As remarkable as it sounds, filmmaker J.J. Abrams has been a Hollywood heavyweight for nearly three decades. As a budding screenwriter in his early twenties, he wrote the tear-jerking Harrison Ford vehicle Regarding Henry and the Mel Gibson sci-fi drama Forever Young, then later in the 90s he penned the Michael Bay disaster flick Armageddon. He went on to create (or co-create) the television series Felicity, Alias, and Lost, and helped usher the Cloverfield film universe into existence. He even revitalized the Star Trek franchise by mounting a high-profile reboot of the spacefaring adventures of the USS Enterprise and its crew.

Then in 2015, Abrams marked a major milestone in his career by successfully relaunching the long-running Star Wars saga with the thirty-years-later sequel The Force Awakens, which saw a fresh-faced cast interact with some of the beloved legacy characters passed down from creator George Lucas. Now J.J. has returned to A Galaxy Far, Far Away with the concluding chapter Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and all attention is on how it will be received, both by fans and at the box office, when it hits theaters next week.

At a recent press conference in Southern California, J.J. Abrams spoke about his approach to coming back to work with Lucasfilm for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and how the experience of making this movie was different from the last time around. “The difference is that the pressure has shifted. We didn’t know at the beginning of The Force Awakens exactly what it would look like– Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, — what would that cast be like? We had to figure that out at the start. The first day of The Rise of Skywalker, we knew those things were working. What we didn’t know was everything else.”

“This is wrapping up not one film, not three films, but nine. And so the responsibility was significant and the scale of the movie is pretty enormous. This is a pretty big picture. And we knew that none of that would matter, none of it would work if you didn’t care deeply and track with the people. So the most important thing– the people– we were good with. We knew we had this incredible cast, who have gone above and beyond anyone’s expectations and are truly spectacular in the film.”

“Because we had worked on The Force Awakens, [co-writer] Larry Kasdan and I and [producer] Michelle Rejwan and [Lucasfilm president] Kathy [Kennedy], we had talked about quite a few things back in the day. So it was a bit of picking up where we left off, and the fact is that what Rian Johnson had done in The Last Jedi had set up some things that were wonderful for this story, one of [them] being that the cast was separated, the characters weren’t together for the entire movie, essentially. So this was the first time that the group got to be together. When [co-writer] Chris [Terrio] and I got together, we knew immediately we wanted to tell a story of a group adventure.”

“There were some very specific things that we were both drawn to immediately, and 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 expectations and the studio and all those practical logistical issues as well– weren’t brought to set… that on the set, we could have this buoyancy and a sense of being spry. While it was never quite an ‘indie’ on the set of this movie, we needed to keep the thing feeling as human as possible, and not like some massive machine– which is part of it in the background, but nothing that creatively impacted us.”

But what of the ultimate message of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker? What does J.J. Abrams hope viewers will take away from Episode IX other than a rollicking planet-hopping adventure and a conclusion to the ages-old conflict between the mystical forces of good and evil? “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’re presenting to the world, and then there’s the thing that you’re doing– not necessarily secretly, but meaningfully. We live in a crazy world. We live in a crazy time. And Star Wars, for me, was about hope. It was about community, it was about the underdog, it was about bringing people together, and seeing all the oddballs represented and the most unlikely friends [meeting in] the most unlikely places, and [the idea that] the family that you make is really your family.”

“[This] story is of course a giant spectacle in blockbuster wrapping, but the thing that mattered to me most, more than all the spectacular, unbelievable, I would argue the best work [Lucasfilm’s visual effects department Industrial Light and Magic] has ever done, the thing that matters most in the film is really the people– the eyes of the characters and the hearts of the characters. Rather than give away themes, I will say that it really is about hope, and it is about coming back to a sense of possibility [and] unity. And if Star Wars can’t do that for us, I don’t know what can.”

Watch Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker press conference with cast and creative team:

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will be released into theaters on Friday, December 20.