When Dave Filoni called last week, we were supposed to talk about Star Wars. He's an executive producer of the Disney XD animated series Star Wars Rebels, after all, and the show is airing its season one finale tonight.
But before reaching a galaxy far, far away, we made a detour. To Pittsburgh, our hometown. We’re both big hockey fans, too, so item one on the agenda was the Penguins and their awesome new third sweater.
"It's a beautiful jersey," Filoni says. "I play hockey Sunday and Monday nights. And my mask is very similar to Michel Dion's old mask from the '80s. So I've got it represented out here."
"Out here" is Northern California, not exactly a hockey mecca. But it is the home of Lucasfilm, the center of the Star Wars universe and Filoni’s professional base since 2008. He joined the studio as Supervising Director on The Clone Wars, then helped develop Rebels.
The fun, swashbuckling show takes place between Episodes III and IV. It focuses on a ragtag group of, well, rebels — the heroic Hera, ferocious Zeb, fearless Sabine, plucky droid Chopper, Jedi-in-hiding Kanan, and strong-in-the-Force-orphan Ezra — trying to topple the Empire. And, of course, there are members of the Empire hunting them down — the devoted Agent Kallus and evil Sith Inquisitor.
As the creative leader of Rebels, Filoni is one of the most important people working on Star Wars today. But growing up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, he never dreamed his love of art would lead him there.
"I knew I wanted to get into animation because I liked Fantasia. It kind of brought moving pictures and color and music all together," Filoni says. "But to think that I would one day work alongside George Lucas and that he and I would work on story and scripts and visuals, that part seems crazy."
Filoni's parents are both artists, and they encouraged his interest in drawing as a kid. His grandfather played baseball and football and got Filoni and his brother into sports. And while his mother read the Filoni boys books like The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series, their babysitter introduced them to hockey.
As he got older, Filoni honed his skills on the ice and as an artist. The art won out.
He got his professional start working on animated shows like King of the Hill and Avatar: The Last Airbender. In the late 2000s, he joined Lucasfilm to help develop Clone Wars. He directed the 2008 film that launched the series, then worked closely with Star Wars creator George Lucas over the show’s six seasons.
When the show ended in 2013, Disney and Lucasfilm announced a new animated series would replace it. Fans who loved Clone Wars were skeptical. But after a slow start, Rebels has begun to find its footing — both as a show and among Star Wars diehards. (The space battles, lightsaber fights, and mortal danger of the last few episodes helped.)
Filoni promises Rebels will reward viewers who loved Clone Wars.
"I think there's a lot for fans to look forward to," he says. "If they did like Clone Wars, they're going to be very happy with where Rebels goes at the end of the day."
Rebels is also preparing kids for the next live-action feature, Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, which will be released this Christmas. Filoni has met with JJ Abrams, the director of Episode VII, and has seen what Abrams is up to. No spoilers, but he describes it as "fantastic."
"It's just talking to a generation of people really that are just like I am, that love Star Wars, and now we just happen to be the inheritors of this story," Filoni says. "Our main focus as a group is just to make sure we get this right."
But ever the hockey fan, even with so much happening at Lucasfilm, Filoni can't help worrying about the Penguins getting it right this season.
He's wary of the Pens' cross-state rivals the Philadelphia Flyers. And a resurgent New York Islanders makes every Pittsburgh fan nervous. The teams have history, especially in the playoffs. And if you root for Pittsburgh, it's mostly bad.
"I like that we're challenged this year, though," Filoni says. "I like that we're not easily cruising into the playoffs in first place. I think it's going to make a difference that they have to battle. It's good for them.
Just to be safe, maybe he can use the Force to send the Pens some help down the stretch.
The season finale of Star Wars: Rebels airs tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Disney XD. Here's a preview, featuring Darth Vader!