J.J. Abrams is racing.
The director has been tasked with bringing four decades of the most popular and longest-running sci-fi franchise of all time to an epic conclusion. And nowadays he’s feeling a bit like Luke Skywalker flying his X-wing down the Death Star trench in A New Hope as TIE fighters closed in — under a bit of pressure, in other words, with the fate of the entire Star Wars universe depending on him.
“We always knew we were going to have three fewer months to postproduction this film,” says Abrams, who took over co-writing and directing duties on the movie two years ago after successfully rebooting the franchise with 2015’s blockbuster The Force Awakens. “So much is still being worked on. It’s literally a practical race to get it finished.”
If that admission sounds worrisome, hold your fire on those tweets.
Despite a deadline crunch to make the film’s Dec. 20 worldwide launch (EW’s interview was conducted in late October), Abrams says he’s feeling “infinitely better” at this very late stage about The Rise of Skywalker than he was about The Force Awakens.
“We had more reshoots on Episode VII than this one,” Abrams says. “We had more story adjustments on VII than this one. We didn’t know if these characters would work, if the actors would be able to carry a Star Wars movie. There were a lot of things we didn’t know. On this, we knew who and what worked, and everyone is doing the best work I’ve ever seen anyone do. But the ambition of this movie is far greater than Force Awakens. What we set out to do was far more challenging. Everything is exponentially larger on this.”
For example: Disney has released three trailers for The Rise of Skywalker. Some of the shots are stunning and seemingly revealing: desert scavenger–turned–Jedi apprentice Rey (Daisy Ridley) and First Order leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) clashing with lightsabers on the half-submerged wreckage of the second Death Star, which was blown up in Return of the Jedi; Rey facing off against a somehow resurrected Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid); the Millennium Falcon flying into a massive armada of Star Destroyers. Plus, those bewildering teases of Rey turning to the Dark Side and teaming up with Kylo.
Yet Abrams says fans still don’t really know anything. “The [trailers] that have come out are scratching the surface of what the movie is,” the famously spoiler-averse director says.
Asked if there are major action sequences we’ve yet to see any footage from, Abrams replies with a firm “Yes” and then, naturally, goes silent.
John Boyega, who plays stormtrooper–turned–Resistance fighter Finn, says his first reaction to the script penned by Abrams and Chris Terrio was he had to “read the script six more times because there was so much information in there.”
Here’s what we know about how Episode IX begins: It’s been more than a year since the events of 2017’s The Last Jedi. The First Order has decimated the Resistance. Rey has been training to use the Force. Finn and hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) have been sent by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to find allies throughout the galaxy, but so far haven’t had any luck. “They’re trying to put bandaids on this leaking ship of the Resistance,” Isaac says.
Their mission leads Finn, Poe, and Rey to work together, which has, oddly, never happened before in the trilogy. And since there’s a time jump, the characters have all grown and changed since we last saw them. “We’re not just a ragtag group of people who have been thrown together,” Isaac says. “We’ve actually had time to train. There are some really great sequences with the three of us in infiltrating spaces.”
Both Isaac and Boyega say they had their character wishes granted for the final film. Isaac wanted Poe to get “out the cockpit and into the group,” while Boyega wanted Finn to become a more capable solider (and not, as the actor candidly puts it, just a “comedic goofy dude who never gets stuff done”).
“I definitely wanted more after Episode VIII,” Boyega says. “[Rise of Skywalker] makes Finn’s Episode VIII arc make more sense. We got to bring out a side of Finn we haven’t seen.”
To help spark the trio’s on-screen chemistry, Abrams told his cast to feel free to improvise dialogue, and many scenes were shot using long, continuous takes to keep their flow going. “J.J. came back with a new energy and new vibe,” Boegya says. “He wanted dialogue to be messy and natural, and that got all of us really excited.”
“I think it really captures the spirit of the original trilogy,” Isaac adds. “On top of that there’s fact that Rey has…“
The actor stops, catching himself before revealing too much.
Rey has… what?
“Rey is driving her own thing,” Ridley says. “She’s not doing what other people are telling her to do.”
We last saw Rey mourning the death of her mentor Luke Skywalker (who returns in the film, presumably in Force ghost form, played once again by Mark Hamill) and shutting the door to Kylo’s power-mad seduction attempt. The heroine has since made progress in her Jedi training. “I have skills that have developed, but ‘confident’ isn’t a word I’d use to describe it,” Ridley says. “She’s definitely more in control of everything and can do new fun stuff, but she’s vulnerable and a little insecure about at all.”
Yet Rey will use more than her Force powers in the new film. As Abrams hints: “The scavenger who is desperate and haggling for portions and trying to survive [in Force Awakens] — those special skills and that special experience ends up being something that is essential to saving the galaxy.”
Ridley trained in kickboxing for the final chapter as well, but says the emotional toll of Rey’s journey was more difficult than any combat scenes. “It’s a heavy story for Rey,” Ridley says. “There were days where I was literally like, ‘I can’t do this, I’m so tired, I don’t know if I can like reach that emotion again.’”
Part of Rey’s journey involves solving the mystery of her identity. Well, again. Kylo revealed in The Last Jedi that Rey’s parents are deceased nobodies, “filthy junk traders [who] sold you off for drinking money.” The line embraced the idea that a hero doesn’t need to come from somebody special in order to be somebody special. Yet many fans called foul as the trilogy has teased Rey’s identity as being crucial information from the start (“Classified?” Rey echoed back to BB-8 during her debut sequence. “Me too. Big secret”).
“The parents thing is not satisfied — for her and for the audience,” Ridley says. “That’s something she’s still trying to figure out — where does she come from?”
It’s unclear if Abrams has made a course correction to Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson’s plan or there was always more to say about Rey’s parentage. Either way, wasn’t the Episode VIII scene supposed to be sincere?
“It’s not that she doesn’t believe it,” Ridley says carefully, “but she feels there’s more to the story. And she needs to figure out what’s come before so she can figure out what to do next…”
An even bigger cliffhanger is the resolution of Rey’s complex relationship with the First Order’s ruthless leader, who, okay, sure, also looks hot shirtless in high-waisted pants (but what if he didn’t?). Kylo has grown beyond being a “petulant teenager,” and Driver says Kylo’s killing of Supreme Leader Snoke was “kind of a birth moment for him.”
“He had all of these pseudo father figures that he had to either live up to or literally kill to become his own person for the first time,” the actor says.
Naturally, Kylo’s destiny will lead to at least one lightsaber clash with Rey. Abrams sees the duo as “two sides of the same coin,” noting, “even when they’re not together they still haunt each other in a way — they know they are each other’s unresolved business.”
For his part, Driver rejects any labels for the Rey-Kylo relationship. “I don’t think it’s all one thing,” he says. “Part of the fun of playing it is the boundaries of it keep changing. At times it’s more intimate, sometimes less intimate. Sometimes it’s codependent. And then it’s, obviously, adversarial.”
That Rey and Kylo end up battling on the wreckage of the second Death Star continues Abrams’ penchant for showcasing ruined relics of the original trilogy — like Rey spelunking in a wrecked Star Destroyer and living in an AT-AT walker on Jakku in Force Awakens. “It felt like going into the haunted house, the place that you have to go to,” Abrams says of bringing back the iconic space station. “This is a story of people having to grapple with the burden the prior generation dumps on those that follow. So literally returning to this wreck of the past and having to fight it out felt like an obvious metaphor, but also felt incredibly cinematic.”
Of course, there’s another original trilogy fallen icon in the film too. Fisher died after filming The Last Jedi. Figuring out how to utilize Fisher’s previously deleted scenes in the new movie was one of Abrams’ biggest challenges. “Saying Leia had passed away, or that she was off somewhere else, felt like a cheat,” Abrams says. “Then I remembered we had these scenes that we hadn’t used from Episode VII. It was like finding this impossible answer to this impossible question. Suddenly we had classic Carrie in these amazing moments. So when you see in the movie, it’s her, she’s there. It’s not like there’s some crazy digital trickery. She’s just in the movie.”
A couple of other original trilogy characters are likewise integral. Billy Dee Williams is back as that ol’ pirate Lando Calrissian for the first time in live action since Return of the Jedi. Williams says he’s excited to return to the character despite enduring fans coming up to him for decades accusing him of betraying Han Solo. “The whole Star Wars experience feels like it never goes away; It’s always there,” Williams says. “There are all of these things that have happened in Lando’s life that he’s got to resolve.”
There’s also paranoid android C-3PO, who in the latest Skywalker trailer ominously says he’s taking a “last look” at his friends. Threepio is essential to a movie’s plot for the first time since A New Hope (Ridley points out Rey might spend more time with Threepio than any character in the film).
“In previous recent movies Threepio has just been kind of window dressing, something on the mantlepiece, you polish it and dust it o when guests are coming,” says Anthony Daniels, who has played the golden droid’s body and voice in every Skywalker Saga movie. “J.J. and Chris came up with this aspect of Threepio we had not seen before that’s remarkably clever. They go down deep into ancient Star Wars and came up with something refreshingly new.”
Joining Threepio in the metal headgear club is newcomer to the saga Keri Russell. Despite having worked with Abrams for years on Felicity, the actress found herself escorted to a small room where she could only read the Skywalker script under watchful guard. Her character is Zorii Bliss, who’s “involved in some intimate, sketchy stuff” and wears a large brass-and-crimson Daft Punk-like helmet.
“For a shy person this is my ultimate dream job — I get to be in Star Wars and my face is covered,” Russell marvels. “I can see everyone and no one can see me. Though I now have giant throbbing neck muscles like Mr. T.”
There’s also newcomer Naomi Ackie portraying Jannah, a bow-and-arrow-wielding warrior who rides a horse-like creature called an Orbak. Real animals were used on set, and until you’ve ridden a horse dressed up like exotic alien across the surface of the Death Star you haven’t really lived. “I was just gobsmacked,” Ackie says of the experience. “Every day you’re grappling with the fact that every choice you make in a small moment is going to be broadcast to the entire world.”
While the film is introducing new characters, Abrams insists Rise of Skywalker won’t set up a future story. He’s not leaving loose threads for Disney to hang another trilogy directly onto the back of this one. Lucas’ original dream of an intergalactic tale about a farm boy from Tatooine is at last about to set — just like those dreamy twin suns collapsing into the desert. “It’s a very good ending, and a good ending feels right,” Daniels says simply.
And yet, in another way, the final Skywalker Saga film is very much about the future of the franchise. Star Wars will continue to exist in an omniscient Force-like fashion, in everything from toys to TV shows to videogames to theme parks, but new movies have always been the brand’s creative core. Since buying Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney’s movies in a galaxy far, far away peaked early at the box office with Force Awakens and sunk to their lowest level with the most recent entry, 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story.
At one point during our interview, Abrams declares, “the stakes are all or nothing with this film.” He was referring to its high-stakes story line, but the same could also be said about the franchise. Even if we never see Rey, Finn and Poe on screen again, Rise of Skywalker’s popularity will likely make an impact on Disney’s next studio moves — guiding like a fallen Jedi or Sith’s unseen hand.
Speaking of: There’s at least one key player we haven’t discussed. Palpatine’s return may be the most closely guarded story line in the film. How is the Emperor, who Vader tossed into the Death Star’s reactor core, back in a seemingly corporeal form?
“This has been a very long chess match that’s been played between the Jedi and the Sith — all the way back to the very beginning,” Issac teases. “It’s an amazing thing to see that really come to the forefront.”
The Rise of Skywalker might very well turn out to be a full-fledged reunion special of Force ghosts. And what are the rules that govern the Jedi and Sith spirit realm anyway? Obi-Wan Kenobi said in Empire Strikes Back that he “cannot interfere” with Luke’s fight with Vader. But in The Last Jedi, Yoda suddenly called down a lightning strike. What can Force ghosts do — and not do — in our world?
Abrams’ reply to that key question is pretty much what you’d expect.
“That’s probably best answered,” the director says, “by not answering it.”
—Anthony Breznican contributed to this report
To read more on The Rise of Skywalker and other untold stories from the Star Wars universe, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly at Barnes & Noble on Friday — or buy your choice of covers now featuring stars of the prequels, original trilogy, or current saga. (The issue will be on newsstands starting Nov. 28.) Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
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