Before Star Wars belonged to Disney, it belonged to Kathleen Kennedy. George Lucas himself picked the legendary producer to run his beloved namesake, Lucasfilm, before Mickey Mouse swooped in and bought it all up. And at that time the plan was always this: A new trilogy of films, which ends later this month in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
It’s been quite the ride for Kennedy, who, along with Force Awakens and Rise of Skywalker producer Michelle Rejwan sat, down with Gizmodo in Los Angeles earlier this week. The pair talked about the difficulty in crafting not just a satisfying conclusion to the one saga, but a trilogy of trilogies.
We also looked back at the past and how earlier versions of Episode IX didn’t work, and how much, if at all, was discussed way back in development on The Force Awakens.
Gizmodo: When you made The Force Awakens obviously there was some discussion about where this could all go. Rian Johnson then came in and took the story in his direction, and now J.J. Abrams is back to finish everything up. Looking back, was there a reason why the beats of the entire trilogy weren’t cemented around Episode VII and has that lack of structure been a benefit in retrospect?
Kathleen Kennedy: Well, first of all, when we sat down to do Force Awakens we spent a great deal of time working out all three movies and doing a real deep dive on the previous six and talking about that, understanding the mythology that George [Lucas] had created, bringing in people who had worked on those films, been a part of Lucasfilm. We brought in two or three different writers. There were, what?
Eight of us usually sitting in that room and whiteboarding what the possibilities are and looking at character arcs, identifying. Because George had already gone to Harrison [Ford], Carrie [Fisher] and Mark [Hamill] to do the film. So we knew that was a given. That we were bringing them back into the trilogy and we’re introducing new characters. So we had a sense of where this was going.
But the important thing is, I like to look at the first three movies that George did where he had different directors. He was really serving as the producing role in that. And we were doing a similar kind of thing, which is identifying genre and really allowing a filmmaker, and in the case of J.J. and Rian, huge Star Wars fans, and allowing them to get immersed, to find the centre of the story and then make it their own.
It’s obviously important, as George has always said, to have meaning in these movies. And as a director, I think every director should have something to say in what it is they’re trying to do and they need to find what’s personal for them.
In addition to something like Star Wars, which has this incredible fan base that cares so deeply, that wants to believe that we’re as immersed in that process as they are—that we’re looking at the nuances and the importance of the mythology as they are. And I can tell you that that is absolutely what goes on. It’s endless conversations along those lines.
So you say “cemented?” I don’t think anything’s ever “cemented” with Star Wars. It can’t be. It’s so rich with possibility that you don’t want to reach a point where you think you’ve made a decision, and then not leave yourself open to exploring other possibilities and other considerations. And when you get a lot of smart people in the room who are all Star Wars fans, that’s never going to stop. And I’ve certainly found, in the seven years now that we’ve been doing that, that that’s what makes this so fun. As we add people to the family and those voices become important voices to the creative process.
Michelle Rejwan: And I say this movie, in particular, had such a tremendous challenge in synthesizing not only the trilogy but nine films, the whole saga, and to deliver a sense of not only emotional satisfaction but inevitability while retaining that feeling of surprise as well. It was of utmost importance to us from the very beginning. And that was part of why this movie was so challenging because you’re bringing all of those threads to a great conclusion. All of those character arcs that have been from 1977 and beyond. So we feel it delivers on that satisfaction. We hope.
Gizmodo: You say you can’t cement something in Star Wars and yet, the marketing calls this “the end of the Skywalker saga.” No matter what happens in this movie, the story could go on, so isn’t putting that label on it creatively constrictive?
Kennedy: It’s only creatively constrictive with regard to the Skywalkers, because “the saga” really references the Skywalker family. And that’s what we’re bringing to a conclusion. There is an inevitability with that because of the actors and the characters they’re playing. So that’s really what we’re looking at more than anything. At least in my lifetime, there’s never going to be an end to Star Wars. So this isn’t the end of Star Wars, it’s the end of that family saga.
Gizmodo: Obviously, J.J. Abrams wasn’t the first director attached to this movie, so without spoiling anything, what was it about Colin Trevorrow’s version that didn’t work?
Kennedy: Well, I wouldn’t say it didn’t work. Colin was at a huge disadvantage not having been a part of Force Awakens and in part of those early conversations because we had a general sense of where the story was going. Like any development process, it was only in the development that we’re looking at a first draft and realising that it was perhaps heading in a direction that many of us didn’t feel was really quite where we wanted it to go.
And we were on a schedule, as we often are with these movies, and had to make a tough decision as to whether or not we thought we could get there in the time or not. And as I said, Colin was at a disadvantage because he hadn’t been immersed in everything that we all had starting out with Episode VII.
Gizmodo: One of the big decisions made by J.J. and Chris Terrio was bringing back the Emperor in some form. Was there a worry that bringing back the villain of the previous two trilogies would undercut the victories achieved in those two trilogies?
Rejwan: I think there was a feeling of inevitability that Palpatine had been a part of all three and in the biggest picture of nine movies, he has been there from the very beginning. And his presence in this movie, we will not spoil that, but when you see it it does feel to us, not only does it have the feeling of inevitability, but the ending of where we left him last, in Return of the Jedi, was very important to J.J. and Chris and to all of us.
We discussed it at great length. So no, I don’t think so. I think it definitely feels as though it is in the DNA of the nine. And it felt appropriate to have his presence be in this movie.
Gizmodo: What was the moment making this movie where everything clicked? Where you said, “We’ve got it. This is the way to end this Star Wars saga”?
Kennedy: I think there was a point in the shooting where there was an epiphany moment. Where all of us very clearly said, “Yes, this feels right.” The how, getting there, the details in that? We were right up until the end. And I think the great thing about the dialogue that happened consistently with J.J., Michelle, Chris, and myself was that because we all know each other pretty well—Chris was really the only person we didn’t know super well—but there was a very free, confident, honest dialogue that could happen.
Nobody was being overly polite. [Both producers laugh]. If you didn’t think something made sense. If you couldn’t follow it, if you thought, from a fan’s point of view, that you’re stepping outside the lines and it was a bogus kind of thinking, no one was afraid to say that because we knew how important this was to get right. And we didn’t let things go.
Rejwan: No [we didn’t].
Kennedy: If if we started to head down a path and then we would read the pages and we would talk to one another, and if we didn’t have some real sense of point of view—strong, solid point of view—then we would push J.J. I’m sure he would say that we all pushed him a lot and we weren’t afraid.
Rejwan: I think we really pushed each other.
Kennedy: Yeah, we weren’t afraid to say “No, I don’t see it. Here’s where I have a problem. This isn’t quite landing.” We were all just very honest with one another because we recognise how important it was. And I feel really fortunate to have certain people inside Lucasfilm that really, really know Star Wars. Know Star Wars far more deeply than I pretend to. And I think they sat at the feet of George for a long period of time.
They fundamentally understand what was always very important to him in terms of defining this mythology and understanding this mythology. And it’s important to have those voices weigh in as well. And we did that equally with Pablo [Hidalgo] and Dave [Filoni].
Kennedy: But it’s not…I’ve heard people say sometimes, “Well, isn’t that just a committee approach?” And it’s not. I’ve worked as a producer in film my entire career. And I always consider myself a voice in the room. But it’s not my ultimate decision. It’s the decision of the director, ultimately. And your job is to serve up as many curated possibilities that they can choose from, work with, see if it’s going to fit in the mosaic of storytelling and then arrive at a point of view to move forward.
And I just think we had a great working relationship with J.J. on this to really arrive at something that we all felt was emotionally meaningful and satisfying. And I think, knock on wood, that the fans are going to feel that, and they’re going to feel listened to. I think that’s always been an important thing to Lucasfilm is the fans are every bit as important to us as what any of us do. And I hope they feel that way with this. They seem to feel that way with Mandalorian.
Look for more from our chat with Kennedy and Rejwan next week where we discuss the decisions to reveal Palpatine and Dark Rey in the marketing, releasing The Mandalorian at the same time at The Rise of Skywalker, and the difficulty of coming up with that title. The big film hits theatres December 19.