Interview with Matthew Stover, author of Star Wars Revenge of the Sith.
Question: With Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas's monumental epic draws to a close, tying together the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy. How did you feel when you wrote the final lines of the novelization?
Matthew Stover: I was shaking, and I practically burst into tears -- but that probably had a lot to do with the book being about six weeks over deadline, and that I'd been writing twelve to sixteen hours a day, fueled by Hershey's dark-chocolate Kisses and vast quantities of coffee and tortilla chips!
Once the adrenaline rush had faded, the feeling was primarily one of tremendous satisfaction. Not only has Mr. Lucas succeeded in tying together the entire six-film cycle (and elegantly, too), but I've managed to weave in a significant amount of the Expanded Universe material in as well -- having started in the Star Wars realm as an EU author, after all. I was really trying to bring the whole Star Wars Universe together in this story, and while Mr. Lucas, in his line-edit, decided to excise a fair amount of the EU material, he also left a fair amount of it in... so I guess that makes whatever's left just a hair short of "G canon," for all the purists out there.
I also, as anyone who has read my Star Wars fiction -- really, any of my fiction -- knows, have an almost overwhelming desire to lead people to question their assumptions and preconceptions... to unsettle them a little bit. I think the film, when people really look at it and start thinking about what it means in the context of the entire Star Wars saga, will do exactly that. This is not just a cotton-candy movie. Which made writing the novel an intensely satisfying experience.
Q: Were you chosen to pen the novelization based on the positive reaction to your two other Star Wars books, Shatterpoint and Traitor?
MS: Well... I'm not sure that positive is exactly the word. "Strong" might describe it better. While it seems that most fans liked the books, there's a sizable chunk of fandom that can't stand me or my work -- in fact, I think they have a club...
The word I got through Del Rey is that LucasBooks thought I was the best writer to handle the darkness of this story. I mean, that's a lot of what I'm known for, after all: the psychological breakdown of characters under extreme moral pressure. After reading the script, I surmised that another reason they might have wanted me for this story is my reputation for having a... certain touch with personal combat -- because there is a buttload of fighting in this story. Am I allowed to say buttload?
Well, there's a lot. As I went along, I found myself struggling to figure out just how many different ways one can narratively evoke Jedi (and Sith!) in combat ... (It turns out there's a buttload of those, too, in case anyone's interested.)
Q: Did you work from a final script, or was the script evolving as you wrote? How much freedom did you have to improvise or fill in gaps in action and character motivation?
MS: I worked from the script as it stood at the close of principal photography, though there were some plot changes and rewrites that I had to adjust to as Mr. Lucas got into the process of editing and reshoots. I stuck to the script(s) as closely as I thought was appropriate for a novel; there are necessities in novels -- where someone can go back and read a transition again and take the time to think, "Hey, wait, what just happened here?" -- that in a film you can scream on past and leave people to figure out later. Mr. Lucas gave me a great deal of leeway in dealing with the dialogue and the details of this and that, as long as I didn't alter the sense of the action. The one place where I really had no freedom at all was in the characters' motivations: Mr. Lucas had an exceptionally clear idea of exactly why everyone was doing what, and he wasn't about to allow me to mess around with that even a little bit. After all, the "Why" is what this story is really about... and the funny thing was, there didn't turn out to be any gaps in motivation. It was all there: a real depth of human insight went into the creation of this story, as simple as its shiny surfaces might appear to some people. When I couldn't understand why someone was acting in a particular way at a particular time, it turned out that I just hadn't been looking deeply enough. In the end, it all turned out so clear -- and for me, anyway, so true -- that the character arcs have the same tragic inevitability as the mechanics of the plot. In a very real sense, they are the mechanics of the plot.
Q: When you met with George Lucas, what did the two of you discuss?
MS: Mostly what I talked about above. I went into the meeting with a list of very detailed questions about "What was Master So & So thinking when he...?" and "Why, exactly, would Anakin want to..." I had a list of questions from Jim Luceno, too, relating to Labyrinth of Evil, and so we managed to get into quite a bit of the direct backstory -- the details of the relationship between the Lords of the Sith and exactly how and why the Separatists had set up the operation we see played out in the opening minutes of the film. And, of course, we spent quite a bit of time talking about the specifics of Anakin's fall -- what, exactly, drives him over the edge, when it happens, and what has led him to it. And, of course, we had to talk a bit about the dark side...
Q: You mentioned bringing questions from Jim Luceno into your meeting with Mr. Lucas. How closely did the two of you work together on your respective books?
MS: We corresponded quite a bit. I needed to understand how he was going to portray the relationship between the Sith Lords, and some other details of the backstory, especially where Obi-Wan and Anakin had been and exactly what they'd been up to, and I showed him the Introduction (the section that fills in a bit more detail of what's covered in the film's opening crawl) I had written to Revenge, that sort of thing. Fortunately for me, Jim is such a professional craftsman that by the time I was polishing the climax of Act One, I had a full draft of Labyrinth to work from, to minimize continuity issues. As I said above, part of my aim here was to create a novel that would work as part of the EU as well as a companion piece to the film. In fact, I understand that Jim's follow-up will, in a sense, bookend Revenge to make it the pivot of an EU trilogy that begins in Labyrinth and ends in Dark Lord. I'm looking forward to it.
Q: The term "novelization" is used to describe your book, but perhaps it's more than that. A novelization is a film that has been, as it were, translated into book form; but your book, while faithful to the script of Revenge, goes beyond the mere transposition of one medium into another, which, sad to say, seems the fate of most novelizations.
MS: I was never interested in writing novelizations. I'm still not. Especially not for Star Wars. It's too important to me. I didn't set out to write a novelization so much as I tried to back-create, from Mr. Lucas's story and script, a novel as I think it might have been if he had been making the film based on it, rather than the other way around. I wanted it to be not just a good novelization, but a good novel. A great story on its own terms. You should remember that I started as a fanboy, many years ago; I saw A New Hope more than twenty times in the theater. I saw The Empire Strikes Back nearly thirty times. When I was writing Shatterpoint, I dropped in a little piece of my personal history, just for my own amusement: the numeric recognition code that Mace exchanges with the Halleck, translated into numbers, is -- to the best of my recollection -- the date I first saw ANH. It was, appropriately, a Saturday matinee. I was fifteen. I rode my bicycle to the theater...
This is the point: most novelizations are written under extreme time pressure. They hire writers who are good and fast -- and they have to be fast. Me, I'm not fast... but they didn't ask me to be. I got the script in December of 2003, and I turned in the novel in August of 2004 -- that's almost triple the amount of time given to the usual novelization. And we were still working rewrites and adjustments -- to smooth over changes Mr. Lucas was making in the film during editing, and to accommodate the changes he made in his line-edit of the novel -- all the way to the first of this year. Because everyone -- not just me, but Del Rey, LucasBooks, LFL and Mr. Lucas himself -- thinks Revenge of the Sith is important enough that the book should be as good as it can possibly be.
Q: What were Mr. Lucas's line-edits like? Was he a tough editor?
MS: Not tough so much as exceedingly detailed, though I suspect he would have been very tough indeed if I hadn't been quite so scrupulously faithful to the spirit of his story. I mean, he literally went over it word-by-word, even to the point of altering descriptives to adjust the characters' inflections. As I mentioned earlier, he trimmed a number of the EU references -- especially ones that harkened back to some of the older material that I'm guessing he'd rather not re-avow as part of Official Continuity, if you see what I mean. There was only one cut -- actually a series of cuts, of a continuing metaphor of which I had been particularly proud -- that surprised me (and, in fact, upset me; I don't mind telling you that this was the first time in my career that I've thrown an actual Full-Blown Diva Hissy-Fit, in a conference call with LucasBooks, howling that they go back and tell Mr. Lucas that "He just can't do this to My Book!"). The funny thing was that after I had calmed down -- and survived the migraine I'd given myself -- I realized that not only was Mr. Lucas right and I was wrong (in the sense that making this series of cuts tightened the book and cleaned up the thematic arc), but that doing it his way also brought into much clearer focus a powerful moral point... and I found I had been arguing against something I actually really agreed with. Oh, it was embarrassing!
Q: Many people see Star Wars as pure fantasy and escapism. But the books and movies seem incredibly relevant to the post-9/11 political situation in the U.S. Is this coincidental? Is there is a warning for us in the fate of the Republic?
MS: I guess the easiest way to answer this is to remind people that George Lucas is a serious filmmaker, who has always used the pop adventure of Star Wars to thoughtfully address Big Issues. Under all the flash and adventure of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, he managed to introduce into American popular culture -- into Western mass culture generally -- one of the most important and most difficult (for the Western mind) concepts in world thought. Even today, nearly thirty years later, people who have no concept of the Tao know instantly what you're talking about when you speak of the Force... When, in Return of the Jedi, the true victory comes not through the battle of the Rebel Alliance, but through Luke's renunciation of violence in the name of love -- does anyone still think that was an accident? So it comes down to this: I don't pretend to know Mr. Lucas's mind, but I sincerely doubt Palpatine's government was written to intentionally reflect our own. After all, this decay of democracy was laid down, in broad outline at least, thirty years go. If we see the echoes of Palpatine's rising tyranny happening around us today, it's because Mr. Lucas has, in Palpatine's rise, tapped the elemental nature of tyranny itself, just as Luke Skywalker tapped the elemental nature of youthful, idealistic adventure. So the answer is yes: there is a warning for us, and it's anything but coincidental -- but I don't think it's there because Mr. Lucas is trying to criticize anyone personally, or anything like that. Just the opposite. He's only telling the truth about power. If we see a reflection in America, it's because of what's out here with us, not what's in the films and the books.
Q: A lot of people see the dark side as the opposite of the Force, something antithetical to it: a black-and-white dichotomy like evil and good. What is your view of the dark side after writing three Star Wars novels? How has it evolved?
MS: All I can really say about this is that people need to remember it's the dark side of the Force, not the dark side and the Force. This is a crucial distinction. I could go into a great deal more detail -- after all, my understanding of the dark side was critical to both Traitor and Shatterpoint, and it was part of the reason I was hired to write Revenge, and I got a chance to chat about it a little with Mr Lucas -- however, due to the nature of the story, I'd prefer to just wait until people can read it for themselves. After all, in Revenge of the Sith, readers are going to get a look inside the heads of Sith Lords; you'll get to feel the dark side as they feel it, which makes it all a great deal more clear than just talking about it...
Q: One of the ironic things is that for all the talk of anger, fear, and hatred being the path to the dark side, what really does Anakin in is love.
Well, y'know, there's love and then there's love, if you know what I mean. There's a reason why anger, fear, and hatred are paths to the dark side: they all spring from a single source -- the same source as a certain flavor of love. A dangerously sweet, addictive flavor...
Q: If Anakin's purpose as the Chosen One, according to the Jedi prophecy, is to restore balance to the Force, then isn't he just fulfilling that prophecy by going over to the dark side and serving Palpatine? Isn't he simply doing what he was always meant to do, and doesn't this absolve him of responsibility for his actions?
MS: Huh. Tell it to the theologians. By that argument, Judas Iscariot shouldn't be in Hell. Perhaps more appropriately, in this case, you can also try to tell that to the Greek tragedians, since the Prequel trilogy has more in common with Greek tragedy. Oedipus is still guilty of each of his crimes, despite the fact that he didn't know they were crimes -- despite the fact that he was destined to commit them. We are responsible for what we do. Everything we do. Period. End of story. No excuses. Ever. In Anakin's case, it's even more clear: the prophecy says nothing about how he will bring balance to the Force. Without giving away anything (spoilers give me a rash), let me just say that there is more than one place in the story where Anakin has the chance to fulfill his destiny without falling. He chooses not to. But he doesn't exactly escape punishment for his crimes, either...
Anakin is the Chosen One, the most powerful Jedi ever. Yoda and Mace Windu are no slouches either. And later, of course, Luke Skywalker will resist the temptations of the dark side to which his father succumbed. What about Obi-Wan Kenobi? How does he stack up, in your opinion?
MS: I believe my opinion is made very clear in the text of Revenge. I believe, in fact, that it's not just my opinion. I believe that it's shared, at least to some degree, by Mr. Lucas himself -- seeing as how his line-edit left all references to it intact -- which makes it about as close to plain Star Wars fact as you can get. Want to know my opinion? Read the book.
Q: A lot of terrible things take place in Revenge. Beloved characters die, a hero becomes a villain, and tyranny rises from the ashes of democracy. What was the hardest scene for you to write, from an emotional standpoint, and why?
MS: There were a number of scenes that were extremely difficult for me; there are things in this story that are so shattering for the characters -- and thus, for me, since I'm writing from inside their heads -- that no words can possibly do justice to them. The only answer was an almost cinematic approach: to suggest the immensity of their pain through details of gesture and inflection. The hardest scenes for me -- ones that I still can't think about without choking up a little, though I can't offer any specifics -- were the ones where Obi-Wan learns the truth...
Q: Do you have a favorite Star Wars movie?
My favorite film has always been The Empire Strikes Back. Though, from what I've seen of Revenge of the Sith, that may very possibly change...
Q: What about a favorite character?
MS: Obi-Wan. Always has been (though Han runs a close second). I was a fan of Alec Guinness already -- he was part of the reason I went to see A New Hope in the first place. And his performance... that scene where he gives Anakin's lightsaber to Luke and tells him of the Jedi Knights of old... well, y'know, I'm aware of what Sir Alec thought of the Star Wars films, and I don't hold it against him. He was perfect. Obi-Wan Kenobi will always be my image of what a Jedi Knight is supposed to be.