How Star Wars Boss Kathleen Kennedy Steered The Decades-Long Saga To Its Final Destination

Photo: Courtesy of Lucasfilm.
Star Wars started out as a shot in the dark. Released in 1977, A New Hope was the fledgling vision of a then 33-year-old George Lucas, whose creation spawned its own studio, Lucasfilm, two trilogies of Star Wars movies, and an expanded universe of books and comics. Now, Star Wars is its own billion-dollar industry, with new TV series, comics, novels, toys, high end apparel, conventions, theme park attractions, and Baby Yoda carrying the galactic tale beyond the big screen. No new films are confirmed for after The Rise of Skywalker, but Lucasfilm is charging ahead with a second season of The Mandalorian, a Rogue One spinoff series, and the feverishly anticipated Obi-Wan Kenobi series starring Ewan McGregor. And while the franchise began as a series of films mostly conceived and made by men, this massive star destroyer of a company is now being piloted by a woman.
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As Lucasfilm wraps up the saga its patriarch started, now a trilogy of trilogies centered on the Skywalker Family (Luke, Leia, Ben Solo, and Anakin), the closing three chapters are being shepherded in by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. A mega producer who got her start working for Steven Spielberg before collaborating with Lucas and the famed director on the Indiana Jones movies, Kennedy was handpicked to take the reins directly from Lucas. And when it came time for this new trilogy, not only did Kennedy make the call to centre Daisy Ridley's Rey at the heart of The Force Awakens, but at Kennedy's side is a leadership team that's got more women than men calling the shots. This includes her new head of Live Action Development & Production and producer on The Rise of Skywalker, Michelle Rejwan.
The franchise has made other strides since Kennedy's tenure began. In The Last Jedi, we saw the series' first-ever Asian lead with Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico. In The Rise of Skywalker, Naomi Ackie breaks ground as the first Black woman to star in the main trilogies (the first Black woman in the Star Wars film canon was Thandie Newton in Solo: A Star Wars Story). And while The Rise Of Skywalker marks the fifth Star Wars film under Kennedy to be directed by a man, JJ Abrams, his second unit director was semi-famously Victoria Mahoney. (See Ava DuVernay's exuberant tweet about the unprecedented hire if you like joy.) Though not a feature film, Lucasfilm's Disney+ series The Mandalorian fully broke down the director barrier when Deborah Chow became the first woman to helm a live-action Star Wars production; in the next episode, Bryce Dallas Howard became the second. And more change is coming, Kennedy promises.
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In the wake of those momentous episodes and as Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker marches towards its Dec. 20 release date, we sat down with Kennedy and Rejwan. The sheer amount of power between them is almost dizzying, and yet Kennedy starts our brief conversation by asking where she can get a copy of the BB-8 notebook I'm carrying. I have the unfortunate task of informing the woman who runs all of Star Wars that the 2015 release is now out of print, and after a startlingly casual exchange of faux-jealous niceties, Kennedy deftly cuts the small talk short and asks her publicist to find her a copy of the leather-bound BB-8 Moleskine as she sneaks out of the room. Kennedy calmly shifts in her chair, almost buckling in. Now she's ready to talk about the business of running the galaxy.
Refinery29: This is a giant moment, closing out the Skywalker Saga. What did it mean to "get it right?"
Kathleen Kennedy: Everything. No sleep. Intense conversations. It really is more relentless than we ever imagined. I can't think of anything that I've worked on where there is so much at stake. There are so many people in our fan base that care about what we're doing and how we're bringing this conclusion and if it is going to be satisfying.
Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images.
Living up to those expectations, especially our own expectations, was part of what made it so rigorous and challenging. The sleepless nights, the endless conversations and explorations and leaving no stone unturned. We just care so deeply about it all, and so does JJ. It was really intense from the get-go, and we only just finished the movie before Thanksgiving.
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I think people forget too, that there's not any real source material for this. We have the signposts that George and his mythology created with the films, but we don't have novels we're adapting, we don't have comic books we're adapting. We don't have that kind of resource. So it really comes down to the people involved being able to dive deep. And we have a great group of people at Lucasfilm, some of whom have worked going back to the prequels, some more recently. It really is this process of having to create this from whole cloth."

For all of us, we began to almost feel as though Carrie was a genuine presence during the entire time we were shooting. She became very much a part of our story...

Kathleen Kennedy, producer of The Rise of Skywalker & President Of Lucasfilm
The original arc that was planned changed because we lost Carrie Fisher in 2016. Kathleen, you are so close to these films, and to Carrie, so what were you looking for in those meetings where you were all figuring out how to even approach Leia's story?
KK: It was devastating, as you can imagine, coming off of Episode 8 and losing Carrie. The thing that we knew was — Carrie knew this — she was such an integral, important character to this legacy. How were we going to tell this story without Princess Leia being such an important role in this story? And JJ realised, brilliantly, that we had quite a bit of footage from Force Awakens and some fantastic scenes with Carrie. As we find with all movies, there are certain great things thats can find themselves on the cutting room floor. And we were able to really build some of the storytelling around those scenes and quite seamlessly integrate those into the story.
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Even having her daughter, Billie Lourd, on the set was pretty amazing. For all of us, we began to almost feel as though Carrie was a genuine presence during the entire time we were shooting. She became very much a part of our story, and I think the audience will feel that when they see it."
There's a lot of ground that's been broken in these films, from casting a woman as the lead to seeing the first black female Star Wars character. Some people are rightfully excited, and others have different opinions, complaining that politics don't belong in Star Wars. But haven't politics been a part of Star Wars since the beginning?
KK: Politics is part of everything and, especially today, it should be. There's a genuine conversation going on inside entertainment and storytelling where inclusion is absolutely fundamental. And in Star Wars, absolutely. That was one of the first things that when we sat down and started talking about we were casting The Force Awakens, it was without a shadow of a doubt that we were going to have a female hero, and that we were going to focus on, frankly, some of the things that George had already done with Lando and Princess Leia. He doesn't get a lot of credit for that, but he was already making some pretty bold moves and creating some wonderful characters that certainly spoke to that.
What the legacy of this new series of movies has done is it's made it very clear that not only is Star Wars timeless, but it should look like all of us. And that's important to every single one of us that are telling these stories and making these films now. You'll see it in The Mandalorian, you'll see it in this movie, and you'll see it in everything we do in the future. A legacy we are most proud of is that we have a character like Rey. That's pretty fabulous.
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Lucasfilm has many women behind the scenes making decisions. Did that happen organically, or did you actively seek out female leaders?
KK: It's a natural thing that happens when women are empowered. When George asked me to step in and lead the company, I started looking at qualified people that I wanted to be surrounded by. It was no surprise that a number of those were really strong, wonderful, creative, talented women. It may look political, but it's not necessarily political. I am absolutely thrilled to be surrounded by more women and more voices of people of colour — inclusion of people who can contribute to everything we do. Whether it's publishing games, marketing discussions, story discussions, or technical discussions, you need to have those voices in the room. So that was immediately important to me. That's where you're going to see change, when women and people of colour begin to take roles like I have now, being the president of Lucasfilm. It's up to me to make those hires, and I have every intention of doing that."
You've both worked on a lot of films where you were the only women in the room. How has creating these films, with a company that includes so many other women, shaped them?
Michelle Rejwan: The balance of point of view was there from the very beginning of The Force Awakens and continued through the trilogy and with everything this film has done. I think it's the DNA of these movies. It is infused by the spirits, hearts, and souls of the filmmakers and, as Kathy said, of who is in that room having those conversations.
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KK: I think there are even subtle nuances. We had a female stunt coordinator on this film — Eunice Huthart — and I kept watching this dynamic with a female stunt coordinator working with Daisy to create her character. It's just a different conversation than asking a woman to try and perform like a man. Eunice understood the nuances of strength and femininity; what she was capable of and certain things that she might be able to do differently than a man might. To be getting that direction from another woman, as opposed to a man, is a kind of unique perspective. When you populate a crew with a wide variety of people who are bringing slightly nuanced points of view, you're going to get a fresh approach. It's going to feel different and modern and exciting. And that's good for storytelling.

Not only is Star Wars timeless, but it should look like all of us ... You'll see it in The Mandalorian, you'll see it in this movie, and you'll see it in everything we do in the future.

Kathleen Kennedy
There's been a debate lately about big budget franchises versus seasoned directors. Do you feel Star Wars is a part of that conversation?
KK: I don't see it outside of that. I mean, the first thing I'll say is that of course women can direct big budget movies. And one of the things I'm really excited about is with The Mandalorian, we're able to incubate and give people opportunities to work with these tools, get everybody, whether they're a man or a woman, stepping into that director role. And certainly with movies of this size, directors have to have a level of experience.
It's crazy to think that somebody just decides, 'Oh I want to do that,' and they're just going to step in. I've been in this business for over 40 years. I'd be terrified to step in and take on the role of director of one of these movies. These tentpole movies have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. They are like creating small companies where somebody steps in and has to essentially be an instant CEO. There's a wide range and levels of expertise required to do that. And I'm thrilled with the women that we're starting to bring into the fold. They're incredible Star Wars fans; they have amazing talent. They are every bit prepared to now be able to take that step.
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I think where people fall short in their criticism is there's a lot of comparison between Marvel and Star Wars. Well, Marvel is making two, if not three, times as many movies we are. There are far fewer movies, and the movies take two or three years, minimum, of development. So when somebody says, 'Where's a woman directing Star Wars?,' it's not as though 10 movies have been made with men directing them. There have been four. We're very close to making some announcements that I think people will be pleased with. And you know, with The Mandalorian we've already brought some women in and been very inclusive in our choices about directors.
I imagine most of the conversations you both have about these films is often about the business of making these movies. But this is a big moment — an end of an era. When all the work on the Rise of Skywalker was done, and you saw the finished product and the credits rolled, what was that final feeling?
KK: Pride. There's been so much emotional energy poured into this movie. I don't think we've ever had as many arguments. I don't think there's ever been the number of hours, the constant attention to every detail, the camaraderie, the level of collaboration. When you're working with people who are are trying to do nothing but their best work, it's sort of like you're in school and it's pencils down. You've studied really hard, you've poured everything you possibly can into it. That's how I think we all feel. It's up there, it's on the screen, and we're proud of it.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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