Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – ‘It’s a war to do a movie like this’

JJ Abrams, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac on making Episode IX

JJ Abrams knows what audiences think of him. "I've never been great at endings," the film-maker says, just hours after delivering a finished version of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. With some hesitation, Abrams added, "I don't actually think I'm good at anything, but I know how to begin a story. Ending a story is tough."

This is an unusual admission for Abrams, having just directed and cowritten the Star Wars film that, when it opens, on Thursday next week, promises to be the final instalment in a nine-movie narrative about the Skywalker clan. Moviegoers have seen the curtain come down on this saga twice already: with Return of the Jedi, in 1983, which concluded with Luke Skywalker and his allies seemingly triumphant over the treacherous Empire; and again, in 2005, with Revenge of the Sith, which tracked the final steps of Luke’s father, Anakin, on his dark path to becoming the malevolent Darth Vader.

But what seemed like closed history was reopened once more in 2015, when The Force Awakens began a third trilogy in which the old guard of the original Star Wars movies fought alongside a new generation of heroes and villains. True to his boast, Abrams – who, after some trepidation, directed and helped write the screenplay for that film – inaugurated this trilogy with considerable fanfare as The Force Awakens went on to gross more than €2 billion worldwide. It was the only Star Wars film he intended to make.

So when Abrams was once again approached, amid a last-minute creative shake-up, about taking on The Rise of Skywalker, he baulked. To be considered a success, the new movie must satisfy a seemingly impossible array of demands: it has to wrap up the current trilogy while tying together the many themes and plotlines of its eight predecessors while – oh, yes – working as a complete story on its own. For those same intimidating reasons, Abrams accepted the assignment. “Sticking this landing is one of the harder jobs that I could have taken,” he says. “But that was why it felt worthy of saying yes.”

Like the stories told within the films themselves, the story of this Star Wars film is one in which inadvertent decisions lead to unintended consequences. It is a tale in which history repeats itself and destiny can be outrun for only so long before it must be confronted. Yet even as Abrams and his colleagues bid farewell to this part of Star Wars history, they are as curious as anyone to know what comes next for the series and its characters – in part because no one truly believes that their adventures are over.

I. Relaunch of the Jedi

To understand the conclusion of this new Star Wars trilogy, you must go back to its inception. The latest films were born from a union of creative enterprise and corporate mandate, after the Walt Disney Company acquired Lucasfilm from its founder, George Lucas, in 2012. That's when the monolithic studio announced its intentions to produce the seventh, eighth and ninth chapters in the space-faring fantasy series, part of what was to be an ambitious plan to release a new Star Wars movie every year. Even before handing the reins of his company to Kathleen Kennedy, its current president and the architect of the franchise's future, Lucas was having conversations with the original Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker – Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill – about resuming their roles.

At that preliminary stage, Abrams seemed like a natural candidate to help oversee a new era of Star Wars. He was an avowed fan of the original films, known for his stylised takes on genre TV shows (Alias and Lost) and for helping resuscitate ageing properties on the big screen (Mission: Impossible and, ahem, Star Trek).

But when Kennedy formally approached Abrams, his instinct was to decline. He explains, “It was too close to something that I cared too much about. I didn’t want to leave not liking it any more.” Or worse, he says, he feared “falling flat on my face and failing miserably”.

“My reaction was a reflexive one,” Abrams says. “I just thought it was too daunting, so I respectfully declined.” Although Abrams had said no in a phone call, Kennedy asked him if they could talk further in person. “I knew, when the two of us sat down face to face, that I had him,” she says.

II. The New Hopes

One by one, the leads of the new trilogy found their way on to the project. John Boyega, who plays the renegade storm trooper Finn, wasn't initially asked to audition, but he learned about the casting call from a friend who was being considered for the role. Daisy Ridley, who portrays the heroic Rey, seemed to will her opportunity into existence. "I wasn't approached," she says. "I hunted it down. I didn't even know if there was a part. I just had a feeling. So then I kept saying, 'Are there auditions for Star Wars yet?' And eventually there were."

They were rookie actors – Boyega had starred in the cult film Attack the Block, and Ridley had played small roles on TV shows like Mr Selfridge – and both were simply excited that Star Wars would provide them with long-term gigs. “Before then, I was just living from project to project,” Boyega explains. “A Star Wars film means six or seven months that I’m paying my bills.”

Once filming began on The Force Awakens, there was little time to revel in their fantastical surroundings. “I was mainly excited and then just terrified for a really long time,” Ridley says. “I was basically crippled with fear for a few weeks.”

More experienced stars like Oscar Isaac, who plays the dashing pilot Poe Dameron, found the production of The Force Awakens to be unexpectedly unnerving. "I hadn't felt that self-conscious in a very long time," Isaac says. "I remember we were about to shoot a scene and then Kathy Kennedy came up to fix my hair. It was crazy."

Isaac adds, “Everyone – particularly JJ – was looking for, What is the tone of this movie? If we’re the symphony, what is the instrument sound that’s coming out of this character? How do we get that? It was challenging. I suddenly was uncertain.”

III. Attack of the Sequels

Amid the frantic casting, writing and construction needed to get The Force Awakens under way, Kennedy went to Abrams with a further proposition: in addition to Episode VII, would he like to tackle Episodes VIII and IX as well? Abrams’s response was succinct: “I was, like, ‘Are. You. Crazy?’” he recalls. Kennedy acknowledges that Abrams had enough on his plate. “It was pretty obvious it was so overwhelming,” she says.

Instead, Episode VIII, titled The Last Jedi, was written and directed by Rian Johnson, who made Knives Out. In its story, the Force Awakens heroes were separated from one another, confronting personal roadblocks on individual journeys, and the actors found it just as challenging to make. “The characters were very frustrated, and it felt that way,” Isaac says. “You felt the difficult energy of those scenes, figuring that stuff out.”

The Last Jedi, released in 2017, was a success. But each time it addressed one of several cliffhangers left dangling from The Force Awakens – what would happen when Rey returned Luke Skywalker’s lightsabre to him? Who were her parents? Who was the nefarious Supreme Leader Snoke? – Johnson’s movie seemed to say: the answers to these questions aren’t as important as you think.

Abrams praises The Last Jedi for being “full of surprises and subversion and all sorts of bold choices”. “On the other hand,” he adds, “it’s a bit of a meta approach to the story. I don’t think that people go to Star Wars to be told, ‘This doesn’t matter.’” Even so, Abrams says The Last Jedi laid the groundwork for The Rise of Skywalker and “a story that I think needed a pendulum swing in one direction in order to swing in the other”.

IV. The Auteur Strikes Back

Some journeys end before they begin. So it went for Colin Trevorrow, the Jurassic World director and cowriter, who was originally set to direct Episode IX but left the project in 2017. (He and his collaborator Derek Connolly still share story credit on the film with Abrams and Chris Terrio. )

Explaining the change, Kennedy says, “We had gotten to not even a first draft when we realised it just wasn’t heading in the direction we’d been talking about.” She adds that Trevorrow’s departure was “very amicable” and something that “happens quite frequently in the development phase”. (A publicist for Trevorrow says he declined to comment for this article.) Such down-to-the-wire decisions are rare but not unprecedented on tent-pole studio films, and certainly not in the realm of Star Wars, where the Solo directors Philip Lord and Christopher Miller were replaced by Ron Howard after several weeks of principal photography.

With the clock already ticking on a planned 2019 release for Episode IX, Abrams was the only logical choice to take over – and even more reluctant than he was with The Force Awakens. On that movie, he says, “we got away by the skin of our teeth. Why the hell would I go back? Am I a moron to tempt fate a second time?” Abrams says he took the job knowing he’d be working “in an accelerated way from the beginning”, with three months less for postproduction than he had on The Force Awakens.

"I'm not saying it's like the closest that Star Wars will ever get to being live TV," he says, "but it was not leisurely." When it was announced that Abrams was indeed returning, his actors breathed sighs of relief. "I cried," Ridley says, explaining that the director brought a comforting sense of structure and security. Boyega says he was glad that Abrams would get to finish the tale he'd begun in Episode VII. "Even as a normal person in the audience, I wanted to see where that story was going," Boyega says.

Abrams, who brought in Terrio, the Argo screenwriter, as his writing partner, faced significant challenges on The Rise of Skywalker. Among them, the film had to provide a proper send-off for Carrie Fisher, who died in 2016. As Leia, Fisher had been an integral element of Star Wars, an embodiment of its hopefulness and its grit, and her story arc had not been finished by the end of The Last Jedi. Abrams’s solution was to draw on unused footage that Fisher had shot for The Force Awakens. “The idea of continuing the story without Leia was an impossibility,” he says. “There was no way we were going to do a digital Leia. There was no way we would, of course, ever recast it. But we couldn’t do it without her.”

V. The Ride of Skywalker

How you experienced the making of Episode IX depends on which tribe you belong to. For the series leads who met on The Force Awakens (and still haven't fully adjusted to being called veterans), there was the simple pleasure of having an adventure that brought Rey, Poe and Finn back together, fulfilling what Ridley calls "the Star Wars mythical thing of threes". As Boyega puts it, "We're in legit, legit Star Wars now. We've got a trio up in here."

Franchise newcomers like Keri Russell (cast as a masked mercenary named Zorii Bliss) and Naomi Ackie (who plays the warrior Jannah) feel that the new trilogy's lead actors did all the heavy lifting for them. "I'm not going to complain," Russell says. "It's fun to come in on their coat-tails and ride this train." With a laugh, Ackie adds, "They're all tired and weathered and worn, and we're just like, 'Hey, guys!' It's a blast."

Stalwarts like Anthony Daniels, who has played the anxious automaton C-3PO in all nine Star Wars saga films, found himself bewildered by the movies' increasing complexity. "One reason I liked the original was there weren't that many characters," he says. "You had the good guys, the bad guy, a few rocket ships and that was it, really. Then eventually we end up with hundreds of Jedis with different-coloured lightsabres, and I lose track."

The film-makers tried to shield the actors where possible from a behind-the-scenes process in which major plot elements and whole swathes of dialogue were being reworked up to and on the days they were filmed. As Terrio explains, “It’s a war to do a movie like this, and every day you have to get up and go to the front again. And maybe the day before, the battle didn’t go so well, but you have to get up with great optimism and enthusiasm to do it again.”

Abrams makes no apologies for this seat-of-the-pants approach. “As we did on Force Awakens,” he says, “while we’re shooting we’re reconsidering things, changing some significant story points, going back to ideas that we had loved but put away. That process never stopped.”

“Some people can say, ‘Oh, that sounds like it’s crazy,’” Abrams says. “But when you have the better idea, it doesn’t matter when it is – you have to try it.”

VI. The Phantom Ending

Why does the Skywalker saga have to end at all? Abrams points back to Lucas's own ever-evolving plans for the Star Wars series and to a certain feeling of symmetry: if each previous set of films was its own trilogy, shouldn't they all come together in a trilogy of trilogies? "Can it go on?" Abrams says. "Of course it can go on. But there's something bold about saying this is what the story should be."

As he slyly acknowledges, “Any great ending is a new beginning on some level.” But what the future of Star Wars might look like without its foundational narrative is something Abrams – who struck a lucrative overall deal with WarnerMedia in September – was in no hurry to envision. “I didn’t design that, so I don’t know,” he says.

It’s Kennedy’s responsibility to determine what comes after the final Skywalker chapter, and, as she puts it, “It doesn’t have to end.” But part of living up to Lucas’s vision, she says, is looking beyond it. “We’re all custodians of something that George created, and we’re trying to do the best we possibly can,” Kennedy says, adding that it is important to “recognise and honour what it is that he created – and move on. I think we’re ready to move on.”

Who will make the next Star Wars film, which Disney has already scheduled for 2022? Kennedy isn’t saying, but she has been developing new projects with Rian Johnson and with Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios. (David Benioff and DB Weiss, the creators of the Game of Thrones TV series, recently walked away from their own deal at Lucasfilm to focus on projects for Netflix.)

Kennedy says she continues to discuss opportunities with other artists, and she points to the success of The Mandalorian, the live-action Star Wars series created by Jon Favreau for the Disney Plus streaming service, as a model for the future of the franchise. Shows like it could provide a pipeline for new stories and characters, as well as for writers and directors who could make the feature films.

“I knew that Jon Favreau was a huge Star Wars fan,” she says. “I’d been talking to him, off and on, for a few years. He had this story, and suddenly, the two of us realised, not only could this be told in the television space, but we could also push technology.”

Determining what should come next, Kennedy says, is as simple as looking at the stories that Star Wars has already told. “It’s not as though we have nothing to dip into, but all it is, really, are road posts, pointing us in a direction,” she says. “You don’t spend a lot of time defining what it is that George intimates in this mythology. You tell stories about people, and you take the mythology and apply it to their conflict.”

VII. Will the Force Be with Them?

Daniels, the C-3PO actor, has been through too many Star Wars finales to believe that The Rise of Skywalker will be either his farewell or the ultimate conclusion of a storyline. “You feel like you’re coming to an end but not really closing down,” he says. “It’s a good end, and our perspective on it happens here” – he holds his hands up like a viewfinder and begins to pan across the room – “and then the cameras walk off over there.”

The actors with less tenure on the series are also beginning to understand what this transition means in personal terms. Their lives and careers are still largely ahead of them, and whether Star Wars has a lasting effect on them – positive, negative or none at all – remains to be seen. As Ridley puts it, “It’s just the saga that ends. We are all still going.”

Boyega describes his Star Wars farewell tour as bitter-sweet, saying, “It was sweet to play a character who grows in front of people’s eyes, and it’s bitter, leaving that consistency.” Every year he has worked on the franchise, it has dominated his schedule, providing a centre of gravity around which everything else in his life has revolved. “Now I have to go and create my own path,” he says.

Whether it takes months, years or decades, Boyega and his costars all believe they will one day return to their Star Wars roles. Pointing to Isaac, Boyega laughs and says, “This guy’s going to be in an X-Wing next week in a little spin-off series.”

Adopting an exaggerated announcer’s voice, Isaac replies, “‘Go Poe’, on Disney Plus.” (Needless to say, Disney has not disclosed plans for any such programme.) Ridley at first seems to dismiss the possibility of a future trilogy where she would help pass the torch to an even younger team of heroes. “I just don’t think anything could exceed this,” she says. But Boyega is not exactly buying that. “I’ll give her a call,” he replies to her. “I’ll be, like, ‘Girl, get your ass out of that damn house. Come on, Oscar said yes.’” And who knows? Maybe Abrams might even be the one to tell that story. “I just need one night’s sleep,” he says. – New York Times

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens on Thursday, December 19th