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J.J. Abrams on ‘The Rise of Skywalker’, Baby Yoda, Star Wars Fandom, and The Knights of Ren
J.J. Abrams had only officially been done with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker for a matter of hours when I talked with him by phone, 25 days out from the release of the ninth film in four decades of development of the most beloved sci-fri francise of all time. We chatted about the culture of toxic fandom surrounding Star Wars, the return of the Knights of Ren in the latest trailer, and what he thinks of the current fan obsession with Baby Yoda.
Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
ESQUIRE: This morning everyone seems to be talking about the return of the Knights of Ren in the new trailer. I’m curious, after teasing them in The Force Awakens, why save them, and build anticipation until this movie?
J.J. Abrams: They’re characters that, when we came up with them in Force Awakens and had very brief sighting of them, it was something that we had a lot of ideas of sort of further adventures with them, backstory, you know, and all sorts of things that were not the focus of the central story, and never made it into the movie. And episode VIII, The Last Jedi, didn’t address that, at all, and it just allowed for us to bring them back in. I mean, they’re best kept more mysterious than familiar, which is just to say there aren’t going to be a lot of scenes with them taking their masks off and hanging out and eating sandwiches, but it felt like I definitely wanted to see more of them than we had, and I felt happy that we got a chance to do that in this movie.
ESQ: I know you just finished the movie as of last night, but has anyone seen the finished finished product yet?
JJA: Oh yeah, yeah. Sure, I mean the final final? No. I mean the truth is, I have not even gotten to see the final product. The way it works is you do the mix, you go back and forth between two different places like you’re doing the picture at the color correction place, you’re doing the sound at the mix stage, so it’s like you’re getting it in pieces, where you say “Oh that looks amazing!” but there’s no sound to it. And then you go and you say “Oh that sounds incredible!” Then you’re still putting pieces together in your head, but of course I’ve shown it at a friends and family screening, but we’ve never done like a test screening.
ESQ: Has Carrie Fisher’s family seen her parts in the film yet? I’m curious what their reaction was like.
JJA: I don’t want to talk about that, per se, because it just — I don’t think it’s quite my place, although I would love to go and talk about it, but I will say that nothing has been more important to me than making sure we do something that Carrie herself would have been happy with, and proud of. And I feel like we’ve done that.
ESQ: Speaking of who’s seen parts so far, and this final chapter — and, I know you discussed in a recent interview how gracious George Lucas has been during this new era of Star Wars, even though he’s talked about his disappointment with some of the movies. But I’m curious, has he seen any of this final film so far?
JJA: We just finished it and he always sees them fully. So, I look forward to hearing from him. But I do feel like the thing I’m happiest about is I feel like we’ve told a story that if you look at all nine movies as sort of one new story, I think that there really is a feeling that there is this central story, this inevitability — and I’m just — I could not be more proud of the work this cast and crew have done.
Jean Baptiste Lacroix
ESQ: You’ve talked about how you were surprised by Rian Johnson’s constant subversion of expectation in The Last Jedi. From your perspective, what was it like following that movie, and what he changed to the narrative, and how did that change your approach to making The Rise of Skywalker?
JA: There were some choices that made things a bit more fun for us, because, for example, Rian didn’t have the whole group collaborative adventure of it together, and that was really fun to get to tell the story of the group, the droids, out on one breakneck, crazy, desperate adventure. You know? The choices that he made for me were as a fan, as a reader of the script, a fan of his, a fan of Star Wars… it was just fun to read someone’s take that was so about surprising the viewer and it was just really entertaining, because it was, it got to surprise me nearly every time. So, I loved it for that. As a filmmaker, working on episode IX, amazingly, nothing that he did in Last Jedi got in the way of things that we had talked about wanting to do down the line, ideas that I had about where things might go, so… it wasn’t like his story somehow derailed the things I wanted to pursue. In fact, strangely, they might have even helped strengthen them because we got to make some choices that sort of take advantage of the fact that Rian hadn’t done the things that we were thinking about doing.
ESQ: Over the last couple of years since The Last Jedi came out, I’ve been writing a lot about the response to that movie, and some of the toxic fandom around Star Wars in this new era. And there are some fans who take issue with the filmmaking, other fans who take issue with some of the more progressive themes. I’m curious, how do you watch the response to Start Wars movies change in this modern era compared to maybe the prequel series or how fans originally responded to them?
JA: I think that the bigger question is: How has everything changed? The reaction to Star Wars, the increased attacks, the increased negativity, the Fandom Menace as they call it, you know, that is not unique to Star Wars, obviously. And I think we live in a time where if you’re not being divisive, if you’re not creating something that’s aversive quick-bait, sometimes you don’t quite feel like you’re playing the game. I always loved Star Wars because it’s got a huge heart. Did I always believe in and agree with every single thing that happened in every movie, whether it was the prequels or the original trilogy? No. But do I love Star Wars? Yes. So, for me, I hope — and I’m sure naively — we can return to a time where we give things a bit more latitude. We don’t have to agree with every single thing to love something. I don’t know anyone who has a spouse or a partner or any family member or any friend, who loves and agrees with every single thing that that person is and does. We have to return, I think, to nuance and acceptance. And so I feel like, as a Star Wars fan, do I love every single thing about each of the movies? No. But do I love Star Wars? Hell yes, I do.
ESQ: On the other hand, it seems like fans pretty universally love Baby Yoda. I’m curious your thoughts on the little guy.
JA: Look, I think that the fun of telling stories in this galaxy is that you get to take things that are familiar and you get to adjust them, augment them, comment on them, continue them. It’s a world that is looking to be expanded. I mean, the original movies did the most remarkable thing in referencing the Clone Wars and the Empire and the Senate, and the Old Wars, and never showing any of these things. But the painting that was created of this past canvas, it’s incredible how intimate it was. But you always felt that there was a peripheral life and history and world beyond what you were seeing. And for me, Star Wars is sort of constantly expanding and sort of ever-expanding. And the ability to choose a character like Yoda and say, “What if we created a baby Yoda?” The reason these things are reasonable to people is because it’s not just nostalgia but it’s taken something that is meaningful, a story that has deep roots and potency and resonates with a human heart, a beating heart. These are the kind of things that, when they hit, when there’s something that feels like, “oomph,” it’s not just cute but it implies a story. It sparks the imagination. That’s the thing, whether it’s bringing back Lando, and wanting to know what’s been going on, to introducing a brand new character, and brand new droid or a brief glimpse of a baby Yoda. All these things are about the possibility, potential, and that’s the very heart of what Star Wars is.
ESQ: Absolutely. And I love that you bring in this massive, massive universe. And in the years that The Force Awakens came out, part of the fun of this new era has been seeing people theorize and come up with new ideas of what’s going on, really take part and almost try to tell the story themselves. I don’t know if you follow the fan theories, if you ever come across them, but have you ever seen something where you’re like, “Oh, I wish I had thought about that” or “Oh, that would have been a great idea”?
JJ Abrams: I’m sure that’s happened to me. Frankly, I can’t think of a particular thing. I will say that the passion of the fans and the highlight of the fandom, I think, it’s more powerful than any one storyteller or creature. Fans love it in such a religious way. There are so many great ideas out there. I’m rooting for all those people because they are all great storytellers who love this thing and who are postulating what this might be or what something might mean. Those are all people who are deeply invested.
ESQ: Yeah, absolutely. So I know you’ve said that you’re not working on anything else Star Wars related but would you do it again if you were asked to? Are there any other types of stories that would interest you in telling in this universe?
JA: I just yesterday finished this thing. So it’s a bit like asking someone at the end of a meal at French Laundry, you know, if they want to get a burger. It’s like, you know, I’m sure that one day having a burger would be the greatest idea in the history of time, but in this moment I’m full.
Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.