Top 5 This Week

Related Posts

Here's What Directing a Star Wars Movie Is Really Like

It’s hard to imagine a set that inspires more fan curiosity (read: obsession) than that of a Star Wars movie. It’s similarly hard to think of a place more mythically full of outre science fiction gadgetry, byzantine worldbuilding, and celebrated history. The franchise has spanned four decades, 11 films, six television shows, and scads of novelizations, comics, videogames, and theme park attractions. Its net worth is in the billions, and the universe is likely to keep growing long, long after your lifetime.

Yet, unless you’re a member of the cast or crew (or Kevin Smith), chances are you have no idea what actually happens on those notoriously closed and secretive sound stages and locations. Victoria Mahoney does. As Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’s second unit director, and the first woman to ever hold the megaphone on a Star Wars movie, Mahoney got to experience all of it. Now that the movie is out, Mahoney—who’s been a writer, producer, actor, and director (Grey’s Anatomy, I Am the Night, her indie film Yelling to the Sky)—can finally talk about it.

Or rather, she can talk about the parts of it she remembers. Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams reached out to offer her the gig personally after getting her name from Ava DuVernay. When Abrams called, Mahoney—understandably—lost her mind a little. “He was wonderful and straightforward and respectful and got right to it,” she says. “But a lot of our first chat is blurry because when he said ‘Star Wars,’ I went into a geek out.”

Mahoney arrived at the set of The Rise of Skywalker early, just as they were opening the doors and unlocking the offices at the massive Pinewood Studios. She got to shadow cinematographer Dan Mindel and crew members working on puppets and testing lights and doing all the mundanities that go into making magic long before jumping behind the camera herself. So, from a person who very much oughta know, here’s what you experience while directing a Star Wars movie.

Being on a Star Wars Set Never Gets Old

If you thought even space opera scenery would get humdrum after seeing it all day, every day for months, think again. “I can tell you with my whole soul that every time we went to a new location, or we walked onto a different sound stage, I had the same feeling as when I walked onto the first one: ‘Hoooly shit,’” Mahoney says. “You’d hear everyone whispering through the crowd, ‘I love this set.’ [As a director,] what’s fun was finding how to celebrate each crew’s set and all the little, teeny hidden Easter eggs they tell you about. It was like a really great Rubik’s cube. You had to really study them.” Getting her to pick a favorite was difficult, but she settled on Ajan Kloss, the jungle planet where the rebels make their base. “The height and the scale was really something to see. A ship inside a soundstage! The crew had built a forest! There were so many places for really delicious shots and story points to be discovered.”

You Have to Capture the Real in the Imaginary

The concepts on a Star Wars film are pretty fantastical territory, but for Mahoney making sure it all felt grounded meant following a simple principle: each moment had to feel truthful, whether it takes place while standing on the Millennium Falcon or in front of a speeder that’s about to race between dunes under stormtrooper fire or next to a Jedi who’s about to make an impossible flying Force jump. “Star Wars is a delivery device for imagination,” Mahoney says. “When we’re going out to shoot something that we perceive as abnormal, the plausibility doesn’t come from some cool gestures. It’s ‘What would I feel as someone leaping through the fucking sky?’”

The Most Iconic Shots Are Also the Most Complicated

Star Wars films contain few easy shots, but the hardest ones to capture are likely the images fans will remember best. “I think the stuff that would shock people the most is the amount of time and detail it takes to just get something as simple as a shot where there is a creature, a human, and a lightsaber,” Mahoney says. “There’s so much math on just the geography where they’re standing.” Often, scenes like that (like, maybe, capers with Babu Frik or Rey among the Aki-Aki on the desert planet Pasaana) would nearly run out of time, filling whole days with coverage shot after coverage shot. “When you have just enough time in the day to go once more and it finally comes together, there’s no better feeling in the world,” Mahoney says.

There’s No Negotiating With a Sandstorm

Desert scenes on the planet Pasaana brought the crew to Jordan, which Mahoney loved, but also created the toughest 72 hours of her Star Wars experience, thanks to a violent and relentless sandstorm. “We thought of all kinds of crazy stuff, but Mother Nature always wins, and there was nothing in the world that was going to stop the event that was occurring in a way that we could get the [necessary] shots,” Mahoney says. All they could do was make like Han and Luke on Hoth: hunker down and wait (though thankfully not inside a tauntaun). “I got a piece of sand stuck on the inside of my eyelid. When the crew went back to London, we still had sand in the inner creases of our ears,” Mahoney says. “It’s funny now. Wasn’t funny then.” Still, the sandswept team felt very accomplished when they finally got what they needed.

Hollywood Has a Long, Long Way to Go

Mahoney exudes genuine respect, admiration, and gratitude for Abrams and everyone else she worked with on Rise of Skywalker, but she does acknowledge that on every set, she finds at least one person convinced she’s a diversity hire. “The worst part is that I’m robbed of my learning curve,” Mahoney says. It also isn’t easy being a perennial pioneer, a role she never sets out to play. “People always say, ‘Isn’t it so exciting?’ It’s outrageously exciting, but I’ll allow that it’s a bittersweet experience,” Mahoney adds. “It’s loaded with the weight of all the women who were more talented than me and waited for that phone call and never got it.” That weight doesn’t just fall on the Star Wars universe. As Mahoney says, “No franchise is outshining anybody. It’s the entire industry that has been missing the beat. Or misses the beat. That verb is present tense.”

Clarification (January 9, 2020, 3:50 PM PT): This article has been updated to clarify how long it takes to shoot complex scenes.

More Great WIRED StoriesWhere the 5G data storm will hit first12 science books you should read right nowThe two myths of the internetHow to get the most out of (or into) your robot vacuumMeet the activists risking prison to film VR in factory farms👁 Will AI as a field "hit the wall" soon? Plus, the latest news on artificial intelligence💻 Upgrade your work game with our Gear team’s favorite laptops, keyboards, typing alternatives, and noise-canceling headphonesMost PopularScienceWatch Neuralink’s First Human Subject Demonstrate His Brain-Computer Interface

Emily Mullin

Backchannel8 Google Employees Invented Modern AI. Here’s the Inside Story

Steven Levy

SecurityHackers Found a Way to Open Any of 3 Million Hotel Keycard Locks in Seconds

Andy Greenberg

GearThe Omega x Swatch Snoopy MoonSwatch Has Landed

Jeremy White

Popular Articles