‘Lego Star Wars Terrifying Tales’ Writer David Shayne and Director Ken Cunningham on Christian Slater, Poe Dameron’s Swagger, and More

The LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales arrives today just in time for Halloween (for those of us who observe the spooky holiday the entire month of October). Just like the LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special last year, Terrifying Tales is a true treat for Star Wars fans. The film is filled with clever homages to classic horror films, zombie battle droids, and Poe Dameron and BB-8 on an epic spooky adventure.

I had the chance to talk with writer David Shayne and director Ken Cunningham about working on Lego Star Wars Terrifying Tales, the film’s Easter eggs, Christian Slater, and of course Ben Solo.

Maggie Lovitt: So right out of the gate, I want to say that the Terrifying Tales and the Holiday Special were the balm that soothed my grief after The Rise of Skywalker. Ben Solo is one of my favorite characters and I absolutely love what both of you have done with him in both of these movies. In terms of his backstory with Ren which Vaneé tells in Terrifying Tales, how did you come about this kind of reimagined version? I know [part of] it is in Charles Soule's comics.

David Shayne: Yeah, that's really correct. So when we were developing the special we wanted to do sort of three mini-stories, sort of Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” style. We wanted one from each of the time periods so when we were circling in on the sequel trilogy, we just felt like Ben was such a natural.

And you're absolutely right, I'm really impressed like you zoomed in [on that]. They delve a little bit with Ben and Ren and their relationship in the comics and we sort of used that as a springboard. As I think you saw, we sort of leaped off and did a bit of a Lost Boys thing from there.

LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales
Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm

Lovitt: My mind was blown when Christian Slater was announced as the voice of Ren. So how did he end up getting cast in that role?

Shayne: We were looking for someone who could do basically a great 80s movie villain. It turns out (not surprisingly) Christian like a lot of people is a big Star Wars fan. He was such a great sport. Ken, you remember he was under the blankets?

Ken Cunningham: Yeah, it was so awesome. He was just super nice. I mean, he kept wanting to do more. It was great. I guess he had actually even reached out, he had been wanting to do something. I think he'd even reached out before this role came up, just like, “I'd like to do anything.”

Shayne: Lindsay Halper, who's our casting director, [we] put in these asks to her and she just reaches out and gets us these wonderful people again and again.

Lovitt: Ken, were you able to direct them in the studio or was it all like over Zoom?

Cunningham: It was all over [Zoom]. We've got Mary, our voice director, and David, the other exec producer, and [Christian Slater] there under a blanket with a microphone. It was Brady Bunch, you know?

Shayne: Ken, you're really right there were like nine or ten of us by the time [we] had everybody. It works surprisingly well. Frankly, given the sort of craziness, that was deep in the heart of the pandemic, I remember Lucasfilm had to send a sound kit over to him. I think I described to you, he's basically under a big blanket that was his recording booth.

Cunningham: This has been the way that we've directed both specials for the most part. I mean, we were in the studio for the beginning of the Holiday Special, but I think if I remember timeline-wise, I think we were into layout or maybe we were just finishing up animatic. This is the way I've been directing stuff for quite a while now.

Lovitt: Has that changed how you direct at all?

Cunningham: Maybe, I mean communication becomes really, really important. When I was in the studio, I could just get up [and] go onto the floor and talk to people whenever I wanted. Now you're reaching out through chat and through email and stuff. We do a lot of this. We make sure we have weekly meetings and then every other day, we have the whole production team in a meeting.

Kickoffs like this [are] actually easier than kicking off in say, a boardroom. Today I did an animation kickoff, where [you can] share your screen, bring up the material you want to show, walk them through stuff. It's sort of easier. I guess when I go back into the studio, we'll probably start to use PowerPoint or whatever the current best software to do that sort of thing is. It's nice to be able to visually show and share stuff [like] scenes you want them to emulate.

LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales
Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm

Lovitt: Now David, one of my other favorite parts of Terrifying Tales was the whole Wookie's Paw scenario for Luke. I would love to hear the creative process that went into deciding the different elements. I loved Leia and Obi-Wan surviving. 

Shayne: Oh, thank you. That's very kind. It's funny, Wookie's Paw came very early in the process. I think as I mentioned, we wanted to do three kinds of Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” type stories. We knew [that] we wanted one from of each of the three big areas and that was the first one that popped into my head. It was taking the framework of the classic monkey's paw story and just turning on its head. That story we all know: “Be careful what you wish for.”

We just thought well, “Luke wants to be a pilot. What if he winds up being a pilot for the Empire?” I mean, I guess that possibility always existed so it was just really interesting to see what would happen when Luke breaks bad and then you just start to work backward. I just felt like, “Okay, well he should still blow up the Death Star. What's the worst thing you could do if you were a member of the Empire? It would be to blow up the Death Star. Work backward from there.

Then I realized, well, gosh! Maybe Obi-Wan would have saved Leia a whole different way or she would have saved him. Then they would be in the fleet together. I was like, “Oh, great, we can have Leia leading the whole raid on the Death Star.” It just all worked backward from there and it was super fun. That was the first one [and] these things are a little modular. So you kind of do each one and that was the first one that came to mind. It came together really fast.

Lovitt: Well, it was super fun to watch as well.

Shayne: Thank you. Well, passing along compliments, Ken crushed it. Here you are recreating the most iconic of iconic moments in Star Wars and flipping it on its head. It's funny, I was rewatching it recently and I realized [that] even Michael Kramer, our composer, was doing little subtle things and messing with the music and putting some of it in a minor key. We all were playing with this kind of we're in a bizarro world here.

Cunningham: Yeah. Like where's the line of just straight reference versus twisting it?

Lovitt: On the topic of recreating these iconic moments, when you're working with a major IP like Star Wars or even Marvel, what is the key thing that you keep in mind when you're approaching it through a LEGO lens? 

Cunningham: Oh, that's a great question. Well, I mean, that's the key.  I think of it as if I'm doing it through a lens. I'm not doing it through a piece of software or animation. I just grab my fantasy to do live-action essentially, I channel that, and I just try to treat it like it's an actual film. I run a set, we're shooting on a set, they are real actors. So I try to use those constraints to some extent.

CG animation can get a bit disconnected from real-world filmmaking because you can do whatever you want with the camera, but I like to anchor it. Obviously, there are very established things within those brands that you want to hit, but then what's great about the LEGO stuff is that there's license to really play. Taking something like the trench run, like okay watch it, reference it in places, but then I've got this great script from David where I can deviate and elevate the materials.

Shayne: I always sort of joke that I think of LEGO Star Wars as being canon adjacent. We honor canon, we honor those characters, but we're obviously asked to and want to put a LEGO spin on it and make them funny. Even with this one, I thought we were pushing it even further because we had the Halloween lens that lets you go to an even more bizarro place.

You have Vaneé telling these stories that are ghost stories that we don't know if they're true. Vaneé's sort of making them up and using them to manipulate our main characters. It just gave us an enormous amount of room to play and kudos to Lucasfilm because they kept pushing us and saying, “Yeah, we can do that. Let's do more.”

Again, I keep thinking of the soundtrack. When Michael Kramer turned in his first version of the score on the “Lost Boy” and we [were] like “Yeah! Even more 80s! More synth!” He was like, “Did I do too much synth?” Like, “No, no. More is good.” It's just everyone is sort of like “How far can we push this thing?” and it's just such a blast. It's so much fun to get to do.

LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales
Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm

Lovitt: I love the 80s influences and I also loved the allusion to The Shining, which I thought was just the perfect Halloween time reference. Are there any other references in Terrifying Tales that you hope that fans notice when they're watching?

Cunningham: So many.

Shayne: Oh man, I mean what it really was trying to put a bunch of Easter eggs. So you caught The Shining references. Even in the Grievous and Maul story, you want to get a little bit of a Frankenstein feel. It's really sort of just feeling those little moments wherever you can. The battle droids are essentially a zombie army, so that's a Walking Dead homage or Night of the Living Dead. It's all of that. So it was anywhere that we could do it, we just kept asking ourselves where we can find those things.

Cunningham: Yeah, totally. In my process of trying to figure it out visually, I obviously watched a bunch of stuff, but I watched Bram Stoker's Dracula again. That really, for me, informs the overall look and approach. Being very theatrical with the lighting, not being real world. When Vaneé starts to tell a story, we kick up a green light from underneath. Where the hell does that come from? It doesn't matter. It's the stage. That was a big reference for me.

Lovitt: Now, Terrifying Tales is a very Force-heavy story. How did you arrive at Poe being the main character, rather than pulling from characters like Finn or Rose or Rey?

Shayne: Oh, that's a great question. You know, it's funny, I think it's nice to have some contrast. When we did the Holiday Special, we had really focused on Rey. I think what sort of happened [is] you're talking about Halloween and you're talking about fear.

To us, Poe is the most swaggery of swaggery characters. To me, I always think that's kind of an interesting thing. Like, at what point is that swagger an act and where is that real? Sometimes that's the way we cover up our fear. So it's really sort of exploring that and what's interesting is, for Poe, we sort of break him down a little bit. He sort of starts at the height of super cocky [and] it's actually him pulling this crazy maneuver that gets him crash landing on the planet in the first place.

Then getting him to admit, “Yeah, sometimes what I do is I put on this forward and I put on this brave face and that's how I get through the day.” It's the line that he has, “Without fear, you can't have courage.” He acknowledges that for Dean. That really was what made Poe the natural [choice]. Starting from the swagger and then putting him in really scary situations.

LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales
Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm

Lovitt: Dean is also such a fun character. How did you come up with that character? Was he just a good foil and repair guy for Poe?

Shayne: Yeah, he was a good foil and it is nice in Star Wars to have a kid's entry and a kid’s point of view in LEGO Star Wars. He just felt like a great contrast. Dean gets to go on his journey of sorts, learning to deal with fear as he sort of learns from his hero Poe and figures all that out. He was just a really sweet kid and Rafael Alejandro who played him just killed it

Lovitt: He's such a good actor.

Shayne: I can't even convey how natural he is. I mean, Ken, he popped in the studio he barely needed [anything].

Cunningham: He was.

Shayne: So sweet. So game. [He] just captured it. I mean, we heard his audition, [and he] was perfect. He really brought an enormous amount of life to that character.

Lovitt: Now for my last question, are either of you able to tease any other upcoming LEGO projects? Is there anything else on the horizon? I know I would love Valentine's Day LEGO Star Wars. Just saying.

Shayne: You know, I always joke [that] I've been trying to convince them to let us do an Arbor Day special.

Lovitt: I had a LEGO tree set as a kid so that totally works.

Cunningham: I'm totally there with David if he does that.

Shayne: If they ask I will show up. I would do this for as long as they would foolishly have me. Getting to work with Ken is the best.

LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales is streaming now on Disney+. 

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Maggie Lovitt is a writer at Wealth of Geeks where she covers her favorite topics: Star Wars and pop culture nerdery.

In her free time, she is also a novelist, screenwriter, actor, and member of the Screen Actors Guild.