Because we apparently don’t have anything better to talk about, there has been much discussion again recently about plans and the Star Wars sequel trilogy. So… I guess I’ll share some of my thoughts about it.
The conversation was brought up again recently thanks to an interview that Collider did with J.J. Abrams, in which they asked him about it. Now, right up front, I’ve got to just mention this: reading the interview, Abrams never mentions Star Wars. The only way we know he was talking about Star Wars is because that’s what the question was about… which suggests to me that this wasn’t exactly something that Abrams wanted to discuss, but was instead a narrative that Collider wanted him to discuss so that they could write a story about it. That might be me just being overly cynical, but I thought the interview was noteworthy for precisely how little Abrams actually brought up Star Wars. He kept his comments more general, alluding to how his conclusion is based on several projects he’s worked on, but we do know he was speaking about Star Wars in particular because of the questions asked.
So I’m not really going to focus on Abrams’s comments here, because I think they’re being overblown – especially in this scenario. But just so that we’re all clear on what we’re talking about, here’s a quote from the interview:
“I’ve been involved in a number of projects that have been – in most cases, series – that have ideas that begin the thing where you feel like you know where it’s gonna go, and sometimes it’s an actor who comes in, other times it’s a relationship that as-written doesn’t quite work, and things that you think are gonna just be so well-received just crash and burn and other things that you think like, ‘Oh that’s a small moment’ or ‘That’s a one-episode character’ suddenly become a hugely important part of the story. I feel like what I’ve learned as a lesson a few times now, and it’s something that especially in this pandemic year working with writers [has become clear], the lesson is that you have to plan things as best you can, and you always need to be able to respond to the unexpected. And the unexpected can come in all sorts of forms, and I do think that there’s nothing more important than knowing where you’re going.”
Now, again, note just how general that is. That’s not Abrams talking specifically about Star Wars, even though that’s what he was asked for. He repeatedly mentions several projects that this conclusion is based on, plus he mentions how it was solidified during this pandemic year – after he was done with Star Wars. Not to belabor the point, but having been a part of press conferences and media interviews in the past myself, this screams to me of an outlet already knowing what they wanted to write and asking questions to support it. And that’s fine… but we have to rightly understand what’s happening.
But that’s enough of that. Instead, I want to share just a few thoughts on plans and Star Wars. I don’t intend for this to be a comprehensive analysis, but just some thoughts that I think are needed in this discussion.
1. People generally only complain about the lack of a plan if they don’t like the story.
What we have to realize – and we all do, if we’re honest with ourselves – is that good storytelling is what really matters. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how that story comes about, so long as it’s a good one. Thus the only time that people really care about a lack of a plan is when they don’t like the story, and that then leads to an (premature) assumption that if there had only been a plan, it would have been a good story. But there are plenty of planned out stories that stink too. Having a plan is not a foolproof strategy against bad storytelling, and therefore we shouldn’t elevate having a plan to an overinflated place of prominence.
Star Wars fans understand this. And you know how I know that? Because some of the most popular Star Wars movies weren’t planned out – at least not in the way they seem to want the sequel trilogy to have been. The best example of this, of course, is the original trilogy. Each of the three films of the trilogy had a different director (George Lucas directed A New Hope; Irvin Kershner directed The Empire Strikes Back; and Richard Marquand directed Return of the Jedi). The man who produced the first two films, Gary Kurtz (having already produced American Graffiti with Lucas), parted ways with Lucasfilm before Return of the Jedi over disagreements about the storytelling and production. The big reveals of Darth Vader being Luke’s father, and Leia Organa being Luke’s sister, were not decided until Empire and Jedi, respectively. The second film was very controversial upon release for its totally different tone and style, while the third film was viewed as playing it safer – including another Death Star (is all that sounding familiar?).
My point, though, is that you don’t see people complaining about the lack of a plan for the original trilogy. Why? Because people today like the story it told. So in other words, just because you don’t like a story doesn’t mean that the problem was a lack of a plan. In general, I think the importance of a plan is overblown by Star Wars fans, and is actually used as an excuse to try to justify an ‘objective’ problem with some films that they just didn’t enjoy.
There is one big difference that is important, however…
2. A coherent vision trumps a mapped out plan.
There is one big difference between how the original trilogy and the sequel trilogy came together in regards to a plan, and it’s this: George Lucas was the consistent creative behind the original trilogy. Even though he only directed one of the three films, he was directly involved on each of them. He was very hands-on, overseeing the operation – and that included, especially, the story. So while other directors and writers were involved, the story told in each of the three films was guided by Lucas, and it was ultimately his story being told. That makes a huge difference.
In other words, I think a consistent creative vision is more important than having everything planned out.
Therefore, I don’t think the problem is the lack of a plan (and, admittedly, I’m sure part of the reason why I think that is because I’m a fan of the sequel trilogy). IF there is a problem, it’s not having a clear creative vision up front. Maybe the sequel trilogy could have benefitted from having someone helping to steer the story and vision of the trilogy. But I think, IF there was a problem, it happened right up front…
3. Mapping out overall plot points is helpful, but a comprehensive plan isn’t necessary.
Let me just give one example to illustrate this. IF you want to say that the sequel trilogy suffered because of the lack of a plan, the problem lies almost entirely at the front of it, before The Force Awakens was even filmed. I am very insistent that the entire trilogy didn’t need to be mapped out! In fact, I think it could be a huge positive to allow the directors a lot of freedom to go where they feel the story is best. But in a trilogy like this, if a plan is important, what is needed is overall plot points, where characters are going to end up, etc. – not a comprehensive plan of how it’ll all work out. So here’s an example: it is totally crazy to me that J.J. Abrams and company approached The Force Awakens without knowing who Rey was. Heck, Abrams was still unsure even while he was filming The Rise of Skywalker! That’s nuts to me.
So the problem, then, wouldn’t be Rian Johnson changing what J.J. Abrams decided – if there had been a decision, that would be a problem. But the problem – again, IF you think there was one – is that there wasn’t an answer in the first place.
Or another example. The problem wasn’t Rian Johnson killing off Snoke. There was nothing in The Force Awakens that suggested Snoke would be some major reveal; that was totally fan-driven speculation. And if there was no answer given right up front, before production on the trilogy even began, then you’ve got to let the respective directors tell the story as they see it. So my point is simply that it is not good nor helpful to have every point mapped out beforehand. But if could be helpful to have the general points, the end results, the answers to some of these questions, decided at the forefront.
Overall, I don’t think the lack of a plan for the sequel trilogy is nearly as big of a deal as some Star Wars fans do. Could it have helped? Probably! But it’s probably an overblown issue in an attempt to justify a personal dislike for the films. It’s fine not to love the movies, but that doesn’t mean the problem was all a lack of a plan.