May the Fourth Be with You: A Conversation with Star Wars Journalist, Anthony Breznican
Author Steph Post talks to author and entertainment writer Anthony Breznican about Star Wars, Brutal Youth, and underrepresented roles in film.
Interview originally published on 5/4/15
Anthony Breznican was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania, and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1998. He has worked as a reporter for The Arizona Republic, Associated Press, and USA Today. He is currently a senior staff writer for Entertainment Weekly and author of the novel, Brutal Youth.
STEPH POST: First off, let me just say that I’m always game for talking about Star Wars.
ANTHONY BREZNICAN: Me, too. It’s a great conversation starter. Everyone has something to say about it. Star Wars is like the weather. Everywhere, and everyone has an opinion.
As a kid, I was most definitely a Star Wars super-fan. Even at a time when we didn’t have more than two television channels, my VHS copies of the trilogy were my prized possessions.
We didn’t own them! Back in the early ’80s, a VHS tape could cost hundreds of dollars. They were meant only to be rented from a video store. I think we taped the movies off of TV later, but I don’t think I needed to watch them over and over again. They were imprinted on me right away. I definitely wore out the VHS tape in my head thinking about them.
I remember that I made Star Wars posters by hand using cardboard and magic markers and drove my parents — most certainly not fans — crazy by quoting the films incessantly. I even had a chicken named Darth Vader and one named C-3PO.
Okay, I *thought* I was a really big Star Wars fan, but I did NOT have two chickens named C-3PO and Darth Vader. I think that is the true threshold of fandom, and I am far from worthy. My experience was like yours, minus the barnyard.
In a strange way, I suppose I was a little akin to Luke Skywalker — I was a country girl looking out at the horizon, searching for a galaxy far, far away.
I saw the films, and they transported me to another place, one where it was possible to be a nobody kid from nowhere and become brave and strong and have adventures. The “Call To Adventure,” isn’t that what we all want? The most powerful image in those movies is Luke in silhouette, looking across the endless dunes of his backwater planet at the twin suns setting in the distance. Haven’t we all had that quiet moment of wondering what the future holds — and how we might shape it?
Absolutely. So with that in mind, what was your very first experience with the Star Wars films?
I’m 38 now, so I didn’t see the original Star Wars in a movie theater. I’m not sure I ever did see it except on television. But my earliest movie memory is from when I was 4 years old, and we were racing to see The Empire Strikes Back. We were late; it was summertime, and by the time we got our tickets and ran through the popcorn-perfumed lobby to the theater, the movie had already started. We stood in the dark, waiting for our eyes to adjust — hearts pounding, skin glistening with sweat. And the theater was so cold. Air conditioning was a big selling point for theaters. We’d missed a few minutes of the film, and on the screen was this blinding, white landscape. In the distance, a cluster of Imperial walkers marched forward. They were like locomotives on stilts (which is how they are actually described in the script.) To me, that wasn’t a movie. I didn’t know what a movie was. It looked like a giant window, with that cold theater air flowing straight from the planet Hoth to my hot face. I will never forget that. It felt like a giant window into another world — and it was open.
Wow, I can totally see that moment playing out. And I’m jealous! I was born too late and was never able to see any of the Star Wars films in the theater. I missed that impact. The films did have an impact on my development as a storyteller, though. Some of my earliest stories were what we now call fan fiction. I invented new characters, worlds, and situations, and this allowed my imagination to run wild, but also gave me the space to begin learning the craft of fiction.
I never wrote any fan fiction, but … honestly, I kind of want to now! Chuck Wendig is writing the novel, Aftermath, about what happened immediately after the events of Return of the Jedi. I am insanely jealous. I definitely want to read that, but … I kind of want to write that, too. It would be fun to play in that sandbox for a while.
Do you think Star Wars had any connection to your path in becoming a writer?
Without question. I had all the action figures and would make up my own Star Wars stories in the backyard, like a whole generation of children did. That was its own form of fan fiction, I guess. You could look at those toys as cynical merchandizing, but they also served as tools to continue the storytelling from this galaxy on our own. I loved those little plastic dolls. They are relics from a happy, innocent time. On my deathbed, I won’t say “Rosebud …” but I might whisper, “Greedo …”
Greedo? Really?! So then, what are some of the themes of Star Wars that still resonate with you?
I did this interview with George Lucas a few years ago about fatherhood and his films. It’s a theme that’s deeply ingrained in all his movies, including the Indiana Jones movies, and he revealed something astounding to me: His father hated that he wanted to be a filmmaker. Didn’t like it, didn’t understand it. George’s father was a child of the Depression who worked like hell to build an office supply business that, eventually, became pretty big in the Bay Area. After that lifetime of effort and sacrifice, his son had no interest in carrying on the business. He was angry and heartbroken that his son was rejecting everything he stood for to pursue car racing and moviemaking.
That’s crazy — I never knew that.
As George was telling me about this relationship, everything about Star Wars changed for me. I realized it was his story: “Join me, and together we shall rule the office supply galaxy!” It was the story of children and their parents breaking free of each other, trying to be different, or better, but sometimes falling short. Looking through that lens, suddenly this cosmic story goes from infinite to intimate.
Then, going back to your own career as a writer, do you think any part of the Star Wars saga is present in your novel, Brutal Youth? (I think so, by the way…)
I’d love to hear why you think it does! The novel literally references Star Wars several times because it’s set in the early ’90s, and these kids grew up, like me, with the toys and movies saturating their lives. At one point, the main character, Peter Davidek, and his best friend, Noah Stein, are talking about Lorelei, a girl Noah is pining for in a lovesick way. Stein, like a lot of teen boys, gets very dramatic, talking about how it’s more than just a crush — it’s fate — and Davidek says, “Okay, Darth Vader. ‘Join me, Lorelei! It is your dessss-tah-nee!’” There are a lot of Star Wars references scattered throughout. It was part of the landscape of our pop culture back then. Still is!
What about thematically?
I think it may be there, too, although I didn’t consciously try to echo Star Wars. But I did do that Lucas interview about fatherhood around the time I was writing this novel, and that definitely got into my head. The main antagonist, this embittered guidance counselor named Ms. Bromine, is a kind of Nurse Ratched type, but she’s also a little bit like Darth Vader in the sense that she has lost her cool, she’s angry, she’s out of touch, but she once had potential to be good and lost that. Maybe she will be again someday; maybe she can be redeemed. The school principal, Sister Maria, is also this good person who has become corrupted by compromise. She worries about something that may be the lesson of Vader: It’s easy to go wrong trying to do right.
Did you build any Star Wars connections into the kid characters in Brutal Youth?
I actually did do that consciously in one instance. I thought a lot about Han Solo while writing Noah Stein, who is the smartass, cynical counterpoint to Peter Davidek’s more naïve ‘farmboy.’ I wanted Stein to serve the same purpose as Han Solo in Star Wars — amid all the high-mindedness and handwringing, he’s the one who cuts through the bullshit with a crooked smile. He’s the one with the magnetic confidence.
See, yet another reason why Stein is my favorite character in Brutal Youth! I think I must have sensed that connection … Okay, so on another note: In teaching mythology to my high school students, I’ve often brought up Joseph Campbell and his influence on George Lucas. I use the Star Wars characters to teach archetypes, because they are so classic and identifiable.
I had a teacher like you when I was in high school. That was another moment my perspective on these movies changed. We watched the famous Bill Moyers interview with Campbell that was conducted at Skywalker Ranch but went far beyond Star Wars to cover the storytelling that spans thousands of years. I think our connection to this kind of mythological storytelling is ingrained in us, but Campbell’s unpacking of the material makes us see how it works.
Do you think this is the reason so many people, of all different ages and backgrounds, can appreciate the Star Wars story?
Without question. I guess good storytelling is like the Force: it surrounds us, and binds us. I think this archetypal narrative nourishes us in a vital way, whether we realize it or not. It teaches us lessons without the lecture. We all yearn to be something — maybe Luke, maybe Leia, maybe Han. We all fear becoming something else — Vader, the Emperor, or just another faceless stormtrooper following orders and dying without distinction. We thirst for adventure, but we all fear losing our way. That cuts across generations, genders, cultures, everything. We are all very different, but we are also not so different.
As a senior film writer for Entertainment Weekly, you are in the, what I assume to be, much coveted role of being in charge of the Star Wars beat. Was this something you sought out or did you just happen to get lucky?
I had to bribe, intimidate, and sabotage a lot of people to get this job! It was a whole Machiavellian operation. Actually, I just wrote to my editor and expressed serious interest in these films. I’ve written a lot about them over the years, and obviously they mean something special to me. But I’m not obsessive in an unhealthy way. I take the movies seriously, but I like to have fun with them, too. I’m glad my editor thought I was the right person for the job.
I’ll go ahead and admit that while I was in love with A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, I was not a fan of the last three films.
You are not alone.
I don’t think I’ve even seen all three in their entirety. When I heard that there was yet another Star Wars film in the works, I was both nervous and skeptical.
Again, you are not alone.
Yet, I’ve been nothing but excited since the trailer for The Force Awakens debuted last November. Do you think J. J. Abrams is trying to appeal to ‘old-school’ Star Wars fans like me?
I think the folks running Lucasfilm are painfully aware that the prequels disappointed many fans. They were crazy popular, but as time has gone on, they seem to have fallen in esteem even further than the critical derision they absorbed upon release. There is a conscious effort underway to course correct.
I believe the success and unparalleled resonance of Star Wars is due to a team effort. Many hands built Star Wars. George Lucas is a brilliant creator, but his brilliance is in creating a team — not necessarily storytelling. Imagine what an iPhone would look like if Steve Jobs tried to build one mostly by himself. The prequels were concentrated George, while the original trilogy benefited from, 1.) lesser resources and 2.) more freedom for the team he assembled. There were different directors and screenwriters for the original films. People like visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren and sound designer Ben Burtt and concept artist Ralph McQuarrie were turned loose and allowed to create a little more freely. The impact of John Williams’ score can’t be overestimated.
I never thought about the differences in the films that way. It makes sense, though.
Classic mythology was also passed along and shaped through many hands. The oral tradition — every time the story was told, it changed a little. I think a variation of that happened on the original Star Wars films. With the prequels, it was more one man’s vision, even if some of the same people were on backup.
Now, George Lucas has taken a seat in the stands, and I think the new shepherds of Star Wars are back to the team approach. We’ll see how it works out.
One of the elements that I’m most appreciative about in The Force Awakens is the inclusion of the character Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. While much of her character has been kept a secret by Abrams, there are rumors that she is Han Solo’s daughter and, whether she is or not, she seems to be pretty much a badass in her own right.
As the dad of a little girl who also loves Star Wars, I also feel it has been a little closed off to female fans, so I’m thrilled Rey is a major character and that there are other female characters that will be revealed later. Rey is already cool: She’s no princess. She’s a scavenger, a hardscrabble survivor. I don’t know whose kid she may be, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she did have ties to Solo. Still, I bet they fight a lot if she does. I can see her giving him the same kind of shit Leia used to dish out.
When I was a kid, I never wanted to be Leia; I always, always wanted to be Han Solo …
Imma let you finish, Steph Post. But Leia is a pretty badass character herself. She was a galactic diplomat and spy for the Rebellion, ferrying stolen Death Star intelligence. And she STILL managed to keep it safe by dispatching it in R2-D2 when Darth Vader overtook her ship. She’s clever, knows how to handle a blaster, and becomes military commander of the Hoth base, goes undercover as Boushh to rescue that damsel in distress, Han Solo, when he is frozen in carbonite, and then goes full-on jungle infantry to destroy the Endor shield generator.
But … point taken. I think she’s a front-of-the-class kind of girl, and knowing you, I can tell you’re one of the bad kids hanging out in the back with Han and the Cantina crew.
I think you just made my day with that description.
Except you’re smarter and more badass than he is. I think Han would want to be Steph Post! But back to your point …
Well then, do you think that Rey can or will serve as a new sort of heroine for a new generation of Star Wars fans? And do you think this is a move that Abrams is deliberately making to appeal to new fans?
Yes, and yes. I don’t think it was, like, a calculated focus-group choice or anything like that. I think Abrams wants to diversify this cast, and he has a good track record with female characters: Felicity and Sidney Bristow from Alias, to name just two. I think he and Kathy Kennedy, the producer who now runs Lucasfilm, want to expand the character lineup to make it possible for lots of different types of people to see themselves in these characters. At the Star Wars Celebration panel, Kennedy told me that if she had grown up with these characters, she wouldn’t have a lot of options about who she’d get to role-play. Now, there will be many more choices.
Beyond gender, I think they’re diversifying in other ways. The three leads are not just white males. John Boyega is Nigerian-British, Oscar Isaac is Guatemalan, and Daisy Ridley is a woman. The world is a big place, containing multitudes, and so is this galaxy from far, far away. I’m happy to see different backgrounds represented.
I’m glad you brought up the Star Wars Celebration panel! You were the moderator, and I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times already, but what was the energy on that day like?
The energy was crazy. The event was live-streamed around the world. People were gathered together watching from theaters in 40 countries, and right before I went out they said, “China just opened up to the live-stream. That’s a big deal! Make sure you mention it!” So I was pretty nervous. If I faceplanted or embarrassed myself, it wasn’t like I could say, “Well, maybe nobody saw.”
How did you walk the line between being both a fan and a journalist?
My first job was to try to make this big event seem intimate, so I started by asking people to think of their memories of seeing Star Wars for the first time and told my little story about thinking Empire was a window into a snowy world. Then it was off to the races … I hope it showed I cared about these movies, but I also worked hard the night before with the cast and filmmakers to say a little more about the movie, to talk about women in the universe. That sort of thing. So I’m a fan, I’m an admirer, but the journalist part was also at play trying to talk about some more important subjects — and also to make the conversation connect with what the fans wanted to know.
When I came out, they played the Cantina theme song, and I looked out over the 5,000-plus people in the arena and said, “That’s a great song because there’s a real Cantina vibe in here today.” Everybody cheered, but a few people online were like, “He just insulted Star Wars fans.” Like, come on, buddy. There’s your insult. I’m looking out at a sea of people dressed up as every creature and droid you can imagine, some of them are waving lightsabers, roaring like Wookiees. And they were loving it. It was awesome.
Much of the story line for The Force Awakens is still shrouded in mystery, though the breadcrumb trail of details seems to be picking up as the year goes on. What are you most interested in learning about the film before it debuts?
I don’t want to know anything about the plot of the movie, but I’m extremely curious about the 30 years that come before and whether the Empire fell, as we assumed it would, or came back and stomped the Rebellion. I suspect it was the latter. Maybe Return of the Jedi wasn’t the clear victory we assumed.
Finally then, as I mentioned earlier, as a kid I dreamed of being a female Han Solo. I also had a huge crush on Darth Vader, but that’s a whole different story … Is there a character from any of the films that you feel like you can identify with?
I’m just going to whisper … “Greedo.”
Steph Post is the author of the debut novel, A Tree Born Crooked. Her short fiction has most recently appeared in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, The Round-Up, Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics, and in the forthcoming editions of Foliate Oak and Vending Machine Press. She currently lives, writes, and teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida.