Jonathan Kasdan, executive producer of Disney+’s Willow series, talks resurrecting the 1988 film and working with Warwick Davis.
Between the end of the 1988 fantasy film Willow and its upcoming sequel series coming to Disney+, much has changed. Willow Ufgood (played by Warwick Davis, who’s now returned to the role) is now older and wiser. The baby Elora Danan, that he had to keep safe from the terrible Queen Bavmorda, is now a young woman who’s oblivious to her true identity and the magical power she’s prophesised to use to defeat a new evil. Like all legacy sequels, Willow walks a fine line between evoking the themes and feel of its predecessor and making room for new characters and adventure.
We’ve been chatting to the series’ executive producer, Jonathan Kasdan, about his love for the original Willow, why he wanted to make a sequel and working with Warwick Davis.
For fans both old and new, Willow is very efficient at getting us up to speed. In some introductory narration the plot of the film is recapped, as well as what’s happened in the years after its end. But it takes more than that to show the passage of time, and Kasdan knew that the world would have to be familiar, yet also drastically different.
“One thing we tried to do with the show is we tried to sort of invert the world of the movie and the world of the show,” he explains. “There would be a sort of loving relationship towards all those old locations, the forests and the castles and all of that, where you kind of see how time interacts with these places, and how change is sort of inevitable and irrevocable everywhere you go in the world of Willow.” As a result, the places that were safe havens in the ’88 film are now dangerous to enter, and places that may have been unsafe back then are now the centres of civilisation.
That civilisation, specifically the kingdom of Tir Asleen, is where the show begins. Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) serves as its Queen, with Madmartigan (played in the film by Val Kilmer, who was unable to return for the show) away on a mysterious quest.
Their daughter Kit (Ruby Cruz) is expected to marry the Prince of a nearby kingdom, Graydon (Tony Revolori), while her brother Airk (Dempsey Bryk) rolls around in the hay with kitchen maid Dove (Ellie Bamber). Also among the cast are Erin Kellyman as aspiring knight Jade and Amar Chadha-Patel as Boorman, a thief. When Airk is kidnapped by dark forces, the unlikely group are forced to band together on a quest to rescue him.
Missing from the start of the show is Elora Danan. When Willow foresees a new evil rising up to kill her and take over the realm, she’s put into hiding. Even she is unaware of her true identity.
It’s an interesting starting point that creates an immediate mystery for fans to solve, and the character of Elora has always been the focus for Kasdan. “I think there was something about this girl with this enormous power, and the fate of the world was pinned on her, on her fate, and tied to her fate,” he says.
“One of the things that’s great about the movie is that they created in Elora this incredibly vulnerable MacGuffin, this thing that you inherently cared about and worried about, and I think the first question all of us had when we were talking about this was ‘who does that girl grow up to be? How is her life formed by who she is?’ And I wanted to tell that whole story. So it felt natural that this information was withheld from her and that we would get to be there the moment she learned who she was.”
A legacy sequel
Part of the reason Kasdan saw the Willow universe as being well-suited to the legacy sequel treatment was because of Elora Danan’s place in the original film. We’ve seen her as a baby, destined to do great things. But what are those great things, exactly?
“There was a case to be made that Willow was almost a prologue to the epic story of Elora Danan, and the life she’d had and all the talk about her being Empress. It sort of inherently suggested and implied a great long story,” he says.
He elaborates that idea came to him when watching the Harry Potter films – another franchise that involves a “baby in a basket on the doorstep of someone who didn’t want a baby in a basket.” That baby also had a destiny, and we watched it play out over the course of eight films. “It went from that moment into this epic saga of growing up and finding yourself. And I thought that was a worthy role model for an Elora Danan story.”
Of course, it helps that Jonathan Kasdan is also a huge fan of Willow himself, having seen the film in the cinema as a child. “The images in it stuck with me my whole life – in ways more so than Star Wars because I’d been too young to see Star Wars in a movie theatre and was just the right age to see Willow. And it really speaks in a lot of ways, almost ironically, to the overwhelming power of movie theatres and of seeing someone on a huge screen.”
The project really got underway when Kasdan started working for LucasFilm on Solo: A Star Wars Story (as a co-writer alongside his father Lawrence Kasdan), and saw all the ways the Star Wars universe was being expanded.
“My first instinct was ‘well, what about the Willow universe? That is equally worthy, if not in certain ways more worthy of more stories because it was the only thing George created in that period that never got a sequel,” he enthuses. “Willow was this sort of book that was lying somewhere, dusty in the back of the storeroom, and I thought that was irresistible.”
Warwick Davis and Ron Howard (who directed Willow and returns now as an executive producer) have long wanted to resurrect the film, and LucasFilm president Kathleen Kennedy was also on board, but it was Kasdan’s undying enthusiasm and perseverance that finally got the project into production.
But of course, a Willow sequel would be impossible without Warwick Davis returning to the title role. “I knew before I met him that this was something he wanted to do. I’m that kind of person who reads about this kind of stuff, and had wondered what had become of this, and I knew Ron [Howard] had talked about it frequently too and both of them had had a strong desire for this story to continue.”
Luckily it was easy to get Davis involved, and it turned out they were very much in agreement when it came to how the sequel should go. “I thought Elora Danan was the way to continue the story and that developing his relationship to that young woman and what that would look like if she was no longer a baby but a frustrating young woman, would be total fun and he couldn’t have agreed more and was nothing but supportive and encouraging at the start, and nothing but a strong and passionate collaborator when we got to actually make the show.”
While Val Kilmer wasn’t able to join the shoot and return as Madmartigan, including the character in the story was still important for Kasdan – and he has a lot of praise for Kilmer’s performance in the original film. “What Val lent it in his original performance is so much mythic power in addition to the humour and the charisma and the sex appeal, he also lent it this mythic character. There was no one like him before or since.”
The answer to Kilmer’s absence was an easy one, as it’d always been the plan to have Madmartigan be away on a mysterious quest.
“We’d always known that built into the DNA of the story we wanted to do was that he was not going to be there at the start, and that they were going to be searching for him, and that the question of ‘what happened to Madmartigan?’ was in a way almost as potent as Madmartigan himself. It was just such a strong mystery,” he explains. “I loved the idea that there would be a quest, a really yearning quest to find him.”
With that storyline planned ahead of time, it was easier to adapt it to Kilmer’s absence. “At what point that quest was resolved was always, as we were developing the story, a question mark, and as it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to come out to Wales with us in ‘21, we merely pushed that question down the road and continued exactly the story we intended to tell, which was that he was out there and he was fighting bigger things.”
Kasdan still hopes to include Kilmer in the continuation of the Willow world at some point. “My hope, and certainly my fantasy, is that Val does appear in Willow, and I think he’d like it too.”
As with any legacy sequel, the original characters and cast are joined by new, young characters. It turns out it’s no easy feat to cast the characters who’ll carry a franchise forward. “It was sort of a thrilling and also very stressful process, because you have such a strong image in your head of what you want and they’re put up against people like Warwick and Joanne, who you know are what you want because they are the characters,” Kasdan says.
However, some were more easily cast than others. Kasdan had already worked with Erin Kellyman on Solo, and knew instantly that he wanted to work with her again. “I just knew that in the story we were going to tell and they way we were going to tell it she would have a good place, a place that could be written specifically to her strengths.”
He also had Tony Revolori in mind for Prince Graydon – who provides a fair amount of the show’s comic relief. He’d seen him act in Grand Budapest Hotel, and describes himself as a fan, “specifically of his reactive comedy.” He elaborates, calling Revolori “a great reactor. He can tell you so much with just his face and his eyes and that was something I knew that we could use in our show.”
By contrast, Amar Chadha-Patel (who acted in Amazon’s Wheel Of Time series) had to work harder to prove himself right for the role of Boorman. He’s a thief with possible ties to Sorsha and Madmartigan, and Chadha-Patel brings a bucket-load of charisma to the character. “With Amar it really felt like he could bring something totally fresh and original to a familiar type, and he fulfilled that promise.”
Lastly, he mentions the casting of Kit and Dove – characters who are at odds with each other at the start of the show. Kasdan explains that he expected casting them to be the most difficult part of the process, but found it surprisingly easy. “Ellie [who plays Dove] needed do no more than audition on day one,” he says. “And with Ruby [who plays Kit], what was so special about Ruby is that she brought a kind of contemporary sound and rhythm that reminded all of us of the freshness that Val brought to the movie.”
Kasdan’s enthusiasm for Willow and the fantasy genre is obvious the whole time we’re talking, and we wrap up our conversation by turning to the topic of fantasy TV in general, and what makes a perfect show. He barely needs to think before mentioning Game Of Thrones. “Game Of Thrones in every way really changed the game for what these shows could be and what was possible, really, even on television in terms of scale and storytelling,” he says.
“The genius to me of the original Game Of Thrones is the sort of balancing act between the more intimate moments and really nuanced character stuff, and huge epic battles and effects, and making it all sort of a cohesive combination of elements. That’s the highest aspiration you can ever have with this genre of storytelling.”
With some beautiful and detailed production design and some interesting character arcs, it seems Kasdan may have achieved something close to his aspirations with Willow. Let’s hope the younger version of him would have approved.
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