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Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Expanded Edition author on creating new scenes, reimagining Luke Skywalker's life, and working with Rian Johnson

Exclusive: The Independent spoke with Jason Fry, author of the book adaptation of Episode XIII

Jack Shepherd
Thursday 08 March 2018 12:57
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With Star Wars: The Last Jedi having been playing in cinemas for months, fans of the science fiction saga have examined every frame, debated Luke Skywalker’s fate, and questioned what Rian Johnson would have added to the already lengthy eighth episode.

Thanks to the release of the novel adaptation The Last Jedi: Expanded Edition, fans have even more material to pore over. Written by Jason Fry — a frequent Star Wars author — the book includes multiple now-canon scenes, ranging from Han Solo’s funeral to a conversation between sisters Rose and Paige Tico.

The Independent caught up with Fry over email to discuss the new book, working with director/writer Rian Johnson, and dreaming up Luke Skywalker’s alternative life. Here’s our Q&A.

First off, I was wondering how much you talked to director Rian Johnson when writing? Or were you mainly working from a script? What was his input like?

Rian and I sat down at Skywalker Ranch in late July and talked for a couple of hours. We talked about the characters, their relationships, and where they were emotionally at key points in the story, and he gave me insight into how he saw new characters such as Rose and Holdo, and what he’d tried to accomplish with them on film.

We also talked about what he’d cut from the movie and why – that was a very helpful guide for me as I tried to work through deleted scenes, additional dialogue and beats that I might want to present in the novelization. It was important to learn, for instance, that one scene had been cut for running time while another one got excised because Rian wondered if a character’s emotional arc was clear enough in it.

I felt lucky to be able to have a conversation like that at all, and even luckier because Rian was the writer as well as the director. He was aware of some of the challenges I faced in this novelization and was generous about helping me brainstorm them a bit. For instance, there are storytelling elements of The Last Jedi that depend on the visual language of film, such as the Rashomon-style flashbacks to what happened between Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren, and the visual surprise of the reveal after Rey’s experience in the mirror cave – the voiceover lets us know she’s telling her story to someone, but we’re surprised to discover it’s Kylo. How to recreate the surprise of that scene in print was one of the biggest challenges in the book.

The best advice Rian gave me, though, was about tone. He talked about how he’d worked to ensure a sense of fun and adventure in the movie even when it was dealing with tragic events and weighty subjects – the way he put it was “lift, not drag.” I returned to those three words over and over while writing, and tried to leaven the novelisation with fun observations, dialogue and descriptions.

I tried not to bug him too often after our sitdown, though he very kindly made himself available if I had any questions. First he had a movie to finish, and then I figured he really, really deserved a break. But that first conversation had been so productive that I didn’t really need to bug him.

There are many scenes here that never made it into the film - were they primarily your ideas or from Rian?

It was a mix. Before my conversation with Rian I read through six or seven different versions of the script in Lucasfilm’s offices, jotting down scenes and additional dialogue that I thought would enrich and deepen the story.

I’d also drawn up a wish list of extra scenes that hadn’t appeared in any of the scripts. That list included things I wanted to see and ideas that emerged from conversations with my editors. I really wanted to start with Luke before Rey’s arrival, for example, because I saw that as a way to get into his head in a way I knew would be hard to do in the main story, where Rey was the protagonist and Luke was a mystery she was trying to solve. My editor Elizabeth Schaefer and I both agreed we wanted to see Han Solo’s funeral. And I really wanted to have a quiet moment with Rey after the fight with Kylo, a beat that would give us a sense of what she’d learned and how her relationship with the Force had changed.

Before sitting down to write I made a big spreadsheet of the movie’s scenes, including deleted ones and proposed new ones, along with notes about additional dialogue we could use and places we might want to try something different – a minor character’s point of view or a bit of well-chosen lore, for instance. That work yielded a blueprint not just for my book but also for some other projects – we agreed some deleted scenes were better reserved for my friend Michael Kogge’s junior novelisation, for instance.

That blueprint served us well, in part because it was a living document – we were almost to the printers when Michael Siglain and Jennifer Heddle of Lucasfilm Publishing asked for a scene with Leia Organa and Chewie alone in the Falcon’s cockpit, reacting to Luke’s death after their escape from Crait. I knew immediately that I really wanted to write that scene, and it’s one of my favourites in the book.

Whenever I had an idea for a new scene, though, I reminded myself that while I got to write the novelisation, the story was Rian’s. Any new material had to serve Rian’s story – changing that story or burying it in my own stuff was the opposite of what I’d been hired to do. That was a good check on authorial vanity.

How much freedom with the source material did you have? To create your own scenes etc?

Rian was incredibly generous from the start, telling me to use anything in those previous scripts that I thought might fit and trusting me with his story. And I had a big team of smart folks who helped me ensure that I was using that freedom to support the storytelling.

Was there anything you would have liked to have added that Lucasfilm did not allow?

We tried a few things that didn’t work, but it wasn’t that Lucasfilm didn’t allow them. Rather, I’d say the process worked the way I’d hoped it would.

We had placeholders in the “blueprint” for scenes featuring the pilots we saw flying with Poe Dameron in The Force Awakens, the ones who survived the raid on Starkiller Base but aren’t seen in The Last Jedi. We thought it would be fun to explore what mission they’d been given and how it was going. But as I was writing I realised that plotline couldn’t have a payoff. So I made a pre-emptive self-edit and never even wrote them.

Star Wars - The Last Jedi - In Home Trailer

Some stuff did get a little further. I knew readers really wanted to know what Luke had been up to since Return of the Jedi – heck, that was a question that I wanted answered myself. So I wrote eight or nine brief scenes – my editor and I called them InterLukes – offering little glimpses of Luke during his decades of trying to understand the Force and his role within it. The InterLukes were fun and explored some cool ideas, but they kept dragging us away from what was already a pretty complex story. Elizabeth wrote me an apologetic email explaining that she didn’t think they belonged in the book and I think was relieved when I instantly agreed with her. I don’t think Lucasfilm ever saw the InterLukes – we knew they didn’t work, so out they went.

Perhaps the most interesting idea we had was to present an alternate version of Rose and Finn meeting the Master Codebreaker. In the first script I read, they find him singing in a cabaret and he enlists them to join a jewel heist, but then he gets captured in ignominious fashion and Rose and Finn are carted off to jail. It’s the same record-scratch moment we get in the film, but with a longer setup.

Rian and I both thought presenting the original version would be fun, and I liked shaking up fans’ expectations for a novelization. So the scene was written that way until the very final weekend of the project. But ultimately, the whole team decided that presenting an alternate version of a major scene was shaking up expectations too much, so we retreated to what you see on-screen.

I’d love to see that alternate scene find a home somewhere, but I think it was the right decision. And I’m glad we arrived at it the way we did: pushing things, then pulling back when we decided we’d gone a bit too far. As a writer, that was so much more fun than playing it safe and essentially transcribing the movie.

Which new scenes are you most proud of?

I loved writing that opening sequence with Luke – it’s a surprise, but one I think is justified once you understand what’s happening and how it echoes the story. I loved all the additional material I got to write for Leia, who’s a character who demands an author’s A-game. It was an honor (and a big responsibility) to be able to explore her connection with the Force, her almost superhuman sense of duty, and the emotional price she pays for that duty.

But lots of little things were fun too – I had a blast writing more rat-a-tat-tat dialogue for Rose and Finn, getting into C-3PO’s rather unique droid brain, and spotlighting characters we might not normally think of as characters at all, such as Poe’s X-wing and the Falcon.

The opening scene with Luke gives an extra sadness to Luke’s character. That must have been super fun to write, dreaming up an alternative future for such a beloved character?

Oh, absolutely!

(Warning: spoilers incoming!)

That was actually an idea I’d been kicking around since the days of the “Legends” books. I wanted to write a short story about a Luke who’d never left Tatooine, but lived out his life in relative peace and complete obscurity… with the reader slowly figuring out that meant evil had triumphed even though it hadn’t touched him. I wanted it to be horrifying, but in a very quiet way.

I couldn’t figure out how to pull it off, though – until I was wrestling with how to start the novelisation with Luke. And then it hit me that my old “quiet apocalypse” story was an interesting echo of what Luke’s done on Ahch-To – withdrawing from a galaxy that desperately needs him. That dovetailed with another idea I’d been playing with, which was that the Force should almost be a character in its own right in the novelisation.

Putting those things together yielded the idea of the Force trying to evade the defenses Luke has set up against it. How would it do that? A dream was the logical answer – dreams are when our defenses are down and our minds are most vulnerable.

And, yes, it gave me a first line that I knew would absolutely not be what readers were expecting. That’s always fun too!

Many people found that the film’s version of Luke was not how they imagined him becoming when they were children. What are your opinions on how Luke turned out? Was that what you always thought was going to happen, or was Rian’s vision completely different?

I loved The Last Jedi. (And if people didn’t, that’s of course totally OK!) But I’d be the first to admit that it’s a challenging, sometimes confounding movie. Among other things, it explores learning from failure, finding self-reliance by discarding mentors, and what you do when your heroic plans go horribly awry. None of those things is what we expect to get when we sit down to see a big popcorn movie.

When I saw some of the negative reactions to the movie, I was surprised. But then I remembered that after I first read the script I’d needed some time to process it too. After some reflection I realized that while The Last Jedi feels initially like a deconstruction of heroic journeys, ultimately it’s a reaffirmation of them. Luke scoffs at Rey’s hope that he’d go out with a laser sword and face down the entire First Order, and in the end that’s exactly what he does. He refuses to train a new Jedi and ultimately does so rather effectively. The Resistance is reduced to almost nothing, but Leia says they have everything they need and that doesn’t feel empty or delusional.

It’s a story you need to sit with a while – that was true for me too. I hope that some of the more skeptical Star Wars fans have gone through the same process I did, this is the right time for them to reconsider the movie, and the novelization might be a way to wrestle with it some more.

To bring it back to Luke, one of my first thoughts after saying yes to the job was, “Oh my God, I’m going to write Luke Skywalker’s death scene.” That was … enormous. I mean, I saw A New Hope when I’d just turned eight years old. I’ve been devouring Luke Skywalker stories for four decades. And now that scene was my responsibility?

When I got to that point in the story the writing actually went pretty quickly – but only because I’d written that scene in my head 20 or 30 times already.

The Last Jedi: Expanded Edition by Jason Fry is published by Century. Out now.

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