Chris Terrio has had the rare opportunity to work on two of the defining fantasy mythologies of our time: the DC Comics canon and the Star Wars universe. After breaking out in 2012 with his screenplay for Ben Affleck’s Argo, he was brought by Affleck into what was then known as the DC Extended Universe to work on the scripts for Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017).
It was also around that time he got a momentous call from director J.J. Abrams. The latter had been recruited by Lucasfilm to return to the new trilogy he started with The Force Awakens and to complete the Skywalker Saga in Episode IX. Already director Colin Trevorrow and his co-writer Derek Connolly left the project, and The Last Jedi had left a fanbase divided. So the pressure was on for Abrams and Terrio. The result of their efforts is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which wraps up the entire nine-film story and aims to conclude the story of Luke, Leia, Han, Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, Darth Vader, and the rest of the beloved characters.
Whether it succeeds or not remains to be seen, and there’s no question that the choices Abrams and Terrio have made–coming after Rian Johnson’s hotly debated The Last Jedi–are going to continue to thrill and move some fans while puzzling or frustrating others. We were unable to speak specifically with Terrio about those creative decisions, but we did speak with him about the joy of writing a Star Wars movie, the responsibility that comes with it, honoring the legacy of Carrie Fisher and more.
Den of Geek: Was it on your bucket list to write a Star Wars movie?
Chris Terrio: Yes. It’s so much more than a bucket list thing. It’s not a bucket list thing. It’s the whole list. The first movie I saw was Return of the Jedi. I grew up, as many of us did in my generation, playing Star Wars. Every pencil case in my school, if I squinted one eye, was a Star Destroyer, and every pencil was an X-Wing Fighter. So in this landscape of my imagination, Star Wars was the thing, the defining myth of my creative life, really.
For so many of us, it’s true. The first time I ever understood that somebody made movies was while watching a behind-the-scenes of Star Wars, where I saw that, “oh my God, there’s a camera. They’re in a forest in northern California, and there are people dressed as Ewoks!” When I was eight or nine, I began to understand that movies weren’t just found that way, that someone made them. So Star Wars is tied to my imagination in every possible way.
What was J.J.’s pitch to you, and what was the mandate when you guys sat down to get to work on it?
The pitch was just how do we even begin to do this, and promise each other that we’re going to hang in and we’re going to see it through to the end together. And I promised him that I will be in it till the end, and he promised me that we’d do it together, and that was it. I had really liked Episode VII. I just saw it as a normal audience member in New York. First of all, I love Kylo Ren as a character, but the minute I saw Rey and the way that we found Rey in the ruin of the previous war, I thought, “Oh, that’s the Star Wars that I want to see.”
You have this almost Dickensian situation with this girl, who is literally living in the ruins of the previous generation’s war, and to me, that image of Rey in the Star Destroyer just said so much about history, and about what we inherit from the past, and what we can do in the future. It felt utterly inhabited in a way that the Star Wars universe felt to me as a kid. It felt like if I turn this way, there would be another whole thing to see, or this way. You didn’t feel like the world was circumscribed by the screen.
So I immediately fell in love with Rey when I saw The Force Awakens, and I actually signed onto Episode IX before I saw The Last Jedi. The call came before I’d seen it, so I really literally had no idea what had happened in between when we left The Force Awakens and what we were going to do. But I had a lot of faith in J.J., and I love these characters. The legacy characters are like members of my family, as they are for so many of us. I feel that I know Luke Skywalker better than I know most of my cousins. I could tell you a lot more about the inner life of Luke than I could tell you about many of my friends. So there was no way that I would even dream of saying no to getting the privilege to spend time with the characters.
Was there material from the first pass at the script that Trevorrow and Connolly did that you used as a springboard or retained in any sense?
We started from scratch. This was a deliberate thing. J.J. has got this room at (his production company) Bad Robot with all these whiteboards, and it’s like some Star Trek thing where you press a button and they pop up. So you’re surrounded by all these whiteboards, and we just started writing ideas in dry erase marker of what we wanted to see in this film. And of course there were general ideas that had existed from The Force Awakens about where J.J. was hoping the trilogy would go, but as far as this movie was concerned, we were given an enormous amount of creative freedom to just start afresh.
So eventually the boards were filled up with writing, and, in J.J.’s case, drawings sometimes. He’s a more visual person than I am. And then those boards eventually became a document called The Boards that was a Word document that just kept growing and growing, and growing. And that was in the fall of 2017. And then we were shooting by the summer of 2018 at Pinewood. We did our first day in London in August of 2018.
How did it evolve over time? Was there always the sense that you were concluding not just this trilogy, but all three trilogies?
Yeah, because the thread that runs throughout these movies, I think, and I think this was present from the time of The Force Awakens, is the idea of the Skywalker legacy, the Skywalker inheritance. Rey’s eyes light up when she hears about Luke Skywalker, because not only are the characters aware of what happened in the events of the new trilogy, but they are aware of the events that happened in the original trilogy. It’s their myth in the same way that it’s our myth. And so there’s this weird meta thing that’s going on where we’re writing a myth about characters who are responding to a myth in their own galaxy, so it can get abstract pretty fast.
But we tried to bring it back down to the really human, emotional level of you have this generation of Finn, Poe, and Rey who are trying to almost live up to the greatest generation. The previous generation of Luke and Lando and Leia and Han were the stuff of legend. And the question for them is can we live up to that? Are we brave enough and strong enough? Do we have the mettle that they had? I think all the characters are tested in the course of this movie to see if they can do that.
When it came to incorporating the pre-existing footage of Carrie Fisher as Leia, did you basically write the scenes to fit what you had?
Yeah. Incredibly, J.J. had this footage of a discarded plot arc from The Force Awakens, and within those scenes, Carrie gives such a full-bodied–I can’t wait for you to see it. It has Carrie’s warmth and her wit, and even in dailies, you see flashes of Carrie’s intelligence and humor. So the first few months were largely spent thinking about how we would craft the story around what existed of Carrie, but also within those scenes stay true to the acting choices that she had made. If she made a certain acting choice in a certain scene, we tried to, in recreating the world around her and rebuilding it, stay true to how she played the scene. If it was a scene of great authority as a leader, that’s what it was. If it was a tender scene, we did that. If it was a scene where Carrie said something funny, then we recreated that mood.
Luckily, since J.J. was on the set directing the performance in The Force Awakens, he had the knowledge and the authority to actually recreate certain sequences like that for this film.
When you see people speculating online about what the plot is going to be, who is going to end up on the dark side, who is going to do this or that, do you get a kick out of reading that?
Look, when I was a fan, I was super curious about where things were going, and I would look up anything that I could, so I totally get it. In the absence of information, conspiracy theories will fill the ether, so I totally get the desire to know what’s out there. And I love that people are speculating, because the Star Wars fans are really smart, and sometimes they find connections that we hadn’t thought of, or they come up with some ingenious thing that maybe is not the plot, but would be a very good plot for another Star Wars movie.
So you have to tune it out when you’re writing, but of course, as a fan, I actually love the fact that fans are engaged, and they’re debating, and they just wonder what happens next. That’s the greatest thing as a writer, to be working on a project where the audience actually wants to know what happens next, because it’s so rare as a writer that you have the audience’s attention. And then once you do, it’s such a privilege to get to try to come up with a satisfying answer to what comes next.
You’ve worked on two of our great pop culture franchises, the DC universe and now the Star Wars universe. Are they similar in a way?
Sure, sure. Well, it’s strange. This process for me was more similar to my process with a movie like Argo, partially because it always stayed at the human level. And also that I stayed involved as a collaborator throughout the process as I did with Ben on that film. And I’ve really found such a creative inspiration and solace with J.J. and Michelle [Rejwan, producer] and Kathy [Kennedy, Lucasfilm president] that we can lock arms and enter into the creative sandbox together.
So that’s process-wise, for me. The process was a joy. But as far as similarities, they’re both big, mythic ways of looking at the world, but because Star Wars is not earthbound, you’re not constantly faced with the reality of creating an earth-like environment, so you really can go into the realm of myth and opera really. Space opera sometimes is used as a pejorative, but I actually love that term because I feel the thing about opera is that the feeling can’t be contained by words alone. It’s bigger than that, and I think Star Wars in that way is bigger than that. It’s a feeling. It’s the whole epic sweep of the galaxy, and of these families within it.
So in that sense, it feels like a totally different way to tell a story. I miss it. I miss it already. We just finished the movie, and already I don’t like this feeling of not having the Star Wars galaxy to live in.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is out in theaters this Friday, Dec. 20.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye