An upcoming interview with filmmaker JJ Abrams will span the entirety of his career, and that means it includes significant statements about his work on the latest Star Wars trilogy. From the sound of things, 17 months of distance from his last Star Wars film, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, have given him either the clarity or the cushion needed to speak frankly on what the film arguably flubbed.
Ahead of the full interview’s publication—which takes advantage of the upcoming 10th-anniversary Blu-ray of Abrams’ Super 8—Collider released an excerpt on Wednesday focusing on his directing and co-writing work on both Episodes VII and IX. The takeaway seems loud and clear: the new trilogy as a whole, which he bookended, would have benefited from more consistency.
Abrams’ quotes in isolation may sound like he’s speaking about the entirety of his career, but they’re specifically in response to Collider’s questions about the director and writer hand-off between entries in the “Rey trilogy.” His first answer includes a bigger-picture estimation about best-laid plans, hinting to issues with a single actor or when “a relationship as written doesn’t quite work.”
“Having a plan is the most critical thing”
By contrast, “other things that you think like, ‘Oh that’s a small moment’ or ‘That’s a one-episode character’ suddenly become a hugely important part of the story,” Abrams says. With a full pandemic-based lockdown behind him, Abrams says he has had more time to work with writers to develop upcoming content, and here’s how he described the “lesson” he has recently learned:
You have to plan things as best you can, and you always need to be able to respond to the unexpected. And the unexpected can come in all sorts of forms, and I do think that there’s nothing more important than knowing where you’re going.
Yet, he’s careful to admit that a specific plan doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, especially when “we weren’t allowed to [execute ideas] the way we wanted to,” though he doesn’t clarify whether he means an issue where the House of Mouse shot down a Star Wars-related plan of his own. (We know of at least one case when that happened, in the form of a rocky mid-production change of hands for Solo: A Star Wars Story.)
When pressed on what’s better, plan or no plan, Abrams picks “plan,” telling Collider:
Having a plan, I have learned—in some cases the hard way—is the most critical thing, because otherwise you don’t know what you’re setting up. You don’t know what to emphasize. Because if you don’t know the inevitable [sic] of the story, you’re just as good as your last sequence or effect or joke or whatever, but you want to be leading to something inevitable.
In Star Wars‘ case, the “inevitable” ending turned out to be (spoiler alert) the surprise rebirth of Emperor Palpatine to create a final-film villain and an about-face from Episode VIII: The Last Jedi‘s intriguing allegation about Rey’s origins. With Colin Trevorrow departing Episode IX before it began production in earnest, Abrams’ return saw him steer the Rey trilogy’s ship back toward his own apparent vision, jettisoning the logic and build-up that came from Rian Johnson’s directorial-pivot approach to showing up mid-trilogy.
My own Episode IX review called this issue out. After praising its best moments and its two stellar lead performances, I did my best to offer a spoiler-free condemnation at the time:
Rise of Skywalker might otherwise serve as proof that director/co-writer J.J. Abrams was the wrong person to finish the latest trilogy. The film rushes between plot points, overuses certain characters, and wastes others. And whether you loved, tolerated, or hated 2017’s The Last Jedi, it’s easy to conclude that the previous film’s most intriguing developments and concepts were abandoned—and without any convincing proof that Abrams had better ideas in store.
The series has since blossomed with its pivot to serialized and drawn-out plots built into older series events, from Clone Wars‘ and The Bad Batch‘s deep dives into the prequel trilogy to The Mandalorian‘s stitching of that content into the original trilogy’s timeline. The most recently announced addition to that slew of existing stories will follow Obi-Wan Kenobi, as played by Ewan McGregor, between the events of Episodes III and IV. (It will likely have to tide fans over to a greater degree, now that Disney has confirmed that the Mandalorian spin-off Rangers of the New Republic has been put on production hold for the time being.) Meanwhile, life is looking good for Rian Johnson as well, who is set to helm two sequels to his Oscar-nominated cash machine Knives Out.
Today’s Abrams news follows his confirmation earlier this week that one of his other incredibly geeky projects, a film adaptation of Valve’s Portal game series, is still in development, eight years after the collaboration was originally announced. Abrams didn’t go into further detail about the shape of that project or whether any talent is yet attached to it, but the series’ emphasis on flashy CGI robots makes it arguably easier to produce during a pandemic-based lockdown than films that revolve around humans.