It’s great to come back to characters you love
Lucasfilm and visionary director J.J. Abrams join forces to take you back again to a galaxy far, far away as Star Wars returns to the big screen with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.The screenplay is by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt. Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk are producing with Tommy Harper and Jason McGatlin serving as executive producers. Star Wars: The Force Awakens releases in S.A. theaters on December 16, 2015.Q: You have a long history with “Star Wars.” Tell us about it.
A: I met George Lucas in 1977. I had sold a screenplay, “Continental Divide,” to Steven Spielberg. Steven and George decided, based on that screenplay, that they wanted me to write “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I was thrilled. I was brand-new in the business and it was an amazing first job. When I was finished with the “Raiders” script, I took it up to Marin County to deliver to George. He threw it on his desk, and said, “C’mon, let’s go to lunch.” He told me he was in trouble with “The Empire Strikes Back” because Leigh Brackett, who was working on it, had passed away, and he had no script.
He asked me to write “The Empire Strikes Back.” I was concerned because he hadn’t read “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but he said he would read it that evening and if he didn’t like it, he would call me the next day and retract the offer. I began working on “The Empire Strikes Back” a few days later.
It turned out to be a wonderful experience working with George and Irvin Kershner, who was the director. We did it in six weeks. They were already building sets in England, so there was no time to waste. George had a story and I wrote the screenplay. When that was over, I went back to my original intention, which was to become a movie director.
I’d met Alan Ladd, Jr. who was running 20th Century Fox and releasing the “Star Wars” movies. He was offering me writing jobs and I was turning them down; I told him I wanted to direct. He asked what I wanted to direct and I told him the story of “Body Heat,” which became my first film. After it was written, Ladd said he would make it but he asked that I get someone to look over my shoulder as a first-time director. I went to George and asked him to do that and he agreed. George was very generous and supportive to me. After “Body Heat,” George asked me to write “Return of the Jedi,” which became my second “Star Wars” movie, directed by Richard Marquand.
Q: Talk about knowing Kathleen Kennedy.
A: After Steven Spielberg bought “Continental Divide,” he introduced me to George. We were all going to do “Raiders of the Lost Ark” together. I had no place to work on the screenplay, no office, as I was just coming into the movie business. Steven said he was going to be off directing “1941” and I should use his office. I wrote “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at Steven Spielberg’s desk and, true to his word, he barely showed up during those six months. Kathy Kennedy was Steven’s assistant at that time, in 1977, and she had not been with him very long. She was in and out a good bit between the set and the office and we became friends. So we’ve had a long, good friendship. We haven’t worked together like this for a long time but it’s great to be working with Kathy again. When George and Kathy decided to reignite the saga, they asked me if I’d like to be part of it. Read interview with Kathleen Kennedy
Q: In broad strokes, do you remember the key elements that needed to be in the film?
A: Right from the start, there was a meeting of the minds about the things we wanted the new “Star Wars” to be. How it would be similar to the first trilogy. How would it be different, because times have changed and it’s been imitated so much. All our thoughts were similar. The movies had to get back to being tactile, rather than CGI. One of the wonderful things about the first trilogy is that it’s kind of funky and puts on a show. The creatures in the first one are crude but become more sophisticated in “The Empire Strikes Back.” But the funkiness of some of the effects and costumes and creatures are part of what makes the first movie so irresistible. In the next two movies, which I wrote with George, the effects are increasingly sophisticated, but the spirit is close to “A New Hope.”
Right through “Return of the Jedi,” there’s a tangible feeling that we’re actually on a set somewhere shooting this movie. All of us wanted to get back to that feeling, which we thought maybe had drifted away in subsequent movies. So, that was common ground. Then, things that interested us in the story were similar. It was a family saga, and we talked about how we could continue to play that in interesting ways — not just for new generations but for the people who saw “A New Hope” originally 40 years ago.
So, you’re paying tribute to a tradition, a saga that has made an impact beyond anyone’s imagination. You’re trying to be supportive of it; loyal, honest, respectful of it and, at the same time, move it forward.
Q: Did you and J.J. Abrams feel strongly about having strong female characters in this film?
A: There was never a question. It was not just J.J. and me, but Kathy and everyone at Lucasfilm as well. We aimed very strongly toward one of the protagonists being a woman right from the get-go. It cries out for that. Leia was a wonderful character but she was among the only women in the movie. This saga demands more in female leadership. We want to see more characters like that. As the saga goes forward, we’ll see more. We knew that this one had to be centered on both a girl and a boy.
A: It’s great to come back to characters you love. Leia and Han are great people to write for and now I’ve done it a lot. For someone who is their age, there’s poignancy about how we lose our physical resilience. We deal with many things over a course of a lifetime. Some take a toll and some show up in lines in our face. When you stop resisting it, it can be a glorious thing. You’re grateful and appreciative for this journey that put you through so many different paces. When you see Carrie Fisher and you see Harrison Ford, you see all that. We’ve followed them since they were so young. They grew up on camera. For Harrison, it’s been nonstop movie stardom, which is a burden in itself. Very few people have had the long, varied career that Harrison has. Harrison was in “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but he was also in “Witness,” “Clear and Present Danger,” and so many more. He’s played fear and aspiration, heroism and neuroses. For Harrison to walk back onto the Millennium Falcon as Han, I don’t think anyone can watch it and not be thrilled. He looks so right and so comfortable. In the same way, Carrie Fisher had a cerebral nature at 21 and she’s got it now. We’re trying to have everyone come through with who they are. The dream in a movie is to bring out what’s best in an actor, whether they’re 12 or 70. Acting is magical; it’s mysterious. I’ve never been able to figure out why some people can do it, and I’ve spent my whole life with actors. I wanted to be an actor and I couldn’t.
Q: “Chewie, we’re home” is a cinematic moment. How did you come up with scenes like that?
A: We were very pleased when we wrote that scene. There were so many memorable moments in the writing process. It took months and months of J.J. and me alone walking, talking, sitting, writing. We did a lot of walking around cities — Los Angeles, New York, Paris and London. I’ve never written a movie that way. We were talking and recording, and then we’d go someplace and write it down. It was so much more fun than normal writing. We were sitting at the café Les Deux Magots in Paris, one of the famous cafes where Hemmingway sat, writing “Star Wars,” with J.J.’s computer on the table. We wrote a lot of it walking around Santa Monica, ending up at the Palisades looking at the Pacific Ocean on a gorgeous day. We were doing all the difficult work of story construction but we did it in incredibly pleasant circumstances. Once it was freezing cold, walking around Central Park, stopping for burgers and frozen custard at Shake Shack. It was heavenly.
Q: What is your hope for this film?
A: I used one word from the beginning: it must delight. When you have John Williams writing the music, you’re part of the way there. When you have this entire group of craftsmen creating the images, you’re part of the way there. When Dan Mindel shoots a movie, you’re going to be delighted and when J.J. directs a movie, you’ll be delighted. We all know that there’s going to be an audience for this movie but we want them satisfied when it’s over. We want them to say it delighted me, made me laugh, made me excited and the images affected my body in a way I have no control over. That’s what great movies do. That’s what anything that really hits the chord does. You sit in an auditorium with an orchestra, or a single guitar, or a rock concert and they are somehow capable at touching something in you that you have no control over. It’s beyond reason, beyond criticism, beyond preconceptions or disappointment. You think, I was engaged, I was enraptured, I was delighted for a certain amount of time. If we do that for this audience, we’ll have succeeded.