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[This story contains spoilers for Obi-Wan Kenobi.]
After speaking in code for over two years, Obi-Wan Kenobi head writer and executive producer Joby Harold is now relishing the opportunity to say one particular name: Leia.
When “Part I” and “Part II” of Deborah Chow’s Disney+ Star Wars series premiered May 27, viewers immediately compared the surprise involvement of 10-year-old Leia (Vivien Lyra Blair) to Grogu’s introduction on The Mandalorian in 2019. For Harold, Leia was the only answer to the question of what could possibly convince Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to temporarily abandon his watch over Luke Skywalker. Naturally, fans have already revisited Star Wars: A New Hope in order to analyze Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) message to Obi-Wan (Sir Alec Guinness) and determine whether the two of them had an adventure nine years earlier.
But Harold wholeheartedly believes that Leia’s plea for help makes all the more sense after the events of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
“It answers the question of, ‘Why him?’ So, ‘Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope,’ feels less arbitrary as a choice and a decision now that we know the depth of the history they have together. I liked the fact that it helped reinforce and better articulate a little piece of the jigsaw that is already in place. She also ends up naming her son ‘Ben’ [Adam Driver],” Harold tells The Hollywood Reporter.
In “Part III,” Darth Vader (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi finally confronted each other for the first time since their tragic duel on Mustafar in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Vader made quick work of an out-of-practice Obi-Wan and tortured him with fire as payback for their fight a decade earlier. Similar to Obi-Wan and Leia, fans have also reignited the debate surrounding their reunion in Star Wars: A New Hope and whether it was intended to be their first encounter since Mustafar. In this case, Harold is confident that nothing in A New Hope precluded their most recent clash.
“There was no line in A New Hope that said we couldn’t. There’s nothing that I feel like we’ve violated at all. If anything, we’ve informed those scenes so that some of the choices that we’ve taken for granted in the [original trilogy] actually make more sense now,” Harold says.
In a recent conversation with THR, Harold also discussed the keys to writing “Little Leia,” as well as channeling Anakin through Vader.
So let’s not bury the lede. What goes through your mind when you write dialogue for Lord Vader and then hear James Earl Jones’ voice perform that dialogue?
(Laughs.) It’s pretty cool. When you’ve seen those movies as many times as I have, the way he speaks — and the way all of these characters speak — is just part of your brain. I hate to be reductive and say it’s like playing with Star Wars figures again, but it genuinely feels like that. You get that much pleasure from it. In the rewriting of it, that process can be somewhat exhausting, but writing Vader scenes are an amazing thing to be able to do.
This was also a reunion for you and Hayden Christensen, right?
Yeah, that’s right. I worked with Hayden back in the day [on 2007’s Awake], and he’s amazing. He’s a really good guy. He’s a great actor, and his spirit is incredible. He generally just wants to do good work, and getting to see him on his first day in wardrobe was a magical feeling. It was [Obi-Wan’s] vision of him as Anakin in episode three, and the whole crew couldn’t believe it, either. I’ll never forget it.
So how much of the Vader/Obi-Wan fight did you put on the page?
With those sequences, you try to find a way for character to come through action. If it’s ever action for action’s sake, it shouldn’t be there. So on the page, the choices that are being made within the choreography from the character point of view are all there, and then that gets handed off to [stunt coordinator] Jojo [Eusebio] who develops the actual fight sequence with [director] Deb [Chow]. And then on the day, the actors hopefully bring all that to life, but the idea is that they have everything they need to push the characters.
What was key about that sequence and Vader at this point is really feeling the Anakin under it all, the range and the anger, and articulating that within the sequence. It was about finding ways to feel the rivalry that exists after everything they’ve gone through and what are the opportunities within the fight so that it’s not just slug, slug, slug. It was about finding a moment to understand the depth of the relationship between the two of them.
I have to admit that the fight reminded me a bit of Batman and Bane’s first fight in The Dark Knight Rises as Vader toyed with Obi-Wan in a similar fashion and commented on how weak he’d become during his downtime.
(Laughs.) I can’t say that was a direct comp, but I’ve gotten to write Batman on a page.
Is Leia’s brand of sass a pleasure to write as well?
It is fun to write, but a little goes a long way. So you try not to gild the lily with that. You try to make sure that it comes across as her being spirited and not just a grown-up writing for a kid. So it’s always a challenge, but we tried to thread that needle as gracefully as we could. She’s pretty sassy, and Carrie Fisher’s incarnation of the character does a very good job of showing that she’s no one to be trifled with. So giving that to a child actor — but at the same time allowing her to be a kid still — is the dance. But the fun of those scenes with Ewan is to try to make it a two-hander in a really interesting way so that you get a little bit of Paper Moon and Midnight Run. I love those movies so much, so those tiny little moments within this bigger thing is part of the fun of it.
Leia is the Grogu-type surprise of this series, and Vivien Lyra Blair is dazzling in the role. Was Leia already involved to this degree when you joined the series?
To this degree, I can’t remember. The notion of Leia on the board was always the most interesting way of getting Obi-Wan out of hiding. If you think about it, there’s nothing else that could bring him out. He’s not going to leave Luke for anybody except Leia. Why else would he abandon that post? The notion of him looking over Luke and not looking over Leia was always a question for everybody once you realize the importance of those two characters side by side. So we had that be a question we confronted head on. Bail [Jimmy Smits] says to Obi-Wan in the cave, “Why him and not her?” So she’s the only thing that I believe he would leave Luke for. There’s nothing else he would be called to do where he wouldn’t stay by Luke’s side. I’m so glad that we were able to keep it a surprise for as long as we were and that I no longer have to use her code name. It’s nice to be able to say Leia out loud. Leia.
When you came on board, a batch of scripts were already written, and Lucasfilm president Kathy Kennedy recently described them as “too bleak.” While there are still plenty of dark elements in these first three episodes, was adding some levity one of the tasks you were assigned at first?
I wasn’t given a mandate when I first came in. To the credit of the team around me, it was like, “Do you like this character? What would you do?” And my instinct was consistent with their aspirations for the show and the character, which was great because that ended up being true throughout. We were always like-minded. But certainly, the lightness of touch here and there is really important within Star Wars. You see that with Haja [Kumail Nanjiani]. You see that with Leia. You see that with the tonal balance. George [Lucas] has said that Star Wars is for kids, and it should be. I have three boys, and they should find themselves in the tone of that world.
But on the other hand, what intrigued me about the character was the weight of where he was at this time and the guilt he was carrying and how he was haunted, knowing that Ewan could really carry those scenes. So both sides were really interesting to me and how they could live together in a satisfying way. You could have the lightness and still carry the weight of the drama. That’s the balance of Star Wars. If you look at The Empire Strikes Back, the glory of that movie is that it has those two sides. It’s intensely dramatic, weighty and mythic, but it also has an amazing lightness attached. So that was the holy grail of tonal comparisons that I had in my mind.
When you invent the past, you also recontextualize the future. So how did you reconcile Obi-Wan and Leia’s relationship to each other in A New Hope?
It was very helpful to know where they were going because it answers the question of, “Why him?” So, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope,” feels less arbitrary as a choice and a decision now that we know the depth of the history they have together. The context within which Leia says that in A New Hope is now canon, and it’s clear. So it will be articulated as the show continues, but I liked the fact that it helped reinforce and better articulate a little piece of the jigsaw that is already in place. If you watch all of the Star Wars stories in a row right now, you’d be like, “Of course, she’s going to go to Obi-Wan.” She also ends up naming her son, Ben [Adam Driver]. So I liked the fact that he was a big component in her life, as much as he was in Luke’s life up until now. It felt right after everything that happened with Anakin and those two children that he would be there for both children, to the degree he now has been in canon.
In “Part II,” Obi-Wan has to go through the Star Wars equivalent of a meth lab in order to find Leia, and the episode happened to be edited by Breaking Bad editor Kelley Dixon. So was Breaking Bad actually a reference for that set?
You’re in an underworld, and the spice of it all is fascinating, as are death sticks and anything that hints at an underbelly within the Star Wars world. So the notion of getting to see the lab did feel like a seedy underbelly. I liked the fact that we could do a colorful Star Wars version of something we’ve seen in the real world. When Star Wars echoes real-world stuff, it feels a little more tangible for the audience. Originally, there were different, more expensive versions of that sequence. A meth lab was within reach of something we could do production-wise, versus other incarnations, which were a little more expensive. So, tonally, it felt like what we wanted, while also being achievable. And it was just a nice way for Obi-Wan to be undercover in a world that was very foreign to him compared to the Tatooine cave.
Are you able to confirm that Reva (Moses Ingram) was one of the younglings in the series’ opening scene?
I won’t speak to that, but I will say that Reva is a character that I find to be fascinating. Moses [Ingram] has done amazing things with her.
So how did Reva figure out that Vader is Anakin Skywalker? That’s previously been a well-kept secret that people have died over.
I love that Reva is this mystery box, so I try to speak to her as little as possible, and I’m going to keep it that way. But the notion of having a character that we don’t know on a legacy show where we do know everything and everybody is part of the fun of the show. So the less said about her, the better, considering there are very few people and places where you don’t know what’s happening.
Is Rupert Friend’s Grand Inquisitor different from Jason Isaacs’ Grand Inquisitor on Rebels? Or are they meant to be the same guy despite the presumed death of Friend’s character?
I know there’s speculation about that, but I won’t speak to that beyond saying that Rupert is just a champ in his articulation of the character. I love the rhythm of what he does with the voice for a character who’s that physically intimidating. He looks like a tank, but he speaks with such lyricism. So that juxtaposition is unique and interesting, and he’s not the aquiline, thin, sinewy school teacher-y, creepy guy. So I love what he did with the character.
In general, the conversation around prequels frustrates me because people often think that prequel characters automatically have to die if they weren’t seen in the subsequent story. They also tend to think that there are little to no stakes in the current story if it’s known that a character like Obi-Wan doesn’t die until the next story. This is my roundabout way of saying that I’m glad you made Obi-Wan suffer in “Part III” because suffering is dramatic. So do you have any thoughts on the fallacies that prequels create?
We all know where we’re going in the show. That’s not surprising to anybody, but there is undeniably a hole in the storytelling before we get to Sir Alec Guinness’ Zen-like calm warrior monk. The fight between him and Vader at the end of A New Hope has a calm to it. It almost feels like everybody knows their positions there, with the things they say and with the way in which Obi-Wan resolves that fight. That’s very different from Mustafar at the end of Revenge of the Sith, so that chunk of storytelling felt like an opportunity, not something we were limited by. So I just ran toward that idea, and anything you can do in between those two things that’s surprising, interesting and goes against expectations is an opportunity as long as you’re not violating canon. I have completely focused on [Obi-Wan Kenobi] being Episode 3.5, between the original trilogy and the prequels, as it had to marry the storytelling choices between those two trilogies. Ultimately, I’m an original trilogy kid; that’s what I love. And that’s the calm and the precision with which we tried to focus this show. We tried to echo that mythic-feeling storytelling.
I’ve always believed that A New Hope was Vader and Obi-Wan’s first and only reunion since their fateful duel in Revenge of the Sith, but that’s no longer the case, obviously. Was there a line in A New Hope that you gave some wiggle room with regard to them having more encounters?
It was much the opposite. There was no line in A New Hope that said we couldn’t. One could argue that Obi-Wan’s “from a certain point of view” thing is obviously revisionist storytelling in regard to the original trilogy, or it’s another way of saying there are gray areas and things we don’t know. There’s nothing wrong with uncovering the past and its truths in storytelling, so it never felt wrong to me. There’s nothing that I feel like we’ve violated at all. If anything, we’ve informed those scenes so that some of the choices that we’ve taken for granted in the [original trilogy] actually make more sense now. If you came to the entire Star Wars storytelling world fresh and watched it all the way through from Episode I, this would feel like a natural link between those two trilogies.
I’ve got Top Gun on my mind currently, so Obi-Wan, in “Part I,” reminded me a lot of Maverick toward the end of Top Gun. They’re both detached and disengaged because of their roles in the deaths, or presumed deaths, of their fraternal figures, and they both struggled when called to arms again. So was there a lot of discussion on when Obi-Wan should get his mojo back? As we’ve seen elsewhere, some of the audience can grow frustrated if it takes too long for their beloved hero to pick up their sword again.
Yeah, I’m very aware of how potent the imagery can be in Star Wars, and slowing everything down so that that imagery can have as much weight as possible was the goal throughout, especially when it was going to help articulate his arc. So that’s why the lightsaber on his hip was the closing image of the first episode. When you see him unpack his lightsabers in the desert and you see his two lightsabers side by side, it’s a very potent image. That’s why he holds the lightsaber at the end of episode two and doesn’t use it. That’s why when he does use it, it means something, because he hasn’t used it in a long time. That’s also why he uses the Force for the first time in a long time when he saves Leia. All of those choices are very deliberate architecturally so that they’re hand in hand with the lead character as he’s arcing, rhythmically. You’re weaponizing the moment. It’s essential to take advantage of the amount of time we have from a character point of view to tell this story. It’s a privilege to be able to tell it in six chapters, so slowing it down and embracing that opportunity was really important.
Well, I appreciate your patience with all my reductive comparisons today.
(Laughs.) I’m now going to imagine Obi-Wan and Maverick in a bar, ordering ice water and comparing notes on Goose and Anakin. I saw Top Gun: Maverick the night before we premiered at [Star Wars] Celebration, so it’s fun to have those two characters side by side in my imagination.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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