Features and Columns

6 Filmmaking Tips From ‘Star Wars’ Directors

Learn the secrets to helming an episode of the biggest movie franchise in history.
Rian Johnson Directing The Last Jedi
By  · Published on December 13th, 2017

So far, across nine live-action features, the Star Wars film series has been directed by six different men. Disney plans to make a whole lot more of these things, so there’s a likelihood we’ll see many more filmmakers given the chance — and hopefully keep the gig all the way through. Particularly because a number of Star Wars directors have been fired, it’s important that aspiring candidates know how to do the job properly and successfully.

Below are tips from original creator George Lucas (director of Star WarsThe Phantom MenaceAttack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith), as well as directors Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back), Richard Marquand (Return of the Jedi), J.J. Abrams (The Force Awakens and the upcoming Episode IX), Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi and at least one future installment), and Gareth Edwards (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story).

“There’s More to It Than Just Space Ships” – George Lucas

In a video for Vanity Fair ahead of the release of The Force Awakens, franchise mastermind George Lucas gave advice to anyone interested in making a Star Wars movie. The simple tip is quoted in full above. He also shared the honest truth that, despite how many of them he’s made, it’s not really a great experience:

“You go to make a movie, and all you do is get criticized. And people try to make decisions about what you’re going to do before you do it. You know, it’s not much fun, and you can’t experiment. You can’t do anything. You have to do it a certain way. I don’t like that, I never did.”

“The Plot Comes From the Characters” – Irvin Kershner

As the most acclaimed (retroactively) and perhaps most beloved of all the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back is a benchmark for what makes a great episode of the franchise. Its director, the late Irvin Kershner, had this to say to Starlog magazine on the matter back in 1980 (reprinted at TheStarWarsTrilogy.com):

“It is 10 times more difficult to make science-fiction drama than to make science-fiction melodrama. The difference, after all, is that in drama, the plot comes from the characters; in melodrama, it’s the other way around. And in ‘Star Wars’—in ‘Empire’ too— the characters are in the forefront. It’s the characters you remember—not so much the plot, or the look or the hardware.”

In the same interview, Kershner also stated that the “chief value” of the Star Wars movies is “entertainment,” which isn’t as simple as that sounds:

“Entertainment. Not thoughtless sensory stimulation, though. Entertainment at its best stimulates the senses, the emotions, the intellect; and it reveals something of the world that has heretofore been closed to you. Doors are opened to new esthetic forms. Every illusion in a film is an organization of space and objects. If the result has form, that tends to educate the audience, to give them that sense of form. And that is illuminating.”

“It Doesn’t Work If It’s Not Real.” – Richard Marquand

Return of the Jedi director Richard Marquand died 40 years ago, not that long after making his Star Wars installment. Before his departure, in 1984, he did an interview with Jules-Pierre Malartre that wasn’t published until 2013, by Den of Geek. In this talk, he shared the following lesson on working with masked characters and mechanical creatures and how they need a “real” human touch behind their performances:

“Working on film, which is frequently a media of close-ups, there is nothing blanker than a close-up of Darth Vader. Why do you put a person in it? But you realize you have someone under, and that is why emotion does get through, if the movement is right. If you really work at it, it does work.

“It’s the same thing with the robots. You have to try to achieve some realism. A good example is the torture droid in that cavern where all those tortures are going on. We invented him in London. He stands up. He speaks. He gestures, and his eyes are flashing, and his mouth is moving. He’s very simply made, but it was necessary to try and give him some kind of reality, somehow.

“Jabba the Hutt was the same thing. He’s a huge lump that just sits there, completely dead. Then, the guys get inside and we start going. In the end, after shouting, screaming, studying and running video tests and so on, it starts to turn into something we could recognize if it was walking down the street. It starts to have some real dimension. It is hard work.

“R2-D2 was the worst. He’s a pain. When there’s a man in it, it’s great.”

“Acknowledge, Embrace and Appreciate Your Fandom, and Then Put it in Your Pocket.” – J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams had the biggest weight on his shoulders as a Star Wars director, as the first filmmaker to tackle the franchise for a major feature without George Lucas’s involvement. What he ultimately created feels like a big-budget fan film (a very good one at that), but it could have been more so given this tip shared in a Wired interview ahead of the release of The Force Awakens in 2015:

“The key to doing this movie…was to acknowledge, embrace and appreciate your fandom, and then put it in your pocket. I couldn’t be on the set and be a fanboy. I needed to be a director. Harrison, Carrie, Mark, Anthony [Daniels], Peter — none of the original actors wanted a fanboy to work with. They needed someone who would give them criticism, feedback, notes, ideas. So while there were moments — almost every day — where I would find myself gasping that it was happening, I would have to suppress that and do the job required, because no one, and certainly not the movie, would benefit from my being blinded by the love of ‘Star Wars.’

Somewhat related, Abrams also told Wired in a different interview around the same time about what he and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan saw as the key to getting at the heart of Star Wars:

“I tried to focus on things that I find inspiring about cinema. I asked questions like ‘How do we make this movie delightful?’ That was really the only requirement Larry and I imposed on each other: The movie needed to be delightful. It was not about explaining everything away, not about introducing a certain number of toys for a corporation, not about trying to appease anyone. This has only ever been about what gets *us* excited.”

As a bonus, Abrams also used Star Wars as an example during a TED Talk back in 2008 (many years before he’d be tasked with making his own) to give a lesson on his “mystery box” brand of storytelling. Watch:

“You can’t have enough BB-8” – Rian Johnson

Technically this advice isn’t originally from the Last Jedi filmmaker. Instead, Rian Johnson was given the tip from some people who had worked on The Force Awakens (that maybe originated with John Lasseter, but never mind that). By sharing it with CinemaBlend, he makes it his own:

“The best advice I got going into this whole process was from JJ’s editors who told me ‘You can’t have enough BB-8.’ And we followed their advice. He’s the Buster Keaton of this movie. I’m excited for you guys to see what he does in this movie. It’s pretty fun.”

What this tip is really all about, though, is not BB-8 so much as the Star Wars movies being “pretty fun.” And funny. In a new interview for the official Star Wars website, Johnson addresses the importance of humor and levity:

“There’s strangeness all over the movie and that’s one of the big things I’m curious to see how people react. I think there’s a lot of just oddness in the film, and there’s a lot of humor in the movie. I mean, we have jokes. We have flat-out jokes in the film. [Laughs] We have funny creatures. I think the part of the fan base that’s closer to my age, you tend to start thinking of what you’d want in a ‘Star Wars’ movie in terms of the opera of it, and the seriousness of it. That’s a big and important element of it and I think we definitely served that in this movie, but it’s important to then remember, you know, Salacious Crumb [Laughs], and it’s important to remember the other side of these movies, which is fun.”

“Take Something That Is Familiar and Push It a Bit Left or Right” – Gareth Edwards

While working on Rogue One, Gareth Edwards realized that the brilliance of George Lucas’s original concept was the blending of the old and the new, taking  familiar items and ideas of the past and giving them a twist. He discusses this aspect of Star Wars movies as well as how it’s the hardest job in the world in this video interview with ScreenSlam:

What We’ve Learned

Despite the oversight from Lucas in the old days and the seeming lack of freedom from directors lately, there doesn’t actually seem to be a perfect or agreed-upon formula for making a Star Wars movie. Still, each of the six tips shared above is recognizably a part of the best episodes of the series.

They all are about more than the surface sci-fi elements, they all incorporate a bit of fun and humor, they focus on characters and make them believable right down to every creature and every droid, and they involve playing with the familiar, whether that’s mashing up history and cinema classics into a new saga or building off the already iconic franchise.

Additional research and reporting by Natalie Mokry.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.