Matthew Graham interview: the Star Wars live action TV show

Writer Matthew Graham takes us behind the scenes of George Lucas' since-abandoned Star Wars live-action TV show...

Matthew Graham was the co-creator and co-executive producer of hit shows Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes, and he’s just brought Childhood’s End to the screen in the US. But off the back of the success of Life On Mars, he was picked by George Lucas to be one of the chosen few to work on the seemingly-abandoned live action Star Wars television show. And whilst he couldn’t share story details from the show – it’s all owned by Disney now – he was able to take us behind the scenes.

Here, then, is the first of two interviews we’ve done with Matthew. The second, coming to the site shortly, will look at his recent Syfy TV show, Childhood’s End, as well as what he’s up to now. But for now: it’s Star Wars

You were one of the writers on the Star Wars television show, the abandoned live-action show that George Lucas was developing before he sold Lucasfilm to Disney. How did you become involved and what did you do on the show?

What happened was, in about I guess 2007, George Lucas decided… he was already writing and developing his Clone Wars animated series, and was enjoying jumping back into the Star Wars universe. He had been running writers’ rooms for Clone Wars, and he was enjoying the process of sitting down and chinwagging with other writers. He said I think the time has come to talk about doing a live-action Star Wars show. It had been rumoured for a long time.

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His producer Rick McCallum and associate producer Steve Irwin were basically given the task of travelling around and finding six or seven writers from around the world to bring in on the project.

Rick has a particular love of British writers and Australian writers. Even though Rick wanted to bring in a couple of writers from Los Angeles, he wanted to staff the room up with people from outside too. As a result of throwing the net out, Rick and Steve watched Life On Mars and loved it. I had a meeting with Rick in London, and then they sent some tapes for George to look at. He watched a couple of episodes and really liked it. And then the next thing, I got one of those wonderfully surreal calls, are you available in two days’ time to go to London to meet with George Lucas?

Was that between Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes?

No, I was making Bonekickers then. Ashes To Ashes series one was just going out. So I went to a hotel in London that George was at….

Was it a Travelodge?

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I’d love to say George Lucas met me in a Travelodge! No, it wasn’t!

What’s kind of surreal was I was standing in a lift going up, thinking I’m going upstairs to meet George Lucas. Then I was going in a corridor and they said it’s room 261 or whatever. And I thought, I’m going to knock on a door, and in that room will be George Lucas! So I knocked, and yep, George was in the lounge area of the room.

It went from being a bit surreal to very quickly getting chatting. I’d just bought a big new book that had come out about the making of A New Hope, and I was asking him about it, and we got really into it. Afterwards, I found out that a lot of writers had got very tongue-tied with George. Until George gets to know you, he’s a bit awkward. He doesn’t tend to look at you, he shrugs a lot. And he would have picked up on my nerves very quickly.

But lots of those interviews turned into disasters. George wasn’t talking much, the writers weren’t talking much. Whereas I had a lot to say for myself [laughs]. We got chatting, and later I got a phone call saying I’d got the job!

The other Brit that was hired was Chris Chibnall.

Chris and I then flew to Skywalker Ranch every two or three months or so, for two weeks at a time, for two years. We had Australian writers, a couple of American writers. Sometimes people came and went. A couple of the American guys didn’t work out so well, so they left. Then Ronald D. Moore came in about six months into the process, and he did time with us.

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Towards the end we had a wonderful Irish writer called Terry Cafolla. He came in and joined us for the last three or four sessions that we did. We’d be with George from nine until five in the afternoon, and we’d break Star Wars stories.

The Star Wars live-action show was delayed, so we were told, to allow technology to catch up with what George Lucas wanted to put on the screen. What do you remember of that, and what was the endpoint for you?

We were under no impression that there was an end. George wanted to create twenty-five scripts for a season, and then he was enjoying the process so much that he wanted to carry on and do two seasons’ worth of scripts. Which is very much his way of thinking. If he likes something, he takes it beyond what you think is possible to do.

The thing you’ve got to understand about George is that there’s a lot of crap written about him. Now, in the light of The Force Awakens – a terrifically entertaining film – people can see how much risk George takes with his films. Rightly or wrongly, because we all know he has weaknesses as a writer.

But what he’s really, really good at is being brave and bold, and saying let’s try new things. His new strategy, that was very bold, was let’s get fifty scripts that are really good, and let’s start making a show. We’ll know where the show’s going, we’ll be able to tell any actor or director that this is what’s going to happen in twenty weeks’ time. There was no talk about him selling the company. That was as big a surprise to us as it was to everybody. That was all going on very quietly behind the scenes. I think it happened very quickly. I’m not sure what made George suddenly decide that he wanted to get out. Because he was very happy developing Star Wars with us.

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What was your last day, then? Was it a normal day, I’ll see you in a couple of weeks, and then the project just stopped?

No. We just came to the end of the process. He wanted fifty scripts, and we got to the point where there were fifty scripts. Some of them were at first draft, some at third draft. Some needed a lot more work, some were in a really good shape. We had a good sense of the overview of the world, and where it was going.

And we shook hands, and hugged, and I said to George what a wonderful privilege to spend so much time with him, and I had a lot of fun. We did have a hell of a lot of fun. He’s a very funny man to hang out with.

We would sit there and storyline, and Rick, the producer, would often be in the room. But if Rick had to go off for a couple of hours, George would look around the table at us as if to say, ‘now the producer’s gone… us writers can have some fun!’ And he’d whisk us down to his screening room, and we’d watch an old movie. He put on his personal print of American Graffiti and have us a live director’s commentary while we watched it! He loved to do things like that, he really did.

We just parted company with a shake of the hand. Then I was told, when we start gearing up on production, we’ll probably start in Australia. I was told maybe that myself and Chris or someone else might go down to Australia and spend more time there, maybe giving an overview of the scripts. Helping with getting them production ready. But, of course, that day never came.

After you shook hands and left, did you ever hear anything again? Or did it just die a quick death?

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I can’t remember the timeframe. We worked on the show in 2008, 2009, maybe bled a little into 2010. I had phone catch-ups with the producers about when they were going to move the production to Australia. Then it all went quiet for six months or ten months or something, then suddenly I head that Lucasfilm had been sold to Disney.

You found it out at exactly the same minute as the rest of us?

Oh yes. Totally.

There have been rumours that Disney may be interested in reviving the live action TV show idea, but presumably you’ve heard nothing about that?

No I haven’t really. I went up and saw Lucasfilm in their new offices at Disney while they were still in prep on Episode VII. I know that they’ve got the scripts, and that the scripts have been read. But what they plan to do with it, there’s a big long term strategy for Star Wars that’s being formulated, and only a few people are actually privy to what that entails!

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When Ashes To Ashes was first going out, it was those first episodes that were the only ones that ever really got anything of a kicking. And it was about then that you landed the Star Wars job. You thus go in and meet George Lucas, a man who had been professionally kicked around for the decade before, that whatever you think of his films, there had been quite a personal onslaught against him. Was there just a little bit of kindred sprits there, that you’d both been on the receiving end of some rough stuff?

I’m not sure. I don’t think that George would have perceived what I was doing or going through in any particular way. The thing with Ashes To Ashes was that it didn’t really feel too much of a kicking from my point of view anyway. I know critics grumbled about it, but we had such a strong, positive public response to it. I was prepared for it anyway, because I knew that a lot of people wouldn’t want us to do a sequel, and that there was a strong argument not to do a sequel. And I also felt that it would bed down and find its own style eventually.

I thought it’d take a lot of season one to find that style, for people to get comfortable with Keeley [Hawes]. With Bonekickers, I was disappointed that people didn’t like it. But I was okay about Ashes. I didn’t feel kicked around. I felt like that the press were being a bit unkind, but the public seemed to like it. So I thought I’d wait and see.

I certainly think what I learned about George over time was that he is not above that. He hears criticism acutely. It affects him very badly, and it makes him sad. The thing about George is he never curls up into a ball. If he feels under attack, he just will carry on. He’ll do it even more. It was very unusual that he took Jar Jar Binks out of the second and third Star Wars prequels, because my experience is if someone tells him he’s wrong, he puts more of that thing back in. He’s actually hell-bent on showing you that he won’t be bowed by your opinion.

He wouldn’t have a career if he hadn’t have done that.

I think that was one of the big things that happened to him, that was a strength and a weakness for him. That everyone told him that Star Wars was going to fail, and yet it was the biggest triumph in the history of cinema. And so that makes you feel that if someone tells you something isn’t working, they’re wrong and you’re right.

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A double edged sword, though.

To say the least. I’ve always defended those prequels, though. I’m not stupid, I can see that there are problems with them. But I also think that they’re very creatively bold, but he was trying for something, and reaching for something.

Matthew Graham, thank you very much.

Childhood’s End is available on Sky now, and on DVD and Blu-ray in the US.