Find Out What it’s Like on a Star Wars Set
Art and Experience: After 7 months on set, 2 in post, plus watching 350 hours of archival Lucas Film footage… Debs Paterson found a renewed faith in the process.
The Skywalker Saga has come to a close. At least for now. While the world has changed a lot in the brief time since The Rise of Skywalker hit theaters in 2019, it is now available to stream and along with it comes a truly unique making-of documentary directed by Debs Paterson titled The Skywalker Legacy.
Debs Paterson on the set of ‘The Rise of Skywalker’
We spoke to Debs about making the doc, but mostly about getting to sink so deep into Star Wars, both its past and its present. She had unprecedented access to… well… everything. From the set itself to tons of unseen BTS footage from deep within the Lucasfilm archives.
You can watch the doc to see how she weaved it all together. But in this interview, she takes us behind the scenes of the ‘behind the scenes’. With key interactions with figures like J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, George Lucas, and countless craftspeople. Debs got the ultimate No Film School type of opportunity.
NFS: This really unique opportunity to tell this once-in-a-lifetime story… How did you get involved?
Debs Paterson: J.J.[Abrams] wanted to bring in a female second unit director on the show. My name was on the list for that when it first started but they went with the wonderful Victoria Mahoney, who’s amazing. Then some months later, I got a call out of the blue saying, “Look, we really liked your stuff” and basically that they wanted a filmmaker to make the documentary about the process. “It’s not normally what we do but, what do you think? Are you interested?”
“I am very open-minded about what the doc can turn into. We want a filmmaker to make it because we want somebody with a perspective.” – J.J. Abrams
For a moment I thought, “Oh weird.” but then… “Shut up! This is Star Wars, dude!” There’s no world where you’d ever regret this!
I dropped everything. The next week I joined them about a month out from when they started shooting. My team started shooting straight away. I went on the whole ride. Seven months of production, then I came back for two months of editing. It was an awesome experience.
NFS: You went from possibly shooting the second unit to covering the entire film. And you were right there in it with them the whole time?
Paterson: That was part of the conversation that I had with JJ. We sat down to talk about what I would do, and about what he wanted the doc to be. He said, “I am very open-minded about what the doc can turn into. We want a filmmaker to make it because we want somebody with a perspective. What I don’t want is just the kind of hero-worship thing about famous people. I want people to understand the level of craft that goes into this.”
“You can’t go to film school to see how these movies are made.”
It felt like a real opportunity to get inside the bowels of a huge machine like this. From really kind of small characters right up to the names that we all know, to try and communicate a sense of how the whole thing works.
NFS: Did it come as a surprise to you to see just how big and nuanced, and insane the mounting of this level of production is?
Paterson: No, I don’t think it was a surprise. But to the point of what No Film School is about, I’ve learned loads of stuff from watching what you guys do. I didn’t go to film school and in that first conversation with JJ, that was one of the things that we talked about. I didn’t go to film school, he didn’t go to film school. Michelle Rejwan, the producer, didn’t go to film school and Callum Greene, the executive producer, didn’t go to film school.
We were talking about how cool it would be to open up the process behind it all without destroying any of the magic of the movie. How do you open up the process in a way that sparks ideas or gives the sense of how it is done. Allowing filmmakers, as well as fans, to get close to the whole thing. Because there isn’t another way that you learn about really big movies. Right? You can’t go to film school to see how these movies are made.
“Lucasfilm gave me 350 hours of the original trilogy archives. So that was a trip, man.”
NFS: The complications and intricacies behind a film of this magnitude are massive, did some of that carry over to the making-of documentary?
Paterson: Part of the challenge was that, obviously, the making-of documentary has to be delivered at the same time as the film. So everybody was working very hard to get this delivered in time. Normally for a feature doc, you’d look at having a year in post and we had about three and a half months. I felt extremely honored and lucky to get to see different cuts of the film along the way. But the film was not completed when we were needing to deliver our doc.
We were having to commit to the structure while the editorial process was still going on. It really felt like we had to get to the essence of what it was. Another conversation that I’d had with Kathleen very early on was about what she was looking for in the documentary.
NFS: What was it like working closely with her?
Paterson: She’s a badass. She has such a nose for adventure. Kathleen was on set obviously, but then she wasn’t there one morning out in the desert. Someone said that she’d found out about a camel race that was going on, like a sunrise camel race. It was going on nearby and she went with a driver and filmed it all on her phone. She had these amazing shots, slow-mo shots. All in the most beautiful light, and she had she filmed out of the window of the jeep.
NFS: She’s the real deal. She’s been on all this since literally the ground floor. Her insight must have been helpful.
Paterson: Right? What she wanted to see in the doc was an exploration of ‘why’. What is it about Star Wars? Why is it that Star Wars has held people’s hearts and minds and it’s held them for so long? There just isn’t anything else like this and the canon of Western cinema.
This is a film series that has developed for over forty years. There isn’t something that inspires the same kind of fire and passion in the way that these movies do. She wanted to see that delved into a little bit. Which meant we were thinking, “all right, so structurally, how do we shape a future documentary about this? It has to be interacting with its roots right?”
NFS: How you could even begin to comb through everything that exists from the past of Star Wars BTS wise? Because obviously the past of Star Wars is hugely present…
Paterson: That’s a perfect way of putting it. In fact, I wish I said it that way. I started with the material that we had from the shoot. We had about a thousand hours of these shots during the course of production between the three cameras. Our editors needed a moment, two very talented editors Rebecca Valente and Carl Jordan. We worked between the three of us. While they were getting to terms with all the footage, I was able to dive into the archive. Lucasfilm gave me 350 hours of the original trilogy archives. So that was a trip, man.
NFS: You must have seen some really cool stuff. I assume you watched it all?
Paterson: Totally. There’s so much amazing stuff. I really tried to pull out as much as we possibly could. Our first cut of this movie was three and a half hours long, and Kathy was like “No, two hours is the absolute maximum.”
NFS: What’s funny about that is… We’re talking about Star Wars! There are fans who would watch 18 hours of this!
Paterson: There are so many stories, there are so many cool craftspeople, and processes, and parallel processes. Ways in which they’ve taken the ingenuity, and taken the technology forward. Just the alchemy of the original trilogy, the types of people that George Lucas bought together for the original trilogy.
When you kind of consider that and you consider, through him and his team, what was generated and produced, and which purposes were designed and defined, and introduced to the world as part of that… It is mind-boggling. I don’t really understand how that happened.
“I got to study seven months of a set and production where everyone was treated respectfully.”
NFS: It’s hard for us to appreciate today the degree to which those movies altered the entire entertainment industry. But they really did. There is before Star Wars and after Star Wars.
Paterson: It was incredibly compelling to watch the archive and comparing all of that with J.J.’s process. You started to see all of these things. I would love to ask him at some point, how much he consciously studied the approach to the originals when he was coming up because in many ways he has a lot in common with Lucas.
I know people have some opinions about both of them, but the way J.J. works so incredibly collaborative. He has amazing taste in the people that he brings into it.
NFS: It sounds like there was a very like a positive tone and energy on set. It’s hard to imagine the stress and the pressure on everybody was under working on it.
Paterson: On a very personal note, prior to doing this job I’d worked on a couple of sets in the industry where I’d seen quite toxic behavior, let’s put it that way.
NFS: People can turn filmmaking and production into life and death, and that’s not necessary. But honestly… on a Star Wars movie that’s wrapping up the entire series, it really feels pretty close to life and death, right?
Paterson: Exactly. That’s what I meant and so coming into this thing, I really had some quite existential questions about, you know what? I have certain beliefs about the way that people should treat each other. I don’t know if I can actually do this job of directing, which is what I love to do.
Instead, I got the chance to come in and do this and see that it’s possible. I got to study seven months of a set and production where everyone was treated respectfully. It was also creatively exciting. It’s excellent and it can be done.
The stakes were so high, and there wasn’t a day when everybody didn’t feel that. But it just didn’t come out like, “I’m going to take the pressure and take the stress, and put it out in toxicity on other people.” That didn’t happen.
NFS: You were all in it together so to speak.
Paterson: Yeah, it really felt like that. It’s not to say there wasn’t stress, obviously.
NFS: Speaking of the challenges, were you aware of them finding their way through adding scenes with Carrie Fisher for example?
Paterson: There was an awful lot of conversation in prep about that and a lot of those scenes were shot quite early. They wanted to give themselves as much time as possible on the post end of it. They got into that material first. J.J. was close with Carrie, very close with Billie. It was very personal to him that this was done right. Very personal. It was the thing when we did the day one interview, on the Falcon, it was something that he was most aware of, like “I just want this to be right.”