The filmmaker doesn’t mince words. “Bringing it to a close,” he says, “was a daunting composition.”
In “The Rise of Skywalker,” Daisy Ridley returns as the Force-sensitive Rey, a heroic Jedi-in-training who can nimbly skip across the narrowest of surfaces like a high-wire circus performer. In the real world, as the market-sensitive filmmaker of Disney’s multibillion-dollar franchise, Abrams is trying to maneuver with a similar agility.
Guiding “Rise,” Abrams says by phone from the Los Angeles area, was like walking a tightrope — a balancing act between not taking any aspect of the movie too lightly, yet treating it all with a certain levity. “Every decision, every scene, every character, every line of dialogue — all of it sort of had to be considered” with serious aplomb, he says.
The fact that Abrams returned to the director’s chair for the conclusion, after successfully rebooting Star Wars with 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” speaks to how passionately he feels about the world that George Lucas created. “If there's ever been a professional love story in my life,” he says, “it's been this movie.”
The love affair actually began in 1977, when Abrams, as a 10-year-old boy growing up in Los Angeles, saw Lucas’s first Star Wars movie at the Avco theater in the Westwood neighborhood. It changed him like no other film experience of the era.
Abrams was already a movie fan, but Star Wars was so “profoundly moving in so many ways” that nearly four decades later, his code name for “Force Awakens” during production was “Avco.”
“I remember the feeling of being taken into that long time ago in a galaxy far, far away and just having my mind expanded in every direction,” Abrams says. “All of my senses were just on fire. From the rhythm, the characters, the comedy, the aesthetic, the music, the sound effects, the filmmaking — it was sort of everything in one incredible package.”
“Never did I think I’d be a part of making these films,” he notes.
Abrams knows well the pressure of steering a huge movie franchise like Star Trek or Mission: Impossible. Yet given the intense scrutiny that each Star Wars movie receives in the age of social media, the director has devised ways to cope with being at the helm of this pop monstrosity.
“The trick in something like this, or one of the tricks, I think, in having gone through this,” Abrams says, “is embracing the requirements of it and not being weighed down by them.”
One must stay creatively light, he says, even though Star Wars is not only huge “in scope and scale, in size of crew and locations and the practical, logistical side,” but also “in terms of what it means to fans and what story lines we need to address and wrap up.”
And he tries to remind himself: “It’s just a movie.”
Keri Russell, who joins “Rise of Skywalker” two decades after starring on the Abrams TV series “Felicity,” says the filmmaker certainly felt the “enormity and pressure” of concluding the Skywalker Saga.
“He definitely talked about [how] finishing it was harder than beginning an adventure, because in the beginning, everything is possible,” says Russell, who plays new minor character Zorii Bliss, a helmeted leader of spice smugglers. “But in the end, you want to give people closure.”
Abrams, as a juggler of many narrative needs, can rattle off the terms of his mission. “Rise,” he says, strives to be “spry and it needs to be delightful and it needs to be humane and funny and have a huge heart. And maybe most importantly, it needs to be purposeful. It needs to have an argument that it is making — it needs to have a theme and a point of view. And actors need to feel free to be their boldest and do their best work.” Phew.
To help feed his high energy, Abrams liked to think about who might uniquely appreciate his film. “There will be kids,” he says, “for whom this will be the first Star Wars movie.”
Abrams also focused on the fact that if viewers don’t care about the story, then “nothing matters.” “If people aren’t laughing, they won’t be crying,” he says. “If people aren’t believing it, they won’t be touched — they won’t be moved.”
Those considerations are all part of requisite fan service when creating a fantasy sci-fi epic that has human stakes. There is this “kind of constant dichotomy of this thing being something that is so completely not our life and our reality and yet completely grounded and completely relatable,” the director says. “And that really is the most exhilarating challenge of Star Wars.”
Ultimately, Abrams hopes viewers can put aside the self-serious criticism of adults and retain a childlike wonder when watching “Rise.” Much as he does as a filmmaker, Abrams returns the conversation to the point of origin, burnishing it with a nostalgic glow.
“Rise” audiences, he hopes, will feel “even some of that feeling that I felt as a kid, when I saw that first film and I felt a sense of belonging and an optimism about what we can be.”