Europe 2016: A Celebration of the Lucasfilm Story Group

swce-storygroup

During the “Future Filmmakers” panel, the final event of Star Wars Celebration Europe 2016, Episode VIII director Rian Johnson revealed that he had spent six weeks in San Francisco with the Lucasfilm Story Group developing the story for the film before writing his screenplay. Sitting in the audience, I was at first surprised to learn this, but in retrospect I shouldn’t have been. It confirmed a feeling that had been growing with each panel I had attended throughout the weekend: that the role of the Story Group is wider, and more central to every aspect of Star Wars storytelling, than I had thought.

It is a common misconception that the Story Group exists to ensure continuity between the various media in which Star Wars stories are being told: films, novels, comics and video games. This is certainly part of their role, and we can see the fruits of that in the two most recent novels, Claudia Gray’s Bloodline (which had input from Johnson himself) and Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath: Life Debt. Both books draw together story elements spanning existing novels and films, and also give us tantalizing hints of what may be to come in the sequel trilogy. At the “Star Wars Publishing” panel on Saturday, Matt Martin from the Story Group mentioned that aspects of the Adventures in Wild Space series, ostensibly written for children, will soon make their way into stories aimed at adults. The revelation at that panel that the Rogue One tie-in novel Catalyst will be written by James Luceno also implies an intention to ensure continuity between the film and Luceno’s previous novel Tarkin, which covers the early days of the Death Star project.

saw-forest

The Story Group’s work maintaining continuity is important, but I have seen it claimed online that they have little influence on stories of the films themselves. Yet we have known for several weeks that Saw Gerrera, a character created by George Lucas and introduced in The Clone Wars, found his way into Rogue One when the screenwriters were looking for a radicalized guerrilla fighter to help the rebel mission. At the Rogue One panel on Friday, actor Forest Whitaker revealed that he had watched Gerrera’s episodes of The Clone Wars to prepare for his role. I found this remarkable: Whitaker won a Best Actor Academy Award for playing Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, yet approached his Star Wars role with absolute seriousness, sitting down to watch a Cartoon Network show from 2013 to get an insight into his character. It is a validation not just of George Lucas and Dave Filoni’s creation, but also of the Story Group for keeping this character alive and finding a place to continue his story when the opportunity arose.

Rian Johnson’s revelations about the development of the Episode VIII screenplay, however, opened my eyes to just how collaborative the environment at Lucasfilm really is. Johnson spoke of a “campus” environment: while he worked on Episode VIII in one room, Gareth Edwards would be next door working on Rogue One, while Dave Filoni would be just down the hall working on Rebels. The three directors would bump into each other into the hallway, and stop by to see what the other was doing, talking about their work and sharing their ideas. Filoni at one point visited the set of Episode VIII, with Johnson praising him as a “calming” presence. Johnson found the experience in San Francisco to be creatively fruitful, and it occurred to me that Lucasfilm have created the perfect environment for making good Star Wars.

(Photo: Meghan LaBelle)

(Photo: Meghan LaBelle)

Throughout the weekend, it was fascinating to listen to Dave Filoni and Story Group member Pablo Hidalgo talking about the themes and philosophies of Star Wars with absolute seriousness. At the panels for Star Wars Rebels, “Ahsoka’s Untold Tales” and “Lucasfilm and the Art of Storytelling”, they talked about the core Star Wars themes of compassion and selflessness; the rules and technicalities of Force ghosts; Ahsoka’s attempts to sense Anakin in the Force following Order 66 and not finding him (leading to an interesting discussion about whether Anakin and Vader are the same person); and from there, the importance of emphasising that Ahsoka could never bring Anakin back from the dark side, that only Luke is capable of that. Following the announcement that Grand Admiral Thrawn would make an appearance in Rebels, Filoni even mentioned the ysalamiri from Heir to the Empire, saying that they would not be making the journey from Legends because, having discussed the idea with George Lucas years ago, they came to the conclusion that the Force-repelling creatures contradict Lucas’s conception of the Force.

The sense I had from these panels was that Lucasfilm, and the Story Group, have a deep knowledge not merely of the minutiae of alien names and starship classes, but of the core themes and characters of Star Wars. These are the people working closely with the writers and directors to develop both the saga and spinoff films. If you were worried about future movies contradicting Lucas’s core philosophy, or the rules of the Force or the afterlife, don’t be: they’ve got this. If, as The Force Awakens hints, Luke and Rey are to encounter the first Jedi Temple in Episode VIII, rest assured that Rian Johnson will get it right.

Star Wars, through its first six saga films and The Clone Wars, primarily reflected the worldview of one person. It is impossible to retain that when that person is gone, but Lucasfilm have found the next best thing: keeping people like Hidalgo and Filoni, who worked with Lucas and, in Filoni’s case, developed stories with him, and having them work with passionate young directors like Johnson, Edwards, Phil Lord and Chris Miller who grew up with the series. They have found the best of both worlds: a deep understanding of what Star Wars is and what it means, coupled with a childlike love for the world, and a sense of excitement about where it could go next. The love that everyone in the Story Group, and every director, holds for Star Wars radiated from the stage, and they were clearly as excited to be there as the audience.

(Photo: Meghan LaBelle)

(Photo: Meghan LaBelle)

If you were in any doubt that those at Lucasfilm are fans, look at the return of Thrawn: probably the biggest single announcement to come out of Celebration (aside from the casting of the appropriately charming Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo, which was more a confirmation of what everyone already knew). As Hidalgo later revealed, this came about because Filoni and Kiri Hart, Lucasfilm’s Senior Vice-President in charge of Development, pitched the idea. Hart was brought to Lucasfilm in 2012 by Kathleen Kennedy to lead the Story Group, and was herself a huge Star Wars fan as a child. The way in which the Story Group has handled Thrawn – waiting for the right time and place to use him, ensuring he fits into the new canon and then commissioning a new novel by the character’s creator Timothy Zahn – shows both the extent to which the fans now run the show, and also their pragmatism. There is a danger, when long-time fans take control of a franchise, that storytelling can become overly self-referential and, for want of a better word, “fanservicey”, which can alienate the casual audience that something the size of Star Wars needs if it is to thrive. When the Expanded Universe was halted in April 2014 and reclassified as Legends, Lucasfilm was accused in some quarters of not showing enough respect for its fans. I would argue that Celebration Europe and the reappearance of Thrawn proved that they have the balance exactly right.

Hart’s role can never be overstated. As the head of the Story Group, she has responsibility for every Star Wars storytelling project – every film, book, comic or game. In Game of Thrones terms, if Kennedy is the Queen, Hart is the Hand of the Queen. Hart does not have the social media presence of Pablo Hidalgo or Matt Martin, but she is both a passionate Star Wars fan and somebody who clearly has a wide understanding of storytelling in the film industry. Her knowledge and love of Star Wars was clear for all to see, and one of the great joys of the weekend was finally seeing her in the spotlight.

The results of the Story Group’s work in balancing the desires of the fans and the importance of opening Star Wars to new audiences were visible in the sheer number of attendees who cosplayed as Rey. It was by some distance the most popular costume, but what stood out to me was the number of young girls, ten and under, wearing variations on Rey’s scavenger outfit. Women and girls have always loved Star Wars, but now they are finally being taken seriously as a target audience, and Rey – the strong, kind and (importantly) non-objectified lightsaber-wielding protagonist of the sequel trilogy – has brought a new generation to the galaxy. And not just girls: I heard several young boys speak of Rey as their favourite character. My wife Meghan, who has loved Star Wars since she was a child, found the experience deeply moving and wishes that she had had her own Rey when she was a girl. These are the audiences Star Wars needs to attract if it is to continue to thrive, and based on the number of children we saw happily queuing for wristbands at 5:30 each morning, they are off to a promising start. The fact that Kennedy and Hart, the two most important people at Lucasfilm, are both women, as is at least half of the Story Group, is a remarkable step forward, and the number of little Reys we saw in London during Celebration weekend is a testament to that.

(Photo: Anthony Joy)

I am tempted to apologize for the effusive nature of this piece, but the weekend was, in every sense, a true celebration of the current state of the franchise. I left the convention exhausted but exhilarated, and I doubt I have ever been more excited to be a fan. We saw the love for, and understanding of, Star Wars that is at the very heart of Lucasfilm, and a desire to share it with new audiences, young and old. Star Wars is in very safe hands, and we have an extraordinary few years ahead of us.

18 comments

  1. Ryan says:

    This is a very well-written piece, thank you. My question is, and would ask this to any of the story group if I was ever given the chance, is who is the keeper of the torch for the arc of the Sequel Trilogy? Is there an outline, perhaps written by Michael Arndt, that Rian Johnson and Collin Tevorrow will be working from? Was there some general arc written by J.J. and Lawrence Kasdan? Are there seeds of George Lucas’s idea of where Rey and Kylo will end up that the Story Group is holding to? Or are they given free reign? We always knew that George Lucas had the vision of where things were going in his movies, but who is that person now, considering we have different writers and directors for each episode now?

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      I’d imagine that kind of question will be easier to answer after IX is out. There may have been general ideas coming out of TFA about where they intended to go but I get the sense they wouldn’t force a particular roadmap if some exciting new idea came out of the development process. Look at how much TFA itself evolved during production.

  2. SC says:

    The Rey stuff is sweet, but your wife wishing she had her own Rey as a girl – what about Leia? I feel like she is cast aside so much now that Rey has come along. I’d hate if the story group is so focused on Rey that they forget they’ve had another strong female character who has appealed to girls like me all along.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      Leia did just have her own focus novel for only the second time ever, and she’s a main character in Life Debt—I’d hardly call that casting her aside.

      • SC says:

        Most casual fans don’t read the novels, though, and honestly, I meant more in regards to articles/blogs like this one. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen Rey touted as this breakthrough character for women, and I get it – she won’t be forced into a metal bikini, she wields a lightsaber, and she is unquestionably the lead – but she certainly isn’t the only light for girls in Star Wars. Leia’s still my favorite, and my kid nieces adore her, as well. I’m just saying, don’t forget about her.

      • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

        You’re saying fan blog articles are powerful enough to hurt Leia’s popularity, but official novels aren’t powerful enough to help it?

      • SC says:

        No, I’m not. I was replying to the writer of the article’s comment that his wife would have liked to have had a Rey growing up by noting that we did have Leia for all of these years, and that it is disheartening as a fan to see that fact so often cast aside in articles like this one. I was also semi-musing on the clear focus on Rey as a “breakthrough” since TFA, and how that might relate to the story group, as well as noting that while that focus is understandable, I hope they’ll also remember Leia in the films to come. That is all that I meant. As for the novels – I’m not saying that they’ll help or hurt Leia’s popularity; I’m saying that they are going to be read by people who are *major* fans of Star Wars, and therefore consider them just a neutral thing when compared to the films or shows. But, my comments about the overall focus on Rey has nothing to do with any of that, anyway. I meant that the focus on Rey is ubiquitous and not found in only fan blogs, but well-known articles, etc. Rey as a breakthrough character is a pretty loud concept right now, and I was just tying that notion into his comment about his wife wishing for a childhood Rey. And, maybe she wanted a Jedi, I get that, but I’m simply saying, “Hey, remember – we did have someone pretty cool, though!” I really don’t understand why I need to break my comments down like this/defend them – I think it’s really clear what I meant, and I certainly don’t mean anything against anyone. I’m definitely not here to start a fight.

      • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

        I’m sorry if I’ve come off aggressive, I appreciate that you’re not trying to argue. I reacted strongly because from my POV it feels like Rey/Leia is treated like a contest, and a zero-sum game, when it needn’t be. They’re different characters with different roles, and I don’t think Mark’s wife would dismiss Leia’s own value for a second just because she sees something bigger in Rey.

      • SC says:

        Okay, so here’s the funny thing – I actually completely agree with you about them being a contest, which is probably why I reacted so strongly to her comment about not having a Rey as a child. Really – I’ve actually had a difficult time enjoying Rey, because I feel like she and Leia are compared in a way that isn’t fair, and that the male characters are not. Leia doesn’t hold a lightsaber, etc., and I constantly see people diminishing her because she has different skills/qualities. Because of that, I do instantly assume that when people say, “I wish I had a Rey,” they are minimizing Leia. I know that isn’t always correct, so isn’t exactly fair, but that is the exact personal angle from which I was approaching the blog post. And, it’s fine – it’s very difficult to sense tone online, but I think we agree more than it seems. I just don’t want Leia to be torn down/tossed away as Rey is built up, and unfortunately, I have seem that happening a lot online.

  3. Meghan says:

    Hi, this is Meghan – Mark’s wife. I loved Leia as a girl and love her now, and in no way want to reduce her importance by comparing her to another character. The two big things about Rey for me are that she is a Jedi and that she is the lead character of the trilogy. The story centers on her. My favorite character in the original trilogy was always Luke Skywalker, so to have a woman occupying that role is something I had always dreamed of. As a young girl I never thought girls could be Jedi, so I really envy those growing up with Ahsoka and Rey.

    • SC says:

      Thank you for jumping in and clarifying. I’m glad that kids have female Jedi characters to look up to now, as well. I was actually one of the people who had hoped that Leia would’ve been a Jedi, so I understand. I’m just so used to people treating Rey as though she is more important than Leia, because she isn’t a Jedi, or because of this, or that, and made a quick assumption. I’m sorry for that. I wasn’t trying to start a Star Wars war!

  4. ImperialGirl says:

    I confess to not entirely getting the “I wish I had a Rey” thing, either. I had Leia. I never felt a need for her to be a female clone of Luke to be awesome. (Metaphorical clone, not literal. Let’s not start THAT weird a fan theory.) Plus Marion Ravenwood. Being introduced as able to drink sherpas under the table and greeting the hero by cold-cocking him were fine by me. It literally never occurred to me as a child that I couldn’t imagine being a Jedi (or in my case an X-wing pilot, and then I outgrew that and it’s TIE Interceptor pilot) because the character I was watching wasn’t exactly like me. If anything, the new-canon characters (other than Rey) are a much harder sell because quite a few come across, frankly, as “Well, it’s a girl! That makes her awesome just ’cause!”

    Frankly, I find the ysalamiri more plausible than a lot of what Rebels has done with the Force, or rather, something that fits in a universe trying to be real and lived-in rather than goofy D&D-gamewriting kinds of myth (Brother, Sister, thrones, dear God, STOP EXPLAINING THE FORCE. Midichlorians were bad enough.) The fact they brought back Thrawn? Great. The fact they do stuff like that and want to try and fit a character who came out of probably the most sophisticatedly-written Star Wars books in with goofy side quests and Dragonlance-speak mystic stuff is a little concerning. Zahn I trust. Filoni the jury is still out. I gave Rebels a shot despite not having any interest in Clone Wars (Ahsoka being a ‘big reveal’ was a massive letdown and she just gets worse, then they missed their shot at redeeming themselves by not doing the hard but right thing and having Vader straight-up unequivocally kill her), I more or less enjoy it, but mess up Thrawn? I don’t care much money it makes for me (Disney shareholder), I’m out.

  5. Meghan says:

    I feel as if a nerve was struck when Mark mentioned in his article how I envy the girls of today that they have Rey, someone I never had. To again clarify, this is not to say I never liked Leia– I love Leia– she’s an absolutely brilliant, cool, very admirable character. And to the previous reply/post, you’re right– even though I never saw a girl on screen as a Jedi, of course I still did imagine myself as one (we all know what hairbrushes are really for, c’mon). That being said, it is one thing to imagine it but an entirely different thing to see it represented on screen– a confirmation that yes, a heroic story can focus on a woman, and she can wield a lightsaber, too, not just men. I grew up in an era where the one girl or woman in the story was always the sidekick and/or romantic love interest to the male hero of the story. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I just always wanted to see a woman wield the sword for once and have the story center around her instead of the man. Representation in that capacity means so much, especially when you normally don’t see it. 

    Leia was a wonderful female Star Wars character for the girls of my generation, and Padmé was for the following generation, and now Rey is for the girls of today. It’s just someone like Rey is a woman that I always dreamed of seeing and I’m so happy that girls today have her, just as my mom was happy I had Leia growing up, someone she never had as a girl. It’s not an either/or situation– I love both Rey and Leia, but for different reasons. Leia and Padmé’s strengths were in the political world and I just think it’s cool and exciting to see something different with Rey in Star Wars. Just as boys have a preference for their favorite kind of character they vicariously live through, so do girls. And personally speaking, I think it’s fantastic to finally have a female hero who swings the sword (in this case, lightsaber) to vicariously live through instead of the male– which is something I always had to do. And now with Jyn Erso from Rogue One around the corner, there will be yet another kind of woman character in Star Wars for girls to admire. Some will love her and some won’t, just like any other character. But the fact that Jyn Erso will be another option, along with Leia, Padmé, and Rey, is what makes me happiest of all.

  6. […] Celebration Europe gave us a glimpse of what the Lucasfilm Story Group does – and it’s so much more than just maintaining continuity. This article is Pablo […]

  7. Mac says:

    >the rules and technicalities of Force ghosts

    Can you tell, please, where specifically was this discussed?

    • Mark Mark says:

      I’m pretty sure it was at the Rebels panel, though it might have been at Ahsoka’s Untold Tales. It was in response to a question about whether Ahsoka could return as a Force ghost – the answer essentially being no, because it was a very specific technique that was only taught to a few.

  8. […] being slightly disingenuous here, because that’s not the entirety of their job. I merely say so for […]

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