When The Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams figured out how to include the late Carrie Fisher in the final installment of the Skywalker saga, he felt he “suddenly had found the impossible answer to the impossible question.” Painstakingly stitching cut scenes from The Force Awakens into this new Star Wars installment, Abrams could bring out an entire performance from Fisher as General Leia—allowing her to live again on-screen in a way that, Abrams hoped, would be a comfort for her fans. And, much to Abrams’s surprise, it was a valuable process for her daughter, Billie Lourd, who plays one of Leia’s lieutenants, and opposite her mother, in new scenes in The Rise of Skywalker. “I purposely had written her character in scenes without Carrie, because I just didn’t want it to be uncomfortable for her,” Abrams says. Instead, he recalls, Lourd told him, “I want to be in scenes with her. I want it for my children when I have kids. I want them to see.”
Abrams calls the process of digging out Fisher’s performance a “bizarre kind of left side/right side of the brain sort of Venn diagram thing, of figuring out how to create the puzzle based on the pieces we had.” The Rise of Skywalker team wrote scenes around the existing Fisher footage, and shot other angles, matched lighting, and put together a finished product “as if we were doing a re-shoot and doing someone’s side, which happens all the time.”
Due to this careful digital patchwork that nonetheless leaves Fisher’s full human performance untouched, Leia’s integration into the film is so complete, she physically interacts with some of the other characters in The Rise of Skywalker. The film’s teaser reveals Leia tenderly embracing Daisy Ridley’s Rey. “You see it in that scene with her hugging,” Abrams says. “And it’s like she gets to be in this movie where we would have wanted this moment.”
Abrams says there are also moments in the film in which we’ll see Fisher’s Leia and Lourd’s Lt. Connix talking and touching as well. In some instances, Abrams says, Lourd became overwhelmed during filming. “She would get emotional and sort of have to excuse herself for a minute,” he recalls. “I know it was hard for her for a while.”
A digitally de-aged Leia made a poorly received cameo at the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which was released weeks before Fisher’s death in 2016. As a result, Abrams and Lucasfilm are particularly sensitive that the digital artistry involved in incorporating Leia into The Rise of Skywalker not distract from what will likely be Fisher’s final on-screen performance. “I hope when people see it, they are not thinking about that,” Abrams says. “Of course, some will, but I think it’s one of those things. It sort of goes away after a moment, because it’s not quite a magic trick; it’s sort of more of a trick of editing.”
It does seem fitting for this version of Fisher to return to a franchise already populated with Force ghosts like Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Yoda, who appear to impart wisdom and emotional closure to the next generation. “There is an element of the uncanny, spiritual, you know,” Abrams says. “Classic Carrie, that it would have happened this way, because somehow it worked. And I never thought it would.”
They wrote an entire story around her footage.
Goddamn right they did.