Debs Paterson directed the behind the scenes documentary The Skywalker Legacy. She answered a few questions via email for this interview.
What was your introduction to Star Wars?
I watched the original trilogy every chance I could get as a kid, and when I couldn’t watch (we were not allowed to watch TV during the week), read the novelizations also. I loved the thought of a ‘used universe’ galaxy of adventure.
Do you have a favorite character from any of the Star Wars films or TV series? If so have your favorites changed over time?
Never could choose between Han, Luke, Leia, and Lando. And now between Rey, Finn, Poe, Rose, and Jannah.
Why do you think Star Wars has remained popular for so long?
I just spent a year of my life contemplating this. As we were shooting the doc, the conversation in all departments often turned to ‘Is it Star Wars enough’ – because everything needed to both connect back to the originals AND push it forward in some way… Then when I watched the archive BTS, it seemed like something about that balance gets to the heart of it. The idea that it both connects back to something deep and mythic, and also pushes forward into the new. The saga has always had that quality. And that it’s a communal adventure – about a group of people, not just one hero. I think that’s crucial to it also. And – from a ‘making of’ perspective, that story is also true behind the scenes: it’s a massive collaborative effort, deeply heartfelt and technologically virtuoso.
How did you become the director for The Skywalker Legacy? Is it correct that this is your first time directing a behind the scenes documentary for a film?
While I love watching behind the scenes, in my normal life I direct film and TV – so when I got the call it was unexpected. I had heard terrific things about JJ – and there’s no world where I would ever regret spending a year of my life on a STAR WARS movie. It was also a unique challenge – JJ Abrams and Kathy Kennedy saying ‘We want you to bring a filmmaker POV to this – tell the story of this army of craftspeople and this unique 40 year saga coming to a close.’
Did you watch any previous making-of documentaries of Star Wars films? If so, I’m curious if you had favorites in general or favorite moments from any of them that inspired you while making your film.
All of them, multiple times. I was inspired and intimated by each of them – particularly the verite style of The Beginning, which is awesome. The brilliant use of archive in Empire of Dreams. And the terrific access and thesis of The Director and the Jedi.
Did you have access to the script of The Rise of Skywalker while filming The Skywalker Legacy? Did the plot of the film have much impact on the story you were trying to tell with this documentary?
The producers trusted me to read the script, which I felt very grateful for as it is guarded very closely. That was essential for us as a documentary team to be able to track the different builds and characters through prep and into production – especially because everything had code names! It was a real pleasure to get to witness that side of JJ, Chris Terrio and Michelle Rejwan’s process with the story – those are three very smart people who put their hearts and souls into doing this right.
The Skywalker Legacy covers so much territory – the making of The Rise of Skywalker, the end of the sequel trilogy for JJ, Daisy, Adam, etc. and the end of a nine-film saga. Did you have an outline for how you wanted this documentary to go before you started shooting or did the narrative drive itself after you filmed for a time?
I didn’t want to come in with a fixed agenda, so my team (three cameras operated by two very talented ops Chin Okoronkwo and Will Mitchell plus me) had to spread ourselves thin to keep track of all of the different departments and stages. From my first conversation with JJ, I knew I wanted to be able to share as much of the filmmaking process as we could without spoiling any of the magic – and that meant we were going to be following a lot of stories. It was definitely tough to work out how to track those in one documentary and a few featurettes – but once we realized how closely connected the filmmaking process was to the previous films, it felt clear that the story would involve archive, and we would structure it that way.
Lucasfilm is both a studio and a group of creators – did they influence the direction of this film very much or were they more hands-off?
The Lucasfilm Video Production and Publicity team were terrific collaborators in this – as well as our producers Anna Yeagar, Trish Brunner and Ian Bucknole. We had a huge amount of footage to wrangle in not a lot of time, so their support and notes were invaluable.
Tell me about your team for The Skywalker Legacy.
Our shoot team were the two camera ops, Will and Chin, and myself. We had two very talented shoot editors – Kate Coggins and Jeff Pickett – and two BFI trainees, Alex and Molly, who helped us no end. Chin has an amazing nose for story, and was incredible at working with the different workshops to keep up to date with their progress and show and tells with JJ. She also covered a lot of Vic Mahoney’s brilliant 2nd Unit. Will shoots beautiful on-set BTS, so he tended to stick with main unit, sometimes splitting off to cover departments. I was able to shadow JJ and HoDs in their process a lot – and they were incredibly generous about having us around and keeping up to speed with what was going on. The cast also!
How much access did you have on-set? Were there any sets you weren’t allowed to shoot on? Were you ever asked to turn the camera off or to not use footage?
We worked extremely hard to be sensitive to both the situation and the cast and were usually able to stay really close, kind of becoming part of the machinery – but sometimes it was right to give space or keep some distance. We went with the flow.
Overall was being on the set of a Star Wars film what you were expecting it would be like?
I hate to say it, but it was way cooler. This movie had such a focus on practical sets and effects that the scale of it was truly mindboggling. There were several sets that were completely 360 – where everywhere you looked, you were standing in a Star Wars world, surrounded by creatures and ships and characters from the movie. Catching a golden glint in the corner of my eye and turning round to see C3PO did not once get old. Nevermind hugs from Chewie!
I really appreciated how many crew members you spoke with and interviewed on-camera for this film. And how it was rare that we didn’t get a caption with the person’s name and their job title in these scenes as well. How did you decide who to speak with and what parts of the filmmaking process to focus on?
As above, we tried to keep up with as much of the process as we could, and to showcase the relevant department with their big set pieces. But mostly it was just being driven by the filmmaker excitement of – ‘If I wasn’t able to stand here, what would I want to know and who would I want to talk to?’
A stand-out to me in The Skywalker Legacy was stunt coordinator Eunice Huthart who was working on her first Star Wars film. Did you know before you started shooting how much she would be featured in the finished film? (I felt like you could have made an entire film just following her around!)
I knew the first time I saw her in a meeting she would be an incredible character – and completely agree we could have followed her the whole film. She didn’t want her team to be distracted by the cameras, so we were actually pretty conservative with how much we filmed, though the moments are terrific. It was a huge pleasure to get to watch Eunice do her thing – she’s brilliantly good.
Who are some of the people who worked behind the scenes in The Rise of Skywalker who most Star Wars fans probably haven’t heard of that you hope will get some attention for their work after seeing this film?
Man, it’s impossible to single people out. There are so many more crew members we wanted to put in the doc and couldn’t – I honestly admire them all.
Were there any actors or crew members you really wanted to interview but weren’t able to?
I wanted to sit down with the security guys, as their job sounded fascinating – needing to keep on top of possible paparazzi and leaks – but we just didn’t get time to do it. And it also felt like that might get a little meta – I wanted to stay focussed on the filmmaking.
A lot of the interviews looked like they were done on set but others were done in offices. Were most of the interviews conducted during the production of the film or were some done weeks or months after?
JJ was obviously insanely busy during the shoot so there was no moment where he could have stepped off and done an hour’s sit down interview. He was amazing at doing little stand ups to camera in the moment, but I only got to sit down with him for bigger questions during the edit and the sound mix. Happily we were cutting the doc at Bad Robot while they were finishing the movie, so we were able to do that – as well as catching some pieces with the editorial, sound and VFX team after the movie was wrapped. And some extra stuff with Daisy when she came for ADR also.
I thought it was great how many times Mark Hamill popped up in The Skywalker Legacy film – both him talking from The Rise of Skywalker production offices and vintage footage of him from the original trilogy. I’m curious for certain sections, like when Mark was looking at the Babu Frik animatronic if you just happened to be filming when he was there or if you asked to follow him visiting different parts of production to help make a connection between the present and the past?
Mark is such a wonderful, generous human being. When we did our on set interview with him, I asked if he’d be up for coming to the creatures department as they were so excited to see him. He spent a wonderful couple of hours there and in the art department – answering questions, telling some awesome stories, and meeting some of the artists. It was only when we got to watch the archive later that I realized he has always loved hanging out in the workshops, so that was a lovely little bit of serendipity.
It appeared that you were on-set from the first day to the last day of filming. Is it fair to say you were there every day of filming or were there sections of time you weren’t there?
We filmed all day every day for the whole of the shoot, and some of prep before.
Any idea how many total hours of footage you filmed during this process? Any bits you really wish you could have fit in somewhere you can share with us?
We have nearly a thousand reels of footage from IX – just shy of a thousand hours. And there is so much stuff I wish we could have squeezed in. I was thinking about some of it the other day – but such is the way of the edit!
I’m assuming you also filmed the footage for the other shorter extras about John Williams, creatures, etc. Did you know those subjects would have their own separate features from the start?
We did! No – the featurettes evolved as we went. One or two, like the Speeder Chase and John Williams, we felt clear from the start would warrant a special feature. Others, like Warwick & Son and Aliens in the Desert, felt like brilliant stories we wouldn’t be able to do justice to in the doc.
There is so much footage (most of it I think that has never been seen before) from the original trilogy in The Skywalker Legacy. I’m curious if you were supplied with hours of footage you could dig through or if you asked if the archives had footage of specific things as you edited the film together?
Our brilliant documentary editors Rebecca Valente and Carl Jordan had a huge amount of material to get to grips with – so while they were doing that, I was able to dive into the archive – some 350 hours of it! That was so incredible, to be able to watch the archive rushes from IV, V and VI – and then we worked together to find the creative tissue between our footage from IX and the archive, to tell that story.
Stumbling across the tourists at the fence, which we open the doc with, was a brilliant moment. As well as hearing the guy at Jabba’s barge talk about ‘an English term, greebly’ – knowing that Rosemary had talked about greebles in the droid workshop. There were MANY occasions when Rebecca, Carl and I reached out to the Lucasfilm ‘hive mind’ to ask if anyone knew where to find a particular piece of footage or interview though. We would have been sunk without the Lucasfilm team’s support!
I think in over 40 years you’re the first woman to direct a behind the scenes Star Wars documentary. Non-fiction Star Wars books are similarly mostly written by men which I think is interesting as non-fiction books and documentaries really tell the history of Star Wars. Do you think it’s important for more women to direct more documentaries like The Skywalker Legacy and do you have thoughts on how more women can break into directing these kinds of documentaries?
I do think storytelling diversity is terrifically important, and I felt so privileged to be invited by JJ and the team to bring my POV to this experience so that it could be shared. I’m not sure how to advise in terms of breaking in beyond making material that you feel is creatively exciting and putting it out there. What’s awesome right now is we live in a time where so much can be done on home equipment – so it’s all there to get started with.
Can you share any upcoming projects?
Until we got shut down I was directing a SKY drama in Italy – so I hope we’ll be able to get back out there soon and finish that. Before that, I directed an episode of ABC’s new show FOR LIFE – and that will go out soon. I’ve got some scripts I’m working on too… now that ‘sheltering at home’ has given time for focussing on that!