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With the ninth and final Skywalker Saga episode completing the circle on 42 years of storytelling, a tremendous opportunity was waiting to be taken; the chance to document the making of the film, from initial production meetings to days spent on set, covering every department and every environment as the story of The Rise of Skywalker developed. Not only that, but to also look back through four decades of filmmaking to weave together the story of the making of the saga. We caught up with filmmaker Debs Paterson about her incredible journey making The Skywalker Legacy.

FT: How did the opportunity for doing this documentary come along?

DP: They had made a list of female directors, because J.J. (Abrams) wanted to bring in a female second unit director onto the big show. I’d just done some action directing on a show, and my name was on the list. J.J. had met the brilliant Victoria Mahoney in LA, and at the point of that happening in LA, I was sitting down in London with Executive Producer Callum Greene. He liked my stuff and he said, ‘Look, I don’t want to cancel the breakfast but just so you know, J.J. knows who he’s going to bring in, so that isn’t on the table anymore.’ I thought oh well, that’s just one of those things.

Four months later I got a call completely out of the blue saying we know this isn’t what you normally do, but J.J. would love a filmmaker to come and do the documentary, somebody to bring a point of view to it – would you consider it? It was as vague as that, and for 5 minutes  I thought to myself ‘that’s not what I do’, and then I thought hang on, if they are genuinely looking for a filmmaker and someone to do something interesting with it, then hell yes I’m interested.

FT: Who were your initial meetings with?

DP: I went in and let with Callum and producer Michelle Rejwan, and then the three of us sat down with J.J. It was cool to get a sense of what was important to them. The thing that was really important to J.J. was he didn’t know how he wanted the documentary to look, but he knew he wanted it to be about the crew as a whole, rather than just about the famous people. That struck a chord with me immediately. Having never been to film school, I learned a lot of what I know about film from behind the scenes stuff, so that sounded really exciting. How do you share as much of the process as you can in a way that inspires and sparks creativity without spoiling the magic of the movie? That felt like a really interesting challenge.

Callum and Michelle went off and chatted with J.J. for a few minutes and then came back and said we’d love you to do it, let’s go.

FT: Presumably you had to pull a crew together?

DP: I operated camera and we hired two other DP’s (directors of photography) so that between us we’d be able to cover the myriad things that were going on at any one time. We had an editor going all the way through the shoot, so it was a lot to try and keep up with. Productions are secretive, so it was a case of keeping our ears to the ground and having the relationships with everybody so they would trust us to be around.

FT: With changes of direction in the filmmaking process and so much footage being shot, J,J, with his team and you with yours, it must have been like making two films consecutively.

DP: Yeah it really is, but I think documentaries are like that anyway. I definitely came away from the experience with a massive new respect for documentary filmmaking. I know what it takes to get a film off the ground, so I thought documentaries can’t be that hard, you just follow what’s going on and weave it together (laughs) but you get to the edit and you have to write the script and edit the movie at the same time.

I felt like they didn’t want someone to go in with an agenda, knowing what story they wanted to tell and looking for the evidence of it. We wanted to listen and learn and be around, trying to communicate what the experience was. The predominant mantra was how to get close to the magic without spoiling the magic, but the secondary one was to try and recreate the experience of what it was like to literally have the keys to the kingdom. Which workshop do you want to go to, which set do you want to be on, who do you want to talk to, what do you want to ask? We had this amazing freedom, so it was to try and get a sense of that, to share that feeling.

FT: Some documentaries feel like hidden camera shows, but yours feels like you were absolutely supposed to be there.

DP: I didn’t want it to feel like we were spying on people, or feel like we were looking for an expose, because I don’t think that adds to the enjoyment of the movie. It tears the fourth wall down in a way that the two can’t live together. Maybe in 50 years’ time you want to see something that totally changes your understanding of it, but before then I just want to be able to enjoy feeling closer to the film.

FT: What was the most surprising element of documenting the making of a monster movie like The Rise of Skywalker?

DP: The size and the marathon of the thing, just huge respect for everybody involved. It’s true for all films, but particularly on Star Wars. The level of craftsmanship and detail and care, obsessive attention that goes into something that may be chosen to flash through the back of a frame. There was a real iterative creativity at the department level, as well as the way J.J. works. When I went back into the archive footage, that was very similar to how George Lucas worked.

First, all of the drawings get auditioned, there’s a pre-selection, then the ones that have been pre-selected are built and they have to audition again. In the process of doing the show-and-tells and the auditions, the alchemy between the creatures and the set forms itself. J.J. has an authorship style that isn’t spoken about much, but I really respected and enjoyed learning from. He doesn’t prance around much in terms of auteur theory. He’s incredibly collaborative, but it doesn’t mean the vision is any less strong, it just means everyone else has a lot more fun playing with it. It feels like a much more fertile environment and I enjoyed seeing the departmental process. It’s not often as a director that you get access to things at that kind of level, so it was awesome to see.

FT: Your mention of iterations and whittling down to find the answers, that’s totally a George thing.

DP: It really is, right. His relationship with Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston, the effects team, that kind of creativity is part of why Star Wars is Star Wars. To tell the story of that felt exciting, because the auteur style of filmmaking gets sold quite a lot, and I hadn’t really seen formalised this kind of filmmaking.

FT: As well as documenting The Rise of Skywalker you also had the chance to go back into the Lucasfilm Archive and pull unseen archive footage out.

DP: Oh man, it was extraordinary.  The thing that Kathleen Kennedy said was how she’s fascinated by what it is that makes Star Wars this unique Western myth, this unique cinematic entity. We wanted to engage with that; what does it mean? I don’t think you can tell the story of The Rise of Skywalker without acknowledging what’s gone before, so it felt like it was intrinsic to that. I remember talking to our producers as we were shaping, and the thing they kept coming back to was the sense of it needing to relate back to the beginning, a cyclical story.

I was given access to all of the digitised archives, so while our two film editors in LA were cracking into the thousands of hours of footage we had from The Rise of Skywalker,  I was watching the 350 hours of newly digitised archive from 4, 5 and 6 spotting moments, listening to all of George’s interviews. That was almost the way that we could structure what we had. That was just a pleasure, a total pleasure.

FT: You mention accessing the digital archive, did you get to go to Skywalker Ranch?

DP: We did the documentary mix at Skywalker Sound, so I got to stay at the Ranch for a couple of nights. I got in at 11.00pm on Thursday night, we mixed all day Friday till 8.00pm and left at 4.00am in the morning. It was crazy fast, and we enjoyed the experience as much as we could.  We got to walk up from the Ranch up to Sky Sound one morning, and it was so beautiful.

FT: Was there ever a moment where you thought, ‘Wow, I’m glad I was in the room for that?

DP: Early during prep there was a meeting with co-production designer Rick Carter, J.J. Kathy, Michelle, Kevin Jenkins from ILM and Chris Terrio. They were working on the third act and it was such a brilliant example of how the relationship between the physical design and the story design should be. Rick and Kev were presenting J.J. with artwork of what they were envisaging, and to see J.J. engage with that and ask ‘is this what it is, how do we push it further, do we want to push it further, do we want it to mean that?’ and on the flip side Rick saying ‘I want to illustrate this, is that the right meaning?’ The meeting went for a couple of hours, and there are moments from the meeting in the documentary. It was brilliant to see the alchemy of how all of that works.

FT: What’s your big takeaway from all of this?

DP: The validation of a collaborative form of authorship. It was absolutely brilliant to watch really good people be really good at their jobs. It sounds like such a funny thing to say but I don’t think it is, I think that stuff gets into the fabric of what you make. Also, you can’t go to film school for big movies, and I’ve always loved big movies, but it can feel like an impenetrable ‘thing’. I feel like I just got a PHD in Star Wars.

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The Art of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  • Hardcover Book
  • Szostak, Phil (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 256 Pages - 03/31/2020 (Publication Date) - Harry N. Abrams (Publisher)