Screenwriter Chris Terrio won an Academy Award for writing Argo, the 2013 Oscar winner for Best Picture directed by Ben Affleck. That experience, however, would not prepare him to step into the world of franchise films and their extremely passionate and verbal fan bases. On his latest film, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Terrio collaborated with director J.J. Abrams to craft what they hoped would serve as a satisfying conclusion to the now 42-year Star Wars saga centering around the Skywalker family. They had no illusions, though, that they would be able to satisfy everyone.
“We knew at the beginning that there was no world in which everyone was going to say that was exactly what I wanted,” Terrio explained. “But I hope at the very least our love for the characters and for the galaxy comes through in some way.”
Critics and audiences alike seem torn on the concluding film to the Star Wars world as we know it. It posted $177 million in its opening weekend, but that was down significantly from the previous outing, The Last Jedi. Additionally, The Rise of Skywalker is the only film in the new trilogy to not receive an “A” Cinemascore rating, indicating the perhaps inevitable mixed reactions from fans.
Fresh off a whirlwind tour of premieres, Terrio talks to Awards Daily about the many challenges inherent in bringing an end to something so beloved around the world. Despite being jet-lagged and coming down off of a 2.5-year Star Wars high, Terrio’s obvious enthusiasm for the material and the Star Wars world poured out. He often joked during our interview about being that guy on the street that would pull you aside to share his rabid conspiracy theories about the Illuminati. During the course of our near hour-long interview, he dropped a lot of plot spoilers (avoided here) and detail about additional footage not included in the finished product (also avoided here) that seemingly speaks to many of the internet-based criticisms.
Despite what many fans on the internet believe, Terrio feels incredibly passionate about the Star Wars universe. He worked around the clock for 2.5 years to bring the beloved series to its best conclusion possible while maintaining and honoring the legacy of the beloved Carrie Fisher. Here, he brings us into the loop of creating the film and how he and J.J. Abrams dealt with its many challenges as life-long fans of this groundbreaking and still very beloved series.
Awards Daily: Before we get into The Rise of Skywalker, you obviously won an Oscar in 2013 for writing Argo. What was that experience like?
Chris Terrio: It was amazing. It was my first shot screenplay, and it was such a little, personal project that I was working on with my friend Nina Wolarsky at SmokeHouse at the time. I was so used to the lowly life of a writer who goes to the coffee shop everyday but doesn’t really have a presence in Hollywood. And then once Ben Affleck read the script and decided to make it, suddenly there I was on a film set in Istanbul passing for Tehran and getting it made. Getting it made pretty much as I wrote it, which I know is an unusual experience in Hollywood – getting it made without a lot of chefs in the kitchen other than Ben.
AD: So how did you get involved in The Rise of Skywalker?
CT: Before Argo came out, I signed a deal at Warner Bros. because I just wanted a job. I had no idea that anyone would see Argo. In fact, I didn’t think anyone would see it since it was a political movie about Iran. So, I didn’t think I’d ever get another job in Hollywood. So, I signed on to do another couple of movies with Warners, and then of course Ben Affleck signed up to play Batman, which is how I got involved in those films. Ben and I were friends, and I wanted to work with him again. I ended up in this unlikely situation where I was writing on those movies largely to write for him. After that, I wanted to go back to the kind of movies more in my wheelhouse. To get one movie made, you tend to have 10 scripts on the shelf, and my scripts on the shelf tended to be more dramas and small procedurals or period movies.
One of the movies I’d written was called A Foreigner, based on a New Yorker story by David Grann, happened to be picked up and read by J.J. We had a long conversation about that script. We had a great talk, but I thought I’d probably never heard from him again. Then, when he took the job to direct Star Wars, he just called me up out of the blue and said, “Hey, do you want to write Episode IX with me?” By this time, I’d been sort of through the franchise machine on other films, and I’d said I would never ever go near a franchise again because there are so many compromises and so many chefs are in the kitchen. It really wasn’t a place where I was happy as a writer. But then Star Wars came about. Star Wars was the love of my life, and Return of the Jedi was the first movie I saw. It was the thing that made me love movies. Once J.J. and I got talking about it, we discovered we had a lot of the same dispositions toward the franchise in that we loved the mythic qualities of the stories. We loved the Saturday morning serial feeling to the stories. We loved even how the original films were genre films, but they were combination genre films of science-fiction and western and Kurosawa. J.J. and I both thought of it as a chance to capture that original spirit.
AD: When you two were working together, you obviously had this shared appreciation for the Star Wars universe. When you starting working on the final script, were you responding to a pre-defined structure or were you creating something unique between the two of you?
CT: Both actually. Kathy Kennedy and Michelle Rejwan had a clear plan for where they wanted things to end. They had clear plans about certain narrative marks they wanted us to hit. They also gave us a lot of freedom within that. We knew that Rey and Ren were utterly key to this trilogy, but we also felt that there was no way that we were going to not find a path to redemption for Kylo Ren, the son of Han and Leia. We felt that right from the beginning, when J.J. established Kylo Ren in Episode VII, there was a war going on inside him and that he had been corrupted by something bigger than himself and had made bad choices along the way. J.J. and I felt we needed to find a way in which he could be redeemed, and that gets tricky at the end of Episode VIII because Snoke is gone. The biggest bad guy in the galaxy at that moment seemingly is Kylo Ren. There needed to be an antagonist that the good guys could be fighting, and that’s when we really tried to laser in on who had been the great source of evil behind all of this for so long. That’s when we really started aggressively pursuing this idea that there is old evil that didn’t die. The source of the evil in the galaxy is this dark spirit waiting for its revenge and biding its time. The entity known as Palpatine in this version – his body died in Return of the Jedi – is patient and has been waiting. He dug his fox hole and has been waiting for his chance to re-establish his total domination.
AD: Was returning to this entity known as Palpatine always in the plan or was it newly introduced in Episode IX?
CT: Well, I can’t speak to Kathy’s overall intent. That was certainly discussed and was discussed before I ever came on. Kathy had this overall vision that we had to be telling the same story for nine episodes. Although from the sleight of hand of Episode VII and Episode VIII, you wouldn’t necessarily know immediately that we were telling the same story. She thought it would be a very strong end for the ninth movie. This fits well with J.J. because he loves magic tricks. He will often talk in metaphors and magic tricks, and so in Episode VII and Episode VIII, you think you’re watching one thing but Episode IX tells you to watch more closely – you were actually watching something else. When you rewatch the earlier films, things start to make additional sense. Ren and his devotion to the idea of his grandfather. The voice that he’s always heard in his head. The certain similarities between Snoke and Palpatine. The intention was that, by the time you get to Episode IX, you realize there were real reasons this is all happening. It all shows how this story is being fought cyclically through the series.
AD: I can imagine one of the more difficult challenges in creating the screenplay had to have been dealing with the death of Carrie Fisher. How did you and JJ shape a narrative for General Leia using pre-existing footage?
CT: Well, that was our first task, looking at all the Carrie footage and trying to figure out what we could use and what couldn’t. What we could write scenes around and what felt like it could fit within the plot we were constructing. There are scenes of Carrie from Episode VII that we wish we could have used because they were fantastic, but if it seemed like we were artificially shoe-horning them into the story, then we didn’t use them because we felt the responsibility of staying true to Carrie’s performance as Leia. We knew that we had to find bits of performance where she was now carrying the death of Luke on her shoulders and she was concerned about the fate of her son.
We knew there was, in this movie, a certain sobriety about Leia, and we had to pick and choose to ensure the weight of responsibility was still on Leia’s mind while at the same time maintaining a sense of Carrie’s wit and brilliance. It wasn’t easy. Most importantly, we wanted to put Leia in the Jedi pantheon. We thought that was a promise that was made in the original trilogy. In Return of the Jedi, you have this line, “There is another.” That line haunted me as a kid, and to learn Leia was another Jedi was profoundly moving to me. We thought if we did one thing in this move, we wanted to find a way to put Leia in the Jedi pantheon. The way to do that was through Rey and Leia training her through the Jedi trials. A lot of our decisions through the film were setting up scenes where Rey could finish Leia’s Jedi journey for her.
AD: One thing that’s fairly pervasive right now is the buzz around Kelly Marie Tran’s reduced role in The Rise of Skywalker when compared to The Last Jedi. Tell me about working through her role in the final film.
CT: Well, first of all, J.J. and I adore Kelly Marie Tran. One of the reasons that Rose has a few less scenes than we would like her to have has to do with the difficulty of using Carrie’s footage in the way we wanted to. We wanted Rose to be the anchor at the rebel base who was with Leia. We thought we couldn’t leave Leia at the base without any of the principals whom we love, so Leia and Rose were working together. As the process evolved, a few scenes we’d written with Rose and Leia turned out to not meet the standard of photorealism that we’d hoped for. Those scenes unfortunately fell out of the film. The last thing we were doing was deliberately trying to sideline Rose. We adore the character, and we adore Kelly – so much so that we anchored her with our favorite person in this galaxy, General Leia.
AD: Given the sheer volume of exposition required and number of characters you did have to balance, was there ever talk around expanding Episode IX into a “Part 1” and a “Part 2?”
CT: I wish we could have done that. There is a lot of plot in the movie, and as a writer, you always want scenes to let the plot breathe more. If there were a way of doing it, splitting it would have been my dream. We could have written these characters forever. There was so much backstory that had to be left by the wayside. I wish that we could have that, but George always said it was nine movies. That was the natural size of the saga, and so, other than a few initial discussions, we never really advanced that conversation. Of course, as a writer, it breaks your heart to leave stuff on the table that you think would have given the story more depth and nuance and to give the characters more to do. Speaking for myself and not on the part of the studio, I do wish there could have been a “Part 1” and a “Part 2.”
*** SPOILERS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE YET TO SEE THE FILM***
AD: Trying to avoid spoilers here, but leading into the final film, the word was that this would be the final chapter on the Skywalker saga. Yet, there’s a persistence still in the name Skywalker at the end of the film. Is this really the end?
CT: I don’t have any additional insight into that than you do, honest to God. For us, the resonance of the name Skywalker was just purely a thematic one. It wasn’t an attempt to brand something in the universe. It was truly that Rey is a girl from nowhere without a family who first discovers that she has no one in her background except junk sellers, which is true, and then also discovers that she’s descended from the greatest enemy of the Skywalkers in the galaxy. Finally, because of her choices, she is able to choose her family. She’s able to say, ‘I’m a Jedi and I’m a Skywalker.’ So that was purely Rey’s character development for us in the film.
J.J. and I had a post-it that read, “You don’t discover who you are. You create it.” So much of this film is about discovery and creating who you are through that discovery. Even as she’s discovering who she is she’s creating who she is. She’s the only person in the galaxy who was trailed by two Skywalkers: Luke and Leia. She becomes the hope of the galaxy by becoming the apprentice of the Skywalkers. It’s purely for thematic reasons that we included who is a Skywalker at the end of the film. [Editor note: Updated on 12-30 to reflect Disney-embargoed plot points included within his response.]
AD: Where do you go from here as a writer?
CT: Well, as you can tell, I can’t quite stop talking about Star Wars, so I’ll probably be grabbing random people on the street and trying to talk to them about it. I’m working on going back to the kind of material that is more like Argo. Stories without so much orthodoxy, maybe. Without so many characters. I think there are about 24 characters in The Rise of Skywalker. About 16 of those have fairly significant or traceable character arcs. That’s not an easy task, obviously. You have to look to films like Robert Altman films for inspiration as to how you can keep track of them all. There will never be another film like this where you’re balancing so many characters and plot points that go back 42 years. So, I’m eager to do something a bit smaller, a bit more less populist, and a bit more in the tone of some of my earlier work.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is now showing in nearly every theater in the world.