Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy on ‘Rise of Skywalker’ and the Future of ‘Star Wars’

Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy discusses the challenges of moving the franchise forward, George Lucas’ criticism, and much more

Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy may well be the most powerful woman in Hollywood, and she’s hardly a newcomer to the world of blockbusters, serving as Steven Spielberg’s producer since 1982’s E.T. That partnership extended to Spielberg’s collaborations on the Indiana Jones movies with George Lucas, who anointed Kennedy as his successor in 2012 as he negotiated a sale to Disney. As guardian of the Star Wars universe, Kennedy has needed every ounce of her experience, never hesitating to swap out creative teams, even mid-movie when necessary, as on 2018’s commercial disappointment Solo. In October, two weeks before Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss pulled out of a year-old deal to develop a new Star Wars trilogy, Kennedy called Rolling Stone to discuss December 20th’s Star Wars: Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, and a post-Skywalker-saga cinematic future for the franchise that remains wide open, even as Last Jedi director Rian Johnson and Marvel’s Kevin Feige develop potential films.

Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow was slated to write and direct Episode IX before you brought J.J. Abrams back in. Is this final entry in the trilogy a particularly hard nut to crack?
Every one of these movies is a particularly hard nut to crack. There’s no source material. We don’t have comic books. We don’t have 800-page novels. We don’t have anything other than passionate storytellers who get together and talk about what the next iteration might be. We go through a really normal development process that everybody else does. You start by talking to filmmakers who you think exhibit the sensibilities that you’re looking for. And I would argue that the list is very small — people who really do have the sensibilities about these kind of movies, and then the experience and the ability to handle how enormous a job these movies are. So we try to be as thoughtful as we possibly can about making those choices. I would also argue that sometimes people get involved in the normal development process, and then they realize, “Oh, my God, this is so much more than I ever imagined.” So it’s pretty common that when you’re working on movies, you’re not making choices and decisions that necessarily work out exactly the way you want from the get-go. It’s been an evolving process with lots of people and lots of opinions, and then you try to shape something into what it eventually becomes. So I feel really fortunate that I’ve worked with so many great people that have been absolutely committed, J.J. being one of them. He’s a huge fan, incredibly passionate about Star Wars, and has been from the moment he and I sat down and started talking about this. And the more he got involved, the more excited he became. So I think if you asked him today, he probably wishes he’d been in a situation where he could have done all three — but as I said, these are huge projects. So it’s very difficult unless there’s three or four years in between. It’s not really physically possible.

What strikes you about how he and his co-screenwriter Chris Terrio did manage to crack the nut for this one?
Chris is a very, very thoughtful, intelligent guy that J.J. chose and we all got to know. And again, it went through much of what we often go through, which is endless discussion, lots of artwork. Luckily, J.J. had already been into a pretty deep dive before he was doing Force Awakens and during the process of that movie — it’s almost like an education of getting acquainted with all aspects of Star Wars. Not only just looking at the movies but talking to the number of people that are still around that worked with George for years, understanding the mythology that he created. One of the things we talk about all the time is the fact that it was very important to George that these stories really meant something, that they have something to say, and that they have a real emotional core. So we spend a lot of time talking about that and trying to find the spine of a story that feels satisfying. When you’re dealing, as I said, with something where you don’t necessarily have any source material, then you’re looking for a filmmaker who has a strong point of view, who can find themselves in the characters and in the story. That’s what drives the momentum of the storytelling. And I think J.J. is a perfect example of that. He can’t do anything without his energy and enthusiasm becoming very much a part of the storytelling. So he’s very fun to be in a room with when you’re when you’re trying to break story, because he does have that amazing energy and enthusiasm. And he’s funny. That always helps. We spent a lot of time laughing.

How did you get to the point where you felt “we’ve got this” with the story of Episode IX?
Well, I wouldn’t say you ever get to a point where you just go, “That’s it.” It’s a constantly evolving process. I mean, there’s still little things that we’re trying to get exactly right, right now. You never stop the storytelling iterations that go on in making these movies. But we know what these previous eight movies are. We know what that story is. So in this movie, we’re taking all of what’s come before, and we’re trying to find a satisfying conclusion. And I think we have, and that’s something that we can only depend on our instincts to arrive at, whether or not we have. And then we have what I would call the family and friends that you pull in and you show things to when you try to get some kind of feedback, and make sure that you’re making sense and that you’re delivering on the things that you intend. That’s something that we’re still talking about right now.

Rian Johnson made some controversial choices in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Especially considering its dramatic purpose as the second movie in the trilogy, were you, to an extent, deliberately setting out to challenge fans and their expectations?
We definitely did. We’re talking all the time about how we move Star Wars forward and how we keep it relevant. Obviously, we don’t want to just keep making the same movie over and over again. So I agree with you. I mean, I love what Rian did. It’s an absolutely wonderful movie. I think he’s an extraordinary filmmaker. And I really appreciated the bold moves that he did make. I think people forget that, especially when you’re doing a trilogy structure, the first movie is setting things up, the second is usually the conflict, and the third is the resolution. So you’re bound to have that second movie, much the same way Empire Strikes Back was probably the darkest and most dramatic of the three. We talked about it with Indiana Jones! You know, we did Raiders of the Ark and then we did Temple of Doom, which was dark and created a lot of controversy, and people were surprised at where it went with the storytelling, but, frankly, that’s the whole point!

I love that we have these amazingly passionate fans who care so much. And I know sometimes they may think we don’t listen, but we do, and I thought it was fantastic that people got that engaged. It just showed me and everybody else how much they care. And that’s important for all of us that are doing this. We really look at them as the custodians of this story as much as [we are]. We look at it as kind of a partnership.

Certainly whatever movie comes after this, if it’s unconnected to the Skywalker saga, that’s one of the biggest challenges in the history of the franchise. Until now, pretty much everything has been in some ways connected to the original story. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s an incredible challenge, and it is something that we’re in the middle of, and I can’t even begin to tell you where this may end up, because I think you are absolutely right. I think whatever this next movie is, and how it begins to define a new way forward, it’s something we want to take plenty of time and plenty of conversation and careful thought before deciding exactly what we’re going to do.

So you truly haven’t yet decided what’s next?
No. We’ve got various things we’re looking at and various ways in which we can begin or not. As you can imagine. You know, do you go back? Do you go forward? All those questions are being asked. Do we stay in this galaxy? Do we go to another? The universe is never-ending. [Laughs.] The good news and the bad news. They have endless possibilities. It’s liberating, it’s exciting, and it creates a lot of pressure and anxiety as well.

How did Marvel’s Kevin Feige come into the mix?
Kevin has been a huge fan of Star Wars, and he’s made that pretty clear. And I think when he went off to do a couple of the Spider-Man movies, he realized that he could kind of step in and out of what he’s doing specifically with just Marvel. He talked to us, and he talked to the studio and said, “You know, ‘Is there any chance I could step in and do one of the Star Wars movies?'” And I thought it was a pretty cool idea. So we’re just beginning to talk about what that might be and when that might be. But it’s a ways off.

Have you thought about how much longer you’d like to keep doing what you’re doing?
I’ve really enjoyed this, I have to say. It’s been incredibly exciting. And just the fact that George asked me to do this, I felt a tremendous responsibility with stepping in and taking care of the franchise, and if there were going to be new movies, to really pull a team around this that cared as much as he did. What happens in the future, and how long and how much longer I do this? I don’t know yet. I’m looking at all of that. It’s been incredibly satisfying to reach this point where we’ve completed the saga and, I think, made a really wonderful movie. It’s going to feel very satisfying to the audience. So that’s what I’m focused on right at the moment — and what the future holds, who knows.

Thanks to Bob Iger’s new book, we now know in some detail about George Lucas’ dissatisfaction with The Force Awakens. What are your feelings about that?
Personally, I’ve had a relationship with George going back to all of us meeting before making Raiders of the Lost Ark. So this is a long, 35-plus years that I’ve known George, and I continue to be very, very good friends with George. And I think there’s plenty of examples where people create something that is fundamental to who they are, where it’s difficult letting go and watching that become something different. So I think initially, that was difficult for George — I don’t think he anticipated how hard that would be. And J.J. came into it with such enthusiasm and, frankly, reverence for Star Wars and for George, and had to find what was personal for him. He had to make it his own. Every director who comes into a movie has to make something their own; they have to find themselves in the storytelling. And then that’s going to become a different point of view. And I think that’s all George was reacting to.

He may not agree with every choice J.J. made. He may not agree with every choice Rian made. But he appreciates the filmmaking. That I know. And he so appreciates, for instance, what ILM [Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm’s visual-effects arm] has done in the work of these movies. I mean, that’s a company he created. And he just continually tells me how astounded he is by how far things have come and how, now, whatever comes into your mind can be achieved. And he came down, for instance, on The Mandalorian to see what we were doing — he’s worked a long time with [director] Dave Filoni. And he’s known [series creator] Jon [Favreau]. And he was just like a little kid on that set when he was watching what we were doing. So I see him get caught up in this again, and I think there’s a little bit of regret that he’s not on the stage and directing movies and in it still. And that may filter into it as well. I can’t really speak on behalf of what George is feeling all the time. But I know that he’s very, very proud of what he created. And to see people go on and enjoy this now into almost 2020 is pretty remarkable.

Is there any universe in which George can be lured back for some kind of one-off or just to do anything?
I doubt it. But listen, I think that would be fantastic, if he would be interested in doing that again. But I doubt it. He’s loving doing his museum [Los Angeles’ the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art] right now. That’s a huge project, which is going to be absolutely fantastic. It’s a narrative museum, so it really keeps him engaged in storytelling. I think he’s loving that and he’s loving his little girl [six-year-old daughter Everest]. So he’s pretty fulfilled.

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