Today, Lucasfilm announced that Star Wars: Episode IX starts filming next week, and they also announced the official cast list – which includes Carrie Fisher’s return as Leia Organa, through unreleased footage shot for The Force Awakens!
“We desperately loved Carrie Fisher,” director and co-writer J.J. Abrams said in a statement. “Finding a truly satisfying conclusion to the Skywalker saga without her eluded us. We were never going to recast, or use a CG character. With the support and blessing from her daughter, Billie, we have found a way to honor Carrie’s legacy and role as Leia in Episode IX by using unseen footage we shot together in Episode VII.”
In my opinion, this is the best solution that Abrams and Lucasfilm could have come up with in an incredibly tough storytelling situation.
When Episode VII was greenlit, the trio of iconic characters – Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo – were all cast to reprise their roles in The Force Awakens. As the sequel trilogy developed, it became clear that Harrison Ford was going to star in Episode VII and that Mark Hamill was going to star in Episode VIII. Both of them gave terrific performances (The Last Jedi was Hamill’s best as Luke Skywalker), but Carrie Fisher had wanted to make one thing clear: Episode IX was going to be her time to shine. And that was indeed the plan, as Leia Organa was originally supposed to play a major role in the final film of the trilogy.
Tragically, however, Fisher passed away in December 2016. She had already completed filming for The Last Jedi and the decision was made by Rian Johnson and Lucasfilm not to alter their film because of it. That gave us some amazing Leia moments – including her saving herself with the Force and her reunion with her brother – and was the absolute correct decision, as the right answer certainly wasn’t to give us significantly less of Fisher just to have an easy way to write her out of the story with her death. But it meant that Episode IX‘s problem became quite tricky.
It was, really, an impossible problem without a great solution. Leia Organa isn’t simply an ordinary character in the Star Wars universe; she is one of the most iconic characters in the film series, and her role is perhaps the most iconic female role in film history. Additionally, in the storyline of the sequel trilogy, Leia’s role may be as important as ever. She is the General of the Resistance, and the entire thing is built around her – her soldiers trust her. Furthermore, her son, Ben Solo, is the new leader of the First Order, and it was presumed that his mother would have a role in any potential redemption (as though Ben had killed his father in TFA, he couldn’t bring himself to kill his mother in TLJ).
Billie Lourd (Fisher’s daughter) and Todd Fisher (Fisher’s brother) apparently gave Lucasfilm permission to use Fisher’s likeness in Episode IX, but even that left them with limited options.
- Re-cast the role. One option discussed by fans was to re-cast the role of Leia Organa, but this was easily the worst and most unrealistic of the options. Carrie Fisher is Leia Organa, and they couldn’t simply re-cast the role. As far as I know, this option was only generated by fan discussion and was never seriously reported as being under consideration, and I doubt Lucasfilm ever gave this much more than a passing thought.
- CGI. In Rogue One Lucasfilm used CGI to recreate Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa to bring them back, and it worked out quite well. Still, the entire process made many uneasy and unwilling to set a precedent with that idea, and it doesn’t seem like Lucasfilm gave this one much consideration either. This was also not a good option, as using this process isn’t a good thing to become reliant on for the film industry.
- Write her out. The most logical option seemed to be to simply write Leia’s character out of Episode IX entirely. They could show her funeral, explain her passing, and use a time jump to make it make sense. Additionally, they could explain that her exposure to space in The Last Jedi eventually led to her succumbing to the effects, but not before she fulfilled her role. The Resistance leadership was effectively transitioned to Poe Dameron in TLJ, so it would be possible to write her out of the film. This seemed like the best and most logical option, though it still wasn’t ideal – because it essentially would require re-working much of the preconceived ideas about what the movie would be.
- Use archival footage. This was always an option, but it was hard for fans to speculate too much about this method because we simply don’t know what footage Lucasfilm has. However, J.J. Abrams certainly has that knowledge, and this is the direction that he and Lucasfilm have decided to take. That inspires confidence that this is in fact the best way to handle this difficult situation. It allows Fisher’s character to still have a role in the trilogy’s finale, and it gives the writers a bit more flexibility in how to write the story without being able to shoot new footage of Leia. The questions about this method, however, are whether the studio will need to use CGI to alter the scenery, background, etc. to make it fit the story, or whether they will fit the story to the footage.
Ultimately, the only two realistic options were to either write Leia out entirely or use archival footage. The latter seems to obviously be the preferred direction, provided that the footage they have is worthwhile – and Abrams apparently thinks so. In light of that, then, and with Lourd’s permission, this seems to be the best direction possible.
It won’t be the first time that Lucasfilm has brought back a character using archived footage, either. If you remember, Rogue One brought back Red Leader Garven Dreis and Gold Leader Jon Vander for the assault on Scarif, which director Gareth Edwards accomplished via the use of archived footage from A New Hope, and ILM then digitally altered and changed their background to fit the new situation. That was a really, really cool touch, and it may give us an idea of what ILM can do with any footage of Carrie Fisher. They may not be beholden to the same setting that the scene was originally shot in, for example. So there is room to work with.
The big question is: what footage do they have? We don’t really know. The reality, however, was that Fisher didn’t have a ton of screen time in The Force Awakens (though she did have a major presence), so there probably is quite a bit of footage to work with. There’s almost certainly more footage of General Leia commanding the Resistance, which could be very beneficial for Episode IX. There was also a scene shot of Leia and Maz Kanata together at the Resistance base (as seen in the trailers for TFA), as Maz hands Leia the Skywalker lightsaber. Just speculating here, but an easy and good way to get Billy Dee Williams involved in Episode IX is through Maz, explaining that he was the one that gave the lightsaber to Maz many years ago after finding it on Cloud City (which would contradict the original opening of TFA, but that’s no big deal). So they could still use this scene as an explanatory flashback, or something like that. There was also a deleted scene of Leia sending Korr Sella to Hosnian Prime, telling her aide that, “Not all the senators think I’m insane. Or maybe they do. I don’t care.” It’s actually my favorite Leia moment from TFA (though I completely understand the reasoning as to why it was cut), but I doubt that will be part of Episode IX, since the statement said unreleased footage and since the point of the scene was Leia trying to get the Republic to help (which, as we know, was destroyed). And then, for those who can remember way back, there were some unsubstantiated rumors that there was a flashback scene shot for The Force Awakens, which would be incredibly interesting especially for the final film of the trilogy (if there ever was anything shot like this in the first place, which is very much uncertain).
Ultimately, we don’t know what footage Lucasfilm has of Carrie Fisher, but I completely support their decision to go in this direction with Episode IX and think it’s the best solution they could have come up with given the circumstances. And personally, I can’t wait to see Carrie Fisher on the big screen one last time in Episode IX.