Exploring a few possibilities.
According to a new New York Daily News interview with Carrie Fisher’s brother Todd, he and Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd, “have granted the studio rights to use recent footage [of Fisher] for the finale.” Since the actress’s sudden death last December, fans have wondered about how the Star Wars franchise will handle the loss of such a central figure – especially considering that some sources have claimed that Carrie Fisher was originally to have a larger role in Episode IX than in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, scheduled for release this December. Taken in conjunction with other statements released by Disney thus far, including that The Last Jedi will not be modified to reflect Fisher’s death and that Disney and Lucasfilm seem to be standing by their January statement that CGI will not be used to “resurrect” Fisher as it was to re-create Peter Cushing’s likeness in Rogue One, one can’t really help but wonder what exactly they are planning to do.
This is not the first time an actor has died either pre-production or mid-production on a film, or even the first time an actor has died prior to completion of filming in a major franchise role. That said, the case of how to handle Leia Organa’s character after Carrie Fisher’s death is especially difficult, for a number of different reasons. Though Star Wars has branched out in various tie-in media and the “anthology” films – Rogue One, the as-of-yet untitled young adventures of Han Solo film set for release in 2018, and the 2020 film of mystery – the main series is ultimately a family saga. They would perhaps more accurately be called Skywalker Family Problems Vol. 1–9, but that, admittedly, just doesn’t have the same ring to it. In that New York Daily News interview, Todd Fisher explains his and Billie Lourd’s rationale for giving Disney the go-ahead as: “Both of us were like, ‘Yes, how do you take her out of it?’ And the answer is you don’t.” And they’re right. You can’t. It’s not an ensemble drama where even the fan-favorite part can, functionally, be replaced. What Todd Fisher doesn’t mention is the companion question, which is decidedly more difficult to answer: How, then, can you possibly keep her in it?
Let’s go back to what’s actually news here: Disney getting rights to “use recent footage for the finale.” Now, assuming they hadn’t for some strange reason started shooting footage for Episode IX in advance, what we can take away from this is that they most likely are intending on repurposing unused footage of Fisher. While you might wonder what could possibly be done with footage collected off the cutting room floor, ask an editor – you’d be amazed what some clever cutting can do. One of the really cool aspects of film as a storytelling medium is something called the Kuleshov effect: basically, our interpretation of film shots is extremely reliant on context (the surrounding film shots). The original experiment which demonstrated this (by Lev Kuleshov, thus the name), presented a shot of actor Ivan Mosjoukine with a blank expression as a reaction to either a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, or a woman, and found that audiences interpreted his expression as hunger, grief, or desire (respectively). Could they “Kuleshov effect” a fake performance, so to speak? Depending on exactly what the footage in question is, and how much of it they have, then potentially, yes – at least, to a certain extent.
Looking at the history of films and series that have had to deal with actors dying either mid-filming or between installments, there have really been three main approaches (besides CGI replacement): replace the actor, like they did for the character Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film franchise; kill the character off-screen, as the television show Glee did with Finn; or just kinda tip-toe around the empty space where that character should be, as The Dark Knight Rises did with the Joker.
Now, as far as I’m aware, no official statement has been made confirming that Carrie Fisher will not be recast, but this seems more likely a case of the prospect being too far out of the realm of consideration to even merit acknowledgement than Disney keeping the option open. It’s not just a matter of Fisher’s performance being iconic, but the matter of Star Wars not being either an adaptation or a reboot. Because Star Wars was an original film, Carrie Fisher truly was Leia Organa in a way that actors in adapted roles simply cannot be. You can theoretically argue that Heath Ledger wasn’t a good Joker or that (to use a slightly more central figure than Dumbledore) Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t actually look like Harry Potter. You can’t even attempt to make such a case with Leia, because Fisher defined what the character looked like and how she behaves. Even little quirks of Fisher’s performance, such as her one-scene-only British accent in A New Hope, have been retroactively integrated into Leia’s character through tie-in novels.
Of course, Disney could technically recast her because they own the character and all that legal jazz, but perhaps the biggest takeaway from this latest Star Wars news is that if Disney is using footage of Fisher in the final installment they’ve definitely crossed recasting off the list of possibilities.
Now, as to the other two options: this recent news would also cross off the third strategy I mentioned, leaving only the second – though of course, within that category there are still a wide realm of possibilities.
No matter how they handle Leia’s character, Carrie Fisher’s death will be the elephant in the room of Episode IX. The real question, which will not be answered until 2019, is if they can keep that elephant from stealing the show.