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How Jonathan Kasdan Discovered the Heart of Disney’s New ‘Willow’ Series From Val Kilmer’s 80s ‘Surfer Boy’ Rogue

(L-R): Kit (Ruby Cruz), Jade (Erin Kellyman), Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel) and Graydon (Tony Revolori) in Lucasfilm's WILLOW exclusively on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.
Amanda Searle / Lucasfilm Ltd.

Of all the life-changing cinema that premiered in the 1980s, Jonathan Kasdan singles out “Willow” as the first film to “mark time” in his existence. “It just had this psychological significance to me in my development,” Kasdan explains to Variety. “You’d be shocked at how many people say, ‘Oh, I saw that movie, it scared the shit out of me when I was a kid.’” 

The 1988 fantasy, directed by Ron Howard (then 34) and executive produced by George Lucas, is centered around a lousy sorcerer named Willow (played by a 17-year-old Warwick Davis) who is tasked with protecting a magical baby from all manner of treachery. Its collection of revolutionary visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic — including the transformation of an army of men into squealing pigs — along with powerhouse performances from Jean Marsh, Val Kilmer and Davis all delivered with a touch of charm is what helped to keep “Willow” in the hearts of the VHS generation. 

It made such a lasting impression on Kasdan, in fact, that he kept bringing it up on the set of “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”  

“He was always talking about death dogs and Bavmorda and Raziel,” recalls Howard, who directed the “Star Wars” prequel from a script by Kasdan and his father, Lawrence Kasdan. “I was trying to focus on the galaxy far, far away.”  

Between his direct contact with Howard and Davis (who plays a small role in “Solo”), and his unabashed enthusiasm for all things “Willow,” Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy was convinced that Kasdan was the obvious candidate to shepherd their new “Willow” series and its fantasy world to Disney+. 

The big question was: How? 

Val Kilmer as Madmartigan in ‘Willow.’ ©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

After multiple rewatches of the original, the answer became clear in the character of Madmartigan, the sword-wielding heartthrob played by Kilmer. 

“Val’s such a specific and critical part of the magic of it because he was such an odd thing for a fantasy movie to have” Kasdan explains. “You look at Tom Cruise in ‘Legend’ and he’s doing Puck in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Or Rutger Hauer in ‘Ladyhawke’ and it’s all this of English-y leaning into the ideas about fantasy. Then Val comes along and he’s a surfer boy from California, literally stumbling through the movie with this incredible physicality and humor that couldn’t have existed in any moment before the moment it happened.”  

Kasdan used Madmartigan as a tone-setter for the series, leaning into that youthfulness, angst and drama — all, familiar qualities to him from his years writing episodes of “Dawson’s Creek.” He also brought a youthful vibe to the new “Willow,” with Gen Z slang and rock covers playing over the credits. But while Kilmer couldn’t be at the center of the series due to health reasons — Kasdan called his involvement “limited’ — the star’s absence is a part of the story.  

More importantly, Kasdan honored Kilmer’s youthful spirit by casting a new troupe of actors, starting with newcomer Ruby Cruz, who plays Madmartigan’s daughter Kit Tanthalos.  

“Ruby emerged for me as the antidote to a lot of the challenges of this,” Kasdan says. “When she came in to read, it reminded me in spirit of Val. Not that she was aping the thing at all, but that she was a contemporary actress in a fantasy, and that was cool to us.”  

Jade (Erin Kellyman), Kit (Ruby Cruz) and Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel) in Lucasfilm’s WILLOW exclusively on Disney+. Lucasfilm Ltd.

Kasdan kept fluctuating the script with each new cast member even Erin Kellyman, who’d already worked with Kasdan on “Solo.”  

“I didn’t have any clue about how funny [Kellyman] was,” Kasdan says. “As the season progresses, she has more and more opportunities to do what she does naturally, which is a very dry, deadpan comedy.” 

Cruz and Kellyman join Tony Revolori, Ellie Bamber, Amar Chadha-Patel and original cast members Joanne Whalley and Davis in the magical realm, two decades after the first film ended. Keeping things as close as they could to the original, the new company filmed in the same locations as the first “Willow” throughout Wales.   

Kasdan spent 11 months abroad trying to revive the magical realm, exacerbated by COVID complications and preproduction. When things got dire, Kasdan found himself seeking counsel from a different Hollywood kingdom: “Game of Thrones” show runners, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, who shot extensively in the UK. The duo helped “Willow” get crewed up and even connected him with horse master Camilla Naprous, whose father worked on the original film.  

While Kasdan knows “Willow” will court the “Thrones” and “Lord of the Rings” crowd, he’s also well aware of the differences. Where the “Rings” often requires a backlog of elven knowledge, and “Thrones” includes bracing acts of violence, Lucasfilm has a lower bar for entry and enjoyment.  

“These were for everybody,” he says. “If you had even just a casual affection for the genre, you could go on the trip with the characters. I hope [that] distinguishes the show a little bit. It’s much more intended to only be fun — eight hours of diversion.” 

While much of the humor and swagger was inspired by Kilmer, Kasdan stresses that the heart and soul of “Willow” remains with Davis. The series continues the story of the struggling sorcerer, “but his magic, his real magic is his heart and his devotion to the people around him, his family and his friends,” Kasdan says.

Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) and Dove (Ellie Bamber) in Lucasfilm’s “Willow.” Lucasfilm Ltd.

20 years later, much has changed for Davis. The actor now has grown children, who joined him on production of “Willow.” His daughter, Annabelle Davis, plays Willow’s grown child Mims, while his son, Harrison Davis, worked as a body double for a future episode. But Willow the wizard is still struggling.

“Back on the movie, I always said for Willow [that] magic hurts,” Howard says. “There were times when he’d cast a spell and use the wand and it would actually feel like it had burned his hand or hurt his arm or something. So it’s never been something that Willow could do and execute casually. He had this capacity, but there was a price to be paid with it.”

That pain will be explored as the wizard and chosen baby (currently a young adult herself) reunite to continue their story in the Disney+ series. That’s all longtime fan Kasdan wants — to keep telling Willow’s story.

“There was no mechanism pushing this to happen,” says Kasdan, referencing the mass of vintage IPs getting rebooted or revived in Hollywood. “The only thing that made this happen was that we loved it. That Ron had affection for it and that Warwick felt that it was [right]. It was purely born out of a desire to keep telling the story.”