Star Wars fans love legends. They love the expansive, complex, and seemingly infinite universe that George Lucas built 40 years ago. But they also love the mythology surrounding the moves themselves, the stories of the creative decisions behind iconic moments and the tales of how certain characters came to be. So is it any wonder that we’re obsessed with the original endings of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story? Is anyone surprised that we’ve noticed all of the trailer shots seen in the movie and wondered what happened to them? It’s only natural.
Thanks to original screenwriter Gary Whitta, we now know a little bit more about the film’s original ending. No, not the ending glimpsed in the previews. The original ending. The one they never even shot. And now, we can take a closer look at all three Rogue One endings that existed at one time or another.
The Escape Pod Ending
When I spoke to Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, he told me that the first draft of the screenplay ended with Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor surviving. This was not written because they thought it was the right ending – this was written because they thought they couldn’t get away with killing them:
The first ever screenplay by Gary Whitta…we were chatting about this and it was clear we were going to kill a lot of people. Potentially everyone. We just felt "There's no way they're going to let us do this. So for this first draft, let's try to do the best version we think of with Jyn and Cassian surviving." That what was written. And then [Lucasfilm president] Kathleen Kennedy read it and at the end she said "Shouldn't they all die?" And we said "Yeah, of course. We'd love to, but can we do that?" And she said "We can do anything we want."
Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, Whitta finally revealed the details of this written and quickly abandoned version. Like in the ending seen in the film, Jyn and Cassian steal the Death Star plans, but they don’t have to climb a giant tower to upload them to the fleet. Instead:
A rebel ship came down and got them off the surface. The transfer of the plans happened later. They jumped away and later [Leia's] ship came in from Alderaan to help them. The ship-to-ship data transfer happened off Scarif.
Once they’re in space, Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer attacks Cassian and Jyn’s ship, attempting to destroy it before the transfer is complete. Eventually, he does succeed, but not before the plans are successfully uploaded to Leia’s Tantine IV, which promptly escapes (leading us straight into the events of the original Star Wars). And then we see the wreckage of the Rebel ship and within that debris:
[Jyn and Cassian] got away in an escape pod just in time. The pod looked like just another piece of debris.
While this is a cute echo of The Empire Strikes Back, where Han Solo hides the Millennium Falcon in a Star Destroyer’s garbage to avoid detection, it’s an underwhelming ending. It’s a Hollywood conclusion: the two heroes miraculously escape while everyone else on the ship dies only because they’re the two lead characters and they had to live. Snooze. Thankfully, as Whitta himself tells Entertainment Weekly, everyone knew it was a bad ending, and it never made it to the next draft.
The Beach Ending
As seen in the original Rogue One trailers, the film originally featured a pivotal action scene set on the beaches of Scarif, where Jyn and Cassian found themselves under fire from an Imperial Walker. In the final film, Jyn and Cassian barely see an action on the beach. So what happened here? Edwards explained this one to me:
I think the main thing that changed at the end…what used to happen, and you can get a sense of this in the early trailers, the transmission tower for the plans was separate from the main base on Scarif. To transmit the plans, they had to escape and run along the beach and go up the tower.
A careful look at the trailer will also reveal that Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO is also present with them during this sequence, which means that he perished later in this ending than he does in the final version (where he dies outside of the data vault). While there is some striking footage here, Edwards says that this version of the ending simply didn’t work – it was just too much:
In cutting the film, it just felt too long. We had to find ways to compress the third act, which was quite long as it was. And one real, fast, brutal solution was to put the tower in the base, so they don't have to run across the beach and do all of that stuff to get there. That became a decision that eliminated the shots you see in the trailer of the back of Cassian and Jyn and the AT-ATs. That was some of the reinvention that happened. It was all to do with compression.
This observation (and that sweet Disney money) led to those much-talked-about reshoots, which significantly altered the climax and kept Jyn and Cassian in one building for the final act of the film.
The Tower Ending
And that brings us to the final version of the movie’s ending, where everyone (including Jyn and Cassian) perish in the final battle, and there is no dramatic dash across the shoreline. On paper, it’s a better ending than the escape pod version and in execution (according to the director) it’s better than the beach version. If there’s one takeaway from this, it’s that filmmaking is a process of discovery: there is no such thing as a perfect first draft, and perfect first cuts are one screening way from requiring significant reworking. Rogue One is an excellent movie with a very effective ending, but it only got there after everyone involved hacked and slashed and reassessed and re-shot until they had exactly what they needed.
Someday, we may see the footage from this alternate cut. For now, we’ll make due with the fact that Edwards, Whitta, and everyone at Lucasfilm put the right ending over the safe ending.
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