Filmmaker LeAndre Thomas’ day job has been working at Lucasfilm for 10 years. He has risen to his current position as franchise video assets manager while working on his film projects on his own time. In 2020, Thomas was inspired to write a short film that has evolved into the heart-wrenching and uplifting Season 2, Episode 8 of the animated series Star Wars: Visions, “The Pit.” BGN had the opportunity to chat with Thomas via Zoom shortly after the Season 2 premiere of this stunning series of animated shorts.
What inspired you to write “The Pit”?
Back in 2020, I was talking with my partner; tensions were just high around the board for everything. It felt like a lot of us in marginalized groups were pushed into this metaphorical pit, and because we were so deep, the people on the surface couldn’t hear us. I typically don’t talk about stories of struggle like that because I was always under the impression that so many great artists before me had already tackled those issues or talked about it so many times. My philosophy was never to only make movies about racial struggle, because I don’t like it when artists get pigeonholed into telling stories like that. But something ignited in me in 2020 because I felt like a lot of people kept saying, “Oh, we had no idea this was happening.” Really? You had no idea what we’ve been saying this entire time?
So this was the moment I was inspired to make a piece of work to reflect that. The opportunity presented itself at Lucasfilm to pitch this idea. I had never pitched an idea because I was very respectful of my job. I make my own movies as I’ve been working there 10-plus years. I didn’t want to kind of be the person who pitched ideas unless that happened organically. And of course, it did.
I wrote that script the weekend after I had that conversation. And they genuinely loved it and rallied around it to make it happen. It turned out that Visions was the best series for it because Visions is a celebration of looking at Star Wars from different perspectives. It was an incredible opportunity.
It’s amazing how the current Star Wars universe mirrors the universal struggle of caste systems.
You’re speaking to the core of everything we were trying to reflect in this movie. Star Wars is a multi-species universe that goes beyond race, right? It’s imagining what the world could look like in the galaxy far, far away in the future. So it’s important to know that responsibility as a company and the change that it can have on the world. When I was at those protests in 2020, I would see people with signs with Princess Leia on them that said “Rebel or Resist,” and that’s remarkable because it’s a fictional character. There are people using that character to protest about a real issue that has consequences on people’s lives. It didn’t feel foreign to have Leia at that protest because Star Wars has always been about those themes of rebellions and empires and hope and oppression. So we must continue to connect to the real world. And that’s what we were trying to do with “The Pit” in this little small, short story. It’s just great that we have this remarkable series — to be open enough to tell stories like that from different backgrounds.
Your 2019 award-winning short film Mirror and “The Pit” both show the power of resilience and leave the audience with a sense of hope for the future. What inspires you to tell difficult stories from this optimistic viewpoint?
There’s a lot of connective tissue between Mirror and “The Pit.” On the surface, they’re completely different stories, but both have that yin-yang of tragedy and hope. There are light and dark, duality and balance themes in Star Wars in general. I like telling stories that hit harder because the opposite often happens in cinema and film. And I want to take Star Wars deeper than a typical studio enterprise that just makes lightsaber movies. It has always been my opinion that George [Lucas] wanted to make something much deeper. Even the Force is about this spirituality and this connection to everything in the world.
So it’s the perfect sandbox to tell stories like “The Pit,” where we can talk about the philosophical side of the Star Wars universe without leaving the audience in tragedy. We want to make sure people have a call to action where they feel like, “Okay, we can do something about it. It’s not hopeless.” And that was a big story beat for me with Livi, the young girl who makes it out. That “cherry on top” of hope was seeing that she’s Force sensitive. Imagine what someone that small, that courageous, can do without even knowing she has the Force. Imagine what she could do as a Jedi.
This was your first time working in animation?
Yeah, it was. I studied it a little bit in college, but I never made any animated short films or movies on my own. It was important to partner with someone like Justin Ridge, one of the co-directors of the movie. He has an extensive animation background, and he was one of the directors of Star Wars Resistance. And when I got to speak with Arthell [Isom, co-owner of the first Black-owned Japanese animation studio, D’ART Studio] and sent him the script, he knew immediately what we were trying to say. That shorthand was really important. We wanted to support his studio and his business as well. Animation gets categorized as a medium that is just for young people, but it’s an art medium that is for everyone. I felt like this movie represents that aspect as well.
What impact do you hope that kids will leave with after watching “The Pit”?
Reminding young people that they can make effective change just by being who they are now; you don’t necessarily have to be an adult. One of the other messages is knowing that they have this light inside them, a conscience, and they have this ability to know when something’s wrong. You don’t have to be a Jedi to be able to do that.
What about this project brought you joy?
There were so many joys. Creating characters like Crux [Daveed Diggs] and Livi [Anika Noni Rose]. Her Afro puffs were inspired by my younger sister. Leia’s twin buns in Star Wars were this exotic science-fiction hairstyle, but in our community, those Afro puffs were a very practical hairstyle. My sister used to have her hair like that all the time.
Also, from the cast to the crew behind “The Pit,” there was so much Black representation in this one Star Wars production. It was a joy just to see everyone — Anika, Daveed, me, Arthell, and his team — all working on this one production. That’s something I’ll never forget.
All episodes of Star Wars: Visions are currently streaming on Disney+.
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Jeanine is a Writer, Actor, member SAG/AFTRA, AEA, Podcast host, Producer, CEO VisAbleBlackWoman Productions, Certified Health Coach and Conscious Dance facilitator. Jeanine's mission, centering Black women's stories to preserve our legacies.