Interview : Lucasfilm Head Kathleen Kennedy Talks About The Future Of 'Star Wars'

As excited as I was to chat with filmmaker J.J. Abrams about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was even more excited to chat with super producer Kathleen Kennedy, who aside from producing many of the films of my childhood is the head of Lucasfilm — which means she is in charge of the future of the Star Wars franchise.

I talked to Kennedy about how she and her team are planning out the future of the Star Wars franchise, how George Lucas' treatments evolved into Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the abandoning of the Star Wars expanded universe, what was being developed at Lucasfilm before George sold to Disney, how the theme park stuff is being worked on, the differences between the Saga films and the Star Wars Story anthology films, the collaboration between J.J. Abrams and future sequel trilogy directors Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow, and whether they can top Darth Vader with Kylo Ren. Obviously, some of these quotes were featured on the site last week, but there is so much here that wasn't — so please read it in its entirety.

Kathleen Kennedy Interview: Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the Future of the Franchise

Peter Sciretta: I'm sorry to be the last interview at the end of your long day, but I really wanted to talk to you because I'm fascinated by the creation of universes, and you are kind of the architect of this whole grand thing.

Kathleen Kennedy: Well, with my team.

Peter: Yeah, I'm sure there is a huge team working on all of this. When you got brought on by George Lucas, how soon before the Disney acquisition did that happen? I've read a lot of things about it but the timeline is never presented very well.

Kathleen Kennedy: I sat with George in April of 2012, and the company was sold in September of 2012, so it was a relatively short amount of time before. But one of the first conversations I had creatively with George was about doing other movies than the saga films. And he had a few ideas he was kicking around but he was very open to where this might go in the Star Wars universe.

Home Alone in a Toy Store

Peter: So back before he sold to Disney, was he planning to make these films?

Kathleen Kennedy: No, he was planning to retire. He was talking to me about making these films.

Peter: Who and how is it decided that the treatments that George Lucas had submitted for the sequel trilogy were to be abandoned?

Kathleen Kennedy: Well, here's the thing. There are certain things they retained and obviously everything George created, you can imagine, every single person involved in this process hugely respects and wanted to know as much as they possibly could about the universe that he was describing. He had specific plot ideas that evolved. He sat down with me in 2012, and now it's almost 2016, and you know the development process, where you bring writers on and once the story starts to take shape, it evolves. George wasn't a part of those development discussions, so it was a fairly natural process of evolution. It sounds like we ignored him but that's not really what happened.

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Peter: How is J.J. Abrams' final movie, The Force Awakens, different from what was planned early on?

Kathleen Kennedy: You mean from what George was talking about?

Peter: Yeah, like was George's story more focused on the original trilogy characters?

Kathleen Kennedy: No, because the legacy characters play a significant role in this, and I would say and inside the balance that George was talking about to begin with. It was really much more to do with the specifics of the history of the saga. We changed the order of a few things, let's put it that way. We didn't make some wholesale change.

Star Wars: Episode VIII director Rian Johnson

Peter: Force Awakens is obviously your number one priority but how do you balance planning this one as a movie itself versus it being also a launching pad for a new trilogy of films. Like, you obviously can't just plan for just this film, you must be planting the seeds for other stuff?

Kathleen Kennedy: We already have. We're three quarters of the way through the shooting of Rogue One, which will finish on the day this is released. And Rian started working on the script for Episode VIII a year and a half ago. So he's been in prep for a year. And he starts shooting in January, the end of January. So we need to be working a couple of years out in front of, at least in terms of the script, in front of these start dates.

Peter: So when J.J. is doing Force Awakens, did he also work on a treatment for the other films in this sequel trilogy?

Kathleen Kennedy: No, because at that point we were sitting down and talking about where this might go, even as early on as with Michael Arndt. We were sort of plotting out, because obviously if you know up front that you're building the pacing inside a trilogy structure, we needed to have some sense of where this saga was going without locking in on things and leaving room for creative development. But we had to have some sense of where we were going.

Rogue One 70mm

Peter: What are the differences between the Saga films and the anthology films?

Kathleen Kennedy: Well the Saga films are primarily the soap opera centered around the Skywalker family. The standalone films can be a wide variety of genres inside the Star Wars universe, and they very definitely have a beginning, middle, and end. They are not being designed to necessarily build new franchises. They are really being designed as standalone movies which is fantastic for the filmmakers we bring in, and the actors we hire, because it's a different sensibility. And the stories can fall pretty much anywhere on the timeline. There is no strict guidelines for what we're doing. Although what's brilliant about what Kiri Hart is doing inside the story department is, we're really looking at everything we're doing. Our story group looks at and gets involved with animation, anything we're doing with games, anything going on with theme parks, anything that's happening with publishing, even certain things inside DCP. We are very closely tied to any of the narrative storytelling in those divisions because that does have to make some kind of sense. We don't want something heading off in some direction that completely undoes what was setup in another story.

Peter: So it sounds like with the anthology films you're taking the sort of Marvel approach, like Ant-Man's their heist film, doing different genre stories in the world — so is Rogue One the heist film of this universe?

Kathleen Kennedy: It is to a certain extent. It is definitely in the genre thinking but Star Wars is very different than Marvel in that they basically build their stories around characters, and then they seed those characters in different stories. Star Wars you know is a place, it's a universe, so those stories are constructed a little differently than Marvel.

Elders React to The Force Awakens

Peter: You know, when this was announced, it seemed to me that the Star Wars Saga films were going to follow the legacy characters and the Star Wars anthology films would focus on new characters in this galaxy, but so far it seems like the opposite.

Kathleen Kennedy: Uh huh.

Peter: You guys are planning the Saga films around...

Kathleen Kennedy: New characters.

Peter: And the anthology films around Han Solo and...

Kathleen Kennedy: No, no. It just so happens to be Rogue One is the precursor to New Hope and yes, this Han Solo idea, but I would not argue that we are setting up any kind of prequel notion with these standalone movies. I think that's so far just coincidence. And to be perfectly honest, we have changed the order of those at the last minute, so that's not the intention at all.

Rian Johnson directing Looper

Peter: Okay. You mentioned Rian Johnson with Episode VIII, when Episode VII is being shot does Rian come in and read the script and give notes—

Kathleen Kennedy: Yup.

Peter: ... and maybe suggest plot points in VII to seed things for VIII?

Kathleen Kennedy: Yes. We talked a little bit about that, but we didn't end up doing a great deal of that — but we did talk about that. And Rian did come in very early and he read, and came and visited the set. J.J. and him had a lot of conversations. I think Colin will end up doing more of that more-so with Rian as he develops Episode IX.

Valara Saar in Lucasfilm trademarks?

Peter: That makes sense with that being the third film of a trilogy. George also has like 100 scripts for a live-action television series that never happened, are those gone?

Kathleen Kennedy: No. No, interestingly enough, that's an area we've spent a lot of time, reading through the material that he developed is something we very much would like to explore. And there was 1313 the game, where there was....

Peter: The concept art for that looked amazing!

Kathleen Kennedy: Unbelievable. So our attitude [is,] we don't want to throw any of that stuff away. It's gold. And it's something we're spending a lot of time looking at, pouring through, discussing, and we may very well develop those things further. We definitely want to.

Star Wars Land

Peter: Is J.J. Abrams involved in the theme park stuff, because it seems like from some of the concept art, they are using some designs from his movie?

Kathleen Kennedy: Not really involved, but obviously we've made the concept art available to him to look through and comment on, but he hasn't really been that involved. His involvement on VIII and IX will really just be an executive producer, and really just to continue the storytelling. But he really doesn't get involved in anything to do with the theme parks.

Peter: Some fans were upset over the abandonment of the expanded universe, or relegating it to not being canon. Can you walk us though the process of how that comes to be?

Kathleen Kennedy: Well, George allowed that expanded universe to really go its own way. And some of it was extraordinary and really well done. And some of it, less so. But it didn't follow any narrative structure and we felt with all of the development that was going to go on in all these different areas would make things too chaotic. And we didn't abandon it because we thought something was wrong with it, we abandoned it because it had gone in too many different directions without any oversight by George and thats something we're trying to rectify. So the concept of the expanded universe is similar to what we;re continuing to do, but within a bit more structure.

Force Awakens merchandise

Peter: Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father, so there is this personal connection between the hero and the villain, how do you top that with Kylo Ren?

Kathleen Kennedy: We can't look at it as trying to top Darth Vader because Darth Vader is extraordinarily iconic now. All we can do, and all we've done, is try to create a three-dimensional, really compelling interesting villain, and that I think we've succeeded in doing. And whether or not he goes on to reach that iconic status along the lines of Darth Vader, who knows. It'd be great if that happened, and certainly we're trying to create a character that reaches that high bar.