Jonathan Kasdan was in the middle of making a Star Wars movie, but his mind kept venturing to an entirely different universe.
This happened in 2017, when the screenwriter of Solo stood on the Canary Islands set of the movie, watching as one of his idols dropped in for a cameo. Warwick Davis, who was there to play a member of a galactic biker gang, had a long history of playing Star Wars characters, but he was also the star of one of Kasdan’s favorite movies from childhood, the 1988 sword-and-sorcery adventure Willow.
“I asked to be introduced to him,” Kasdan recalls. “I had one of the ADs walk me over, and he was sitting in his foldout chair. I said, ‘I’m Jon Kasdan. I’m one of the writers.’ And he was very nice.” But Kasdan had a not-so-secret agenda. “I said, ‘Listen, I love Willow, and I really think there's something to be done here. I'm beating the drum loudly with Kathy [Kennedy, Lucasfilm’s president] and with the company.’” Davis lit up. “He immediately was like, ‘Have a seat! Let’s talk more!’” Kasdan says. “We started talking that very minute about what it could be and have never stopped.”
Five years later, Willow—the new Disney+ series —will debut on November 30. But the journey between that first conversation and the completion of the show was a fraught adventure of its own, sometimes harrowing, sometimes comical, sometimes just awkward. Still, it was driven by a sincere love of this fantasy realm and the unlikely hero at its center.
Today, Kasdan is part of the Lucasfilm brain trust, consulting on multiple projects with his own office at their Disney headquarters, (complete with a sweeping view of Kennedy’s parking space, he jokes). But back in 2017, when he first broached the subject of reviving Willow with Davis on the set of Solo, his credits included writing stints on Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks, and directing the indie films The First Time and In the Land of Women. Kasdan had leveled up to epics for the first time with Solo, which he had cowritten with his father (Star Wars veteran and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan). He had the experience and the enthusiasm to take on a return to Willow, if not the actual pull at Lucasfilm to make it a reality.
Not that he explained all that to Davis. He walked away from his conversation with the Willow star in a kind of joyful panic. “I have a memory of standing on the set with Chris Miller [one of Solo’s directors] and saying, ‘I just met Warwick! And I told him I want to do more Willow. And…he seems to think I have that power. I don’t know how to tell him that I don’t.”
Davis, who had previously played Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi as a child, was still just 17 when he appeared with Val Kilmer in the 1988 original, starring as Willow Ufgood, an overlooked but brave “Nelwyn” who teams up with a down-on-his-luck swordsman to rescue a baby with prophetic mystical powers. Although Davis has gone on to star in the BBC series Life’s Too Short, and the Leprechaun and Harry Potter movies, among many others, Willow remains his most recognizable part—and a landmark leading man role for performers with dwarfism.
Kasdan, the son of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, was only eight years old when he saw the ’88 movie. Willow was produced by George Lucas, but Jonathan’s father didn’t work on that one. Ironically, it was the one Jonathan connected with the most.
“It’s an interesting thing for a young kid to see a little person protagonist, which even in this day is a very unusual thing,” Jonathan says. There were hobbit heroes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but those weren’t big-budget live-action movies at the time. “No, they weren’t,” Jonathan says. “Warwick was such a compelling performer because he had such relatability. From the first moments of the movie, you sort of identified him as an adult, but he was also relatable as a child.” The message of Willow was simple but powerful: Bravery comes in all sizes.
Davis showed it to his own children when they were old enough. (His now 25-year-old daughter, Annabelle, plays his daughter in the new series too.) “It wasn't compulsory viewing in our house, but it’s something I was proud to show them when they were younger, certainly,” Davis says. “My son in particular would get a bit anxious watching it. If I was in peril [in the movie], he’d run through to my office, saying, ‘Dad, Dad, they’re getting you!’ They’re not getting me. I’m here!”
Despite the enduring affection of kids from Jonathan’s generation, who wore out VHS tapes rewatching, Willow wasn’t regarded by the industry as a big enough box office hit at the time to justify a sequel. Director Ron Howard was often asked for a follow-up by fans, but no one at Lucasfilm was asking. Unless you count Davis. “He was always an advocate for more, but never had an ally like myself, nor did Ron, that would actually do the middle lifting, which I think was my role here,” Jonathan says.
“Ambushing” Ron Howard
Not long after that conversation in the Canary Islands, Solo was plunged into crisis. It was losing its filmmakers, and shooting was nowhere near finished. In this midst of that anguish, the further adventures of Willow actually took root.
Tension had built up between Lucasfilm and Solo codirectors Miller and Phil Lord over the pace of the production, resulting in The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street filmmakers leaving the project. That falling out is its own long story, but it put the Han Solo stand-alone project in free fall with principal photography already underway, but no one at the helm. Lucasfilm needed to recruit another director.
Kennedy had a meeting in London scheduled with Howard, and both Kasdans joined her. They had a shared mission—which wasn’t talking about Willow. “We were asking him if he’d be up to come into Solo,” Jonathan says. “It was a moment of real pain, I think, for everyone involved.”
But not for Howard, who wasn’t formally involved in the production at that point. “It felt like there was definitely a lot of pressure,” Jonathan says. “Ron was really someone we were looking to help us finish the movie in what had become a really unfortunate situation…. We were all working very hard to try to make the thing work and to get the movie back on track. He happened to be in town, and we got him face-to-face and presented him with the situation that we were in.”
The meeting, held over breakfast, caught Howard by surprise. It was, essentially, an ambush. “Ambush, it was!” Howard recalls now. “I had no idea what I was walking into there.”
Kennedy and the Kasdans put on their best sales pitch, and Howard would eventually say yes, but not at that moment, by any means. “He was ambivalent about it—as anyone would be,” Jonathan says. “And as the conversation drew to an end, I sort of figured I would not see him again. I just wanted to throw out, like, ‘Hey, listen, I’m a huge Willow fan, and I’ve been telling Kathy that I think we should do more…’ And he sort of looked at me curiously, like, was I putting him on or something?”
Howard, as it turns out, had his own ambush planned. “I was supposed to have this breakfast with Kathy Kennedy and just catch up. I thought, I just want to say hi to Kathy and haven’t seen her in a while, but if it seems right, I might just mention the idea of a Willow series.”
So there they stood, in the lobby of the hotel saying goodbye, when Jonathan took his shot. And Howard took his. “He sort of admitted that if the opportunity had arisen in this breakfast to mention Willow, he would not have shied away from it,” Jonathan says. “He was likewise passionate about trying to resurrect that story.
When Jonathan threw Willow into the mix, were Kennedy and his father quick to keep focus on Solo? “Yeah, there was a little of that,” he says. “There was definitely a part of Kathy that was like, ‘Well, listen, we can always talk about it.’”
So that’s what they did: talk. For months. When Howard officially boarded Solo, he and Jonathan filled their spare moments mapping out a strategy for Willow. “I requested that Jon, as a writer, be there all of the time, addressing some of the studio’s thoughts and notes, and my own, as we continued to work on Solo,” Howard says. “Few days went by without some little mention of Willow. It’s just been fun to see Jon nurture this, certainly with my support, but he’s really been the engine. He also has the vision for where the show could go.”
Doom Along the Way
The way Davis tells it, Jonathan Kasdan basically willed Willow back into existence.
“He waxed lyrical about the project for some time, and he hooks you in with that. He’s used to selling stuff, I guess, selling scripts, and very much sold me on the idea that this could work,” Davis says. But still, he harbored a bit of doubt. “As an actor, you hear a lot people do this in your career. I’ve learned over the years never to bank on anything until you’re sitting on set for the first time actually shooting it.” Anything could doom it “along the way, along the path of development.”
That could easily have been Willow’s fate, getting tangled up in tantalizing possibilities, but never actually happening—the same fate as efforts to make sequels out of Beetlejuice, Gremlins, or other retro favorites that have generated noise about reboots but no results. Jonathan had assembled a coalition of believers, starting with Willow’s original’s creators, but he needed more, particularly within Lucasfilm and Disney. The advent of the Disney+ streaming service certainly helped by creating a hunger for content.
“The one other person who I knew was on the record as saying he really wanted it was George,” says Jonathan, who adds that he never discussed it with Lucas—who has taken a hands-off approach to projects since selling the company to Disney—directly. “As it’s always been explained to me, he saw the acquisition by Disney as an opportunity for more stories in the Willow world. I think that the first time that was mentioned to me was at a Writers Guild event the night that The Force Awakens came out.”
Jonathan was there in 2015 to watch his father and J.J. Abrams take part in a Q&A when he overheard Kennedy bring up his favorite movie. “Kathy had mentioned that she’d had this conversation with George about Willow, and I sort of heard it, and I think in that moment I said, like, ‘That’s cool!’” he says, adding with a laugh: “The conversation just continued without any acknowledgment that I had said, ‘That’s cool.’ And I never let it go, essentially.”
After the completion of Solo, Jonathan worked on a script for the next Indiana Jones movie, but still kept Willow on the Lucasfilm to-do list. He had to convince the powers that be that Willow really, truly was cool. From a business perspective, that was never obvious, as even Howard had to admit.
“I’ll tell you, Willow has been this slow steady burn from shortly after its release,” Howard says. “The year it came out, it was solid, I think it was certainly in the top 20, maybe even the top 15, and so it did well and everything. But didn’t live up to the media’s—and probably George’s and mine—wildest hopes and dreams from a commercial standpoint.”
There was openness to the idea, but that was all. “Everyone was happy to talk about it in theory, but until there was a pilot that we all agreed we were excited about, there was not anything,” Jonathan says.
My So-Called Quest
So, Jonathan got busy typing. He fashioned an ensemble story that would see an older Willow heading back into the unknown with a group of young fighters to save a handsome prince (Dempsey Bryk) who has been kidnapped by sinister otherworldly forces. Ruby Cruz plays one of the rescuers, the sword-wielding princess Kit, whose brother has been stolen. Those two are the grown children of Queen Sorsha (Joanne Whalley, reprising her warrior princess character from the original movie) and Madmartigan, Kilmer’s redemption-seeking knight.
The other members of the fellowship include Jade, Kit’s closest friend and battle trainer, played by Erin Kellyman (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel) as the somewhat whiny aristocrat Graydon, who is betrothed to Kit, and Ellie Bamber as Dove, a lovelorn kitchen worker who sneaks along on the quest because she’s carrying a torch for the lost prince. Adding muscle is Amar Chadha-Patel (The Wheel of Time) as a prisoner named Boorman, who has special knowledge of the dangerous lands they’re venturing into.
Jonathan had merged sorcery and magic with the souls of still more of his long-ago favorites—the teen comedies of John Hughes, and another pop-culture relic from the 1990s, the short-lived but beloved Claire Danes coming-of-age series My So-Called Life.
“I just instantly loved the tone, the spirit, the heart, the irreverence, the humor of it. It felt very modern. It felt like it was drawing on the roots of the movie, but doing something very unique and new,” says producer Michelle Rejwan, who signed onto Willow while also producing Andor and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
“One of the things Jon and I bonded about very early is we both adore My So-Called Life. We both grew up with that show, and for us, it was a touchstone—the idea of young people just figuring it out, no matter what world you’re in," she adds. “Even if you want to be great heroes or great knights facing grave danger, you’re still young and have relationships, whether they’re friendships or romances, that are messy and complicated. You want to prove yourself to be capable of anything, but quickly find, as you enter the world, that you’re maybe not so ready for the things that you thought.”
But there was one missing piece that would be absolutely necessary for Willow’s return. Everybody, especially the fans, agreed on that. There’s no Willow without Val Kilmer.
Val Kilmer’s Return
Kilmer wanted to participate in the project, but he has lost most of his ability to speak after a battle with throat cancer that left him breathing with the help of a tracheotomy. A persistent question Jonathan has faced is: Will Madmartigan return?
“I approached Val the moment there was any momentum around this. I told him instantly that I wanted him to be a part of the story. He really wanted to be, and he was determined to be. And like a lot of things that happened, COVID made him flying to Wales in that moment very hard,” Jonathan says.
Top Gun: Maverick found a way to work Kilmer’s Iceman character back into the story while incorporating the realities of his physical challenges, and Willow has found a way to do the same, although that meant Kilmer couldn’t be out in the cold, windy, muddy wild. Instead, the disappearance of Madmartigan has become one of the mysteries of the show.
“It seemed too sad to all of us, and frankly not right for the story we were telling, that Madmartigan was dead. And as a result, he is not in this world. He comes back by the end of the season in as meaningful a way as we felt we could, while leaving the door open to continue to build it out,” Jonathan says.
Still, Madmartigan brought an energy, an edge, that was vital as a contrast to the earnestness of Willow. The new series still needed that. “He’s the guy who calls bullshit, he’s the guy who says, ‘Yeah, I’m not doing that,’” Jonathan says.
To fill that Madmartigan-shaped hole, Jonathan came up with another character.
Christian Slater’s New Scoundrel
Meet Allagash. “Yeah, like the beer,” Jonathan acknowledges. “We wanted to give him a multisyllable name that felt in the spirit of Madmartigan. And Allagash sounded to us all like a guy who had lived a life and had some adventures and knew how to party.”
He’s played by another Gen X icon, Christian Slater (Pump Up the Volume, Heathers), who turns up in the story much the way Kilmer’s character first did—locked behind bars, asking to be set free. But…maybe he’s in there for a reason.
“Yeah, he’s made some choices that have put him in some very cagey places,” Slater says, breaking out the dad jokes as he talks about his character for the first time. (Confession: This dad laughed.) “Thanks,” the actor adds. “I’m making this up as I go.”
Like Madmartigan, Allagash is no idealist. “You’re never quite sure which side he's on,” Slater says. “He’s on Allagash’s side, right? He’s in it for himself, to a certain degree. But as a lot of these characters go, sometimes a guy like that can surprise you.”
He also has a history with Madmartigan that comes into play. “He and Madmartigan go way back,” Slater says. “They were best buds at one point.”
Whether he and Kilmer will share the screen again in Willow is unknown at this point, but the two actors most famously appeared together in 1993’s True Romance, with Kilmer portraying Slater’s spirit guide, a manifestation of Elvis Presley. Before that, Slater was a Willow fan.
He calls Allagash a tribute to Madmartigan. “When I first saw the movie, I mean, he was just a character I loved. I thought he just had so much charisma and so much charm.”
It’s a reversal for Slater, who made his breakthrough playing uncertain young characters trying to front their way through trouble. Now, he’s the wise one. “To be the guy who has the experience, who’s had all of these previous adventures before, and to share that with these kids was wild,” he says, shaking his head. “What Sean Connery was to me in The Name of the Rose, to all of a sudden be that, is bizarre. It’s a weird thing.”
Relighting the Spark
But before the casting, before the greenlight, before anything about the Willow series became a reality, the project had to be seen as worth the investment. Jonathan still found himself having to prove that there was genuine interest. Even some of his eventual young cast members had blank spots when it came to the 1988 fantasy.
Kellyman, who played the role of Rebel raider Enfys Nest in Solo, was acting in a scene with Davis when Jonathan first approached him about rebooting Willow. She hadn’t ever seen the movie. “If I did hear anything, I think it probably would’ve gone over my head anyway,” she says. “To be honest, I hadn’t really heard of it until we got these auditions, but then obviously as soon as the audition came through, it was something that I was really interested in. So I obviously went and watched the movie and loved it.”
That was the key. Even if the later generations weren’t Willow-savvy, they might be won over, especially with the movie widely available now on streaming. Older fans were introducing their kids to it. And the long-buried affection for the movie began to bubble to the surface.
In some ways, Willow’s return became a self-fulfilling prophecy. As word spread about Jonathan’s work on the script, high-profile fans in the industry emerged. Suddenly, Willow really was cool again.
“The moment there was word that there was a script that Lucasfilm and Disney+ were excited about, another wonderful thing happened, which is that it suddenly it came out in Hollywood that there were a lot of Willow fans, and a lot of filmmakers who were very interested in the possibility of making a Willow sequel.”
Filmmaker David Lowery openly cited Willow as a primary inspiration for his acclaimed Arthurian legend drama The Green Knight, which was being developed at the same time as the new series. The director of the pilot for The Boys and Prey was also a supporter. “I had a funny conversation with Dan Trachtenberg a few years ago, and he was saying to me, he said, ‘Jon, for me, Madmartigan was my Han Solo.’ And I feel the same way,” Jonathan says.
Those were morale boosts for Team Willow, but then one high-powered filmmaker actually stepped up to join the project. “The person who emerged as the most passionate person in his love of Willow was Jon M. Chu,” Jonathan says. “He just came to us all and sort of said, ‘I’d love to do this.’”
Chu was on a hot streak after making Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights. Jonathan and Rejwan couldn’t believe their luck in landing such an in-demand filmmaker. “I'd met Jon, actually, in a general meeting. We sat down together to get to know each other, and Willow was one of the things that came up. And he was like, ‘Oh, my God, I have a daughter. We named her Willow.’ And it was based on the movie. So it was one of those things where, again, the passion was so authentic,” Rejwan says.
Another Lost Director
Chu’s involvement was the final push they needed to make the Willow series a reality. An announcement went out in October 2020 from Lucasfilm, and Chu tweeted his own statement, overflowing with exclamation marks:
The work continued, stalled occasionally by lockdown delays. A cast was assembled. Plans to begin shooting were made. “His enthusiasm is infectious. And he really helped ignite the energy around the project,” Jonathan says of Chu.
But then, things took a turn. Jonathan says he’s not sure he and Howard would have ever connected on Willow if not for the painful time when Solo lost its directors. Now, the same thing was happening to the series itself, threatening to shut everything down: Chu was out.
“In a very kind of painful moment, he said, ‘Listen, I don’t think I can move to Wales for six months when there’s a chance that I won’t be present for the birth of my child,’” Jonathan says. “And we all understood and were bummed—and were bummed together. He said, ‘Listen, I am here as your friend and ally.’”
About a year and three months after his enthusiastic tweet, Chu posted this to Twitter:
“With any kind of giant project like this, you always think, Well, this is the end. This is the thing that will stop us from doing it,” Jonathan says.
But they had made such progress, and the fandom had begun to rally. The excitement was there. Disney+ was counting on the show, so Lucasfilm remained determined to keep it alive. “This is really a testament to Michelle Rejwan and the moment when she did her hero bit for the thing,” Kasdan says. “She said, ‘We’re not going to let this stop us, and we’re going to turn it around quickly, and we’re going to get up and going.’”
Rejwan laughs when told about her “hero moment.” “He said that?” she asks. “It was just circumstances beyond our control, unfortunately…we had to react quickly, but also keep everyone invested and moving forward. And thankfully, we had such an incredible crew and cast that was so devoted to this. Warwick, who had been waiting 30 years to return to this role… It was a true labor of love in every sense of the word.”
She began considering new filmmakers. Howard himself was on it. But he couldn’t step in to save the day this time. “Listen, we should be so lucky to turn to Ron Howard,” Rejwan says. “But no, he had other commitments at the time. For a pilot director that does a block of episodes, the amount of prep and then a shoot is a pretty giant commitment. So it’s not easy to turn around and say, ‘Hey, so-and-so, drop everything you’re doing in the middle of a pandemic, move to Wales, [work in the] mud and rain and all of that fun.’”
Stepping into the breach was Stephen Woolfenden, a director of Outlander and The Spanish Princess, who had done second-unit directing on the later Harry Potter movies and Fantastic Beasts. He knew his way around swords, magic, and mud, having shot quite a lot in the temperamental UK landscapes where Willow would be filmed.
“Stephen definitely knew Wales very well and absolutely had great experience in multiple locations across the work he had done,” she says. “So that’s another way we were really lucky. It’s somebody that we trusted, that had a great, strong, creative point of view and excellent experience, and could jump into our pilot to set up the whole thing. It was pretty extraordinary.”
But, she admits, it could have all ended, right then. “There was definitely a ticking clock,” Rejwan says, outlining the “domino effect” of a delay that could cost them cast and locations, pushing the whole project back a year—or off the schedule completely if too many pieces fall away.
Instead, Willow was saved. On November 29, the night before its first episode goes live on Disney+, the series will have a gala premiere at the Village Theatre in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, where eight-year-old Jonathan Kasdan first saw Howard’s movie in 1988.
“For me, it’s perfectly circular,” Kasdan says. “I wrote a passionate letter to the distribution guy saying, ‘This place and this movie had a huge impact on me. And can we possibly do it there?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, sure… It’s not that hard.’”
It might be the first time during the making of Willow that those words were said.
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Senior Hollywood Correspondent
Anthony Breznican is a senior Hollywood correspondent at Vanity Fair. He has covered film, television, books, and awards for more than 20 years, developing special expertise on blockbuster franchises such as Marvel, Star Wars, and DC, the films of Steven Spielberg, and the writings of Stephen King. Anthony previously worked... Read moreSee More By Anthony Breznican »
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