Decoding the 'Star Wars' Writers' Drama

Why Disney replaced Michael Arndt with Lawrence Kasdan

Lawrence Kasdan
Mark Davis/WireImage
Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote 'Return of the Jedi,' brings 'Star Wars' street cred to 'Episode VII.'
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If anybody knows how hard it is to write a script for a massively popular film franchise, it's Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt. In the late '00s, when he signed up with Pixar to pen the Toy Story 3 screenplay, Arndt cycled through endless drafts while facing immense pressure from the outside world. Eventually, though, his three years of grueling toil paid off, as the computer animated blockbuster won the Oscar for Animated Feature Film in 2010.

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Unfortunately for Arndt, he won't be recognized in the same way for his contributions to Star Wars: Episode VII, the wildly anticipated new installment of the celebrated space opera. Arndt was hired nearly a year ago to pen the script for the project – scheduled for release in 2015 – but the franchise announced on Thursday that director J.J. Abrams and veteran Lucasfilm collaborator Lawrence Kasdan have taken over writing duties.

In a quote included with the statement, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy praised Arndt for doing a "terrific job" developing the story thus far. But she didn't offer any explanation why Arndt is no longer associated with the project. Whatever happened, though, there's no denying that Kasdan is the right guy to work with Abrams to get the job done.

Kasdan, who'd previously been involved in Episode VII as a consultant, got his big break by writing the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Digging his work, George Lucas then had Kasdan co-write the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. As it happens, one of the most iconic lines in film history – "No, I am your father," Darth Vader's shocking declaration to Luke Skywalker – is credited to this 64-year-old director and screenwriter.

In recent years, Kasdan hasn't kept a very high profile: His 2012 film Darling Companion, an independent drama that centers around a missing dog, was his first in nine years. But Kasdan will have his work cut out for him in the coming months, as he and Abrams hash out a script in the months before shooting for Episode VII is set to begin next spring at Pinewood Studios in London. And just because he co-wrote classic Star Wars scripts doesn't mean it'll be easy doing the same thing today.

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To get a sense of what kind of pressure and complexity might be going on behind the scenes, just consider Arndt's experience working on Toy Story 3. While the two franchises might be radically different, they both have devoted fans, sharp critics and a multi-billion-dollar backer in Disney, which owns Pixar and Lucasfilm. In a 2010 interview with Indiewire.com, Arndt described the making of Toy Story 3 as a gauntlet of kinetic brainstorming sessions and painstaking revisions, as he embarked on an epic collaboration with Toy Story's creators to do justice to the legacies of Woody and Buzz Lightyear.

"You want to vindicate and pay off all those peoples' emotional investment in these characters," Arndt told Anne Thompson, referring to all the people who'd grown up watching the adventures of these anthropomorphic toys. "Which means that my three years at Pixar was this anxiety-drenched nightmare of desperation in which I am so scared that I am going to let the world down." As intense as that sounds, the stakes for Star Wars are much higher. The story is bigger and the fans are more discerning, with some showing attention to the most minute costume details.

All things considered, if Abrams and Kasdan aren't freaking out a little, they're probably not doing their jobs.