Interview: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” Co-Writer Chris Terrio and Producer Michelle Rejwan

While screenwriter Chris Terrio is likely best known for winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for writing the 2012 historical drama Argo, as a writer he also helped shape Zack Snyder’s DC superhero flicks Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. And though producer Michelle Rejwan got her start in Hollywood as a personal and casting assistant on hit TV sitcoms like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, over the past decade she has swiftly climbed professional ranks working with director J.J. Abrams and his company Bad Robot, being credited as producer on movies like Super 8, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Together they are two of the many creative and developmental minds behind the new co-production between Bad Robot and Lucasfilm: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, also known as Episode IX in “The Skywalker Saga,” the concluding chapter of a story that began more than four decades ago with George Lucas’s original Star Wars film. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Chris Terrio and Michelle Rejwan for a roundtable interview with several other reporters to discuss the highly anticipated movie, and learned how they came together with their fellow behind-the-scenes Star Wars talents to bring an end to this beloved epic.

Q:  There has been a lot of discussion lately about the role of the fan community in the general conversation around Star Wars. How did fan expectations factor into the development and writing process for The Rise of Skywalker?

Chris Terrio:  I come to Star Wars as a fan first, period. And I certainly came to the new trilogy as a fan. I saw The Force Awakens on 68th Street in New York with a regular audience on opening day, and then saw it twice more– once in IMAX. So I am not easy on these films. I come into them as a little bit of a contrarian, being like, ‘Okay, impress me. Go on.’ And Michelle, also, is a tough viewer of films. We’re pretty tough on all films.

Michelle Rejwan:  We admit that, sure. [laughs]

Terrio:  So from that point of view, we naturally had the fan as the mole in the room. There were things that I agreed with or didn’t agree with in other Star Wars movies and I came in with my own axes to grind about, ‘Why did they do this?’ or ‘Why did they do that?’ And of course we listened to the conversation around all the films… [but] you go crazy pretty quickly if you start Googling. [laughs]

Rejwan:  Well, we had our own spirited debates like that, right? We did not leave any stone unturned on this, so we had a lot of conversations [and] debate [about] our own expectations as well as fan expectations. All of it is important, but at the end of the day, the most important thing– and I think what resonates with the fans most– is to tell an authentic story. To [director / co-writer] J.J. [Abrams] too, bearing the burden of all of that, it’s about these characters and doing [those relationships] justice, creating this sense of synthesis for not only [this] trilogy but the nine movies [in the Skywalker Saga]. And that is the greater job, [but] we’re also telling one pure story. You go in and can have a sense of connectability and surprise and [it’s] thrilling and funny and all of those things. It’s all important; it really is.

Terrio:  And I’m a little biased, but I like to think Star Wars fans are really smart. So nothing is going to get by the fans, but also nothing is wasted. Anything that you put in that is worth thinking about, or arguing about, or reflecting on, or being moved by, or being angry about, is something that you know is going to be caught. It’s not a movie where you think, ‘Cast out your pearls before swine.’ Every one of those pearls is going to be picked up by the fans because the fans obviously cherish all the things that are great about Star Wars.

Rejwan:  It’s so rewarding for all of the crewmembers and artists across the movie, because all of their detail and love that they put into it, the fans find, appreciate, [and] get the story resonance instantly. That’s very rewarding to see.

Terrio:  That was another thing in doing a film like this, which is a ninth part: you know that the fans all know every word, pretty much. A quote that we talked about a bunch, which is I think misattributed to Mark Twain, which he may or may not have said, is ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.’ And we thought, as the culmination, we need to see things in this movie that almost feel cyclical– things that we’ve seen before. There are going to be moments that allude to other moments. There are going to be words… we know what resonance a word contains for a Star Wars fan, because we know every word– of the original trilogy, certainly, and even of the prequel and new trilogies. So you’re working on a whole other communication level, because you’re not only communicating within the story, but you’re communicating at a meta level on the narrative rhyme throughout the nine movies.

Q:  In your mind, how have the sensibilities of Star Wars remained consistent from 1977 to today?

Terrio:  Well, something that [Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy] a couple weeks ago, when we were having a debate over a certain word in the film, is it needs to feel timeless. There are even certain words, as a writer, that you think sound too modern to your ear [for Star Wars], which is crazy because it was ‘A Long Time Ago in A Galaxy Far, Far Away.’ But every now and then you’ll come across a word that doesn’t feel Star Wars-y. And I don’t know whether the test is, ‘Does it sound like something that could have come out of the pilots in a World War II spitfire movie?’ or ‘Does it sound like something that could have come out of Flash Gordon?’ But somehow there’s a Star Wars-y-ness to the tone that has to feel ‘of that galaxy.’

I think timelessness is part of it. The way that people speak in Star Wars forty-two years ago sounds totally modern to my ear. And maybe that’s because we’ve started to talk more like Star Wars, or because Star Wars was anticipating how we talk, but chicken or the egg, it feels modern. So I think we could be true to modernity but also using the tone of forty-two years ago.

Rejwan:  And I think as a result of that, those timeless stories reveal even more levels over time and over generations. That is another test that you don’t know [the result of], but you put forth what feels authentic and true to you and to the characters that are experiencing that conflict at that time. But I think ‘timeless’ is an excellent word that we hope to live up to, because that is very much in the DNA of Star Wars.

Q:  On a personal level, how does it feel to be part of the team that helps give these characters closure and provide a resolution to this story?

Rejwan:  It is hard to let go. It really is. It is a feeling of joy, but it’s also bittersweet, letting go of something that has such a massive legacy and has been so important to so many people, so important to us.

Terrio:  We thought it was over in 1983, right? [The] Ewok celebration [happens in Return of the Jedi and] it’s over. And then the prequels say you get to look into this world one more time. Then when the sequel trilogy happened, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to get to see a wrecked Star Destroyer! Of course.’ I didn’t know I needed to see that, but I needed to see that. But now that the Skywalker Saga is ending, I don’t want to live in a world without [it]. That’s why every day when we went to work, we genuinely [tried] to get as much out of every moment as we could.

This was never treated as a job. It was our lives. It was totalizing. And that’s, I think, one of the reasons we love Star Wars so much, is because it is totalizing. Who wants to live in this dreary world of ours [when you could work on] Star Wars and just look in 360 degrees anywhere around you and [that] world is inhabited and feels real? We were living in that for two and a half years, and I wish it didn’t end.

Q:  Obviously the title of this film begs the question, ‘Who is Skywalker? Which character or characters is that name referring to? Luke? Rey? Leia?’ And many fans believe it refers to Kylo Ren. Without giving anything away, can you delve into that concept?

Terrio:  The film will reveal those things, but I promise you that whenever we talked about Ren, we talked about him as the former Ben Solo, we talked about him as the protege of Snoke, we talked about him as the once-protege of Luke, we talked about him as the prince of Alderaan. We talked about him as all the richness that he is coming from the lineage of Han and Leia. So I hope we do justice to the fact that he’s a complicated character with a rich lineage.

Rejwan:  And that legacy, both in terms of the big picture of Star Wars [and] these characters, is a part of the story. It is their history. It is our history. It is something that feels authentically true, that is informing their everything: the way they think about themselves, the way they discover themselves, their own choices, how they are going to bear the burden of the conflict ahead, and [whether] they will be able to rise up to the challenge [of] what the generation before them was able to achieve. It’s all part of the fabric of the movie.

Q:  Were there any characters in particular for which you had a difficult time finding an appropriate ending?

Rejwan:  The hardest challenge for J.J. and Chris as writers, I would say, was balancing all of those arcs– not only for the original trilogy characters, the larger saga characters, [but also for] the new generation and the new characters we made [for] this movie. That was a phenomenal amount of work that these guys did to give each and every character– human, creature, droid– a real story that had real meaning. It is one of the things I’m proudest of in the entire movie.

Terrio:  We had such good actors that we knew we were going to have to face on set. And you don’t want to look at Billy Dee Williams and say, ‘Oh, well, you don’t really have much to do.’ Similarly, you don’t want to look at the new actors like Richard E. Grant or Naomi Ackie in the eye and say, ‘You don’t have much to play here.’ So that kept us going back to the drawing board to try to find more interesting stuff for everybody to do. And then to be inspired by their chemistry– I’m not even sure if the actors realized how much we would watch the dailies and get ideas that would affect the ongoing writing of the script.

Rejwan:  That’s the thrilling part of making a movie: it’s a living process. I think J.J. in particular is very inspired by that feeling of discovery.

Q:  You famously came onto this project after another filmmaker who’d already started work writing the film departed. Did you start from scratch or was there any part of Colin Trevorrow’s drafts you kept as a structure?

Terrio:  Being a little bit superstitious, I didn’t want to read the previous stuff before [I started writing], because a lot of times it’s hard to go in your own direction if you have other stuff in your head. If I even read a newspaper article, that wording will probably come out of me later on in the day. It’s just the way my brain works, so I didn’t actually look at that stuff. We started from scratch. We started with a blank page and literally just started writing down things that we thought would be interesting to see, or moments that we loved from the original trilogy.

Or we’d write words like ‘underdog’ on the board and say, ‘Okay, who were the underdogs in Return of the Jedi?’ Obviously the rebels are underestimated. The Ewoks are underestimated, because how could this primitive tribe of teddy bears ever destroy the greatest military power? Is Vader an underdog when he’s with the Emperor? And we’d just think about all these things and say, ‘That’s a feeling that we love from the originals,’ and ‘How could we recreate that in our story?’ The conversations would go in any direction, but we’d just start with an idea and a feeling and try to flesh it out in story.

Rejwan:  From a blank white board, one of the greatest things that J.J. did in one of our first story meetings on VII, and again on IX, is he just wanted us to be talking about what we want to be feeling. What do we want to feel? Then, from some of those answers, the light would always emerge. It would reveal the next level of the story or the right decision made in the scene or the right dialogue. It was an incredible challenge, because we had lost some time. J.J. [stepped] in with a pressurized schedule. He and Chris had to jump in immediately, starting over with a blank page. But in a way, you go back to the purest place because of that, and you just listen to your heart and your gut.

Terrio:  And it helps that I really liked Rey and was moved by Rey [as a character]. Like Leia’s defining scene, the first time you meet Rey [in The Force Awakens], there’s a droid that’s in trouble, and Rey has the compassion to free him, in a fierce way. Then she makes this very moral decision not to sell BB-8 to Unkar [Plutt], and [because of] that I immediately bonded with her, and I thought, ‘I can do business with this character. She’s someone that I want to be with and know more about.’ And thank God we have that in Finn and Poe and Rey and in Rose and in Jannah and in Zorii. They’re all people that I like and would want to be friends with, or I hope would deign to be friends with me. In that way, coming back to the characters always centered us.

Q:  Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi took the Star Wars story in some bold steps along very different paths than what many fans were expecting. How much of those threads did you feel you had to follow through on and how much was course-correction from where J.J. left off at the end of The Force Awakens?

Terrio:  J.J. naturally has really strong inclinations and ideas about where he wants things to go, [but] I think any director taking over wouldn’t necessarily walk exactly in the footsteps that were given at the end of Episode VIII. There were things from Episode VIII that turned out to be super useful to us, that we didn’t even realize at first. It wasn’t until we got deeply immersed in it that we thought, ‘Oh, there’s that interesting hanging thread from VIII that we could pick up.’ But also, J.J. planted certain threads in VII because that’s where his imagination and his interests lay. And so there may have been things in VII that maybe Rian wasn’t as naturally interested in as J.J. would have been, had he been the filmmaker of [VIII].

So there were also opportunities to go back and pick up certain storylines that maybe didn’t interest Rian as much as they did J.J., and that’s been really fun, to get to dig into some of The Force Awakens stuff– [the Knights of Ren being] one example. One of the things about Star Wars is [Lucasfilm wants] filmmakers with an original voice, and so if the Knights of Ren weren’t something that Rian wanted to take up, great. But J.J. of course, having created them, was more interested in them. So we got to take them up again in IX, and so on with a few different storylines.

Q:  Are there ideas or themes that you associate most closely with the mythology of Star Wars?

Terrio:  It’s redemption. The idea of redemption is super important to Star Wars, the idea that there is such [a] thing as light even in the darkest times. The idea of defiance always would get me when I would think about Leia standing up to Vader in that first scene [in A New Hope]. She’s about four-foot-eleven standing up against the almost literal Grim Reaper and telling him, ‘Only you could be so bold.’ She tells off Vader in the first scene, and so there’s this sense of defiance against tyranny that we could always go back to in our hearts and minds.

And then of course, the story of sacrifice– Vader sacrificing himself for his son. Or the separation of the twins at the end of the prequels, the tragedy of this almost fairy-tale idea that one would grow up as a princess and one would grow up as a farmer. Whenever we’d get lost in the vast scale of [writing this story], we’d just go back and say, ‘Those are the things that make Star Wars Star Wars, and that make us love Star Wars.’

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

Mike Celestino
Mike serves as Laughing Place's lead Southern California reporter, Editorial Director for Star Wars content, and host of the weekly "Who's the Bossk?" Star Wars podcast. He's been fascinated by Disney theme parks and storytelling in general all his life and resides in Burbank, California with his beloved wife and cats.