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The secrets we learned from the Inspiring Women Behind Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge D23 panel
Four months before the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Bob Iger, The Walt Disney Company’s CEO, announced plans for a new themed area at Disneyland in Anaheim and Orlando that would be inspired by a galaxy far, far away.
Four years later, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is now open to the public and at this year's D23 Expo, several of the inspiring women who were involved in its making convened to talk about that journey.
Robin Reardon (Executive Creative Producer at Walt Disney Imagineering), Margaret Kerrison (Managing Story Editor at Walt Disney Imagineering), Kris Theiler (vice president of Disneyland Park), Carrie Beck (Lucasfilm’s vice president of live-action development and production) and Anisha Deshmane (Assistant Producer at Walt Disney Imagineering) joined Catherine Powell (the President of the Disney Parks, Western Region) to discuss the work they put in to bring Batuu to life in Disney’s theme parks.
“We worked very closely with the Lucasfilm partners to try to figure out the most important aspects of any good story,” Kerrison said. “We have to ask the questions, ‘what is this place? What are we going to do? Who are we going to meet? And, most importantly, why are we there?’ So this was something that we talked about again, and again, because we wanted to get it right so when people walk into this land for the very first time, what they're going to experience is not a linear, beginning, middle and end like you do when you watch a TV show in a film.
Kerrison said they incorporated much of the detail from the Star Wars cinematic and extended universe in order to bring authenticity to the area that keen fans would appreciate.
“We're tasting things and hearing things and touching things and interacting with characters that in our backyard were just action figures and now their action figures come to life and they're responding to us and reacting to us,” she said. “We tied in one of our stories with books that are out now that are tied into Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, so we know from Alliances, for example, that Vader, and before that Anakin Skywalker, had come to the Cantina before and the fights that broke out at the Cantina we wanted to make sure that those blaster marks are seen.”
“In one of our stories we took the backstory from a Marvel comic series of how a juvenile Sarlacc ended up with Dok-Ondar because of Han Solo and Chewbacca,” she added. “There are a lot of things that are kind of Easter eggs for us that we wanted to put in there to let the fans get excited about these crazy stories.”
“It’s a really great advantage of telling a story in a place rather than on the screen because there are just so many opportunities for us to continue adding stories. It's a flexible platform for us.”
Carrie Beck had begun working with Lucasfilm on the Legacy sequels and TV series in 2012 and on The Force Awakens in 2014, so when it came to developing Galaxy’s Edge, the storytellers were working with not just established narratives but ones that were being written in real-time too.
“At that moment in time, we were having meetings where we still had five movies ahead of us, now we have one, and we had six seasons of The Clone Wars behind us,” Beck said. “And we were really working on what then became four seasons of Star Wars Rebels and now the two seasons of Star Wars Resistance coming out. So we were doing all that storytelling and all of that idea generation alongside the development of the theme park.
“So a lot of it was running back and forth with sharing of information, not just pulling from the Legacy, the six movies and the seasons of Clone Wars that came before, not to mention leveraging what happened within the Expanded Universe when appropriate, but also taking what we were learning in real-time, what we were planning in real-time and delivering it back to the team of Imagineers.”
Beck said that the producers and writers wanted to create more than stories but rather a “culture of a place.”
“The reasons it feels authentic is because it has that natural progression in the evolutionary sense of history,” she said. “In the early conversations, so much was about creating a culture of a place and we wanted to make it feel as if it was a place that you never knew you always wanted to go.
“And then it was about how we can integrate in a way that felt really organic to the stories that we're telling in our films and in our TV shows back into the park so they would also feel relevant not just to the Star Wars in the past but also to the Star Wars of the future.”
It was also important that Galaxy’s Edge would be a welcome destination for people of all levels of Star Wars understanding, that people who had never watched a movie could enjoy it as much as a hardcore fan.
“It really helped that we had such a range of fandom within our own teams,” Kerrison said. “There were some people who joined the team that didn't know the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek? So we're like, ‘OK, watch all films, here's all the animated series, just sit down at home and watch them all and then we can talk,’ and then there were some people that knew every character.
“So in that whole range we had so many different levels of engagement; people who wanted to engage in a way that was like if you are traveling to a different country where there is a culture and a history to it,” she continued. “There's a feel to the place that you immediately get a sense of and to the very hardcore Star Wars fans who wanted to make sure that all the elements were there and really represent the DNA of Star Wars.”
One of the difficulties they faced in the storytelling was getting new information from Lucasfilm about future narratives. Kerrison said they tried to bribe Beck with chocolates whereas Reardon recalled having to guess from her facial reactions whether their predictions were accurate.
“She was like, ‘I can’t say but if you talk maybe I’ll wink when or something,” Reardon said.
“I’m a professional Star Wars secret keeper!” Beck replied before explaining that sometimes plot points and character developments would change during film and TV production so not everything was concrete and could be shared with the Parks team.
“Because all these shows and films have a different production timeline, they have a different process of discovery,” she explained. “So no matter how much is known of where they're trying to get to, and what they want to do, you're also working within a certain kind of environment where you want to allow it to be flexible and let better ideas emerge both in film and TV but also the Park itself.
“And so we would really try to hold hands on things where we think, ‘OK, this is a really interesting opportunity to integrate this into the park.’ And then we all have to look at each other and say, ‘OK, we believe it's going to stick and we're going to head this direction,’ because again, all of this is being done in real-time in concert.”
Deshmane’s approach to Galaxy’s Edge was creating “unique customized experiences” that would feel unique to each visitor, whether they wanted to build droids or fight The First Order.
“I've watched the Star Wars movies I like the TV shows but for me, it was always more about what would it be like for me to be there, who would I b and what would I be doing?” she said. “Would I be a scavenger or run a random market stall? I think what is really compelling about Star Wars, in general, is that all of those storylines are relevant so I was able to start to see that from the perspective that we want our guests to see it.
“We all really understood from the beginning that everyone has something unique about Star Wars that they latch on to and that's something we wanted to really bring to life and the datapad experience where you could choose to spend your time doing something that was just as important and relevant as any other person's storyline.”
Deshmane said that she would speak a lot with Kerrison’s team to learn backstories that were created specifically for the park to incorporate into the digital experience.
“So Margaret references this a little earlier, Oga Garra, who is our local print boss and also the proprietor of the Cantina, she had a little dispute with her Wookiee boyfriend and a shootout ensued,” Deshmane said. “And he ran out of the door and up the stairs across the way from the Cantina and you can actually see all of the blasters' marks up the wall. I need other people to know that there is gossip throughout the land!”
The Cantina’s resident DJ Rex, a pilot droid who appeared in the Star Wars Rebels episode "Droids in Distress” also has an elaborate backstory that the producers could draw from but hasn’t been shared fully.
However, lots of the backstories have been put together into a new novel by Delilah Dawson called Black Spire, which is a direct tie-in with Galaxy’s Edge — and that Oga-Wookiee story will be available to read in detail.
These inspiring women also discussed how diversity plays an important role in order that every visitor has a character they can identify with.
“As we move forward with Rey in the current set of movies and with the other women that have been brought into the story, it was really important for us to consider that when we're talking about who's going to be in the land,” Beck said. “With such a breadth of storytelling, we're talking about something that extends beyond two hours so it's important that you have diversity from all points of view.
Also by exploring territory that may not have been covered on TV so that there is room for all kinds of characters.”
“Lucasfilm set a really good path for us in terms of the diversity of characters that we see,” Kerrison added. “And when we thought about that, for the land, we didn't just think of it as a male, female thing.
“It's the diversity of species, that the droids that you meet are just every type of character that you would like to meet. Characters that have different hair color, all of these things that are current to today's times and trying to find a character for you, as you walk into the land, that you can identify with.”
This came with the freedom to tell brand new stories that were fresh in the Star Wars world but unique to Galaxy’s Edge.
“As we were getting ready for Episode 7, and then anticipating Episode 9, knowing that, yes, we're building brick, mortar, and steel and once the steel goes out, it's very difficult to move,” Beck explained. “But we spent a lot of time in those early moments, discussing the fact that it was a place that is in the Star Wars galaxy but was not a place that we had been to before that came with its own baggage or its own story.
“We could write our own story on it and therefore create and find those connections in other stories now that we have the backdrop upon which to layer those things,” she added. “We think about [the park] as much as you think about us and we tried to make sure that we're serving things and also not telling everything.
“I think this was a discussion that Margaret and I had of just not answering every question because maybe a better idea would come.”