The Force Awakens in J.J. Abrams
Even though J.J. Abrams has been a fan of Star Wars for a long time, he’s never been more engulfed in the galaxy far, far away than he has for the past two or three years in bringing Star Wars: The Force Awakens to life.
How much of The Force Awakens is geared toward welcoming people back to the Star Wars franchise versus starting something completely new? How do you strike a balance between those two imperatives?
We wanted to tell a story that had its own self-contained beginning, middle, and end but at the same time, like A New Hope, implied a history that preceded it and also hinted at a future to follow. When Star Wars first came out, it was a film that both allowed the audience to understand a new story but also to infer all sorts of exciting things that might be. In that first movie, Luke wasn’t necessarily the son of Vader, he wasn’t necessarily the brother of Leia, but it was all possible. The Force Awakens has this incredible advantage, not just of a passionate fan base but also of a backstory that is familiar to a lot of people. We’ve been able to use what came before in a very organic way, because we didn’t have to reboot anything. We didn’t have to come up with a backstory that would make sense; it’s all there. But these new characters, which Force is very much about, find themselves in new situations—so even if you don’t know anything about Star Wars, you’re right there with them. If you are a fan of Star Wars, what they experience will have added meaning.
We really tried to look at it from the inside out. What makes this story have a beating heart? What makes it romantic or fun or surprising or heartbreaking or hysterically funny? We simply approached this narrative from the point of view that this is a story about a young man and a young woman, not with the idea that we can do anything we want.
I asked questions like “How do we make this movie delightful?” That was really the only requirement [co-writer Lawrence Kasdan] and I imposed on each other: The movie needed to be delightful. It was not about explaining everything away, not about introducing a certain number of toys for a corporation, not about trying to appease anyone. This has only ever been about what gets us excited.
For me, setting The Force Awakens 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi is key. It creates a situation where not even diehard fans really know the state of the galaxy, or what our characters have been up to this whole time. That also allows any non-hardcore fans to jump in and pretty much be in the same boat as everyone else.
You avoided including things that were cool or iconic about Star Wars just to appease fans and made sure that every element of the movie was interesting and had purpose.
For example, when we were on-set and we were shooting a scene, it was always amazing to me to see Harrison Ford dressed as Han Solo. Or, wow, there’s a guy — a stormtrooper! — and he looks exactly like a stormtrooper. Remember the feeling of the villain stepping off his ship? Or the sound of the TIE fighters when they roar past you? We’ve all seen TIE fighters roar past us now for nearly 40 years; what makes that interesting? The point is, these scenes aren’t good just because those characters or things are there, even though it’s the greatest eye candy in the history of time.
You tried to figure out the best way to approach the story for fans and general audiences alike. But was there anything you tried to avoid? From a filmmaking standpoint, Abrams shows plenty of self-awareness, referencing how his previous storytelling efforts have progressed in comparison to how The Force Awakens unfolded.
More than anything, I drew on personal experiences as cautionary tales, things that I didn’t want to do again. For example, I didn’t want to enter into making a movie where we didn’t really own our story. I feel like I’ve done that a couple of times in my career. That’s not to say I’m not proud of my work, but the fact is I remember starting to shoot ‘Super 8‘ and ‘Star Trek Into Darkness‘ and feeling like I hadn’t really solved some fundamental story problems. The collaboration [with Kasdan], for me, was an education in storytelling and doing so with clarity, with efficiency, brevity — wit. It was a little like taking an extended master class. And because he’s also a director, he knew what I was going through in prep and in production, and he allowed for my needs.
Finding the right talent to lead any movie is key, but when you’re dealing with casting a movie that is meant to be the first in a new trilogy, you have to remember that these people are going to be around for multiple films as these characters. Abrams says casting for characters who will be with us for years was one of the hardest parts about making the movie.
We knew we weren’t just casting one movie—we were casting at least three. That, to me, was the biggest challenge. When we met Daisy Ridley, when we found John Boyega, and then Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver came aboard, we got really excited. And yes, Daisy and John could work together, but what happens when Harrison’s in the mix? What will that feel like? If it doesn’t spark, it’s a fucking disaster. Yes, BB-8 is a great character, amazingly puppeteered, but what will happen when he’s suddenly in a scene with C-3P0 or R2-D2? Will it feel bizarre? Will it feel wrong? Somehow it didn’t. When Anthony Daniels told me, “Oh my God, I love BB-8!” I said, “We’re going to be OK.” Because if he’s OK, it’s working.
With a movie like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, shooting the film is just one part of the production process. Unlike with most other films, the marketing is something that requires just as much thought as cracking the story. You need to sell the film to audiences (especially in order to move merchandise), but you don’t want to give away too much too soon. At the same time, you don’t want to be stingy.
You mapped out the story with Lawrence Kasdan, who cowrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. He said recently that his own life experiences—and the span of time not working on Star Wars—readied him to work on this film. Were there moments from your life or your own work from which you drew inspiration?
Working with Larry definitely ties for first in terms of incredible experiences I’ve had with this project. We all take our experiences with us from one project to the next, but in this case, I never looked to draw from my past work. More than anything, I drew on personal experiences as cautionary tales, things that I didn’t want to do again. For example, I didn’t want to enter into making a movie where we didn’t really own our story. I feel like I’ve done that a couple of times in my career. That’s not to say I’m not proud of my work, but the fact is I remember starting to shoot Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness and feeling like I hadn’t really solved some fundamental story problems.
The collaboration, for me, was an education in storytelling and doing so with clarity, with efficiency, brevity—wit. It was a little like taking an extended master class. And because he’s also a director, he knew what I was going through in prep and in production, and he allowed for my needs. Sometimes those needs were practical, other times they were creative needs or feelings I had. But he was there to help that process, the same way I would have been if I had known he was directing. It was always about moving this thing forward in the right way, about making this movie the right way. I can’t say enough about him.
So I tried to not forget the mistakes I’d made, but I also tried to focus on things that I find inspiring about cinema. I asked questions like “How do we make this movie delightful?” That was really the only requirement Larry and I imposed on each other: The movie needed to be delightful. It was not about explaining everything away, not about introducing a certain number of toys for a corporation, not about trying to appease anyone. This has only ever been about what gets us excited.
Abrams got really excited when asked about working with legendary composer John Williams. The man isn’t just responsible or Star Wars, but for some of the greatest scores ever composed, including those for Jaws and all the Indiana Jones movies. Abrams could not contain his love for Williams.
Oh my God! First of all, forget his talent and his achievement. As a person, he’s the guy you want to know more than anyone. He is the sweetest soul I’ve ever met. He’s like this jazzman who became one of the greatest composers of all time. He literally calls you “baby”! Like, “Hey, baby.” He calls me “J.J. Baby.” I waited all my life to meet someone who would call me that!
He works in pencil. You go to his home and listen to him play notes on the piano, and while you’re listening, you extrapolate what it will be like when you hear the melody with an orchestra. It is unforgettable, a truly miraculous thing to behold. He has every one of his scores leather-bound. I was like, “Do you mind if I …?” He goes, “No, go ahead!” So I pulled out the Jaws score, and sure enough, there it is, in pencil on paper: baaaa-bum, baaaa-bum. You’re like, “Well, that’s what he wrote!” It’s as if you’re hanging out with Mozart, who happened to score your favorite movies.
What’s Next? Does Abrams have any idea what he’s going to do next?
My mom used to do this thing where we’d be eating lunch and she’d say, “So what do you want for dinner?” And I’d say, “Mom! We’re eating lunch. We’re literally just starting to eat lunch.” I feel like I just need to finish my lunch. Right now, I just want to get this film into the world.
I can’t wait for people to see the movie. We’ve been baking this cake for a long time, and now it’s time to serve it.
J.J. Abrams is kicking off this new era of Star Wars with The Force Awakens, but he’s letting someone else take the reins for Episode VIII. Abrams will still executive produce the film, but Looper director Rian Johnson will get behind the camera as director. It sounds like the two have already been collaborating quite a bit, so much that the script for Episode VIII is completed.
The script for VIII is written. I’m sure rewrites are going to be endless, like they always are. But what [Kasdan] and I did was set up certain key relationships, certain key questions, conflicts. And we knew where certain things were going. We had meetings with Rian and Ram Bergman, the producer of VIII. They were watching dailies when we were shooting our movie. We wanted them to be part of the process, to make the transition to their film as seamless as possible. I showed Rian an early cut of the movie, because I knew he was doing his rewrite and prepping. And as executive producer of VIII, I need that movie to be really good. Withholding serves no one and certainly not the fans. So we’ve been as transparent as possible.
But just because Abrams is helping doesn’t mean that this won’t be Johnson’s movie through and through.
Rian has asked for a couple of things here and there that he needs for his story. He is an incredibly accomplished filmmaker and an incredibly strong writer. So the story he told took what we were doing and went in the direction that he felt was best but that is very much in line with what we were thinking as well. But you’re right — that will be his movie; he’s going to do it in the way he sees fit. He’s neither asking for nor does he need me to oversee the process.