[Spoiler warning: This interview discusses events from the first seven episodes of the Disney+ show Willow.]
If you’ve noticed references to Star Wars and other Lucasfilm-adjacent properties like Raiders Of The Lost Ark in the first season of Willow, that’s no accident. From training montages to drinking contests, those callbacks and shout-outs are there as much for the amusement of showrunner Jonathan Kasdan as for the fans. It’s fitting, since it was on the set of a Star Wars film that his Willow series really started to come together.
Kasdan co-wrote the script for Solo: A Star Wars Story along with his father, Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi for George Lucas back in the day). While working on Solo, the younger Kasdan had a chance to collaborate with three of the main players from the original Willow film: producer George Lucas, director Ron Howard, and star Warwick Davis. Kasdan took advantage of that direct access to pitch the idea that eventually became an updated version of Willow for a new generation.
Now that first season is about to conclude, we can share this exclusive A.V. Club interview with Kasdan in which he talks about his favorite parts of the show, its various Lucasfilm influences, and how the show’s DNA comes through in many different ways.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been putting yourself out there all season as an evangelist for this show, doing lots of interviews and press. This really is your brainchild.
Jonathan Kasdan: I really have. it’s mainly because from the word go I’ve been fighting to make it happen and excited to finally get to share it with the world. Because I do think I was working with rich and potent materials and I’m excited for everyone to see that.
AVC: Willow came out in 1988, but didn’t have the same lasting cultural impact as something like The Princess Bride, which came out the year before. Is that one of the things that made this ripe for a reboot?
JK: That was a big part of the appeal for me, because I thought, well, here’s Lucasfilm, which is one of the great entertainment brands in history. And you associate it so clearly with the silhouette of Indiana Jones and the vision of Darth Vader and the lightsaber. And these things have become perhaps the biggest imaginary cultural touchstones of our lives. And yet here’s this third thing that is sort of forgotten. It sort of disappeared in the annals of history a little bit. And that’s why the episodes start with this old dusty book, and it seemed like such a specific and important way in. Like, here’s a lost story that we could pick up.
AVC: There’s obviously the George Lucas connection between Star Wars and Willow, but having worked on Star Wars yourself you have that connection too. Is that part of why you felt you were the person to bring Willow back?
JK: One of the challenges of those properties is always like, well, so many of the things that you would love to do with those stories have been done and gone. And we’ve seen, you know, every kind of environment in Star Wars. And then Andor came out. I think part of the genius of Andor for me is that Tony [Gilroy] made a discovery about it that wouldn’t have even occurred to me, which is that the undiscovered country of Star Wars was this maturity, and was the kind of storytelling maturity that it had never seen before. And then instead of trying to create a new, bigger action sequence or a planet that looked different from any other planet, he was going for a sophistication in narrative and in emotion that no one had ever attempted here before. And that’s, for me, why it’s the most important piece of Star Wars to come along in a long time. This is a different kind of thing, but, you know, if you’re not burdened with any of those things there’s so much freedom to take it where you want to go.
AVC: Speaking of Lucasfilm, is there a keeper of the lore for Willow in the same way you have people who keep track of the Star Wars universe?
JK: Yes, and it’s the same person. It’s Pablo Hidalgo, who’s really been a close ally of mine from day one working on Solo, but has written—and I’m hoping will eventually release—an encyclopedia of the Willow-verse. And that has much more information than I’ve been able to contain in at least the first season of the show.
AVC: Were you free to add to the lore when you were developing Willow, or did you have to stay within the bounds of what already exists?
JK: Well, we try to do both. The thing that makes Pablo so wonderful and such a great keeper of these things and such a rare asset is that he’s someone who’s really collaborative. So you tell him about the kind of story you’re interested in telling and where he’s helpful is he can tell you how it syncs up with what exists and allow you the space to to tell the story. You want to keep it consistent with what has come before. And we’ve tried to do that in a lot of ways.
AVC: We’ve seen Elora come into her own as the sorceress she’s prophesied to be, and we have this visual indication as her hair gets more and more red and you start to see that physical connection with the baby she used to be.
JK: Yes, exactly. And a big part of the journey of season one is her getting to realize it and make contact with it and identify it in herself. And it’s the moment on the crust of the bubbling “vermiscous,” as we call it in the show, where her emotional life and her magical life sort of intersect to many ends—not always to success, but often to success—and it’s when she’s able to put her longing to save Kit into her magic that she transforms, physically.
AVC: Her journey in the show almost parallels Willow’s in the film, as he was discovering the magic inside of him. But I thought it was interesting that his journey is very different in this show. For him, it’s more about coming to terms that he’s a mediocre magician and always will be.
JK: Well, it’s his story about coming to peace with the limitations of his abilities. And I always thought it was a fun story to tell. And it’s like in athletics where you see a coach working with a truly brilliant athlete. And that coach often was an athlete themselves, but never of the caliber of a Michael Jordan, you know, but was born to be his teacher. His Yoda, or whatever.
AVC: There are certainly a lot of Yoda parallels in this. And a little bit of Luke and Rey, too. Was that intentional?
JK: I mean, it’s all intentional, because one of the things you wrestle with as teachers is the failures as well as the successes. They struggle with that as teachers and then their students struggle with it in their own way. I’ve had it in my own life, certainly as the child of a filmmaker and a writer you contend as much with their successes as with their failures, you know?
AVC: In terms of archetypes, we don’t have Madmartigan in this show, but we do have Boorman who has become a pretty good surrogate for him in terms of that kind of roguish character.
JK: That was the hardest part to cast, oddly enough. Ellie [Bamber] and Ruby [Cruz] and Erin [Kellyman], and even Tony [Revolori], all fell in very naturally to their roles. They were just the sort of the people I wanted. And with Amar [Chadha-Patel], it took a little more convincing, which in retrospect is hilarious to me because, like, no one else could be Boorman. But he sort of made a strong case that he brought something very fresh and original to this type that he thought I was going to love, and I believed him. And he did. He managed to bring the physicality as well as the humor, and that originality. It’s a remarkable thing.
AVC: He has a kind of Han Solo quality to him, which I’m sure is also no accident.
JK: No, absolutely. We knew that much about him. And that he would be a little older than the younger characters in the show, but he would be so in the way that Han was a little older than the teenage characters in Star Wars. That’s what allows him to inhabit that middle ground between the real adults like Warwick and the kids and Tony. So, yeah, it was a fun space to get to.
AVC: In this final episode, the contentious relationship between Elora and Kit has evolved to the point where they’re united as they reach the final destination of their quest. Can you talk about how you set up those two as foils for each other throughout the season.
JK: That’s really my favorite moment of the season, the coming together of the two of them. And it was always sort of built into how we were going to design the story, which was that these two people would be at odds for most of the season. And we’d increasingly feel like it wasn’t until they came together that there was any hope of rescuing this prince. Which you’ll see in the finale.
AVC: Before we wrap up I want to ask what you’re hoping audiences will take away from this series, whether they’re older fans or younger fans or anywhere in between?
JK: Well, I hope that by the end of the eight [episodes] it feels like a cathartic continuation and expansion of what we barely just got to taste in the movie. You know, I felt like George and Ron together, and [Willow screenwriter] Bob Dolman, really created a window into a very big world that was populated by the kinds of characters that were familiar to the fantasy genre, but distinct. And I was just eager to open that door and create some new types and some new ways into it. And my hope is that by the end you’re invested enough to want to see more of these characters and to go on further adventures with them, with even greater darkness than they are facing right now.