Star Wars: Rise Of Skywalker: “What Do You Desperately Want To See?” Asks J.J. Abrams

Disney held a press conference for Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker Wednesday morning in Los Angeles, and although the cast and filmmakers in attendance were mostly tight-lipped, J.J. Abrams did address his approach to the story following Rian Johnson’s controversial The Last Jedi.

“Because we had worked on Force Awakens…we had talked about quite a few things back in the day,” Abrams said. “So it was a bit of picking up where we left off. And the fact is that what Rian Johnson had done in Last Jedi had set up some things that were sort of wonderful for this story, one of the things being that the cast was separated. The characters weren’t together for the entire movie essentially.”

The characters are sure to come together again in the conclusion to this trilogy–and we have no doubt it will be immensely satisfying for fans. Abrams went on to discuss his process for coming up with specific story beats:

“We just started doing the thing that you do, which is you say, ‘What do you desperately want to see? What feels right?’ And then my job as the director was to make sure that all the pressures of all the obvious things–fan expectation, and studio [expectation], and all those practical, logistical issues as well, weren’t brought to set…we needed to keep the thing feeling as human as possible, and not like some massive machine.”

The panel included Anthony Daneils (C-3PO), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose), John Boyega (Finn), Daisy Ridley (Rey), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Keri Russell (Zorii Bliss), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Richard E. Grant (Allegiant General Pryde), director J.J. Abrams, writer Chris Terrio, and Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy.

Kennedy shared some kind words about Abrams–including the story of how they met.

“I met JJ actually along with a filmmaker by the name of Matt Reeves when they were 15, and they had won a contest for movies that they had made, and I said to Steven Spielberg, ‘Why don’t we hire these two young guys to come in and take your home movies and clean them up, and give them a break, and see if we can’t give them a start in the business?'” Kennedy recalled. “So needless to say, for years, Steven and I watched JJ and his career just take off from that point.”

Billy Dee Williams, who returns to Star Wars with Rise of Skywalker to reprise his iconic role as Lando Calrissian, said he didn’t rewatch the classics before jumping back into the character.

“I have a lot of admiration for this young man called monsieur J.J. Abrams,” Williams said. “When I worked with George [Lucas], that was an opportunity to work with somebody who was really extraordinary, and here again I have an opportunity to work with somebody who is really extraordinary.”

Williams said he had worked with Abrams previously on Lost, and he described the filmmaker as “fabulously crazy.”

“This has been a great pleasure for me, coming back to do Lando,” Williams continued. “I didn’t think that it would happen. I just wrote it off, you know? And I said, ‘Well, I did what I had to do, and that was it.’ But when I got the call from J.J., and then when we met, I just sat there and I just chuckled, because I thought it was just a wonderful gift. So I’m a very, very happy human being right now. Thank you very much.”

The panel was hosted by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who has seen Rise of Skywalker and had plenty of praise for it. At one point, she addressed Adam Driver as Ben Solo–then asked him whether it’s appropriate to call his character by his original name, or whether he’s fully rejected his past now and left that part of him behind.

“Yes and no,” Driver replied. “When people are actively trying to deny a certain part of their lives, I think they can do it pretty successfully. And it just turns into what is happening around them that brings it out of them.” He added that before filming Force Awakens, he and Abrams discussed making Kylo a character who wasn’t sure where he fit, and that echoed Driver’s experience being a new character in this well-established franchise.

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Oscar Isaac briefly addressed Poe Dameron’s role in this movie, saying we’re going to see a new side of the character.

“He’s kind of always been a wild card energy,” Isaac said. “I remember J.J. being excited about dirtying up the squeaky fly boy image he has…I get to join my friends this time, and you really get to see the interaction with these three.”

Anthony Daniels, who has played C-3PO in every Star Wars film so far, said he’s starting to see the franchise from a new perspective now that he’s donned the golden suit for the final time.

“I am so close to it, and I say this, rather like having your nose up against the planet, you can’t see how big that planet is,” Daniels said. “And gradually now I’m beginning to get a perspective on it. And that comes from talking to fans–people who say what Star Wars has meant to them over the years.”

Actress Keri Russell plays a new character in Rise of Skywalker named Zorri Bliss. During the panel, DuVernay revealed that Russell, like Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma before her, keeps her mask on for the entire movie. DuVernay said she didn’t realize the character was played by Russell until she saw the credits roll.

“Personally, I love the mask,” Russell replied. “That’s my fantasy dream sequence–that I can see everyone…and no one can see me. That’s my dream. It’s a real power play, in a way.”

As the panel drew to a close, DuVernay asked Abrams one final, open-ended question: What does this movie mean to him, and what does he want it to mean to fans?

“I like to think that when you’re working on something [like this]…the truth is that there’s the movie that you know you are presenting to the world, and then there’s the thing that you’re doing–not necessarily secretly, but meaningfully,” Abrams said. “We live in a crazy world. We live in a crazy time, and Star Wars for me was about hope, and it was about community. It was about the underdog and it was about bringing people together and seeing all oddballs represented and the most unlikely friends and the most unlikely places, and the family you make is really your family.

“To tell a story that is, of course, a giant spectacle, and like you say, the blockbuster wrapping–but the thing that mattered to me most…is really the people who are sitting here and what you’re watching and the eyes of the characters and the heart of the characters…It really is about hope, and it’s about coming back to a sense of possibility about unity, and if Star Wars can’t do that for us, I don’t know what can.”

Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker hits theaters December 20.

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