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.
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.
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.
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.
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.