Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Writer Chris Terrio on Major Spoilers
“The Rise of Skywalker” co-writer tells IndieWire about crafting the end of the Skywalker Saga alongside J.J. Abrams, including some of its biggest shocks and twists.
[Editor’s note: The following post contains extensive spoilers for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”]
It all ends here. After nine films and over four decades, the Skywalker Saga has come to a close with J.J. Abrams’ second “Star Wars” outing, “The Rise of Skywalker.” The final film in the newest trilogy doesn’t just conclude (for now) the adventures of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), it also shuts the door on a beloved franchise that first kicked off with 1977’s revelatory “A New Hope.”
For a final film, “The Rise of Skywalker” is packed with far more than just loose-end tying-up, rolling out a number of new characters and plots to push through before a final, genuinely tearjerking scene. By now, audiences surely know this much: that the film includes the return of a major villain, that it puts to bed years of speculation about Rey’s parentage, and it resets much of what we know about the magic and mystery of the Force. If you’ve come this far, you likely know much more than just that, and if you don’t, stop now! Spoilers ahoy, thanks to the in-depth observations of Abrams’ co-writer, “Star Wars” newbie (and “Argo” and “Justice League” screenwriter) Chris Terrio.
The morning after the film’s Hollywood premiere, IndieWire got on the phone with a decidedly tired Terrio — “we all looked 20 years younger at the start of this process!,” he joked — who was still very game to break down some of the more shocking elements, twists, turns, and big questions of “The Rise of Skywalker.”
[One more time: The following post contains extensive spoilers for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”]
That Plot-Packed Opening Crawl
Abrams and Terrio open the film with a plot-packed opening crawl that doesn’t simply catch up with the series’ beloved characters, but unveils that not only is the long-thought-dead Emperor Palpatine still alive he’s bent on getting his final revenge. “The dead speak!,” it declares. “The galaxy has heard a mysterious broadcast, a threat of REVENGE in the sinister voice of the late EMPEROR PALPATINE.” It’s a hell of a start to a film.
“We debated and debated what the crawl would say, and we wanted to have the word ‘revenge’ in the crawl, a message of revenge in the voice of the late Galactic Emperor Palpatine,” Terrio told IndieWire. “We also wanted that line, ‘The dead speak.’ … You might be able to say ‘kill the past,’ and that might be genuinely what Kylo Ren is trying to do in ‘Episode 8’ and even at the beginning of ‘Episode 9,’ but the past isn’t done with him yet. The character might be mentally ready to be done with it, [but] there’s the voice of the past, literally, the emperor saying, ‘Not so fast, my boy. History has its eye on you.’ History remembers what happened, and the Sith should not go quietly into the night.”
One major inspiration for what would become an eye-popping opening reveal: the crawl for the first “Star Wars” film, which dropped viewers into a brand new galaxy, filled with Rebels, a Galactic Empire, even something quite fearsome called a Death Star.
“There were versions of the crawl that revealed less, that revealed more, and there was another version for awhile,” Terrio said. “Then we went back to the crawl of ‘Episode IV’ and realized that it’s a fairly complex situation you’re being thrown into. It very much feels like a Saturday morning serial, because they’ve just stolen the plans to a battle station called the Death Star, and that’s all brand new information in 1977. We decided that we were going to just go for it and begin with an inciting event, which is that this broadcast has been heard.”
The “Gifts” of “The Last Jedi”
While some factions of “Star Wars” fans have spent the past two years debating the merits of Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi,” Terrio said that the eighth film of the Skywalker Saga gave him and Abrams plenty of “gifts” to build on. Most importantly, Johnson’s character arcs offered wonderful possibilities.
“We wanted to show all the characters growing in some way. Poe, in ‘The Last Jedi,’ there’s a question of whether he can step into Leia’s shoes,” Terrio said. “There’s very much a subplot in ‘The Last Jedi’ of teaching Poe how to be a leader in the way that Leia was. That really became the nugget of Poe’s story, which is to say he’s learning to be a leader in the course of the movie. He has a falling out with Finn, who tells him, ‘You’re not Leia,’ which I think is really hurtful to Poe, because that’s what he’s been trying to be. And then of course, after Leia passes, he’s sort of sitting holding vigil for her, really alone with her, and saying, ‘I don’t know if I can be what you were.’ In the course of the movie, he has to step into her shoes.”
Eventually, Poe does just that, thanks to a daring attack on the hidden Sith planet of Exegol which hinges on the arrival of regular people willing to join the fight.
“Poe’s act of faith, which is, ‘If we attack, if we do this attack, we go to Exegol, the galaxy will come,’ that is maybe the biggest strategic decision that he’s ever made as a military leader,” he said. “I think it’s based on Leia’s example, that he says, ‘Good people will fight if we lead them.’ And at the end of that speech, he says, ‘For Leia.’ And Finn says, ‘Leia never gave up, and neither will we.’”
Terrio and Abrams were also able to build on the special relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren that’s brought to thrilling life in “The Last Jedi.” In Johnson’s film, the two are so deeply linked that they can communicate from great distances. There’s plenty more of that in “The Rise of Skywalker.”
“That was a great gift of ‘The Last Jedi,’ in that their relationship seems very intimate and specific,” Terrio said. “There’s a way in which, in ‘The Last Jedi,’ Rey and Kylo Ren interact, and they just seem like they’re part of the same whole, that spiritually, they’re really one person. That really helped us in thinking about Rey and Kylo Ren, which is to say that we wanted to elaborate on the idea that Snoke bridged their minds in ‘The Last Jedi.’ But what we wanted to say is that there’s something deeper there, and leave it to debate about at which point they became this dyad in the Force, where they were really two, or were they one, whether that was a mistake that Palpatine made by bridging them and therefore creating this thing. But regardless, their relationship is extremely interesting and complicated, and it was one of the things that J.J. and I loved about ‘The Last Jedi’ that we luckily inherited and could build.”
At certain points in the film, Rey and Kylo Ren are able to actually take objects from the other one’s side, an idea Johnson put forth in “The Last Jedi.” Abrams and Terrio loved that concept, and use it late in the film to allow Rey to pass a lightsaber to a returned-to-the-Light Kylo Ren (AKA Ben Solo) during a key battle.
“That was another gift from Rian!” he said. “In ‘The Last Jedi,’ [their Force connection] in the rain, the rain has crossed from one place to another. We thought, we’re going to try to really push that to the point where these two heirs to the empire, that they’re bonded by the force, but they’re not going to be bonded on the Dark Side, which is what Kylo Ren thinks at the beginning of the film — that they’re going to be bonded on the Light. That is the thing that Palpatine never really could’ve anticipated, that they would come together on the Light and that the galaxy would not be afraid and would follow Rey into the heart of darkness. But that saber pass, that was the thing that we were dying to do, because first of all, to see Ben Solo holding a Skywalker saber was a really important thing for us, but second, to say that this connection that the two of them have is going to be the thing that saves the galaxy was super-important.”
Asked his thoughts on some audience members believing that the film rejects parts of “The Last Jedi,” and Terrio said that any changes were inspired by character arcs, not agenda.
“It mostly came from the characters, because once you start thinking in a meta sense, it’s very easy to go down a rabbit hole and lose all sense of the story you want to tell,” he said. “So, for example, Luke stopping Rey from tossing a saber away. Yeah, that could be a meta way to read that and think of it as some kind of rejection of ‘The Last Jedi,’ but that’s not the case. That moment for us was about Luke having learned something and Rey having grown, and he will not let Rey make the same mistake that he did. It was purely a character moment, because at the end of ‘The Last Jedi,’ of course, Luke’s actions speak louder than words, and he decides to project himself and sacrifice himself to save the Resistance. Now, that is the Force ghost that Rey is meeting. And so, like any good parent, he’d say, ‘Learn from my mistakes, and I won’t let you throw away your inheritance, really,’ because it is her inheritance, both Anakin’s saber, which is Luke’s saber, and Leia’s saber, are her inheritance.”
Bringing Back Palpatine
While Terrio was mum when asked if Palpatine’s return was already in place when he joined the project, he had plenty to offer about the deeper thinking that Abrams put into resurrecting the classic villain, especially as to how it would impact Rey.
“As J.J. said, that it would almost be weird for Palpatine not to be in some way in this movie,” Terrio said. “Because when we discover Rey, she’s literally living in the wreck of the old war, the previous war, that literally the landscape of Jakku is scarred with evidence of the war that came before. I think what we wanted to say in this is that, that war never really ended. Yes, there was the victory of the greatest generation, the revolutionary generation, and that was a real victory and balance was achieved for a time, but every generation has to fight for the balance again. We were moved by the idea that the person who should have to fight to regain the balance that Anakin Skywalker gained was the descendant of his greatest enemy who corrupted Anakin Skywalker in the first place.”
Bringing back Palpatine — and crafting him a terrifying secret Sith planet where he’s been trying to carry out his nefarious plans — required a plot-heavy first act that unspooled a new adventure for Rey, Finn, and Poe (involving the search for Sith wayfinders), and also brought Kylo Ren and Palpatine together, with emotional results.
“We probably could have written a whole movie that was just a lead up to Kylo Ren going to get the wayfinders, Kylo Ren trying to take on a Henry the Fifth story, right?,” Terrio said. “Where he now is the king, and he had to sort of earn the throne. And now, how will he perform as Supreme Leader? … At the beginning of the film, yes, he’s out to destroy any threat to his power. He’s searching for this legendary world that might be the source of the voice, but quite literally, the galaxy hears a broadcast, which is the voice of Palpatine, and then in the course of the first scene, we learn that Kylo Ren literally has heard in his head the same thing. If you look back at the scenes in ‘Episode 7,’ where Kylo Ren is sort of fetishizing the [Darth Vader] mask and stuff, you think slightly differently about those on re-watch after learning that Palpatine has been every voice Kylo Ren has ever heard.”
Terrio and Abrams knew that they were “reseting the board a little bit,” but were eager to offer up both big questions and big answers with the revelation that it’s been Palpatine pulling the strings all along.
“One of the challenges that we had at the beginning of this, and it’s good to have a challenge like this for a third part, was how to kind of reset the board a little bit at the beginning, so that we could reorient ourselves in the galaxy and really understand what has been at play in the galaxy all this time,” he said. “The first scene of Kylo Ren and Palpatine meeting really had to be a scene about questions, which is the fact there’s this new fleet. But it also had to be about answers, which is to finally tell you what we’ve been watching for these other two movies, and the fact that Snoke may have died in ‘The Last Jedi,’ but there still is this man behind the curtain, this malevolence in the galaxy.”
Revealing Rey’s Parentage
Terrio was similarly tight-lipped about the genesis of Rey’s true parentage — in short, she’s the granddaughter of Palpatine, though her unnamed parents did flee from the Empire in hopes of living a quiet life as supposed “nobodies” — but again said it was inspired by an idea Abrams had always been invested in.
“I don’t know that I’m supposed to get into the specifics of what story points were already in place, but what I can say is that J.J. always had an idea in his head of where he wanted us to emotionally leave the trilogy, and I think he wanted Rey to have to contend with the very worst things about herself that we could imagine,” he said. “When Rey was wondering what her place in all this was — and she articulated that in ‘Episode 8’ — but she wondered it in ‘Episode 7,’ too. J.J. always felt that she should get the worst possible news. In a way, the worst possible news for the Rey of ‘Episode 8’ is that she is just a child of junk traders, which is true. That’s not contradicted by what you learn in this film, but that she’s the descendant of someone who represents the opposite of all that the Skywalkers represent.”
That Rey would be bred from the blood of not just a villain, but the villain that has hurt so many people she loves, proved to be an idea the duo couldn’t pass up.
“Rey has finally found a home with Leia and with the Resistance,” he said. “She’s finally found a family, and what she discovers in the course of the movie, she thinks is going to displace her from the one family that she’s ever known, because how could they ever…? How could Leia, who represents the Republic and all that’s good in the galaxy, how could Leia possibly take her in as a kind of a daughter, how could she take in the granddaughter of her greatest enemy and the greatest enemy of her family? I think Luke has the answer to that, which is that both Luke and Leia saw her heart and her spirit and said, in spite of midichlorians, that there are things that are stronger than blood.”
One thing that was always stronger than genetics: Rey’s kindness and desire to do what’s right, a concept baked right into Abrams’ own “The Force Awakens.”
“Other than scavenging, the first thing that we see Rey do in the trilogy is perform an act of kindness and compassion for BB-8,” Terrio said. “She sees BB-8, who’s an underdog, a weak droid, being exploited by someone, and without missing a beat, she stands up for him. And that immediately told you who Rey was back in ‘Episode 7.’ That’s the part of Rey that Luke saw in her tenacity and her desire to bring him back in ‘Episode 8,’ and it’s the thing that Leia understood about Rey almost right from the beginning, and that Han understood. Han even not being Force-sensitive, he spent a few minutes with Rey and thought, ‘This is my heir, this is who I want to inherit the Falcon. This is who I want to fly with me and Chewie.’”
He added, “Who is Rey, is a question that is much more than a factual one, it’s a character question. I think Rey has to keep asking herself who she is and keep declaring who she is in the course of this movie, and that changes. At the beginning of the movie, Rey is a different person than she is at the end, but she had to go through this road of trials in order arrive at the person she is at the end of the movie.”
The Current Balance of the Force
The film does, of course, have a happy ending, though one with some bittersweet losses along the way, including Ben Solo (back to his birth name after abandoning the Dark Side and “Kylo Ren” with it). But what does a galaxy in which the good guys win mean for the always-important balance of the Force?
“The balance of the Force always, as George [Lucas] has said, means that the Dark and the Light exist,” Terrio said. “There are corners everywhere in the galaxy where the Dark still exists, except that with the rise of Palpatine and the original trilogy, I think the way George would describe it is that the Dark had become too powerful to the point where the Light had almost disappeared. So in winning this victory against the First Order and the remnants of the Empire and the Sith loyalists, I think that the balance is restored, because the Dark had been growing much, much more powerful than the Light. By Rey striking this blow, it doesn’t mean that everything is happily ever after forever, but it means that at least for this moment in time, the Dark has been held off as the Light has pushed back.”
And, just because “The Rise of Skywalker” ends on a (literally) Light note, doesn’t mean that the “Star Wars” galaxy will continue to stay on the side of good. Has it ever?
“The balance is constantly being fought, I think George would be the first to say that a fairy tale ending would be a naïve way to think about the galaxy forever,” he said. “I mean, we do have these moments of victory which have to be savored, like the end of ‘Return of the Jedi.’ And, in this film, there is a victory, but history tells us that there are no final victories. The other thing that J.J. and I would say often is whether the story has a happy ending depends on where you stop telling it, that if you stop telling the story at the end of the Ewok celebration [in ‘Return of the Jedi’], that’s a happy ending. But if you look a little further ahead, you might see that Palpatine has had a contingency plan, and he had tried through his Dark arts to find a way to cling to something resembling life and that he would nurse his wounds and build in the darkness and be ready to come back and try to get his revenge on the galaxy.”
That Final Scene on Tatooine
The film ends with Rey on Tatooine, visiting the old Lars homestead where so much of this saga began. She’s accompanied by BB-8 only, and given the happiness she just shared with old pals Finn and Poe, it’s a bit of a surprise they’re not with her. That doesn’t mean she’s going to stay there, however, she’s just there to lay to rest Luke and Leia’s sabers, which she wraps together and buries in the desert dirt.
“I don’t think we think of it as she’s going to live there,” Terrio said. “We thought of it as just paying her respects and sort of undoing the original sin at the end of the third movie, which is the separation of the twins. I mean, of course, they had to be separated to keep them safe, and the trilogy wouldn’t exist, the six movies wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t been separated! But that felt to us like it was almost like a wrong that need to be righted. We very deliberately in the script described the wrapping of the sabers, as ‘like you were wrapping infants.’ That’s the thing that you see at the of the third movie, where the two infants are wrapped, and one is sent to Tatooine to be a farmer, and one is sent to Alderaan to be a princess. Leia’s home doesn’t exist anymore, so we thought, ‘Well, Luke could take Leia to his home where he grew up, and where we first saw “Star Wars.”‘”
Terrio added, “On a meta level, it was our pilgrimage there to pay respects to George and to all the Original Trilogy had meant to us. But for Rey, it was also a pilgrimage, because she obviously had heard the story of the Skywalkers from Leia, if not from Luke. Her eyes light up in ‘Episode 7’ when she hears the name Luke Skywalker, and so we thought it was a fitting end, that now she, having become part of the Skywalker legacy, would lay the sabers to rest and lay them to rest together.”
When a passing neighbor approaches, she asks Rey her name, pleased to see someone visiting a home that has been empty for so long. Rey waits a beat, sees the Force ghosts of Luke and Leia, and brings it home: she’s “Rey Skywalker.”
“Well, pretty early on, we discovered that we wanted her to say that,” Terrio said. “It was shortly after we had decided that we wanted to really embrace this idea that Rey had come from the darkest lineage imaginable, but in the course of the movie, a Palpatine becomes a Skywalker. That for us felt like the fitting end, because at the beginning of the trilogy, there’s a Skywalker who’s essentially being corrupted again like Anakin was, to become more like Palpatine. In the end, we thought that the final victory of the Light and the final act of self-affirmation for Rey was to declare that despite her blood she is a Skywalker. At that moment, the Skywalkers truly win the family saga.”
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is in theaters now.