'Rise of Skywalker's Victoria Mahoney on Making 'Star Wars' History (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Image via Walt Disney Studios
After more than 20 years, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalkerwill bring the stories of Luke and Leia, Anakin and Obi-Wan and Rey, Poe and Finn to an end. Episode IX marks another milestone for the franchise, as well, with Victoria Mahoney stepping in as J.J. Abrams' second unit director. "A black woman directing stories in a galaxy far, far away," as Ava Duvernay tweeted. And while Mahoney is honored to have made Star Wars history, there is something else she might be even prouder of.
"There are many things I'm proud of being associated with this film, but one of them that I'm deeply proud of is: I have not said one word. Not one word!" Mahoney exclaimed over the phone. "I know for sure J.J. thought I said something to Ava."
But even Duvernay, who is a mutual friend of both filmmakers, couldn't get any spoilers out of Mahoney. "When she visited set, she was really surprised and J.J. goes, 'She didn't tell you anything?!' And she said, 'Nothing,'" she recalled. "I was determined that it was not going to be me, anything that got loose." Ahead of Rise of Skywalker's release on Dec. 20, Mahoney spoke with ET about how it feels to break down barriers and step aboard the Millennium Falcon.
What was it like to get that call to work on The Rise of Skywalker?
Well, slightly magical, completely unexpected, almost neck-breaking, because I was jumping up and down and I almost hit my head on the ceiling. [Laughs] It was really special, and all joking aside, I genuinely was moved that J.J. took the time and called me directly. There was no assistant, no buffers, no go-betweens. Just, "Hello, how are you? This is what I'm doing, and I'm wondering if you'd like to come talk to me." That was it.
At the time, were you aware of the fact that you were making history as the first black woman to direct within the Star Wars universe?
It's so tricky, because it's a weird sort of yes and no. The part of me that loves film and tracks the people who might resemble me is obviously hyper-aware, because whenever one of us gets in, we all throw individual massive parties in our heart and soul. To some degree, I'm always aware of when one breaks through and in which realm, in which genre, in which studio and which capacity. But I didn't really grab on and hold it, because it's a double-edged sword. It's something you are aware of in the industry, but you can't really keep that too close to your path because it's a weapon and could injury you at any point. It can lead to harm when you realize how much work we all still have to do.
You know what I mean? Stay conscious, but you don't let it too close that it can ruin your day-to-day joy and excitement to go out and pioneer and tackle new terrain. With that said, when I hung up the phone, I did have a sense of warmth and fullness for all the directors -- women of color directors -- since the beginning of franchise filmmaking that would love to have gotten that phone call. That was not missed. And that was my immediate thought.
So what does it mean to you now, to have been the person to break down this barrier?
It's multifaceted. There's the individual level, a creative level, a professional level, a political level, an ethical level. There's all different components. Individually, it means something that I was just a kid in my backyard as a 12-year-old dreaming about different galaxies, like all the other kids who had watched Star Wars and fell in love and were playing lightsabers with the broomstick. [Laughs] That's what I was doing. I would take the base off and my mother would come and try to get the broom back. So that meant something very specific and unique to a wish and a wonder that I held, that I personally harbored and wanted.
But then when we speak in the context of progression or lack of within the industry, I'm aware right now what it means because wherever I go, young people come up to me and they treat me like I would treat Allen Iverson or LeBron James. I'm not kidding! They have this buoyancy and delight and it's like sight of land, you know? They're not off course. When they see me, they think, "Great. I'm not just waffling out in the middle of the ocean with no destination."
I think it's particularly cool that you've come on for this one, because we had Carrie before, of course, but this trilogy has introduced Daisy and Kelly's characters and now Keri and Naomi's, too. That has to mean something to your 12-year-old Star Wars fan self.
Yeah, my discussion with J.J. was quite forthright in that I was impacted by him and what he did on Force Awakens and I took the meeting because of what he did on Force Awakens. I sat with him and was curious about him as a filmmaker because of the kids that I treated to that movie when it opened and the experience we all had together at different ages and shapes and colors and sizes. We were all impacted greatly. And one of the things that resonates is how, all those little kids I took to that movie, that's their new norm. Rey, Finn, Poe, all those new characters, that is their new norm. They're just like, "Yeah, I can fly a plane. Yeah, I can save the day. Yeah, I can be a Jedi."
What J.J. was doing with the material and the universe and the mythology clearly spoke to the storyteller in me as much as the audience member in me. So I was very, very, very excited about the potential of being a part of these particular characters and J.J.'s vision. There are tons of other sci-fi franchise films and not sci-fi franchise films -- just big budget films -- that don't interest me as much, because the lack of vast protagonists and people who save the day.
For our readers, can you explain what it means to be the second unit director on a film like Rise of Skywalker?
My day would start with connecting with J.J. every morning. I get a clear sense of whatever it is that he needs for the day and whatever it is that I'm going out to shoot. He gives me a very clear road map on what it is he needs, what he doesn't need-- It's such a hard discussion to have. I'm not being ambiguous about my job. I'm ambiguous about the story. [Laughs] And then I go out for the day and J.J. has a monitor on my set and I have a monitor on his set and we both watch what each other are filming.
It's a true partnership, and I was there to service his vision and I had a ball doing so, because he has an incredible love for storytelling. I just love filmmaking and I was so happy that I didn't have to turn that valve down walking beside him. Because he isn't a person who's too-cool-for-school. He's a very clear, definitive boss. He doesn't have any ego. He's always aware of A plan, B plan, C plan, D plan. Whatever anyone presents him on the crew, he's not threatened, because he wants the story to win. So, that's my day. Second unit, we shoot stunts and action and we get to blow stuff up. [Laughs] Which I really like doing! And then we also get these beats with the actors that are wonderful and unexpected and true. And then sometimes it's just a day of inserts, you just never know.
Did you have a most surreal moment? Or that moment on set of, "Holy cow, I am shooting a Star Wars movie"?
I wish I could give you one. It happened so often. It happened every time we entered a new set. So we would shoot on one set for sometimes three weeks, two weeks -- you're on certain sets for a stretch -- and then you move to another location. Every single time we moved to the next location, set or soundstage, we all had the same captivated, mind-blown, holy shit moment. I went straight back to being a kid and why I love Star Wars and all that it presents with regards to magical realism. You'd have to be numb -- I mean numb, numb, numb -- to not get barreled over. People who have worked on the films for years would still be impacted. J.J., who did an entire Star Wars movie, still had an excitement and enthusiasm and would have his mind blown.
For me, there were these key moments: Obviously, the first time I stepped in the Millennium Falcon, I was not at all grown up. [Laughs] It was the weirdest thing, too, because it's like a flashback. But it's in the movie, so how can it be a flashback? I went straight back to the scene in A New Hope. It was crazy. But that's what took over me. I was just loaded up with all of these visuals and moments that impacted my childhood. Tommy Gormley, the first A.D., who is a producer on this film and an incredible asset to any film he ever works on, he turned back and it was so beautiful. We were walking up the ramp, and it was as if he knew. It wasn't wasted on anyone. He looked back and he just smiled at me, like, "Cool, huh?" I was just grinning from ear to ear. I was just in this private moment of joy, and he just turned around and smiled at me in the softest like, "Yup. It's the Millennium Falcon and you're standing on it."
The second unit director is often one of a movie's unsung heroes. I want you to brag on yourself a little for me: What is something you were able to bring to this project? Or what is something you were particularly proud of that you accomplished on this?
I don't know if this is the answer that readers might want in the scope of the story, but the thing that was a big part of my intention every day that I went to work was I didn't have a need to overthrow the captain. I meet people all the time for crews that I'm hiring and you can tell that they would knock you down and break your knee cap with a lead pipe to get your job. I had no wish to outshine or to do any crazy shit that wasn't truthful. There's a private thing I had about the way that I was able to service someone's vision without interfering, but only elevating, hopefully. Because I know what that means. I know what it means when someone is able to just speak your language and open your heart and do something that's what you wished.
Every day you go to work and this monumental, dreamy thing happens that you can't believe, and everyone on that job is the best in the world at what they do. But there is a story -- I think there's footage of it -- of an explosion we had to do, and it was very important that we preserve the area and we didn't do any damage to the area. I was talking with our captain in the [special effects] department, Dom Tuohy, and his team, and I went to them and asked them about the safety valve and what it could be at. And we agreed on a number -- basically, between a one and 10 -- and I trusted, they trusted and we just went for it... And it was really exciting. But if we didn't do our homework and we didn't trust each other and we didn't survey the land and prepare properly, not only could we have done damage to that area -- which was important to the people who were allowing us there -- but someone might have gotten injured. The amount of diligence and labor and trust allowed us to do this thing that potentially could not have happened. And it was so goddamn fun! It was massive! Like, a once in a lifetime thing. A once in a lifetime thing.
Before I let you go, you're entering the Star Wars 'verse and setting these milestones at the same time as Deborah Chow and Bryce Dallas Howard on The Mandalorian. Have you had time to check out their work?
Hell yeah, are you kidding? I watched both episodes! I was so excited. A couple of us did a panel for Lucasfilm at the Porsche Experience Track -- we had a panel for a bunch of women -- and I got to meet Deborah for the first time there and her episode aired maybe three days later. Slaughtered. What I loved about that episode -- and something that may or may not be as important to other people -- but everyone online was talking about that episode and it was this great thing where people spoke about the quality of that show and then they were like, "Oh my God, a woman directed it!" It was really cool. And I'm so excited for both of them.
I want you on season two. I want to see what you do directing baby Yoda.
Who I have affectionately nicknamed it bebe Yoda! I was with a dear, dear friend of mine when we watched the first episode, and I'm so happy for Pedro but when that baby Yoda came on, all of us were just... I don't know what happened. We all lost our mind. I think it's just the most magical, greatest, unifying thing ever, baby Yoda. I mean, it's unbelievable. And I love this soup/tea thing that's going around now. It's just the right amount of levity and sweetness. And I'm trying to figure out what's going on, but I think the next fun thing would be to find out that baby Yoda was a girl. Wouldn't that be cool?
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens in theaters on Dec. 20.