J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, and Daisy Ridley on Rey's Backstory - Rolling Stone
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Everything J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, and Daisy Ridley Ever Told Us About Rey’s Backstory

The issue of the central character’s history offers insight into the creation of the ‘Star Wars’ sequel trilogy

Daisy Ridley as Rey, with BB-8.

Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm LTD

There was not, by all accounts, much of a master plan behind the new Star Wars trilogy. Though Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and her team were always there to guide it all, the overall story and its direction passed freely from J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan on The Force Awakens to Rian Johnson on The Last Jedi, then back to Abrams and new co-writer Chris Terrio for The Rise of Skywalker. (It should be noted that many elements of the George Lucas-led original trilogy were also entirely in flux as their story progressed – otherwise, Luke and Leia wouldn’t have kissed each other on the lips. Twice. The prequel trilogy was also far from set in stone – in the first draft of Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine tells Anakin he created him via midichlorian manipulation.)

In 2017, as Johnson prepared to hand the saga over to Abrams again, he offered a passionate defense of the process. “It’s funny,” Johnson told Rolling Stone. “I’ve heard some fans express concern that it means we’re just making it up as we go along. I don’t really understand that. The truth is, stories are made up! Whether somebody made this whole thing up 10 years ago and put it on a whiteboard, and we all have to stick to that, or whether we’re organically finding it as we move forward, it doesn’t mean that any less thought is being put into how you move forward in a way that completes what came before it, but is going to lead to a satisfying ending.”

No plot point is more emblematic of the saga’s shifting tides than the backstory of its central character, Daisy Ridley’s Rey. The Force Awakens teased that there was some significance to her shrouded origins and absent parents, while The Last Jedi suggested her past was not the point at all, with Rey seemingly learning that her parents were nobodies who sold her “for drinking money.” Abrams and Terrio, in turn, have long made it clear that Rise of Skywalker would show that there was more to Rey’s history, which the film certainly does. In the course of Rolling Stone’s extensive reporting on the sequel trilogy, the creators behind the saga have had a lot to say on this weirdly fraught issue. Here are the thoughts shared along the way by J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, Chris Terrio, and Daisy Ridley, many of them previously unpublished.

J.J. Abrams, 2019
Abrams said there was nothing in Last Jedi that “obviated” any prior story ideas he had for the final chapter. “There were a lot of different thoughts about where Rey came from,” he said, “and what her story would ultimately be, but as with anything, like George Lucas turning Revenge of the Jedi into Return of the Jedi, you get a better idea. And you say, ‘Oh, this is actually something that feels right. Oh, that’s what this means.'”

Chris Terrio, 2019
Terrio had a thoughtful answer to a question about how he and Abrams could expand Rey’s backstory without invalidating the way Johnson broke free from Chosen One tropes and democratized the Force. “That’s a really interesting thing that Rian did,” Terrio said. “It’s a democratization of Star Wars, saying that your lineage and your blood doesn’t necessarily determine who you are, and your past doesn’t determine your future. But we took those provocations as ideas that we could grapple with and hopefully expand upon in this film, because I don’t think it’s a dialectic of one or the other, where either you come from nothing or you are born royalty. There’s a lot of ground in between. Even [Kylo] Ren’s terminology isn’t… When he says ‘You’re no one’ — well, what does that mean? Is that how Rey would think about herself? Does Rey even think of these questions? I think those are really valid ideas that Rian put forth, but any series of films, especially if you have three, is a conversation — which is, as I said early on when I was talking to J.J., thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. If Force Awakens asks the question of who is Rey and where did she come from, and then The Last Jedi answered it with a negative in a certain way, hopefully The Rise of Skywalker will take those two ideas and create a third thing.”

J.J. Abrams, 2017
“Rian is an incredibly gifted filmmaker and storyteller,” said Abrams. “It wasn’t like he needed to be babysat or given a road map. I gave him a spiritual sense of where we were headed, but we hadn’t outlined [episodes] eight and nine. Kathy and I had a lot of ideas about where it would go, and I offered a lot of those, but the fact is, I also didn’t want to get in the way of Rian. So I gave him what I had, and made it clear that I was always available, and he did his thing and did a wonderful job. It kind of was like using a Ouija board, and then someone else comes on, and little by little you let go of it, and now they’re doing it and exactly what the transition is, it’s hard to know. But obviously, once you let go of it, it’s not yours at all to control, and luckily I was given someone who is talented as Rian is.”

Rian Johnson, 2017
Johnson explained why he thinks the emotional effect of any revelations about Rey matters more than the bare facts. “I really believe that it has to be rooted in something that has an emotional impact,” he said, “and that’s the only thing that matters. Surprise is fine, but surprise by itself is cheap. The truth is, ‘I am your father’ wouldn’t… The emotional and deeply-rooted resonance of that is why we remember it. Not because, ‘Oh my god, I never would have guessed that he was.” Now, especially that that’s set as a pattern, the audience’s expectations are, “Oh, you’re going to pull something out of your hat for this or that.” And you can, and that’ll be fine, but you better damn well make sure that it also means something and is satisfying beyond just the ‘Oh, it was this’ reveal.”

Johnson also made it clear that he was free to invent any answers he wanted about Rey. “I think Daisy thought she knew what it was,” he said. “Maybe J.J. had an idea of what it was. I mean, we discussed a lot of things, but I was never given the information that she is this or she is that. There were conversations along the way with J.J. and also the [Lucasfilm] story group where we’d discuss ‘Could she be this, could it be this, could it be this?’ Then it was a conversation of, ‘OK, what’s going to have the most impact in our story going forward?’ Which is perfect. That’s the way it really should be. I think movies like this, the place that they always lose their way is when the story serves the mythology and not the other way around. This way, it wasn’t like, ‘OK, she has to be this, so you have to angle your story to tag that base.’ It meant we could figure out what her arc was in this story, figure out what her character needed, and then realize, ‘That means we can use this as a very targeted punch to exactly the right spot that’s going to have the most impact.’ It’s working for story, as opposed to working for some imagined world-building thing that you’ve put on a whiteboard and said that it has to be gospel. That’s what it should be all about, I think, and that’s what the best movies always are.”

Daisy Ridley, 2017
To add a highly confusing capper to it all, before Last Jedi came out, Ridley told Rolling Stone that the movie’s revelation about Rey’s parents somehow matched information Abrams gave her during the making of Force Awakens. “I thought what I was told in the beginning, in a desert in Abu Dhabi, is what it is,” she said. At the same time, she enjoyed some of the speculation about the character. “Everyone’s opinion is valid,” she said. “Fan theories are not stupid. They can be hilarious, they can be, like, mental, but they are not stupid. One was immaculate conception. I was like, ‘Wow, the imagination for someone to come up with that!’ And I even heard this weird thing about time travel. I was like, ‘It’s not even a time-travel thing!'”



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