I don’t envy Star Wars writer Chris Terrio, who in the span of just two year has released perhaps two of the most widely debated films in the history of the internet. Justice League is still very much on the mind of DC fans and, for that matter, Warner Bros. executives, all of whom can’t help but wonder if a better version of the film that made its way into theaters could have existed. Years after its release, fans still clamor for the mythical “Snyder Cut,” while the DC Universe becomes more fractured and another super-team-up feels—charitably—years away.
Today, Terrio’s here to answer questions about the divisive The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth and (I’ll believe it when I see it) final episode of the main Star Wars story. There’s plenty to admire in The Rise of Skywalker if you look hard enough: The treasure hunt that takes up the first 90 minutes is pure, unadulterated intergalactic fun; battles between good and evil rage not only atop the ruins of the sunken Death Star, but inside the new trilogy’s main characters. There’s also plenty in RoS that’s warranted eyebrow raises from fans and critics alike, such as the apparent retconning of some of Knives Out director Rian Johnson’s bolder choices in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and, yes, that kiss at the end. In late December, GQ spoke with Terrio to discuss the daunting task of writing a send-off to a 42-year-old franchise, how he and co-writer J.J. Abrams grappled with key decisions, and why Harrison Ford was nicknamed “The Janitor” on set.
GQ: It must be a relief to finally be able to talk about the entirety of this movie. This saga.
Chris Terrio: I am very relieved to finally be able to speak about this without generalities. I can use proper nouns! You know, when J.J. and I were discussing the movie in public, in coffee shops, we would have to use code words to talk about the characters for fear someone would overhear us.
You invented your own little language?
We would use codenames for the characters, or just call them by the first letter of their name At one point J.J. and I were discussing some ideas in a bar in Oxford. He'd just given a talk at the uni there, and the very next day some of the contents of our conversation wound up on the internet. We realized we had to be a little more careful.
Do you have any favorite code words that you remember?
The code for The Emperor was Trooper 13. Or if we were talking about Harrison [Ford] we would call him The Janitor. We felt that was a huge unresolved part of Kylo. The family sin. So closure was necessary for Ren to make peace with the memory with his father, so we called Harrison The Janitor because he allowed Ren to clean up, at least spiritually, some of the mess he'd made.
I don't think many people were expecting that—especially because what you’d read about Harrison Ford, you would think he'd have washed his hands of the franchise after Episode VII.
I think he understood there was a great unresolved part of the story, with Ren and his father. Of course, it's not as though it's resolved. Ren has still committed this murder which you can't take back. But one thing we thought Episode IX needed to do was provide closure and he, essentially, had to seek forgiveness. Han isn't a force ghost, obviously. He's a memory. He doesn't have the same ontological status as, say, Luke, who exists in quite a literal way later on, but we needed Ren to ask forgiveness in order to carry on.
It was a super top-secret operation, getting Harrison to London to shoot the scene. He was flown in an unmarked plane, driven in straight in from Heathrow, and we filmed that scene with a skeleton crew. A lot of people, even people who'd worked on the movie, only saw him at the screening.
Tell me about the writing process with J.J. Because he's the director, too, I assume that gives you a bit more clarity in what you're actually working towards and how you can make things work.
It's actually an unusual process for me because J.J. and I as writers share the same status. But of course, as director, J.J. has to be the boss. He's sort of the President and the Congress. Luckily we had a great working relationship where we could argue over things. And as a writer, you understand that the director has the final word. It's his vision, but in any writing collaboration you have to know when you're having an argument between writers and when you're having an argument with the director. But I will say sometimes it was a... learning process.
You're responsible, for better or worse, two of the most-discussed franchises online in recent memory: Star Wars and Justice League. That would be a dream for lots of people. What was your connection to the franchises previously?
Star Wars was my favorite. I never really wanted to write another franchise movie, honestly. I started writing much smaller movies after 2018, never imagining Star Wars would come along. Return of the Jedi was the first movie I saw. It took up a lot of my teen years, and my adult years. So when J.J. came to me to come and write with him the... "series finale," was how we thought of it, of this amazing television show that's been on for 42 years. And yes, we wanted it to break some new ground and have a few surprises, but we wanted this to be a goodbye to the characters we've known and loved for so long. So when this came up I thought, I do have such genuine feelings for Luke, and Han, and the new characters, too. I knew I just wanted to pour my heart and soul into this, these last two hours and 15 minutes we'll ever spend with the whole group.
As you said, it's a goodbye, but it's still a Star Wars movie. How did you like tow that line between being respectful but maybe not sentimental, and having the peril still feel real enough?
It's a careful line between the Flash Gordon action-adventure serial that really Star Wars is in its DNA. It's also a deeply emotional family opera. When in doubt, we'd always try to go back to the family saga. To me, it's as rich and varied as any Greek tragedy. It's got the epic scale and structure of Aeschylus, right? You have generations of curses, and generational blessings, and heroes and villains and bloodlines, and all those things felt like they were so important to honor in this movie.
I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't talk about the elephant in the room, which is the whole Rey's parents thing. What were your initial thoughts going into resolving this mystery after it was seemingly cleared up in the prior movie?
Well, we weren't convinced that it had been cleared up, because there's still this highly troubling vision that Rey had in Episode VII, which is the shop with her parents leaving the planet. Also, the events of The Last Jedi are literally just after the events of Episode VII—within 48 hours, Rey has had a force-back to her parents and then the very next day is told "your parents were no one and they were junk traders. None of that matters." And we thought in a way that would be too easy because of the idea that Rey had been longing for her parents for so many years. We just felt like there was something more going on.
We think of Star Wars as a fairytale. Two twins: One is sent off to be a farmer and one is sent off to be a princess. Rey is kind of both. She becomes a junk trader on Jakku but she's also royalty. She's the descendant of the Emperor, she's essentially a princess of the Dark Side. This goes back to so many stories. Moses, for example, was a commoner raised as a prince. The whole concept is really mythologically strong to us. She's inherited this power but ultimately chooses to transform her lineage and decides her ancestors are the Jedi, basically. In fact, you can hear it near the end when you hear all the Jedi voices. One of them says, "We are your ancestors now."
Speaking of families and generations and the definitive answer about Rey's lineage I have to ask: what was the roadmap going into this? What had already been decided on from up high?
J.J. doesn't love talking about how the sausage is made, particularly in terms of what part of what story started when, so I won't get into that so much. The Last Jedi was a very interesting middle act and in fact, does the things that a middle act should do, which is to create this highly surprising and seemingly untenable situation moving forward, which is to say that the worst bad guy, Snoke, is dead, and the best good guy, Luke, is dead.
Rian sort of set up a challenge not only for the filmmakers, but for the characters. At the end, everyone is left with almost nothing. So as a storyteller, you have to start using all your tools because you're left with a lot of questions and not a whole of answers. So we had to recommit to a few aspects of the story and perhaps be a bit more inventive about what was going on in the galaxy.
In the broadest sense The Last Jedi does remind me of The Empire Strikes Back. There are a lot of blows at the end of that movie: Darth Vader is Luke's father; Luke loses a hand; they get double-crossed; Han's frozen solid. That's a challenging middle act, too. That's untenable, too.
Yeah, yeah, no doubt. Definitely, when you leave Empire Strikes Back you have probably more specific questions than you do at the end of The Last Jedi where maybe the cliffhangers aren't quite as explicit.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A ridiculous end to a once-promising trilogy.
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The filmmaker says the end of the Skywalker Saga really feels like an ending.
Originally Appeared on GQ