Written by Robotical712
In the second part of this series, I analyze how LFL plans out its story while maximizing the freedom of its individual creators.
After The Force Awakens, it was widely believed Lucasfilm had every detail of the universe planned out and its authors and writers were little more than extensions of the Story Group. The first serious blow to this view came when Rian Johnson stated via Twitter that LFL gave him complete creative freedom, and there was no mapped story presented beyond TFA. For most of the fandom, The Last Jedi only seemed to confirm this statement and perception swung the other way – LFL was just handing off the story to individual writers to do as they please. In the face of this, fan interest in speculation rapidly dried up.
Yet, the comments in the first post show LFL has done extensive planning. Indeed, it wouldn’t be possible to line up movies and shows for the next decade without a good idea of where they’re going. So, how could there both be a long term roadmap and Johnson have complete creative freedom as he says?
The key to understanding current LFL plans and their creative process is the phrase “no mapped story beyond TFA”. First, “beyond TFA” doesn’t preclude a mapped story before The Force Awakens. If so, Johnson wouldn’t be contradicting Pablo’s statement above that the Story Group mapped out the broad strokes of what the characters were up to between Return of the Jedi and the Sequel Trilogy and settled on thirty years based on that. This is further reinforced by Daisy confirming Rey’s backstory was set and couldn’t change (note it’s in July 2016, at the end of filming for TLJ):
“[Rey’s] past is not flexible. I know what the past is, and that’s not changed. It’s always been the same.”
Second, even if Lucasfilm didn’t have specific story beats determined for the Sequel Trilogy, Lucasfilm could hardly be planning content and recruiting filmmakers, such as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss film series, for the next decade without knowing roughly what they wanted to accomplish with the trilogy (ie: wiping out all of the new characters would be an obvious no-no). What Lucasfilm did leave up to the filmmakers was the path they took to achieve the overall objectives for the ST. As Rian had the middle film, he would have the most creative latitude of the directors (it’s still notable that he followed Lucas’s original concept for Luke). While the story of the ST may not have had plot points mapped out as Rian says, LFL would certainly know what the overall story is to be about.
Guided Creative Freedom
While the term “Story Group” may make it sound like they are dictating the story, that’s not usually the case. In most cases, authors or filmmakers who are hired to work on Star Wars properties, are given the opportunity to come up with their own stories and ideas. While doing that, they work closely with the Story Group to make sure the stories are authentically Star Wars (for example, Darth Vader doesn’t dance or something) and also fit into the larger plan. Hidalgo said they’ve heard pitches from people who have great ideas for characters who are then told, “Come back in six years.” That’s because the story they’re pitching would fit in better with a character at another point in the future.
So how does the roadmap work? Probably the best way to describe it is ‘guided creative freedom’. The Story Group doesn’t have plot points so much as concepts and themes to be covered and how they connect to later concepts. While they may have basic story ideas for the major threads, the stories surrounding them are left up to the writers. This approach is illustrated by Pablo’s statement above. Lucasfilm has planned out what they want to cover, when and what concepts and story threads are needed to get to future storylines. In other words, “come back in six years” means that the idea fits into their overall story arc, but the groundwork hasn’t been laid yet.
Let’s take Vader’s castle for example. The idea for Vader’s castle actually dates from the early stages of writing The Empire Strikes Back. While Lucas ultimately elected to put Vader on a massive starship instead of in a fortress, the concept was revived after Disney bought Star Wars. Lucasfilm first indirectly referenced the castle in the March 2015 Season 1 finale of Rebels when Kanan was brought to Mustafar, “where Jedi go to die”. It wasn’t until nearly two years later that Vader’s castle was revealed on Mustafar in Rogue One. However, this was just the start as per Lucasfilm and concept artist Doug Chiang, the design and history of the tower was detailed in the course of designing the tower for the film.
The Darth Vader 2017 comic was conceived with the intent to culminate in the construction of Vader’s castle. Yet it was almost a year before the comic began to show the castle’s construction. In that time, the castle was largely absent from new Canon material, aside from a brief visit in Secrets of the Empire. Now the comic has begun telling how the castle came to be and the part it played in Vader’s story, the castle itself is becoming a storytelling focus. Indeed, multiple works have featured or will feature the castle, starting with IDW’s Tale’s from Vader’s Castle.
From this progression we can see how Canon is guided. The Story Group decides on a concept or theme they want to explore and how other narrative threads will lead to it. Some early links, cameos or references are inserted in any appropriate stories. Once the groundwork is laid, the Story Group works with publishing and the writers to decide on the appropriate story to feature the concept in (preferably when it synthesizes and enhances multiple themes being explored). Although the concept itself may be fleshed out and fairly detailed, it’s left flexible enough to allow the writers to craft any story they want around it.
Based on interviews from various authors, a general premise is given, and the author is then allowed to outline and pitch an idea. The Story Group then helps refine this outline and harmonize it with their current goals. For example, Zahn wanted to do a story about Anakin meeting Thrawn, and Lucasfilm wanted it to solely be about Vader. Instead of forcing Zahn to hey compromised and Zahn did a parallel story. While the Story Group and Lucasfilm may have several main story threads they’re working on, the plan is flexible enough to be rearranged or allow spinoff stories or even series (ie: Aphra or what Zahn is looking to do with Thrawn). These stories are further opportunities to setup other ideas down the line.
In allowing the creators the chance to come up with their own stories based on a given premise, Lucasfilm avoids dictating the stories while still adhering to a broader plan. Thus, Johnson was able to creatively fill the voids intentionally left by the Story Group without going against the ultimate goals set for the ST, and established by The Force Awakens.
“So with the Story Group overseeing all of the content in film and television and elsewhere, we don’t have to retroactively make those changes. We can anticipate those changes. We can seed things in one medium [and see them grow] in another. So we might be seeding things in books or TV that you might not realize is substantial until years down the road. And if people knew what the roadmap looked like, they would just be floored.”