Star Wars finale is J.J. Abrams' greatest challenge yet
J.J. Abrams, writer-director of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, limited use of green screens to focus on story and characters
J.J. Abrams is excited about returning to Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, the last film in the sequel trilogy after 2015's The Force Awakens and 2017's The Last Jedi.
The Resistance will face the First Order again. And Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Adam Driver, Billy Dee Williams, Lupita Nyong'o and Ian McDiarmid all return, with new characters played by Keri Russell, Richard E. Grant, Naomi Ackie and a new droid called D-0.
Abrams helmed The Force Awakens and picked up the reins with The Rise Of Skywalker, which opens here on Dec 19, once Colin Trevorrow departed the film.
The 53-year-old US writer-director loved the Star Wars films growing up, but the gigantic project was obviously not easy to direct.
He said at our interview at the Montage Beverly Hills hotel: "It was the scope, the scale, the shoot, the technical challenges, the things we were needing to solve... We did things in this movie that were beyond what I thought we could do.
"Because we have done this before, we have to do something more, deeper, bigger. It was by leaps and bounds the most challenging thing I've ever had to work on."
Other than things done with simulations in computer graphics (CG) that were not possible four years ago, Abrams gave the example of the Maz Kanata character played by Nyong'o as a CG character via motion capture technology.
"In this movie, she's physically there. Before, she was an audio animatronic puppet that we were actually using on set."
When asked if he ever felt overwhelmed by the enormity of his job, Abrams said: "When you feel like you're on top of something, it's hard to help lift something up when you're on top. I feel like the job of a film-maker is to be in it and inside of it and helping lift it with the crew and the cast.
"So I have not felt on top of this movie ever; I've felt deep in it. I will say I've never felt like we couldn't solve the things. But there have been moments when I'd pull my hair out trying to figure out the way."
Fans will see new planets, creatures and characters, human and otherwise.
Abrams said the challenges were to create things that have never been seen before.
"So much has been done that it becomes really hard to find the new design and approach. But luckily, we were working with extraordinary designers, not just for the creatures but also wardrobe and props.
"It ended up being once again mind-blowing - not just design but what was physically built. There are some scenes where there were literally hundreds of people in alien costumes, where there are creatures you assume are CG but are 100 per cent physically there."
He tried as far as possible to limit the use of green screens and shoot everything practically.
"If CG could allow us to build a portion of something but extend it, we'd do it. Obviously, we can't build spaceships and fly through space. But the technology has got to a place where you can do anything. But just because you can do anything, that doesn't help necessarily."
He pointed to all the films with amazing visual effects that sacrifice the story and development of the characters.
"The most powerful visual for me is what's happening on the actor's face, on the eyes of the actor - there is nothing more emotionally effective. And then when you see a character in relation to something spectacular, that's incredible. So I'm both amazed and in awe of and grateful for what the visual effects people can do, but I know you have to avoid using them as a crutch because that won't make up for the things that ultimately make you care."
And fans of the franchise will certainly care a lot about seeing the late Carrie Fisher return as Princess Leia with unused footage from the previous two movies.
There is even a story floating around on the Internet that the 60-year-old star somehow knew before her death in December 2016 that Abrams was going to "direct" her in The Rise Of Skywalker.
When he was working on the movie, he recalled something she wrote in the special thanks section at the end of her memoir The Princess Diarist, which was published one month before she had her fatal cardiac arrest.
Abrams said: "I thought, 'I can't be remembering this right, this is so weird.' And I went back to look again and sure enough, in one of the last thanks, she says, 'And special thanks to J.J. Abrams for putting up with me twice.'
"Now, I'd never worked with her before (The Force Awakens) so I don't know what else she could have possibly meant. I get chills talking about it, but it was literally classic Carrie Fisher to have written something like that. There's no other meaning. Maybe it was just sort of a joke. But, what? It was crazy. So it was one of those things where all I could do was sort of accept that, somehow, she knew."
The writer is the chair of the board of directors of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a non-profit organisation of entertainment journalists that also organises the annual Golden Globe Awards.