J.J. Abrams On ‘The Rise Of Skywalker’ And The Return Of Palpatine (And, Yes, Maclunkey)

As you’ve probably heard, J.J. Abrams has returned to direct the ninth and (we are told) final installment in the Star Wars Skywalker saga, The Rise of Skywalker. What’s interesting is that Abrams — known for his secrecy about not just plot points but also for what characters are even in the movie — has let his guard down a bit this time. We already know that Emperor Palpatine returns in this installment, a reveal the Abrams of old would have held closely guarded. Actually, just the fact I sat down across from Abrams (something I’ve, at least, never experienced before) to discuss the movie feels like he’s putting himself out there a little more this time. And, yes, ahead he explains why.

So, yes, we met with Abrams on Monday morning at his hotel in Midtown Manhattan to discuss The Rise of Skywalker. He explains when the idea came about to bring Palpatine back — if this went back to his time on The Force Awakens or if this came about after the death of Snoke in The Last Jedi — and he discusses if we will get any answers on who Snoke even was before he surprisingly perished. He also talks about why C-3PO serves such a big role this time around — something we haven’t really seen since Return of the Jedi.

And, finally, we couldn’t resist bringing up Maclunkey, the weird new word all Star Wars fans have now learned after Greedo shouts that word at Han Solo in yet another version of the original Star Wars.

I know you are known for being secretive about plot points, so I wanted to start by asking what happens to all the main characters at the end of the movie?

Well … I’m happy to tell you.

Oh great.

But once you see it, hopefully your question will be answered.

When did you decide to bring Palpatine back? Was this discussed during The Force Awakens? Or was this more because Snoke is gone?

Well, when you look at this as nine chapters of a story, perhaps the weirder thing would be if Palpatine didn’t return. You just look at what he talks about, who he is, how important he is, what the story is — strangely, his absence entirely from the third trilogy would be conspicuous. It would be very weird. That’s not to say there was a bible and we knew what happens at every step. But when Larry Kasdan and I worked on The Force Awakens, we didn’t do it in a vacuum. We very purposely looked at what came before. We chose to tell a story that touches upon specific things and themes and ideas that we’ve seen before, to begin a new story. But we examined all that came before to ask where does this feel like it’s going?

So there were discussions about that at the time. Yet, like any beginning, you want to put the threads in, but you don’t want to necessarily be literal about everything. And then when Rian was brought on to do The Last Jedi, we met and we talked about things and he wrote his story. And when I read it the script, I realized this didn’t get in the way of anything Larry and I talked about that I thought I’d get to. There were some very specific things we did get to do in this movie that we were laughing and going, “Oh my god, we’re finally doing that thing we talked about five years ago.”

In the book that showed the art of The Force Awakens we see a drawing of Rey swimming to the ruins of the Death Star. Which is something we will kind of see coming up in this movie now.

There are things from that book that we came close to finally doing for sure. But the specifics of Palpatine? I wasn’t supposed to do this movie. So I had a couple of years off. So when Kathleen Kennedy called and I got back on that train, I started asking where does this go? So, suddenly, we were there having to do it. The rubber was hitting the road. So, we went back to the threads that were exciting to us and then we found new ones.

By the end of this movie will we have a better sense of who Snoke was? Or is that another story for another time?

I will say, without giving anything away, knowing this movie is an ending is, for me infinitely more challenging than a beginning. We knew we needed to provide answers. And while there may be some things that aren’t entirely demystified by the end of it, we wanted to make sure people left feeling that they were satisfied. So I hope, on a number of issues, people will leave and feel like that it’s a true ending and not an advertising ploy. We really are bringing it to an end.

When I was a little kid, George Lucas told us C-3PO and R2-D2 would take us through all six, nine, or twelve movies — depending on when he did the interview — but that hasn’t really been the case. But now it appears Threepio has a huge role in The Rise of Skywalker?

He’s very center to this story and truly wonderful in it. Anthony (Daniels) gets to do some things…

He had to be excited when he found out, right?

He was. And there were times he was, you know, bemoaning having to do something…

Anthony Daniels bemoaning?

[Laughs] I was like, listen man, you wanted this! But he’s wonderful in this. I don’t think he’s ever been better.

Why was it so difficult to make them integral before? Even in the Prequels, and the last two movies?

Obviously, you do the best you can. You focus on what the story is and you respond to what your gut is telling you is working. And what the story seems to want. You know, I don’t know how strategic one can be working on something like that, thinking about how little or how much certain characters are used. Which is to say, you want to use them to serve the story. It turned out, we didn’t strategize this is the one Threepio has to be in more scenes than he’s ever been in. It just turned out that the story was best served using a character that has been underused to see a new side of him and tell the story. So it was very much a utility, but it felt inspired that you got to see a character in a whole new light.

I’ve noticed you seem to have a desire to put iconic spaceships in strange situations. In Star Trek Into Darkness the Enterprise is underwater…


In The Force Awakens, we see the Millennium Falcon dog-fighting over Jakku…


Now we see a Star Destroyer coming out of an ocean.

You know, I’m not thinking about it in that way, but I do feel like when you look at the Falcon or the Destroyer, those are ships that you’ve seen in all sorts of situations. And usually in space, or either leaving a planet or landing on a planet or an asteroid. The idea of having the Falcon bursting through trees, or barely taking off from Jakuu, those felt like fun ways of using it. When we were doing Star Trek Into Darkness, that was really about, we just really wanted to give the Enterprise a kind of reveal in the movie. In this case, and you’ll see how the Destroyers come into play, this was partly we don’t just want to see the Destroyers. We don’t want too just cut to a shot of this ship or this fleet. Part of it is wanting to give people something they haven’t seen before, and yet still have it be the vernacular Star Wars.

I know I started this out with my little dumb joke about your secrecy. And I’ve seen the “mystery box” brought up in recent interviews, which you’ve been asked about for years now. But I feel this time around you’re being a little less close to the vest about a lot of stuff?

Well, yeah. Here’s the thing. People who are aware of the “mystery box” thing ask about it. And I think people have different senses about what it is, as I do. For me, it’s not anything I ever think about. It’s not something I apply to my work. It’s simply a deconstruction that any good story makes you want to know what comes next. Usually it does that by implying something.

But why on this one are you being at least a little less secretive?

None of that is strategic. But I do feel about this movie, because it is the end of something everyone knows — I don’t want to be coy. I feel very confident about what the movie is. And I feel like we’ve found a way to do something that doesn’t need — and I don’t feel the need — to do smoke and mirrors at all on this. I feel we have a story that’s pretty huge in scope. While I don’t want to tell the whole movie to people and ruin it and I don’t want to spoil things, I feel like we need to be able to have a conversation about how, yes, Carrie Fisher appears in this movie. And I’m happy to talk about how we did it, in so much as, people know, it’s really her. We didn’t do a digital Carrie. Yes, Palpatine is in this movie. I don’t want to talk about what that is and how. So I’m not unguarded, because I want to make sure people enjoy the experience when they go. But I feel, about this movie, a little more open, I guess, than I have before.

So, will any character say, “Maclunkey,” in this movie?

[Laughing] Go see the movie!

Rey’s name is Rey Maclunkey, isn’t it? That’s the secret.

Hey, you never know!

‘Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker’ opens December 20th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.