It’s a question all Star Wars fans have been asking since the tragic death of Carrie Fisher last month: “How big a deal is this going to be for the finale of the current trilogy?” Unfortunately, it’s a really big deal. A movie (yes, even a Star Wars movie) next to the life of a person is nothing at all, but Leia is going be the largest part of her acting legacy. I don’t think it’s out of line for fans to be concerned for the future of Leia, for in our concern for the character, we’re also safeguarding Fisher’s decades-long investment in the character.
We do not know much at all about the plot of Episode VIII (the first teaser for the film is rumored to be attached to the Super Bowl, so we may know more soon), let alone Episode IX. Rian Johnson, who also directed Episode VIII, wrote the screenplays for both Episode VIII and Episode IX. He, Episode IX‘s director, Colin Treverrow, Kathleen Kennedy, and the Lucasfilm braintrust are meeting to try to figure out what exactly they plan to do about Leia in Episode IX. Since Star Wars fans are exceedingly spoiler sensitive, bail now if you want to know nothing, but these are more logical narrative progressions than they are spoilers.
Leia has a much larger role in Episode VIII than her limited time in The Force Awakens, but she was to have an even bigger role in Episode IX. Her character arc, whatever it may be, is not resolved in the next film. Just from the events of Episode VII, we know logically she has two big moments pending: her reunion with her brother, Luke, and confronting her son, Ben. We’re not sure if these moments take place in VIII or IX, but the expansion of her role in IX would seem to indicate that at least one (probably the showdown with Ben) would wait for the finale. If her story was mostly resolved and she was to have a minor part in the film, Lucasfilm would have a lot more options than they do with her as a tent pole character in the final film of this trilogy. Having stepped two films down a narrative road, it’s going to be very difficult to write around whatever conclusion her arc originally had in IX. So what exactly can they do with Episode IX, which is already in pre-production and scheduled (before Fisher’s death) to begin filming in Spring or Fall 2017, depending on which source you believe?
CGI – Those who have seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story know by now that it contains a groundbreaking performance by Peter Cushing who has been dead since 1994 (making it all the more impressive). The use of the late actor’s likeness was approved by his family, and essentially a CGI model of his form was mapped on to actor Guy Henry (who also provided an uncannily accurate vocal performance). The combination works so well that most people who don’t know Peter Cushing passed away over 20 years ago are shocked to learn he’s a CGI character after seeing the film. The same technique was also used for one scene with Leia, which I don’t think worked as well, but it was necessary to bridge the film with A New Hope.
Tarkin worked because, not to pick on Peter Cushing or the Brits, but he basically looked like a cadaver back in 1977 when he filmed A New Hope, and the stiff, military manner of the character works well to hide any hitches with the CGI. Leia is the polar opposite. She’s a character of fierce emotion, and those two scenes-her with Luke and her confronting Ben/Kylo-are going to be hugely emotionally charged scenes. I do not think CGI tech is capable of rendering that level of performance in a human (YET, wait, it’s coming). Andy Serkis has wrung astonishing performances from CGI characters, but Gollum and Caesar don’t have to look like a 60-year old human woman blending seamlessly with the other actors onscreen. Unless they find some way to reduce her role to a very brief appearance, and I don’t see how that’s possible with Episode VIII essentially done, then I think you can forget this as an option.
Write Her Out – As we’ve covered, Episode IX is the finale of a character arc that’s been constructed over two finished films. Her relationship with Luke and Ben are so integral to however things end, that I do not think you can off her in the crawl or blow up a ship she’s on in the opening of the film. Disney’s set the bar sky-high for quality, and this may be their biggest test as to how to logistically proceed, but unless Rian Johnson has a miracle script fix or they see an option I don’t (very possible, I’m only one man, people), I think they’re faced with an unpleasant but necessary evil.
Recast Leia – I KNOW. I get it. No one is ever going to be Leia except Carrie Fisher, but in the situation they’re in, the closest parallel is with the Harry Potter films and the death of Richard Harris. Writing out Dumbledore was absolutely not an option (though they were much earlier in their story at the time of his death), so Michael Gambon was brought on to replace him and there’s an awful lot of beard to hide that character behind so it wasn’t tremendously jarring. Recasting Leia can’t help but be whiplash after having Carrie Fisher in Episodes IV – VIII, and then a new face for the finale will be, but I don’t see another option.
I can’t imagine anyone who would want to take on having to strike a balance between emulating Fisher and delivering her own performance, but that will be Lucasfilm’s burden to find and cast perfectly as they have for every role since the Disney Star Wars era began.
It’s surprising how few parallels there are to draw between the situation Lucasfilm now faces and past film history, but it’s something that I think is bound to become an increasing coda to the tragedy of losing a beloved actor. It’s one thing to face the situation that Ridley Scott did during the filming of Gladiator with the death of Oliver Reed, or figuring out how to finish a few scenes and close out a character with rewrites as The Fast and the Furious group had to do when Paul Walker was killed in an automobile accident during the filming of the series’ seventh installment. It’s another thing entirely to lose a key cast member in the midst of an ongoing saga. But, in the age of franchises, when Marvel is signing cast members to 10-film deals, and other franchises try to secure their casts by locking them down in multi-picture deals, it’s only a matter of time before this happens again. God forbid, if Robert Downey Jr. were to pass tomorrow, Marvel would be faced with how to close out Tony Stark/Iron Man’s storyline without an equally iconic actor to finish what was started. How Lucasfilm handles the rest of Leia’s story may be the blueprint for whatever future tragedies may befall all franchises.
This information comes from an article from The Hollywood Reporter, the crux of which I’ve included below:
THR notes that two key scenes involving Fisher’s character were planned for the remaining two episodes, including a reunion with her brother, Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, and a confrontation with her son, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. The outlet is unsure about which of the two films these scenes will take place in, but they do report Leia was supposed to have an even bigger role in Episode IX than in Episode VIII, which itself was said to be bigger than her role in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens.