adrenaline-inducing dagger?

I think you just don’t blow it, is the answer for the director. [Laughs.] That’s the challenge laid down to you, that’s the gauntlet. And for me, every line like that is a massive opportunity to pitch something. I love the way that you can send an audience off into the credits. It’s about energy, it’s about tempo leading into that moment. And it’s about a shot that holds or doesn’t hold. It’s literally getting the right performance for the right thing. Those tonal tweaks, that’s what drives me as a director. Those are opportunities that I stay awake at night thinking about, thinking, “How am I going to do this? Because that can just fall flat if it’s done that way. But if it’s on the move, it would be more exciting.”

So you are constantly finessing what is already a great script, but you’re finessing it with visual ideas that are going to make it pay off. And if you’re not doing that, then you really shouldn’t be working on a show like Andor.

Cassian tells Kino, “Whatever we’re making here is clearly something they need.” There’s been a lot of speculation about whether the prisoners are building pieces of the Death Star, or something else. Is there a canonical answer to that question, and if so, can you divulge it?

I think it’s something to do with intergalactic plumbing? [Laughs.] I don’t know. No, legit, I was asking Tony on a regular basis, is he going to tell me what it is? And he would just give me a very sly look. So whether it’ll come back or not, I don’t know. That’s a question for Tony.

This might be a question for Tony too, but as a longtime advocate of giving nonhuman characters significant sci-fi screen time, I have to ask: Where are all the aliens? Is their absence sending a message?

Yeah, I think to some extent that’s down to Tony’s taste. I think it was a conscious effort to make the prison just a human-only prison. I don’t know whether there was ever a line that they were more species by species so that they didn’t have to alter the fabric of the prison to cater to different aliens in the prison that required a different kind of toilet or whatever. One of the kind of crazy things that we do is that this must be the first time you actually see a Star Wars toilet. Did you notice that? Did that stand out?

I think The Mandalorian beat you to it.

[Laughs.] Well, I love that. I love that we go to the Star Wars water closet. This is brilliant. The fact that we’re picking up the stone and seeing what’s underneath it in the Star Wars universe was really one of the driving forces for me into doing the show. I was really thrilled by the microbiome that Tony wants to display. I love the aliens that we were bringing into Ferrix, but he was always very concerned never to make it about them, never to do shots that were specifically alien-centric. He very much wanted it to be part of the fabric and not the focus. I think there’s logical reasons why there weren’t any aliens in the prison. And then generally, it’s a need or an urge to tell a story that’s a human story that is set in an alien world.

Have you seen or read the last two episodes of the season, or are you as in the dark as the rest of us?

Honestly, I think I was given them to read. I never did read them. I preferred to not read the scripts that I didn’t work on, only for the fact that I can watch them now as a fan. So yeah, I don’t know how the season ends. I’m looking forward to seeing it as a fan after Episode 10. I’m very excited.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.