Andor's Producer & Writer on Bringing Tony Gilroy's Vision to Life

by Susan Ryant

[This interview contains spoilers for Episode 10 of Andor] Tony Gilroy's critically acclaimed series Andor has transported audiences back to the five-year window of time before the tragic events of Rogue One , showcasing the journey that Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) went through to become the man that was willing to sacrifice his life to ensure the Death Star plans fell into the right hands. While Andor has focused on a whole ensemble cast of characters, Cassian has been the heart and soul of the series, with the last three episodes centered around his incarceration within an Imperial factory facility on Narkina 5. It was there that he met Kino Loy (Andy Serkis) and a series of events led the unlikely duo to stage a prison break in Episode 10. Just before the premiere, Collider got the opportunity to chat with screenwriter Beau Willimon, the man behind the Narkina 5 arc, and Andor's executive producer Sanne Wohlenberg.

During the conversation, Willimon and Wohlenberg discussed how Gilroy laid the groundwork for the series by showing up to the first meetings with a 75-to-80-page show bible, how they had a whiteboard of connections they wanted to make in the series, why Gilroy wanted to bring Melshi (Duncan Pow) into the series, what influenced the construction of Narkina 5, how early on Kino Loy's fate was known, and whether or not the series will pay off the mystery of what is inside Syril Karn's (Kyle Soller) "private box." The pair also briefly discussed where they are with Season 2, which is set to begin filming at the end of the month.

andor-episode-10-andy-serkis Image via Disney+

COLLIDER: The entirety of Andor is just so good. I think I've been driving my friends crazy because I've been like, "It's so anthropological and so smart." Beau, your three episodes really astounded me with the way that they approach the prison system and the panopticon. I'm just really curious, can you talk about the influences that influenced your approach to Narkina 5?

BEAU WILLIMON: When we were all sitting in the writer's room way back when this was pre-pandemic.

SANNE WOHLENBERG: November 2019, I think. A very intense week somewhere in New York, huddled away.

WILLIMON: It was a very small group, just a handful of us, including Sanne. Tony had come to the room with a lot of protein on the plate. He had a pretty worked-out vision for what he wanted to do. There were some gaps and some details that we needed to figure out, but he was very interested in doing a prison sequence at some point, and seeing Cassian have to escape. Really where it started from is 'how do we make a prison fresh?' Prisons, there are countless examples of good and bad prison movies out there. Tony and his brother had made a prison movie together. How do you make that fresh? So we knew that we didn't want to do the cliché gritty, grim, dark, dusty approach.

It kind of almost started with opposite day. Okay, well what's the opposite of dark and gritty? Maybe it's very brightly lit, and it's antiseptic. We started building from there, just really trying to set out to do something fresh. Actually, that ended up being far more terrifying than the sort of prison you might expect. And it was great to have Sanne there. Because as we are developing things like, "Okay, maybe there's a factory floor where they're building things. Maybe the floor itself is electrified." Then Sanne, from the get-go, was helping us think about what we could actually achieve on a practical level and made it so. I mean, Sanne, did you want to comment on that at all?

WOHLENBERG: Yeah. I mean, it was. As this idea, I think, as Beau said, prison is an exciting idea that Tony brought to the table, but it was also terrifying because you so quickly think along a way saying, "Oh, it's terribly familiar. We're falling into that trope." And like Beau says, having all this literally coming from the polar opposite, and then have minds like Beau, and Tony [Gilroy], and Dan Gilbert sitting in a room, it really kind of incredibly fast took a scary shape, and a really exciting one. But we also had our production designer, Luke Hull with us, and as these ideas kept flowing, we were always translating it, "What we could do is X." We could feed their creative flow in a direction that was achievable rather than giving somebody a task and then when it's all delivered saying, "Oh, no. We can't do none of that."

WILLIMON: It's so rare that you get to conduct a writer's room with both the lead line producer, executive producer there, and the production designer. To be able to have Sanne and Luke there with us meant that we could move much more quickly. And their contributions to the ideas in building upon them, they were as much a part of the writer's room as the writers.

andor-diego-luna-1 Image via Disney+

Talking about the writer's room, I'm curious to know, how early on did you know the arcs for characters? I know with Kino in Episode 10, such a gut-punch when he reached the end, and he says he can't swim, and it's just such a tragic moment. When you were first starting to write that character. Did you already see that throughline of building up to that, or did it happen naturally as you were writing?

WILLIMON: Well, if I remember correctly, and Sanne, correct me if I'm wrong, Tony started with about a 75 to 80-page bible of broad strokes this season. Some aspects of that were worked out and more detailed than others. The prison was pretty loose, that sort of section. So there was a lot to figure out. I think almost all of the characters that you see in the prison had not been developed. We developed those in the room, and we knew that we wanted someone at the center of it that would be sort the face of the prison from the perspective of the prisoners, a great role that we could cast that we could have an emotional attachment to, and someone that really went through a journey from, "Hey, I'm just trying to do my thing and get out of here in my 249 days," to becoming, in the course of three episodes within at least that microcosm, a rebel.

The character of Kino really was developed in the room. I honestly don't remember if we got to "I can't swim" in the room or not, or if that kind of came later in outline and script phase. I think we did get to it because we're always approaching things from an emotional perspective. The feeling was, "What is the most heartbreaking thing that could happen at the end of this journey for him?" Which is that he's made this emotional journey to get to this place of rebellion, and yet having led these prisoners out to the water, he himself will never escape. That line of, "I consider myself already dead," actually punches you double at the very end.

WOHLENBERG: It really does because it's such a strong line, even before the end, and then it really gets another meaning. I think Kino Loy was also a character quite early on out of this discussion we also decided, between Tony and Beau, kind of all of these conversations. Actually, as much as Cassian also really finds his voice as a rebel in the prison, when he has been running away from that, and he was a mercenary, but not really, and he was politicized. But in this kind of informative journey, it really is the first time that he will say, "Enough is enough. And I will incite a rebellion."

But it seems so fresh and interesting when you came up with it that actually, he shouldn't be the one who addresses the people and brings them. But he actually finds somebody who is in the right position to do that, and works with him, and kind of helps him in the way of becoming a rebel. He becomes that teacher and guides somebody. That was a really new development for him, too. And I think a really fresh approach, because I'm sure the audience would've expected it will be Cassian on the microphone, and I thought it was just a really clever thing coming out of the writer's room. And it allowed that guest part to really be a very much at the heart of the story and the emotional connection for both characters is just enormous because of it, I think.

I love that Andor has been so smart with its Easter eggs and the way that it has woven characters from other stories like Melshi, who we get to meet. We see him in Rogue One and the way that characters are introduced. I’m interested to know, how that process worked. Did the story group go, "Oh, this is a character that you could easily integrate."?

WOHLENBERG: The process really starts with Tony Gilroy's mind. He really just very much by himself, and he needs to do that by himself initially. Really kind of comes up with the overriding throughline of Cassian's journey and a lot of building blocks of it. And then, as Beau says, there's a lot of things that you have a skeleton direction of it all. And somebody like Melshi coming back, that came to him, and then we just had to. Actually, the prison seems the obvious place of how can we feed some people back and really expand the world that you know. Yet you tell the story of the original story of their relationship. Finding the prison really was just the ideal place for those people to connect.

WILLIMON: I remember Tony talking about how much he enjoyed working with that actor and was looking for an opportunity to bring Melshi back but didn't know where necessarily. So we kind of had it on the back burner, for instance, how do we get Sal back into this? But we never want to do it from a place of just pandering, or let's just, "Hey, ma. Look what I can do?" It had to meet a very high bar. Only if it felt necessary and organic, and we could push the story forward in a way that wasn't just plot-driven, but that would touch you emotionally. The idea, we got chills I remember when we all... I don't remember who said it out loud first, but, "What if Melshi's in that prison?" And it's like, "Oh, my god."

WOHLENBERG: From a reminder on a board, on a whiteboard that Beau writes “Let's bear these people in mind, and how can we feed them through?” But the idea of him bringing back is Tony is always the first kernel, and then others get added. And it really is that tiny writer's room, and Tony's very invaluable collaborators in Beau and Dan that really allow that, or a kind of fast and furious and very intense way to branch out. And then it's something for them all to take away and then really do the deep dive when it comes to actually now translating it into scripts. That's how the really hard work starts.

Duncan Pow as Ruescott Meshi in Andor Episode 8.

So we're all still experiencing Season 1, but I'm sure both of you are knee-deep in Season 2. What is it then like getting to go back and getting ready to start shooting not too far in the future?

WOHLENBERG: Busy.

Is there anything that you learn from Season 1 that you're bringing with you to Season 2?

WOHLENBERG: Well, it's kind of interesting. In Season 1, of course, you find the whole world, and you really, for the first time try to bring Tony's vision, and what the flavor and DNA of his Star Wars into iteration is to the screen. And do you think we know now what that DNA is and be a step ahead? But of course, it's a world-hopping show and there's always new challenges, but you bring that. But you also, you now know what a beast it is we have to tame. The ignorance felt sometimes like bliss.

WILLIMON: Well, I mean, first of all, it's just an amazing team. There's hundreds of people that make this happen. I mean, at the head of it, of course, is Tony and Sanne and Luke, I feel like is the triumvirate that actually makes all this happen. And the rest of us are lucky to be able to serve Tony's vision and try to make something special. But there's just a great team, and there's a shorthand. So you have that going into a following season, which is really helpful. But you also, you've now established 12 episodes worth of... You have a much deeper, richer sense of this landscape of characters and a momentum for where the story is going. And then Tony did something really bold. He said, "Okay, our first season is one year in this journey. And the second season," which I believe that this has been reported, I don't think we're letting any cats out of the bag.

It has.

WILLIMON: Season 2 Is covering four years in the same amount of time that we covered one. So there's an acceleration. So you have all this knowledge of the characters, and the world, and momentum. And Tony's always had a long-game picture of how we get to the fifth year in terms of the story of Cassian Andor, but now you're dealing with this fresh new challenge in a wonderful way of this acceleration of story, and of evolution over time, which is I think really exciting. That's about as much as we could probably say about Season 2.

WOHLENBERG: Yes, you put it very well, Beau.

Kyle Soller as Syril Karn in Andor Image via Disney+

Beau, I had a question about Syril Karn. We got, I guess a bit of a McGuffin with this private box of his that his mother was rifling through. Is that something that's going to be built on, or is that just something that was designed to continue to feed into this idea that he's a little bit of a loose cannon?

WILLIMON: Well, I certainly can't comment on anything that's still yet to come. So I mean, I applaud the effort here. I will say that, so keep watching is my answer to that. But Syril is one of these wonderful characters that Tony walked into the room with, and had a pretty detailed and extensive idea of what he wanted to do with this character. Syril has just been such a joy to think about, for us to discuss in the room, to write. Because at the root of it is this relationship with his mom. And you don't see a ton of those types of relationships, except for Luke's father, which is a totally different dynamic. But it speaks to the humanity of the characters at the center of this project.

That's always what Tony is approaching it with. Even if they're working for the Empire, even if they're ideologically in direct opposition to the rebellion who are supposed to be our heroes, you still can't help being interested and fascinating, and at times even rooting for this guy, which is a really remarkable thing to think that there's moments where you feel sort of empathically connected to this guy because he's dealing with his mom who he loves and also hates at the same time. And then you're like, "Wait a second. But actually, he's working for the Empire here. Wait, hold up."

WOHLENBERG: You feel for him.

WILLIMON: So I think that's just one of the sort of remarkable things that Tony's done in his approach in general, and Syril’s evidence of that from the beginning.

Andor is streaming now on Disney+. For more on the show watch our interview with Andy Serkis down below: