The newest entry in the Star Wars universe, Obi-Wan Kenobi, was dropped surprisingly early on Disney+. The series is set between the prequels and the original trilogy, and while its conclusion is still mysterious we do know it will see the return of both Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan, and Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker-turned-Darth Vader.
I spoke with series’ scribe Joby Harold about capturing these characters’ updated voices, the best part of writing the series, the progress of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, and more.
Originally Obi-Wan Kenobi had a bit of a troubled history and then you were brought on to retool it. Can you tell me about that process?
Joby Harold: Well, you know, I think its history wasn’t anything other than […] wanting to get it right. I’ve certainly worked with many things where they’ve had long histories where it’s just… it takes a while sometimes to find the story that you want to tell, and have the right team behind it that share that vision for what it could be. And I think that some brilliant people had already contributed some brilliant ideas to the story, and for whatever reason [it] just hadn’t come together yet.
I was lucky enough to be the right man at the right time be able to take some of what I’d inherited from previous talents, and sort of see our way through to what that story could be in lockstep with Deb Chow, who had such a clear vision for what it could be as well. And just kind of pull it all together and say, you know, ‘here’s a story, here’s what character could go, here’s an arc, here’s a journey, here’s the right time to tell the story.’ So it was a lot of good work before I came on board, that certainly contributed to everything that we achieved.
What can you tell me about the sort of the new direction and how you worked with Lucasfilm to shape it?
JH: There’s only so much I can say, but to me there’s a difference between respect and reverence, and the pressure on telling the story can result in a fear of being too ambitious. That can be problematic, especially with a legacy character, and there’s so much expectation around that story. So a lot of it was asking yourself as a fan what you want to see, and what you hope for, and… when I was seeing where they were, anytime I felt disappointed that was a flag to me. ‘Well, why am I? What’s up?’ Why am I feeling angered here or frustrated here, or whatever it was.
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A lot of it was just finding the patience and the story, and trusting that the character is interesting enough, and that this time in the character’s life is compelling enough in and of itself without needing to add too many bells and whistles beyond that, but just to try and find a story that felt organic to where Obi-Wan Kenobi would be 10 years after we last saw him, nine or 10 years before we will see him again, in a very specific emotional moment in the arc of that character. [It’s] sort of the keystone moment when he has to reconcile that which came before, and the prequels, and become everything he needs to be for the original trilogy to take hold as it did.
That’s just a really interesting time, and [it took] having faith that that story, in that moment, in that character’s life was compelling enough, and then finding anything to build out around that that reinforced it. That part of his arc was just sort of… let’s clear everything else away and just look at the simplicity of that, and then build on top of that. So there are elements in there that hopefully aren’t anticipated, but hopefully each of those elements reinforce that central idea.
We’re all excited to see McGregor returned to the role, I certainly am, and his interpretation of character, (obviously building off Guinness) has such a youthful voice. He’s older here, but how did you capture his interpretation as that character?
JH: It’s a great question. I think it’s… he’s my favorite, well, one of my favorite pieces of casting that there has been within the Star Wars universe. He was just so good in the prequels that it continued to hold my fascination through the entire prequel experience, I just couldn’t take my eyes off of that character and what Ewan was doing with it, and how he would evolve him each time in each movie.
I was a big Trainspotting fan, so he’s punk rock casting for me, I was like, what is happening? Ewan McGregor’s gonna be Obi-Wan? Yes! Fantastic, especially when you juxtapose that with Liam, that’s brilliant, just so good and so on point as a piece of casting. Then watching him with the look of the character, and the choices he was making, the choices George was making. Really get into the stepping-stones towards what Sir Alec Guinness was going to do… taking some of that punk rock, that rock and roll […] but also always keeping the twinkle in the eye… [that] is what Ewan is just extraordinary at. He has a relationship with the audience just as an actor, and why he’s so loved, holding on to that little twinkle was so important, because that’s Ewan.
If you look at what Sir Alec Guinness is doing, it sort of reframes your opinion of his performance having seen Ewan, because you see a twinkle in what he’s doing. Where that had maybe once felt more avuncular or more just kind of, like, a patient grandfather, now it nods to the memory of Ewan jumping up and down in Phantom Menace wanting to get into it to help Qui-Gon, now you see it in a different way.
So that bridge performance-wise, and finding that giving Ewan those opportunities, I wanted to give everyone a blaster right from the beginning. […] It’s the notion of… he’s still got a little bit of that spirit, and that hustle, and he’s a guy on the run, a stranger in a strange land and he’s trying to survive. He’s not the graceful Zen warrior, yet. He’s still making his way through […] and that’s Ewan, and that’s trying to find those moments where you can see that whilst also giving him a stepping-stone towards the guy he’s going to be who we just know so well. That was the challenge, but also the opportunity.
I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of that answer, he’s got such charisma on screen, and I just love everything he’s in.
JH: I 100% agree. I could just sit and watch him on a monitor, just watch him make tea.
He’s so great.
JH: He’s amazing. Right now he’s doing Expedia commercials, or he’s doing… some commercial. That’s on, and I’m watching things with my kids, and instantly I’m ‘Yes. Okay, whatever it is. I’ll buy. I’ll go wherever you told me to. Yes.’
This is also Hayden Christensen’s return as Anakin / Darth Vader. How did you interpret his character and where it is in this series?
JH: As with Obi Wan, you can’t tell the story of one without the other, they are linked so intimately in all that, they’re shared so many scenes together and their relationship is so clear. The story hadn’t finished being told between the two of them, and you can’t tell the Obi-Wan story without Anakin…. [Hayden] really did do some wonderful things with that character when you go back and look at it, and just look at his performance and his understanding of the physicality of that character.
It’s really compelling to imagine where he would then be, again, as a stepping-stone between where he was and the silhouette villain of Episode IV. And he’s such a brilliant guy, and so aware of the importance of that character, and he is also… you know, I have three boys, three sons, and they love the Prequels and it’s Anakin’s story. This whole thing is Anakin’s story, so from that point of view he’s massively important.
Anakin and Hayden, as much as Ewan and Obi-Wan coming out of the Prequels, are the same thing. Hayden, all day long, understands that character, has sat with that character, birthed that character on many levels, and I’m super excited for people to see him again in that world where we all met him. He’s a lovely chap, and he deserves to get to play with that character.
I really look forward to seeing him return to the character. Is there anything that you can tell me that you haven’t told someone yet?
JH: Um, I’m a Sagittarius? … honestly, I can’t remember what I said. That’s a really funny question. I love the notion of being able to seize the opportunity and, like, being desperate to say something, but probably the most fun thing about doing this is those gaps that you find where you get to add something that isn’t canon, or isn’t carrying the weight of responsibility of connecting dots between the past and the future. But where there’s a gap and a moment and a scene and a corridor, and you go down where you decide what’s on the other end of the corridor.
No one else you can decide if it’s a droid, what kind of character it will be, a creature, you can use your choice, and when that happens you get to name it. You get to decide, and you’re contributing to canon as you’re doing it. If you are a geek as I am, that is tremendously exciting because you’re aware that you’re putting pieces on the board that have never been there before. When you do that, they become more than just functional, they become hopefully compelling as a character by themselves. You think, ‘oh, man, I just added something to the bigger conversation.’ And then maybe in 20 years time, somebody else will do a movie or TV show, and that character will pop up, and you’ll know that. Naming some of the characters was the most fun, I’d be sitting at the kitchen table with my family and talking to my boys and it’s great.
People love the Star Wars franchise names, they’re so creative.
JH: They really are fun, especially when I have personal Easter Eggs hidden in the show that only mean things to me.
I love that. I wanted to ask you while I have you, I’m excited about Rise of the Beasts, the new Transformers film. Are there any updates there that you can give me?
JH: It was a really fun opportunity, because that was also something where they didn’t really know what was going on and didn’t really have a sense of what to do, or weren’t really sure about directions they were going in, and I got to sort of say what I would do and, again, was lucky enough to get traction with that, especially to build something from the ground up. Bumblebee had gotten a lot of good favor, which I think the franchise deserves, and it had become more emotional and Christina had done such great work on that.
It was really sort of building on that goodwill, the spirit of the audience’s relationship with the character again, and then saying, ‘okay, well, what can come next to continue that goodwill, but then open us up a little bit on a slightly wider temporal scale, so that the franchise could continue to capture the audience’s imagination?’ It had gone so far, way, way beyond Shia in his bedroom… how do we capture some of the spirit of, what to me was always defined by ‘robots in disguise,’ the thing that, when my kids walk down the street, the idea that they can look sideways at a car… that was what was missing. That was the thing I really loved.
So yeah, just getting to build that up, build that out, find the right time to set it to capture the spirit of what was cool about that franchise, and those toys, and cartoons and stuff was the fun of it. I’m crossing my fingers that whatever that thing was that resonated for me when I first was sort of thinking about it that way will be captured for the audience. I’m excited, it’s another big fun one.
Absolutely. I look forward to seeing that too. As a fellow writer, I have to ask you about your writing process.
JH: When I was younger, I used to write through the night. I think that was probably because I thought it was super cool… it turns out it’s just super stupid, so I don’t do that anymore. Now I write sort of a 9-to-5 way. Unless I’m on deadlines, and then it’ll change. On Star Wars it was almost a year-and-a-half’s worth of writing, so a really, really long process, a lot of outlines. Just went on and on and on. At one point I wrote, I think, 34 hours straight without sleep, which was, you know, the standard hallucinating at, like, hour 18.
You start hallucinating ghosts in the room. I used to think of it as this sort of dramatic thing to do to, you know, like smoke through the night. And now I just try and keep it 9-to-5, try and spend as much time with my family as I can balance it, and that I’ve found my writing has gotten better. I have, as I’ve gotten older, gotten slower, but hopefully not because I’m an old man but because I know what doesn’t work. So you know, when you’re younger you just kind of throw anything at the wall and say ‘what do you think?’ And now the process is much longer just because, hopefully by the time I have the script, now it’s at a stage where it’s a very viable movie.
I’ve had I think three or four first drafts greenlit, which I was really proud of because they’re a first draft I’m handed in, but it’s my, like, 12th draft. So I really believe in kind of like the incubation period of stress-testing something within the privacy of your own writing room before anyone’s [looking]. A lot of bright young writers I think just kind of spit stuff out, and onto the next, and I think it’s worth working towards something that feels complete.