Some might say that THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the end of an era. It is the end of the Skywalker saga, which began back in 1977 when Episode IV: A New Hope was released, and minds were blown the world over.
Ahead of this monumental release, a lucky few were invited to witness a press conference featuring the cast, writer/director, writer, and producer, moderated by Ava DuVernay. She kicked everything off by talking to esteemed director J.J. Abrams, who admitted the pressures of this film were a bit different than when he directed 2015’s The Force Awakens.
Now, thankfully, they knew they had a great cast. They knew they worked well together and produced amazing, memorable work. “What we didn’t know,” Abrams said. “Was everything else, and this is wrapping up not one film, not three films, but nine. So, the responsibility was significant and the movie, I mean, this is a pretty big picture.”
However, despite the massive size and importance of the film, Abrams knew one thing would matter more than any others. “None of it would work if you didn’t care deeply and track with the people,” he said.
Of course, even he was one of those important people that came together to make this project work. So how did he get involved? Well, Kathleen Kennedy trusted him because she’d known him since he was about 15 years old and had won a contest for movies he and Matt Reeves had made.
“The one thing I know about Star Wars and the one thing I know about these kinds of tentpole movies is this unique combination of needing dramatic storytelling gravitas, and a great sense of humor and I think there are few filmmakers that really embody both of those things and also have the capability to really manage something this huge,” producer Kathleen Kennedy said. “And J.J. was my first choice.”
JJ Brought in Oscar-winning writer Chris Terrio, who he knew happened to be a huge Star Wars fan. “I was in a screening and I didn’t have J.J.’s cell phone number in my phone, so it was a random 310 number. And I thought why is this random person in Los Angeles calling me?” Terrio said. “Finally, I listened to the message, and I hyperventilated a little, and I called back and he said, “Do you want to write Episode 9 with me?”
Terrio noted that he didn’t have to say anything else. He just knew. “So, for a good eight minutes, I let myself take a leap in the air, and then I realized, my God. We have to land this vehicle somehow. We have to land the biggest Star Destroyer in the world on the end of a needle,” he said. “And then we got to work.”
They started in a room with big, blank whiteboards at Bad Robot. And he said, “Eventually, the boards became a Word Document that was 10 pages, and then 50 pages, and then 121 pages. And then that became the script.”
Keri Russell was also new to the team, playing Zorii Bliss. When Abrams made the call to Russell to ask if she was interested in starring in Star Wars, her response was exactly what you would expect, “Uh, yeah!”
And she immediately embraced Zorii’s mask, wearing it on set, even when she wasn’t filming. “I love the mask. I mean, that’s my fantasy dream sequence that I can see everyone in this super-tough version of myself, my costume, and no one can see me… that’s my dream! It’s a real power play because no one can see what you’re thinking, but you can see everyone else,” Russell said.
But she’s not the only badass woman in the film (duh.). Naomi Ackie told the audience about understanding her character Jannah through her physicality. “I felt like Jannah’s strength was in her body. She’s a very grounded character,” Ackie said. However, that doesn’t mean she can’t be vulnerable. “You don’t have to just be strong and fierce, but you can also… sometimes vulnerability is a strength at the same time,” Ackie explained. “So, finding that balance was really interesting and I think we found it.”
Then, poor sweet cinnamon roll Kelly Marie Tran (who was bullied off of social media by negative Star Wars fanboys), got a chance at the mic. And, of course, she was the absolute ray of sunshine she has always been.
“There seems to be a bond between everyone and the new guys,” she said, of working with the new cast members. “Everyone just feels, it sounds so cheesy and so cliched, but it truly feels like everyone is a family. We’re all just there to have fun and be a part of something that’s bigger than us as individuals. And that’s a really cool thing to share with people.”
She also briefly spoke about working with Carrie Fisher, or – the remaining footage of Fisher from the previous films that they were able to edit into THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. “I think for myself, because I can only speak for myself, there’s sort of this idea that J.J. was talking about ending nine films, and Carrie was such a big part of all that. So I think for me, personally, there was a lot of wanting to honor this thing, and do right by this thing. And I think that she’s pretty effing incredible in this movie.”
On editing General Leia Organa (Fisher) into the movie, Abrams said point-blank, “The idea of continuing the story without Leia wasn’t a possibility.” However, they were also not going to hire a new actress or create some bastardized, digital version of her. Thankfully, they were able to use scenes from the previous film to keep her a part of it all.
Would things have been different had Fisher still been around? Of course. However, Abrams thinks she would be proud of the final product – which also features scenes of Fisher acting with her daughter, Billie Lourd. “We were able to do something, I think, that Carrie would be happy with. She’s great in the movie, of course. And it’s still emotional and moving to think of her, and how sad we all are that she’s not sitting with us here today,” Abrams said.
Unfortunately, Fisher was not the only loss suffered by the Star Wars family since the last film. Peter Mayhew, who had long played Han Solo’s best pal Chewbacca, passed away in April 2019. For this film, Joonas Suotamo stepped into the beloved role. And he credits Mayhew’s brilliant take – walking “not quite human-like” – as the reason for Chewbacca’s lasting legacy.
Fellow long-timer Anthony Daniel, who portrays C-3PO (one of my favorite characters), admitted that as the series ends, he’s only just beginning to understand just how big it really is. He said he’s always been “too close” to the project to see it for what it was, adding, “Thanks to everybody who has come to be fond of C-3PO over the years.”
Lando Calrissian is also back for the conclusion, and though DuVernay asked if he had felt the need to re-watch the old movies to get back into character, he admitted, he just jumped back in. “This has been a great pleasure for me, coming back to Lando. I didn’t think that it would happen,” Williams said. “But when I got the call from J.J., I just sat there, I just chuckled. I thought it was just a wonderful gift. So I’m a very, very happy human being right now.”
Adam Driver, the inimitable Kylo Ren (or Ben Solo), is back, joining other returning cast-mates John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Oscar Isaac. He talked of the deep meaning imbued into the film by Abrams, noting that when it came to The Force Awakens, it was referring to the forces of light and dark awakening, as manifested in the different characters.
And regarding whether or not he kept Ben Solo in mind while portraying Kylo Ren, he kind of said it was inevitable. “When people are actively trying to deny a certain part of their lives, I think they can do it pretty successfully,” Driver said. “And then it just turns into what is happening around them that brings it out of them.”
Isaac, meanwhile, is playing a character with much more levity, in Poe Dameron. “He’s always been kind of a wild card energy,” he laughed. “There’s kind of a relentless, almost aggressive optimism that he has, and how that is tested and how he tries to be there for his friends, tries to push them along even when it seems quite hopeless,” Isaac said.
And he’s not alone. Boyega, who plays Finn, joked of how pure of heart his character is. “Proactive love is something Finn does on a day to day basis. Throughout the film, a lot of the time Rey is going off on this really hard journey as a character blessed with so much power, and Finn tries to support her in that journey. And sometimes it’s hard,” Boyega said. “In my real life, if I’ve tried to get in contact with you three or four times and you’re going off, I’m going to leave you alone. Finn’s going to come for you and try and make it work regardless.”
“That’s some Jesus sh*t,” he said, to roaring laughter from the audience. “I’m not built like that.”
Richard E. Grant, AKA Allegiant General Pryde, understands that love though, because he couldn’t help but to share his (spoiler-free) amazement at the final cut of the movie on Twitter.
“I thought that Disney would sue me because I think that you’re not supposed to say anything about it. But I didn’t tweet any spoilers about it at all,” Grant insisted. “Having seen the first one when I was a theater student when I was 20 years old before any of the younger cast were even born, it’s an extraordinarily emotional thing to see – just the passing of time that goes through all of these movies. It felt really like a combination of everything I read in the Bible, Greek mythology, The Wizard of Oz, all rolled into one, in this extraordinary summation of the whole story that delivers an emotional wallop at the end that I was totally unprepared for. I was wiped out and I barely slept.”
Now if that doesn’t make you want to see the film, I don’t know what will. That’s a hell of a review. But that doesn’t mean the film wasn’t without its difficulties.
Ridley, who plays Rey, shared, “With the physical stuff, you train and train and train, and then the adrenaline helps you on the day to do the thing… but I would say I was more tired, emotionally. Because there really wasn’t a day where I was like, no, it’s just a quick scene. Coming from the last one, which was quite heavy, even the joyous scenes, I found very strange to do.”
And Terrio talked about writing struggles that, in the end, came down to not wanting to let go. On one particular instance, he said, “I think the reason J.J. can’t write this scene, is because he doesn’t want Star Wars to end.” DuVernay called THE RISE OF SKYWALKER a love letter to the franchise.
Ridley believes it is bigger than just a movie, connecting to the world at large. “There are a lot of people up against magnificent forces, that are fighting the good fight. And the characters aren’t real, but what they’re doing is perilous in cinema,” she said.
“We live in a crazy world. We live in a crazy time. And Star Wars for me was about hope and it was about community. It was about the underdog. And it was about bringing people together. And seeing all oddballs represented, the most unlikely friends in the most unlikely places… to tell a story that is, of course, a giant spectacle, but the thing that mattered to me most… is really the people who are sitting here, and what you’re watching,” Abrams added. “It really is about hope, and coming back to a sense of possibility and unity. If Star Wars can’t do that for us, I don’t know what can.”
What can, indeed. STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, the conclusion of the beloved nine-part saga, arrives in theaters December 20.
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