KATHLEEN KENNEDY HAS heard a lot of movie pitches. For decades she worked with Steven Spielberg, producing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the Indiana Jones series, the Jurassic Park series. You get the picture. So it probably wasn’t a surprise—it was cool, even—when, right after Kennedy took over as head of Lucasfilm, the company George Lucas founded to make Star Wars, John Knoll walked into her office.
Knoll is not nothing, either. He’s the chief creative officer at Lucasfilm; he did the visual effects on the Star Wars “special editions” of the 1990s and a couple of Star Trek movies, among others. Along the way he cocreated Photoshop.
This was 2012, and even then, it was pretty clear Lucasfilm was going to make more Star Wars movies. “I just have this very simple idea,” Knoll said, “about the rebel spies in the opening crawl of A New Hope who steal the plans for the Death Star.”
Kennedy got Knoll’s reference, of course. It’s at the beginning of the movie, in the ribbon of text that sets the scene: “Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.” The plans are the MacGuffin, the thing everyone is chasing. The spies? No one mentions them again.
“That is a very good idea, John,” Kennedy said. So … green light. Apparently that’s how you get to make a Star Wars movie.
But not this movie. The one that comes out December 18 is not Knoll’s sci-fi spy story. It’s director J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, the seventh—oops, sorry: VIIth—movie to tell the story of Darth Vader’s family. Knoll’s idea became Rogue One, due out in December 2016. It’s a stand-alone story—an “anthology” movie as opposed to a “saga” movie, in Lucasfilm parlance.
The picture that the Lucasfilm faithful relentlessly call A New Hope but everyone else calls Star Wars came out in 1977. It and its sequels (and TV movies and cartoons and toys and bedsheets) burrowed deep into popular culture. And if the people at the Walt Disney Company, which bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, have anything to say about it, the past four decades of Star Wars were merely prologue. They are making more. A lot more. The company intends to put out a new Star Wars movie every year for as long as people will buy tickets. Let me put it another way: If everything works out for Disney, and if you are (like me) old enough to have been conscious for the first Star Wars film, you will probably not live to see the last one. It’s the forever franchise.
These new movies won’t just be sequels. That’s not the way the transnational entertainment business works anymore. Forget finite sequences; now it’s about infinite series. Disney also owns Marvel Comics, and over the next decade you can expect 17 more interrelated movies about Iron Man and his amazing friends, including Captain America: Civil War, two more Avengers movies, another Ant-Man, and a Black Panther (not to mention five new TV shows). Thanks to licensing agreements, Disney doesn’t own the rights to every Marvel property—Fox makes movies about the X-Men and related mutants like Gambit and Deadpool. So you’ll get interrelated comic-book movies there too. Warner Bros. Entertainment, which owns DC Comics, is prepping a dozen or so movies based on DC characters, with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad in 2016, Wonder Woman, and eventually the two-part team-up Justice League. Warner is also trying to introduce Godzilla to King Kong (again). Paramount is working on a shared universe for its alien robot Transformers. Universal continues, with limited success, to try to knit together its famous bestiary (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, etc.).
Everywhere, studio suits are recruiting creatives who can weave characters and story lines into decades-spanning tapestries of prequels, side-quels, TV shows, games, toys, and so on. Brand awareness goes through the roof; audiences get a steady, soothing mainline drip of familiar characters.
Forget the business implications for a moment, though. The shared universe represents something rare in Hollywood: a new idea. It evolved from the narrative techniques not of auteur or blockbuster films but of comic books and TV, and porting that model over isn’t easy. It needs different kinds of writers and directors and a different way of looking at the structure of storytelling itself. Marvel prototyped the process; Lucasfilm is trying to industrialize it.
Nonfans might scoff, but the universe of Star Wars has more than an audience—it has followers. And followers are emotionally invested, which makes redeveloping it a daunting task. “The first question J.J. asked us when we all sat down was, what do we want to feel?” Kennedy says.
The answers Kennedy’s brain trust gave: A sense of a beginning. A sense of urgency but also humor. Working with Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, Abrams developed another list: “The feeling we wanted was from the first trilogy,” Kasdan says. “It’s fun, it’s delightful, it moves like a son of a *****, and you don’t question too much.”
Kennedy’s main office is in San Francisco, but these days she’s spending most of her time behind a standing desk at Pinewood Studios, outside London, where Rogue One’s production sprawls across seven soundstages. She has a 4K screen that connects to the editing bays and server farms where Abrams is assembling Force Awakens. Episode VIII is in preproduction down the hall, and stand-alones about young Han Solo and the fan-favorite bad guy Boba Fett are percolating. It seems complicated. It seems, I say to Kennedy, like you’re going to need more than just emotions to make it all work.
“I love how you’ve already jumped to the conclusion that it’s all working,” she answers, laughing. “Oh my God, there is so much to get right. It’s by no means laid out beat for beat. I’ll borrow a line from Raiders of the Lost Ark: We’re making this up as we go.”
JUMP BACK TO 1978. Lawrence Kasdan hands George Lucas his first draft of the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Yeah, he wrote that too.) Lucas drops the pages on his desk; he has something more urgent on his mind. Will Kasdan write the sequel to Star Wars? See, the original writer, Leigh Brackett, has died of cancer. They’re building sets, and they don’t have a script.
“Maybe you ought to read Raiders first,” Kasdan says.
“I’m going to read it tonight,” Lucas answers. “If I don’t like it, I’ll call you tomorrow and take back this offer.”
And that, apparently, is also how you get to make a Star Wars movie. Kasdan had six weeks. The best part? “George said to me, ‘Darth Vader is Luke’s father.’ And I said, ‘No ****?’ I thought that was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.” Kasdan realized that Empire was actually a second act. Movie structures, especially in genres like sci-fi, have a certain … let’s not say predictability. Let’s say approach. I’m just parroting the basic how-to texts of screenwriting here: Three acts—setup, confrontation, and resolution (with plot points at the transitions)—and act three recapitulates and resolves the tensions you carefully laid down in act one. Star Wars had all those things on its own, but now, Kasdan saw, Empire would be act two in an even bigger superstructure. “The second act is always the best act,” he says, “because everything goes wrong and there’s a huge question at the end.” OK, now: Flux capacitor, Tardis, Omni, whatever—we jump forward to 2012. Kasdan is talking to Lucas again, and Kennedy too, and they want him to write another—another!—Star Wars. It turns out Lucas has been sitting on a whole crop of ideas. “Pick,” they tell him. Kasdan chooses something about Han Solo when he was a kid. “Because Han is my favorite character,” Kasdan says.
They cut the deal, but ask Kasdan for a little more. Could he stick around and, you know, consult a little bit on Episode VII? Could he help persuade Abrams to take the directing chair?
Then it was Empire all over again. The original writer, Michael Arndt, had fallen behind. People were already getting hired and money was being spent, so Abrams and Kasdan stepped in. “We started walking around, recording into an iPhone and breaking the story,” Kasdan says, using Hollywood jargon for outlining a plot. “We walked for miles, through Santa Monica and Manhattan and eventually Paris and London.” Kasdan says the only must-have item was to bring back Han, Chewie, Luke, and Leia. “On the first day, I said, look: Delight, that’s the word. In every scene, that should be the criterion we’re using. Does it delight?”
Of course, Abrams and Kasdan had a whole new kind of pressure. They weren’t writing a second act. They were writing a new ending and a new beginning. “I do feel like there’s a little bit more of a burden on Larry and me to come up with a story that could at least be the beginning of what transpires over three films,” Abrams says. Hollywood’s studios have always been Fordist enterprises, but as Abrams and Kasdan discovered, making this new kind of sausage takes an entirely new set of tools.
They’re not the only ones trying to figure it out. Take, as a separate example, Captain America: The First Avenger, a 2011 Marvel movie about the patriotic World War II hero. Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, writing partners who’d worked on a handful of Narnia movies, loved the idea of a superhero movie set in the 1940s. But that doesn’t mean they got to do whatever they wanted with the story. Quite the opposite. They were adapting and distilling an existing corpus: seven decades of Captain America comic books. So they didn’t have to invent their proper nouns. Mentor figure? Check: Abraham Erskine, the scientist who turns little Steve Rogers into Captain America. MacGuffin? Check: the reality-warping Cosmic Cube. (“I’m not positive whether Marvel said, ‘What about the Cosmic Cube?’ and we said, ‘That’s as good as anything,’ or if it was the other way around,” McFeely says.) Bad guy? Check: “First-draft choice of a villain is the Red Skull,” he says. “It’s not a mandate, but you circle it very quickly.”
By the time Cap was in development, a larger strategy had emerged at Marvel Productions. The movie had to call back to the database of comic history but also communicate with the existing and future Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s where all those references and allusions come in: They’re connective tissue. “We knew there was an Avengers coming, so that dictates the story in a way. And for us, that’s helpful,” McFeely says. “If I know Steve Rogers has to crash into the ice in this movie so that in either this one or the next one he can wake up, that gives us a place to end up.”
Despite the insistence among people who make shared-universe movies that each one must stand alone in terms of story and quality, breaking a movie that’s the third one in the second phase of a seemingly never-ending cycle can be tough. You can’t, I don’t know, kill Commissioner Gordon. How do you integrate Samuel L. Jackson showing up to talk about the Avengers in Iron Man? “During the production, we started saying to [director Jon] Favreau things like, ‘We think Sam Jackson is going to do this,’ and he’d say, ‘How the hell is that going to connect to the story?’ ” Kevin Feige, Marvel’s lead producer, told me at San Diego Comic-Con a couple of years ago. “And we’d say, ‘It doesn’t, so let’s put it at the end of the credits.’ ” Those sidewise glances at other stories used to be vestigial; in more current Marvel movies, they’re intrinsic. Want to know where Nick Fury gets the helicarrier that saves the day at the end of Avengers 2? You should’ve been watching the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show.
That wreaks havoc on beginnings, middles, and endings. No one ever makes a true act three. The universe never ends, really. It ebbs and flows from individual, single-character-focused movies through big Avengers denouements. The quantum realm in Ant-Man sets up the mystical world of Doctor Strange. The alien nature of Asgard in Thor sets up the science fiction of Guardians of the Galaxy.
In that framework, the auteur gives way to the team player. The myth of the screenwriter as a loner who vanishes into a Starbucks purgatory for a couple of years and returns with a script isn’t necessarily wrong, but it doesn’t apply to universe-building. Paramount has structured its Transformers team explicitly like a television-series writers’ room, with a showrunner and multiple writers all working on individual stories and the overall arc, following a story bible that establishes themes, tone, characters, and even plot twists. It’s a text for subtext. “In the Transformers room, the writers are just at a stage now to present their ideas,” says Marc Evans, president of Paramount’s Motion Picture Group. “Sometime in the next couple of days, somebody is going to hand me a beautiful Transformers story bible, and it’ll be great weekend reading.”
In preproduction on the two Captain America movies, McFeely and Markus would meet with the directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, to talk about the story and script. But also at the table was an executive from Marvel with an eye on the bigger universe, who reported back to Feige. “For the big decisions, Kevin has got to weigh in,” McFeely says. “It has always been helpful.”
That collaboration is equally intense on Star Wars. Abrams had Kasdan and Kennedy, of course, and also Lucasfilm’s Story Group, a team dedicated to maintaining connections across every medium. To them add all the people working on future movies. All of them have to interact, to find the ways their stories connect to one another.
Abrams also created the TV shows Alias and Lost, so I ask him: Is making the first movie in the new cycle something like writing a TV pilot?
“Yes, although in fairness a pilot obviously doesn’t require a finale that gives you a sense of satisfaction, because you’re telling the audience to tune in next week,” he says. “With a movie, you have to give at least some kind of satisfying conclusion.”
THE BEST STAR WARS stories from the past 40 years share an essential quality. “Whether it was a prop, a backing on a set, a color choice, there were constant conversations—no, no, no, that doesn’t look like Star Wars,” Kennedy says. “I think it’s part of what was intuitively driving George. I guess you could jokingly say it was the Force.”
Both Abrams and Rogue One director Gareth Edwards admit to having been dazzled by their first days on a Star Wars set, paralyzed by the coolness of being near Harrison Ford in a Han Solo costume or a platoon of stormtroopers. Eventually, both say, they settled into doing their jobs. But they also talk about sensing something bigger. Taking shelter against British weather beside a towering set I’ve been asked not to describe, Edwards—covered in black diesel soot and weighed down by gear—looks damn happy. “I feel I know this universe,” he says. “It feels like going back home, the place you live in your fantasy life.”
All these people are describing more than just a franchise. What they’re talking about is a paracosm, psychology-speak for an imaginary world. Lots of little kids have them—especially creative ones. So do writers. Think Narnia or Yoknapatawpha County. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is an obvious example, with its multiple languages, cultures, and thousands of years of history.
Like tales from Middle-earth, stories set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away seem to have leaked through a boundary between here and there—as if things are happening in the Star Wars universe even when no one is looking. A New Hope created the effect through allusion, just as Marvel and DC movies now do. But in New Hope, the allusions were to a canon that didn’t exist. It’s hard to remember, after decades of accumulated story cruft, that when we first heard of the Imperial Senate or the Clone Wars, we didn’t know what they were. “The first time you watch A New Hope, you’re aware of all the things happening offscreen,” says Kiri Hart, who runs the Lucasfilm Story Group. “It feels real.” Obscure yet familiar, the ideas seem more alive, like the ads for life off-world in Blade Runner or the Weyland-Yutani corporate logos in Alien. This is why fantasy novels and Game of Thrones have imaginary maps as frontispieces.
Television can be particularly paracosmic. By my count there are roughly 710 hours of in-canon Star Trek movies and television encompassing—thanks to time travel and mirror universes—more than 14 billion years of history. That’s a big paracosm, with a lot more room for stories. “I often think about the areas of the Star Trek universe that haven’t been taken advantage of,” Paramount’s Evans says. “Like, I’ll be ridiculous with you, but what would Star Trek: Zero Dark Thirty look like? Where is the SEAL Team Six of the Star Trek universe? That fascinates me.”
This does not sound ridiculous. It sounds so freaking cool that I have to take a moment.
TO MY MIND, Chris Carter perfected the television paracosm when he created The X-Files. He figured out how to structure parallel tracks of multiseason stories with stand-alone episodes. It made the universe feel big.
In fact, TV writers’ rooms lend themselves to paracosm-building. A given writer might get interested in a specific facet of the universe, while the showrunner maintains tone and quality control, as Marvel’s Feige or Lucasfilm’s Kennedy are now doing. It’s probably no accident that many of the successful shared-universe directors and writers have television backgrounds (Joss Whedon, the Russo brothers, and Abrams himself).
TV also gives writers and producers more room to fail, to have the occasional not-so-good episode. Movies are less forgiving. “If you go slightly to the left, it’s not Star Wars,” Edwards says, “and slightly to the right, it’s a karaoke number.”
You may notice that all these paracosms have something else in common: nerds.
Maybe that’s because they find their fullest expression in comic books. People rightly credit Stan Lee and his cocreators at Marvel in the 1960s with building a tightly interrelated universe, one where heroes with their own books could also work together as Avengers or Defenders or whatever. Spider-Man and the Human Torch were friends. Avengers Mansion was on Fifth Avenue. Over at DC, Batman and Superman have been sharing adventures since the 1940s.
The details don’t matter as much as the volume of intellectual property floating around out there—nearly a century of stories; tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pages, all connected. That’s the vein today’s movie-universe writers are mining. “It’s not like I created Captain America,” McFeely says. “There are other keepers of the flame.”
Lucas was the original keeper of the Star Wars flame, but now we all live in his paracosm. And come to think of it, maybe comics aren’t the best analogy; this is more like Dungeons & Dragons. (I mentioned: nerds.) Shared universes are distributed paracosms. The allusions frame out a world, and our imaginations build the rest—so we become invested in that alternate reality, not only as consumers but as participants.
It can all go south, of course. The whole endeavor could become crass, commodified. Eventually a distributed paracosm might just feel like branded content, like every movie and TV show and Lego set is just a commercial for other movies, TV shows, and Lego sets. “We all have to be careful of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire trap,” Evans says. “When that show premiered and was once a week, all I wanted to do was tune in. The minute they changed it to five days a week, it seemed a lot less special. Let’s not flood the market.” This is the shared universes’ shared Ragnarök—dozens of movies with impenetrable interconnectivity floating amid a sea of unending remakes, reboots, rewarmings. For those of us with emotional investments in these characters and these worlds, that would be heartbreaking, like the commercial in which Fred Astaire dances with a vacuum cleaner.
ABRAMS’ STAR TREK movies were fine. But he acknowledges, now, that the rational, scientific, boldly-going Trek paracosm didn’t resonate with him when he was a kid. Star Wars, though? After just a few minutes with Abrams, it’s clear that he left half his soul on Tatooine in 1977, and he plans to take us all back there to get it. Sure, that’ll mean TIE fighters and X-wings, lightsabers and cute droids, and a high-speed chase or two. But it’s also humor and heart, romance and adventure, speed and destiny.
Plus, he and the rest of the Star Wars team have an advantage: time.
I’m not talking about how long they have to make the movies; I’m diving into the paracosm now. It’s too early to judge the nascent cinematic shared universes like Transformers, but I have a hunch that paracosms based on comic books will have a problem with late middles and endings. In comic books, superhero universes survive in part because of what Stan Lee famously called “the illusion of change.” The status quo looks like it’s constantly evolving, because our hero defeats the latest threat, but really everything just resets to zero. Time, in comics, stands still.
But in the Star Wars universe, time moves. Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and the legacy actors playing them can grow from callow youth to wise old age and then pass the torch. Literally. Like, count on a lingering scene of one of those olds offering a lightsaber to one of the new kids in Force Awakens. The universe can extend for 10,000 years forward and back from the moment Luke blows up the first Death Star. “In the case of Rogue One, we’re essentially making a period piece,” Hart says. “The benefit of making additional episodes that move forward on the timeline is that we are making new space for ourselves.”
Every shared universe can expand, but the Star Wars paracosm’s particular structure can do it along the x-axis, taking the heat off of any single narrative moment. Comics universes really only expand along the y– or z-axes, if you see what I mean—more characters or more locales. Robert Downey Jr. can play Iron Man for only so long. If you want to keep making Marvel movies, you’re going to need a new Iron Man or a new universe. That doesn’t make them bad. It just makes Star Wars different. “Star Wars is its own genre,” Kasdan says. “Like all genre, it can hold a million different kinds of artists and stories. They say ‘Buddha is what you do to it.’ And that’s Star Wars. It can be anything you want it to be.”
Kasdan should know; besides Lucas, perhaps no person has done more to define Star Wars. So it’s a little ironic that the line he says is his favorite of everything he’s written comes instead from Raiders. It’s the one Kennedy quoted: I’m making this up as I go. “For you and me, we’re making it up. Here’s how I’m going to behave, here’s what I’m willing to do to make a living, here’s what I’m not willing to do. How we make up our lives as we go,” Kasdan says. “That’s such a powerful idea. It’s exciting. The biggest adventure you can have is making up your own life.”
That’s certainly what George Lucas was doing in the early 1970s. His nascent paracosm, about a universe where a farmboy with preternatural skill as a pilot could turn out to be a messianic warrior-priest, didn’t exactly fit in with the gritty, violent stories his peers (or even his mentor, Francis Ford Coppola) wanted to tell. All he had was a document laying out the long arc. It was naive and nostalgic, but amid the weird names and clichés was a real vision. “The movie cost $8 million. He certainly wasn’t thinking of a blockbuster,” Kennedy says. “It was deeply personal to him. He was looking for meaning. It was authentic to who he was.”
That’s the future in front of Kennedy: building out a universe that someone loved so much he made the rest of us love it too. It’s like continuing the construction of a cathedral someone else designed, or being the commander of a generations-long starship mission. It is an honor, but I suspect also a burden. Kennedy has made nearly 100 movies in her career, not all about dinosaurs and ray guns. Maybe, I ask, she might want Lucasfilm to make something else? Something new?
“I’ve talked about it with everybody at Disney. Alan [Horn, chair of Walt Disney Studios] is very supportive of it. But at the same time, he’s right when he says we’ve got a lot on our plate,” Kennedy says. She takes a breath. “And then I’ll be working with them on Indiana Jones.”
New Indiana Jones. I need to take a moment.