Ron Howard’s Willow remains one of Lucasfilm’s best, most underappreciated efforts. In a moviemaking landscape where reboots, remakes, and sequels dominate corporate and commercial interest, original stories comprise a precious minority of studio output. With that in mind, you’d think a Willow follow-up would have been a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t until last month, however, that writer and “Lucasfilm legacy character” Jonathan Kasdan brought the sequel to the 1988 classic to life.
The surname ‘Kasdan’ should ring many bells for sci-fi/fantasy fans. Jonathan’s father, Lawrence Kasdan, co-wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back (and other winners), an achievement that has endeared him to genre fans for decades.
Kasdan’s sequel series teems with characters and personalities that reflect a modern sensibility. It’s fun as hell, too. There’s action, monsters, and aplenty, but there’s also humour, heart, and an attention to detail that longtime fans will appreciate. Kasdan himself is a massive fan of the original Willow, making him a perfect fit for this project.
STARBURST recently sat down with Kasdan to discuss showrunning the Willow sequel series, wax poetic about the brilliance of Warwick Davis, and tease the possibility of a second season.
STARBURST: When you first started developing the Willow series, which elements of the original stuck out as must-haves in the sequel, and which ones were a bit less important or less vital to this particular story?
Jonathan Kasdan: Well, I was in love with the character of Willow. I thought that was the most important thing. I was in love with the character of Madmartigan. I knew those two were the reason that I wanted to do this. I knew that sort of in the absence of having Val, there needed to be something that could fill that space, but it couldn’t be a clone of Val, and you can’t recast Madmartigan ever. That’s undoable, and particularly while using Warwick. So we needed to fill that space, and the sort of answer we came up with was, what if we could surround him with some different kinds of characters that were as unusual to fantasy and as sort of irreverent as Madmartigan himself was in 1988? And that’s sort of what we’ve tried to do in filling out this group around him.
And then the other element of it that I was committed to keeping because it meant so much to me was the darkness and the scariness of the world, was the sense that once you went out there, you were in real danger from all manner of beasts and evil. So I wanted to keep the flavour of the movie and the story of Willow, Sorsha, and Madmartigan alive, but really focus the new series on Elora Danan and how she could evolve as a heroine in the tradition of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter and so many great magicians-in-training.
Absolutely! One of the things that really stuck out in the first episode was the establishment of a mystery that the series really didn’t have to go with. “Which one of these new characters is Elora Danan?”
Yeah, that was how we wanted to design it, and there’s a great tradition in fairytales and in these myths of characters not knowing their full power, which is a metaphor for teenage years anyway. It’s sort of governing who you are and what you’re capable of, and we wanted to make that a very literal story here. And the way we came at it was this Three-card Monte game of who’s it going to be? And from the word go, you want your savvy audience member to think, “Well, it’s going to be one of these three. Which one is it?” And in Ruby and Erin and Ellie, we found the perfect three women to play that game with. And then they each ended up sort of taking on their own real significances as characters and as sort of the three pillars of this fellowship, if you will.
The new characters are excellent, and we love what you said about Madmartigan being kind of a ballsy character in many ways, and that a lot of these new characters rebel against their archetypes in really, really cool ways.
Absolutely. Well, that’s a beautiful way of saying it, and exactly as intended, is that you want to take… And it’s not because of any bent except that we’ve reached a cultural moment where we’ve seen these stories so many times. You’re sort of just eager to see variations on how the Tarot deck is sort of lined up a little bit. At least I am. And it’s funny, as the reaction to the show has sort of happened over the last four or five days, you see that certain people are very enthusiastic about the idea of mixing up that Tarot deck, and other people are very offended by the idea of mixing up that Tarot deck, and it’s a great kind of… I sort of respect it all in a way, because it has an element of… You see the depth of people’s love for these stories and the kind of things that they’re passionate about and the kind of things that they’re open to, and it’s all sort of across the map.
It’s got that epic flavour to it, but it’s got characters that you cannot see anywhere else.
Yes, and I think that’s part of the magic of Star Wars too. It’s like he did something in the genre that no one had quite done before. And it does have a… I mean, he cast Mark Hamill in the lead role. It’s like, did you get a more California incarnation of a hero than that? And then he continued that tradition with Willow, I think, in a really nice way that sort of merges classical Tolkien elements with this much more contemporary, hip and, frankly, sexy worldview that doesn’t exist in Tolkienverse at all.
I think the lesson that my father gleaned from working with George Lucas as a young man… my dad’s interests were always in noir and darker, more complicated stories. But his career started working with Steven and George on Empire, Raiders, and Jedi. The sweetness and the heart that’s in all those movies really rubbed off on him in his career and then rubbed off on us as his kids, and there’s a real lineage to that, and I hope that that’s infused in this thing, but it’s certainly a humanity that comes from George in a very direct way.
This is more of a comment than a question, but it’s really cool that you have all these legacy characters in here, these new faces filling old roles, and that it’s meta in a way, because in Lucasfilm’s history, you’re a legacy character.
That’s the other big theme, I think, in all of George’s work is this generational struggle and these father figures and how we sort of reconcile the legacies of our parents a little bit, and for me, that’s always been a hilarious and ironic element of my relationship to this whole brand is that I’m sort of the archetypal guy wrestling with the legacy of his previous generations.
You add layers to Willow’s character that’s really special, where in the process did those layers came into play? Because there’s a moment where he casts a spell. And you can see all this uncertainty, and you can see this fear on his face because he’s been underestimated his entire life. Even Sorsha earlier in the series says, “You’re not the greatest ever.”
Totally. Well, I’ll tell you, one thing from the movie that I always loved and really stuck with me is that when he’s trying to transform Fin Raziel into her human form, you see he does this amazing thing where it has a physical toll on him, and at the end, he sort of clutches his arm in pain, and it was something I at least at eight had never seen done with magic before, where someone is actually… It made sense to me almost, dare I say, on a scientific physics level, that to give someone this much power would cost a person something. And that was one of the elements of the magic in Willow I always sort of loved and thought, “Well, okay, so if we’re going to revisit this character 20 years down the road, the physical toll of that would only be increased by age and weariness with the world.”
And I’ve certainly seen that in the filmmakers that I’ve known growing up beyond just my father, frankly, but the failures and the disappointments take their toll, and increasingly the idea of making a big movie becomes harder and more of a lift, and I thought there was a great metaphor for that in Willow, in that he has to manage his power and preserve it, conserve it for when he’s going to need it the most, and that he has this vision that he’s going to have to do a lot, and that he doesn’t have quite enough strength to do was always sort of built into it. And I liked the idea that the others were sort of doubtful of him early on, and then we get a cathartic demonstration of what he can do when he’s upset.
And Warwick Davis does such a great job.
Yeah, and that’s something that is really authentic for Warwick, to be perfectly honest with you. It’s that he’s got… It’s not as easy as it was when he was 17, and he does feel the physical tolls of life and of being a little person and of all this, and of how hard he’s worked his whole life, and he brought a lot of that to the character, along with all his energies and enthusiasms and comedic genius, and I do think it deepens what Willow is in a meaningful way.
Absolutely. It’s been a joy watching him add even more depth to the role. Any update on the possibility of a Season Two?
As soon as I’m done with you, I go back into a room full of writers, it’s not so much that we’ve been given a Season Two as that these things take so much planning that in order to be ready for a Season Two, they’re facilitating me going off and breaking it out, so yeah, we have a real plan for where we’d like to go, and hopefully… I think you’ll find, and maybe we’ll talk again when you do, that when you see where it ends up in episode eight, it’s very much designed for the story to continue and for Elora’s journey to go to new and more exciting places.
Willow is now streaming on Disney+.