The director made his comments at Disney’s D23 Expo convention in Anaheim, California on Saturday, four months before the film is set to be released.
It was previously announced that Fisher will appear in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker via unseen footage in the upcoming sequel, the final installment of the franchise’s third trilogy. The actress died at age 60 in December 2016, months after filming wrapped on the second film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
“The character of Leia is really, in a way, the heart of this story,” Abrams said at D23, according to Variety. “We realized we could not possibly tell the end of these nine films without Leia. We realized that we had footage from Episode VII, and we could use it in a new way.”
Earlier this year, Abrams, who is also a co-screenwriter on the film, told Vanity Fair that he started to write scenes around old footage of Fisher, fitting Leia’s dialogue into new contexts, and also re-created the lighting. He also said that he Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd, who plays a Resistance officer named Lieutenant Connix in the trilogy, would be in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker scenes with her mother at her request.
Lourd paid tribute to her mom on Instagram on Saturday, sharing an old behind-the-scenes Star Wars photo of Fisher in character as Leia, laughing.
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It is unclear if the movie was Fisher’s last film. She was slated to appear in the movie Wonderwell, a family fantasy drama also starring Rita Ora. It is unknown if Fisher filmed her part. A release date for the movie has not been announced.
Also during D23 on Saturday, Disney-owned Lucasfilm released a new poster for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which shows heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) having a lightsaber duel with her nemesis Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) amid a storm—and a giant image of returning villain Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).
The first poster and trailer for the movie were released in April.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is set for release on December 20.