Star Wars: Episode IX: Inside J.J. Abrams' journey back to the galaxy far, far away

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Mar 25, 2021, 5:00 PM EDT (Updated)

Did anyone truly feel like the Star Wars film saga was in jeopardy after Colin Trevorrow was fired? Was anyone surprised when J.J. Abrams was lured back to seal the Episode IX deal? Most fans following the situation closely would say no.

The signs were there all along to have Abrams as a fail-safe, and after the recent ousting of Trevorrow, along with Phil Lord and Chris Miller on the Han Solo spinoff, the machine was indeed beginning to sputter. That’s why Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy needed to plug the leak once and for all. The answer had been staring at her all this time, and we're going to chronicle what's been said on record as to why Abrams was the logical choice all along.

The Spielberg Connection
Let’s begin by going back to how Abrams got here in the first place. Back in 2013, The Hollywood Reporter had an extensive feature on Kennedy, the courtship of Abrams to direct Episode VII, and her astounding career working with filmmakers who included Clint Eastwood, David Fincher, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. A famous story was retold about Spielberg reading a story to Kennedy in the Los Angeles Times about a 14-year-old Abrams, after the aspiring filmmaker won a Super 8 movie-making contest with friend Matt Reeves.

Around the time when Spielberg was working on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial with Kennedy as a first-time producer, he hired Abrams and Reeves to restore his Super 8 films to videotape, thus planting the serious seeds of filmmaking in both teenagers in 1981. Of course, both went on to work together on the The Pallbearer, Felicity, and Cloverfield.

Abrams went on to create television shows Alias and Lost, directed the feature Super 8, and produced numerous television shows through his company Bad Robot. In 2012, hot off the Star Trek reboot films, Abrams was asked by Hollywood Life (among many others) about the possibility of directing the Star Wars sequels. He responded:

“Look, Star Wars is one of my favorite movies of all time ... The opportunity for whomever it is to direct that movie, it comes with the burden of being that kind of iconic movie and series. I was never a big Star Trek fan growing up, so for me, working on Star Trek didn’t have any of that, you know, almost fatal sacrilege, and so, I am looking forward more than anyone to the next iterations of Star Wars, but I believe I will be going as a paying moviegoer!”


At the same time Kennedy secured the Lucasfilm job, while in the midst of taking Lincoln, the last film she would actively produce for Spielberg, through awards season. Spielberg and Kennedy were then candid in another THR conversation about who should direct Episode VII, and that’s when Spielberg again brought Abrams up.

“I brought J.J.'s name up. I thought J.J. would be the best person to direct Episode 7 and I called J.J. and said 'Would you do it if it was offered to you?' He said, 'I would but my wife won't let me 'cause she doesn't want me to restart any more franchises.' But I went to Kathy and asked if I could get J.J. to say yes to this would you consider it? Kathy said 'Are you kidding? Of course I would. But why would J.J. do Star Wars; he's already done Mission Impossible and Star Trek.’”

Spielberg continued ...

“So I take Katie Abrams and J.J. to dinner that night to Giorgio with my wife, Kate, and right in front of Katie Abrams I popped the question. I said to Katie, 'I think there's a chance that J.J. could direct Star Wars. What do you think of that?' And Katie turned to J.J. and said, 'That would be amazing. Really?' And I went outside the restaurant, picked up my phone, called Kathy and said, 'When can we meet with J.J.?' And that's how the whole thing began.”

That story is the first reason why Abrams was the likely person to fill in for Episode IX. Spielberg hand-picked Abrams for Episode VII, and who says no to him? Even Katie Abrams couldn’t.

Still Close to Episode VIII
Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens successfully served as the bridge between the original trilogy and the sequels. Abrams was originally asked to direct more of the sequels, but instead remained as an executive producer. In January of 2016, he told THR's Awards Chatter podcast:

"I realized when I was working on [The Force Awakens], the amount of energy that was required to tell the story, and do it justice, knowing when Episode VIII would start shooting, there was no way — if I wanted to still have my children talk to me in my old age — that doing that would make any sense. ... If The Force Awakens worked, it was the perfect place to say, 'I got to make a Star Wars movie,' and not be a greedy bastard. If it didn't work, no-one would want me doing it anyway."

In the same podcast, Abrams explained how much they handed off to the writer/director of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson.

"Larry (Kasdan) and I had a bunch of thoughts of where certain things could go and we shared those things with Rian. He had things that he came up with where he asked if it was possible if we could make some adjustments with what we were doing at the end, most of which we did — there were just a couple that didn't feel right, so he made adjustments — but it was just collaboration. We're all fans and friends and supporters of each other, and there's been no one cheerleading and supporting louder and more consistently than Rian on this, and I feel that I am grateful that I now get to take that position for him."


So it appeared that Abrams was ready to let go of the directing duties for at least one film, and was content to see others bring their vision to the sequels. He told Fortune at the 2016 South by Southwest Festival:

“I’m very happy to be where I am. Rian is brilliant and needs no help from me. As executive producer, I’ve been collaborating with them, but they are obviously doing all of the heavy lifting and it’s very exciting to see what’s going on.”

Johnson wrote the script early on, while production began on The Force Awakens, and had been allowed to sit in on the dailies as he and Abrams collaborated on characters and also their purpose. This past Sept. 6, Johnson told the New York Times how much of The Last Jedi was dictated by him, or what happened in The Force Awakens.

"I had figured there would be a big map on the wall with the whole story laid out, and it was not that at all. I was basically given the script for Episode VII; I got to watch dailies of what J.J. was doing. And it was like, where do we go from here? That was awesome."

A follow-up question asked if Johnson felt obliged to consult with Abrams:

"If I had questions — what did you think this was going to be? What were your ideas for this? — I could always ask him (Abrams). But those questions only address what these characters want and how they get there.

"Take the question of who Rey’s parents are: if you get the information — oh, it’s that! — who really cares? I know a lot of people care, but it’s interesting as opposed to impactful. Now, what is my place in the world? Where do I come from? Where do I belong? O.K., I understand what the weight of that is. We could play with those questions and their answers to have the biggest emotional impact on these characters."

When Abrams first read Johnson’s script, he shared his reaction with actor/friend Greg Grunberg (who plays Snap Wexley in The Force Awakens), who then shared it with The Washington Post's Comic Riffs at the end of 2015.

“'He read it and said something he never, ever says,' Grunberg said. Abrams called the Episode VIII script 'so good' that he wished he had written it."

This close collaboration shows that Abrams already has an intimate knowledge of how tied together Episode VII and Episode VIII are, based on his workings with Johnson. Now, Colin Trevorrow was supposed to have a similar working relationship with Johnson, who said in the recent New York Times piece that Trevorrow 's relationship was similar to his and J.J.'s, and that "he has been asked questions but has been sitting back and seeing how it's all going to come together for him." We all know now that it didn't work out as smoothly as planned.


Kathleen Kennedy is a closer
Kennedy needed someone who intimately knew what went into the first two sequels, and knows where all of this is headed. To undergo another potential artistic difference with the next choice would set back the production schedule even further. Think of how far ahead Johnson was working on The Last Jedi. A newcomer would need to be brought up to speed and show that they could work with Johnson, Abrams, and ultimately Kennedy on what would be the crucial and final Star Wars chapter in the main saga.

Kennedy needed to stabilize the director's chair once and for all on Episode IX, and even though she probably had the pick of the litter, she had to try Abrams again. He already showed a lot of enthusiasm for Johnson's script, which also showed his desire to be involved again. Despite the family obligations, there's no one closer or safer to take the reins. There's no documentation of a meeting between Abrams and Kennedy about Episode IX, but let's revisit that Kennedy profile, which Abrams contributed to by sharing his secret three-hour pitch meeting he had with her on Dec. 19, 2015.

"'I learned firsthand how incredible and persuasive she is.' Some -- but not all -- of his reservations were dispelled. 'The thing about any pre-existing franchise -- I'd sort of done that,' he says. 'But when I met with Kathy, it was suddenly very tantalizing.'"

Kennedy looked back at that meeting in the same article, as she needed to assuage fears Abrams might have had about the Star Wars franchise and the outside obligations.

"'J.J. was just on the ceiling when I walked out the door,' she recalls. But still, she says, Abrams had 'very genuine concerns' about his obligations elsewhere and the impact on his wife and three kids, given the likelihood that the film would not be shot in Los Angeles. And then there was the unique nature of the franchise. 'If there was any pause on J.J.'s part, it was the same pause everybody has -- including myself -- stepping into this,' she says. 'Which is, it's daunting.'

"'We spent a lot of time talking about how meaningful Star Wars is and the depth of the mythology that George has created and how we carry that into the next chapter.'"

That last bit is a major selling point for Abrams. He knows what Kennedy is looking for. There's no need to find a happy, artistic medium since he's been there all along, from the beginning, again, hand-picked by Spielberg, who carries some weight in the industry, as well as by Kennedy. Abrams is harmoniously in sync with Johnson on Episode VIII, too. In other words, he established the high ground a while back. While it's not the bravest of choices, nor offers the radical vision of a film auteur, Abrams ensures that Episode IX will be something far more important: a Lucasfilm production.