Monday 27 January 2020

Is Star Wars the stuff of dreams... or nightmares? JJ Abrams, Richard E Grant and Domhnall Gleeson reveal all

Director JJ Abrams and actors Richard E Grant and Domhnall Gleeson tell Aine O'Connor about their roles in the final chapter of Star Wars

Sith Troopers in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Sith Troopers in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Aine O'Connor

The Star Wars saga has reached an end and it is difficult to talk about. This difficulty is not so much down to the emotional loading of the finale, but in the fear of giving something away.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the ninth instalment of a movie franchise that has meant a lot to many people over almost half a century. It's the end of an era and spoilers would be a kind of sacrilege, so talking to its creator and two of its stars is a delicate operation. But why do they think Star Wars infiltrated hearts, minds and popular culture like no other cinematic adventure?

The Star Wars film journey can be confusing, so, in the name of clarity a brief synopsis. Star Wars is a trilogy of trilogies, each focusing on a different generation of the Skywalker family.

First came the original trilogy, in 1977 what was known as plain old Star Wars but is officially called Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.

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In 1980 there was The Empire Strikes Back and in 1983 The Return of the Jedi.

Those were George Lucas's films which established the characters, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Darth Vader et al, set up the iconography, introducing for example the lightsaber and its always recognisable noise (sound designer Ben Burtt combined the hum of old movie projectors and interference caused by a TV beside a microphone) and made stars of Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford.

THE DARK SIDE: Richard E Grant and Domhnall Gleeson in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
THE DARK SIDE: Richard E Grant and Domhnall Gleeson in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Lucas had long wanted to tell the back story to these films and in 1999 came the first of the prequel trilogy, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Then came Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002), and Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005).

These were the ones with Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen. Suffice to say they are not beloved.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 plans were made for the sequel trilogy. These star Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson and Skellig Michael and also see the return of Fisher, Hamill and Ford.

JJ Abrams made the first one, Rian Johnson the second and now Abrams returns for the final instalment. The first two have been hugely successful and generally well-received. So far the critical response to Rise of the Skywalker has not been kind but we don't know that when we meet. (Last year's Solo was a spin-off, and not part of the Skywalker saga.)

JJ Abrams stands up and shakes my hand both when I arrive and leave, which is unusual in these situations. His career in TV and film is nothing short of stellar, he is a writer, producer, his production company Bad Robot just signed a $500m deal with WarnerMedia and as a director alone his films have grossed more than $3.5bn.

The final instalment of Star Wars took over two years from start to finish but the attachment to the franchise is personal and long held.

He was 10 when he queued around a corner in Westwood, Los Angeles to see it.

"I remember about a month beforehand seeing the Star Wars logo in a magazine and there was something about the logo that was so strangely beckoning. It was distinct," he explains.

"There was 'before Star Wars' when I was 10 and there was 'after Star Wars' when it blew my mind open."

He says "it really is surreal" for him to be in charge of the final chapter 42 years later.

"My fear was actually not liking it as much when I was done," he says, "which luckily didn't happen but it was my concern."

One of the first blockbuster movies, the special effects in Star Wars were new and extraordinary to behold. Another first was how it capitalised on merchandising. Star Wars toys were unquestionably part of the reason it infiltrated the psyche of so many.

Domhnall Gleeson, who has played evil General Hux in the last three films, wasn't born until 1983 but Star Wars has been familiar to him for as long as he can remember.

"My cousins Aidan and Ronan, they had the toys and ... I remember the toys before the movies. Then seeing the movies on a big screen was what changed it for me."

Richard E Grant, who makes his franchise debut in this film ("I snuck in there at the very end," he says) has an interesting take on the historical context. "I was 20 when I saw the film. I had never seen anything like it before because...

"I had had the experience of watching the moon landing on TV so everybody my age wanted to be an astronaut - and when that movie came out in 1977 it was as close a feeling as you could get to being in outer space. I was absolutely sold on it."

It is easy to forget that Star Wars came out just eight years after humans had first walked on the moon - whereas now emigrating to space is a doomsday scenario and it has been so long since anyone walked on another space entity that it feels either remote or like an old dream that didn't come true. But back in 1977 space colonisation must have seemed entirely feasible and Star Wars a kind of hopeful space-trotting fantasy.

Grant plays Allegiant General Pryde in the film but talking about characters is where all the spoiler terror kicks in. The actors are relaxed chatting about the strange variations Domhnall Gleeson gets on his name. Richard suggests, "Dumbhole."

Domhnall tries it out: "Richard and Dumbhole, am I pronouncing that correctly?"

When I explain that the etiquette around an Irish person interviewing an Irish person is that you have to call them "our own", as in Our Own Domhnall Gleeson, Richard wants to know what you get called if you're not Irish. We settle upon, Just Richard?

"Not 'That fecking Richard'?" he wants to know. It later emerges he is a massive Derry Girls fan. Talk of the characters, however, is more difficult. It's hard to formulate questions that won't give something away. And it must be harder to sit there all day and, as (our own) Domhnall says: "Talk about it without talking about it. So, sorry about that."

We can say that their characters, the two generals, are not very nice. "They have evil intentions," says Just Richard. And Gleeson's character Hux has had a fall from grace.

"Yeah, he starts the movie in a worse place than even he finished the last one I feel. He's fallen down in the pecking order quite a way," says Domhnall, adding: "Not only that but he has also been passed in the meantime by this guy (Pryde/Grant) which is devastating."

"Why do you think that's happened?" asks Richard.

"I think they just didn't want me in the movie anymore.

"That's what I was told. I was a sort of rescue mission to try and salvage the …

"The movie and the First Order?

"Domhnall's shortfall."

The joking is easier than the spoiler risk.

But one character that has to be discussed is Princess Leia. It's been three years since Carrie Fisher died - but Leia does make an appearance in the film.

"Obviously the role of Leia was too important not to include," says JJ. "Carrie, who I knew a little bit for a long time before The Force Awakens, she was the greatest and one of a kind and obviously we were all heartsick when she passed. But the practical challenge of what do we do was undeniable."

There was unused footage of Leia/Fisher from The Force Awakens and the scenes in which she appears now were entirely designed around that footage. It's not unusual to shoot scenes with one of the actors not present, but in this case it was different.

"It was poignant shooting it because... of course she was no longer with us so it was very odd doing scenes with Carrie without the most important person there."

'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' is now showing

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