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JJ Abrams comes down to earth about Rise of Skywalker

A creative shake-up, last-minute rewrites and a director not known for great endings: JJ Abrams and company get real about the making of The Rise of Skywalker

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(From far left) US film producer Kathleen Kennedy, with director JJ Abrams, British actor John Boyega, British actress Daisy Ridley, US actor Oscar Isaac, and British actor Anthony Daniels, at a promotion of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in Tokyo, Japan, on Wednesday. The film will be released in Japan on Dec 20, 2019.

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(Above, left) Ridley in a still from the upcoming film.

New York

J J ABRAMS knows what audiences think of him. "I've never been great at endings," the filmmaker said just hours after delivering a finished version of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

With some hesitation, he added, "I don't actually think I'm good at anything, but I know how to begin a story. Ending a story is tough."

This is an unusual admission for Abrams, having just directed and co-written the Star Wars film that, when it opens on Dec 20, promises to be the final instalment in a nine-movie narrative about the Skywalker clan.

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Moviegoers have seen the curtain come down on this saga twice already: with Return of the Jedi in 1983, which concluded with Luke Skywalker and his allies seemingly triumphant over the treacherous Empire; and again, in 2005 with Revenge of the Sith, which tracked the final steps of Luke's father, Anakin, on his dark path to becoming the malevolent Darth Vader.

But what seemed like closed history was reopened once more in 2015, when The Force Awakens began a third trilogy in which the old guard of the original Star Wars movies fought alongside a new generation of heroes and villains.

True to his boast, Abrams - who, after some trepidation, directed and helped write the screenplay for that film - inaugurated this trilogy with considerable fanfare as The Force Awakens went on to gross more than US$2 billion worldwide. It was the only Star Wars film he intended to make.

So when Abrams was once again approached, amid a last-minute creative shake-up, about taking on The Rise of Skywalker, he baulked.

To be considered a success, the movie must satisfy a seemingly impossible array of demands: It has to wrap up the current trilogy while tying together the themes and plotlines of its eight predecessors while working as a complete story on its own.

"Sticking this landing is one of the harder jobs that I could have taken," Abrams said of accepting the intimidating assignment. "But that was why it felt worthy of saying yes."

Like the stories told within the films, the story behind this Star Wars film - which its creators and stars described in a series of interviews - is one in which inadvertent decisions lead to unintended consequences. It is a tale in which history repeats itself and destiny can be outrun for only so long before it must be confronted.

Yet even as Abrams and his colleagues bid farewell to this part of Star Wars history, they are as curious as anyone to know what comes next for the series and its characters - in part because no one truly believes that their adventures are over.

Relaunch of the Jedi

To understand the conclusion of this new Star Wars trilogy, one must go back to its inception.

The Walt Disney Company acquired Lucasfilm from its founder George Lucas in 2012. The monolithic studio then announced intentions to produce the seventh, eighth and ninth chapters in the sci-fi series, part of an ambitious plan to release a new Star Wars movie each year.

Even before handing the reins to current Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, Lucas was having conversations with original cast members Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill about reprising their roles.

At that stage, Abrams seemed like a natural candidate to help oversee a new era of Star Wars. He was a fan of the original films, known for his stylised takes on genre TV shows (Alias, Lost) and for resuscitating ageing properties on the big screen (Mission: Impossible, Star Trek).

But when Kennedy formally approached Abrams in a phone call, his instinct was to decline. "It was too close to something that I cared too much about," he explained. "I didn't want to leave not liking it anymore."

"I just thought it was too daunting, so I respectfully declined," he said.

Despite Abrams's refusal, Kennedy asked him if they could talk further in person. "I knew, when the two of us sat down face-to-face, that I had him," she said.

One by one, the leads of the new trilogy found their way onto the project. John Boyega, who plays renegade stormtrooper Finn, wasn't asked to audition, but learned about the casting call from a friend who was being considered for the role.

Daisy Ridley, who portrays the heroic Rey, seemed to will her opportunity into existence. "I wasn't approached...I didn't even know if there was a part," she said. "I just had a feeling. So then I kept saying, 'Are there auditions for Star Wars yet?' And eventually there were."

They were rookies - Boyega had starred in the cult film Attack the Block and Ridley had small roles on TV shows like Mr. Selfridge - and both were excited that Star Wars would provide them with long-term gigs.

"Before then, I was just living from project to project," Boyega explained. "A Star Wars film means six or seven months that I'm paying my bills."

Once filming began on The Force Awakens, there was little time to revel in their fantastical surroundings. "I was mainly excited and then just terrified," Ridley said. "I was basically crippled with fear for a few weeks."

More experienced actors like Oscar Isaac, who plays the dashing pilot Poe Dameron, found the production of The Force Awakens to be unexpectedly unnerving. "I hadn't felt that self-conscious in a very long time," he said. "It was challenging. I suddenly was uncertain."

Attack of the sequels

Amid the frantic casting, writing and construction needed to get The Force Awakens underway, Kennedy went to Abrams with a further proposition: Would he like to tackle Episodes VIII and IX as well?

"I was like, 'Are. You. Crazy?'" he recalled. Kennedy acknowledged that Abrams had enough on his plate. "It was pretty obvious it was so overwhelming," she said.

Instead, Episode VIII, titled The Last Jedi, was written and directed by Rian Johnson (Knives Out). In its story, the Force Awakens heroes were separated from one another, confronting personal roadblocks on individual journeys, and the actors found it just as challenging to make.

"The characters were very frustrated, and it felt that way," Isaac said. "You felt the difficult energy of those scenes, figuring that stuff out."

Some journeys end before they begin. So it went for Jurassic World director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow, who was originally set to direct Episode IX but left the project in 2017. (He and his collaborator Derek Connolly still share story credit on the film.)

Explaining the change, Kennedy said, "We had gotten to not even a first draft when we realised it just was not heading in the direction we'd been talking about."

Such down-to-the-wire decisions are rare but not unprecedented on tentpole studio films, and certainly not in the realm of Star Wars. In 2017, Solo directors Philip Lord and Christopher Miller were replaced by Ron Howard after several weeks of principal photography.

With the clock ticking on a 2019 release for Episode IX, the only logical choice to take over was Abrams - even more reluctant than he was with The Force Awakens. He said, "Am I a moron to tempt fate a second time?"

He said he took the job knowing he'd be working "in an accelerated way from the beginning," with three fewer months for postproduction than he had on The Force Awakens.

When it was announced that Abrams was indeed returning, his actors breathed sighs of relief.

"I cried," Ridley said, explaining that the director brought a comforting sense of structure and security.

Boyega was glad that Abrams would finish the tale he'd begun in Episode VII. "Even as a normal person in the audience, I wanted to see where that story was going," he said.

Abrams, who brought in Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio as his writing partner, faced significant challenges on The Rise of Skywalker.

Among them, the film had to provide a proper send-off for Carrie Fisher, who died in 2016. As Leia Organa, Fisher had been an integral element of Star Wars, and her story arc had not been concluded by the end of The Last Jedi.

Abrams's solution was to draw on unused footage that Fisher had shot for The Force Awakens.

"The idea of continuing the story without Leia was an impossibility," he said. "There was no way we were going to do a digital Leia. There was no way we would, of course, ever recast it. But we couldn't do it without her."

The filmmakers tried to shield the actors where possible from a behind-the-scenes process in which major plot elements and whole swaths of dialogue were being reworked up to and on the days they were filmed.

"It's a war to do a movie like this," Terrio explained. "Every day you have to get up and go to the front again."

The Phantom Ending

Determining what comes after the final Skywalker chapter is Kennedy's responsibility and, as she put it, "It doesn't have to end."

But part of living up to Lucas's vision, she said, was looking beyond it. "We're all custodians of something that George created," she said, adding that it was important to "recognise and honour what ... [Lucas] created - and move on. I think we're ready to move on".

Who will helm the next Star Wars film, which Disney has already scheduled for 2022? Kennedy isn't saying, but she has been developing new projects with Rian Johnson and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.

She said she's continuing to discuss opportunities with other artists, and pointed to the success of The Mandalorian, the live-action Star Wars series created by Jon Favreau for the Disney Plus streaming service, as a model for the franchise's future.

Shows like it could provide a pipeline for new stories and characters, as well as for writers and directors who could make the feature films.

"[Favreau] had this story, and suddenly the two of us realised, not only could this be told in the television space, but we could also push technology," she said.

Determining what should come next, she said, was as simple as looking at the stories Star Wars has already told.

"It's not as though we have nothing to dip into, but all it is, really, are road posts, pointing us in a direction," she said. NYTIMES