J.J. ABRAMS DIRECTOR AND CO-WRITER
A LIFELONG FAN OF THE SAGA AND A TALENTED WRITER/DIRECTOR WITH HIT AFTER HIT UNDER HIS BELT, J.J. ABRAMS WAS THE NATURAL CHOICE TO TAKE THE HELM OF STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS !
Star Wars Insider: How were you approached to direct Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
J.J. Abrams: I’ve known Kathleen Kennedy for a long time. She called and asked if I’d be interested in Star Wars, which was the most insanely flattering phone call someone could get. I said, “Thank you, but no thank you,” immediately, because I felt like I had done a couple of films already based on franchises and didn’t want to do it again. And the idea of doing Star Wars was terrifying at the beginning. It felt like for every obvious reason, it wasn’t the right thing to do. In addition, my family had planned this trip to go away together, and we had this set sense of what the year would look like. Then Kathy [Kennedy] came in for a meeting, which I expected to be a polite decline, and she started talking about what this movie could be; the creative freedom to do something and the idea of what happens to these characters that we all know and love. She talked about the next step and the new characters that could be the focus of the story.
She left the meeting, and I didn’t say I didn’t want to do it. I told her to let me think about it. My heart was pounding and my head was racing. I went downstairs to my wife, Katie, and told her I really wanted to do this. We talked about it and she said that if it was something I really wanted to do, that she understood. She allowed me to imagine what it would be to get involved in Star Wars. What does Star Wars mean to you? It’s funny, but I remember the first time I saw the words Star Wars. It was in Starlog magazine. I remember seeing the words, and saying them aloud, “Star Wars.” There was something about it that felt unusual, and that was before the film came out. But, it stuck with me. I was 11-years-old, and seeing the film for the first time was mind-expanding. It was full of heart and romanticism and optimism and comedy and incredible conflict, and certainly visual effects like I had never seen before. It was such a profound thing. Not just because the movie itself was so entertaining, but because it said anything is possible. It said that not only you could be anything you want to be, but there was a righteous fight to join.
There were friends in the world and allies you’d come across; there was majesty that could come out of simplicity and intimate relationships. It was such a great story of the underdog, and told with such great imagination. When you look at Star Wars, it is unbelievable how much they got right. Not just the story and the characters and the casting. Not just the design, not just the music. All of it. When you look at all of it, you realize how much was nailed… even the references to things that happened off-camera. The things you don’t know. You don’t know so much in that movie, like what the Empire wants or the possibility that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, or that Leia is Luke’s sister. All these things exist, but none are explicit. Yet, it has that sense that this world is real and exists and is expansive. It felt beautifully considered and wonderfully told. For me, as a kid, it bowled me over. It’s a world I wanted to get back to immediately, and I was in good company.
What is Star Wars?
Star Wars is many things. At the core, it’s this family saga. It’s a family drama. It is about finding your own strength and fi nding connections with people you wouldn’t anticipate knowing. It’s about secrets and causes and joining something larger than yourself. Good and evil. At the core of it, there are characters that you love. Characters that make you laugh and make you care. There’s this authenticity in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi where you’re feeling this wonderful family, even though they’re not related. It’s a family of underdogs working together. It’s such a powerful feeling. We all want to feel that if things got desperate, we’d run into someone that we’d instantly love, whether we love them in a brotherly, sisterly way or something else. There’s a feeling that the world of Star Wars is full of allies that you might run into to help in the fight against a villain that you might not otherwise be able to confront.
While there was never a doubt that the visual opportunities were enormous— the worlds we’d travel to, the creatures we’d meet, the weapons, and ships, and landscapes—none of that matters if you don’t love the people in the ships or if you don’t love the people who are choosing to fight, or in some cases run. So, the core of this story had to be what makes any story work—the characters. The fundamental thing that Lawrence Kasdan and I were focusing on, was how to make these characters people that we immediately care about and, at least, are intrigued by. How do we make them have choices and have behavior that we pull back from, or raise questions about them that we want to understand? It was the thing that was most important for us in the process. We wanted to find characters that we wanted to watch in a story. We knew there would be no shortage of obstacles, and challenges, and evil to throw in their path.
At the same time, we needed a villain in the shadow of Darth Vader, one of the greatest movie villains ever. How do you create a bad guy that works in his shadow? Part of the beauty of the answer was in the character acknowledging himself that he was in the shadow of this character. He was as aware of Vader as we are. We wanted to give his villainy a conflict and not make him necessarily the mustache-twirling, finished villain, but rather make him someone who is broken. A villain in process; a villain in training. We wanted to make him someone who is aspiring to certain greatness on the Dark Side. That was as much of a critical discussion between the two of us as anything. Why was shooting so much of the film practically, important? While I knew there would be no shortage of computer generated work being done in this movie as an enormous visual effects film, the standard had to be authenticity. The standard had to be reality. I’ve never been a fan of movies that are mostly CG. I felt that there was a feeling as a kid when I saw Star Wars the fi rst time that it was all practical and real—things like being outside the Sandcrawler with Luke and Uncle Owen when they first come by C-3PO and R2-D2, and seeing those treads there. There was no doubt it was a physical, tangible, real thing. You knew it when you saw the movie. There were things like the hangar in the Death Star. The look of it, the scale of it. There were moments that they got in camera that had a scale, when you look back on how they did it. In some cases they were large sets, in other cases, brilliant forced perspective, using darkness to imply the hangar in the rebel base. It didn’t feel anything other than real. So I felt that it was really important with the creatures, with the sets, that we make it feel as real as possible. When you’re watching the movie, you just know it’s real. The way the lights hit it, the way the creatures are blending in. With CG, since you can do infinite points of articulation on a character, there’s a fluidity to it that diminishes it. You simply know it wasn’t there. But when you have one of the incredible creatures, or animatronic masks, that Neal Scanlan and his team created, you have something physical and real. While it might have 16 or 24 points of articulation, it has 100 percent authenticity because you see it in the moment. It’s the difference between looking at a CG version of Yoda, and the puppet Yoda. The puppet Yoda is so simplistic, but you go with it because it’s just there.
Then, the actors working with it, legitimize it. You just know it’s real. Having BB-8 be a nearly 100 percent practical character—not only was it great because it looked better, but we have given the cast someone to work with so they weren’t pretending that someone was there. Daisy and John look at BB-8 as a co-star and as a real personality. That is a testament, not just to the performers, but to having a physical and tangible real character in the film.
Was it a challenge to recreate the Millennium Falcon?
The Millennium Falcon is as much a returning character in the film as the people. There’s a very weird feeling going back to something you know so well. It’s like saying, “I’m going to open this magic door. And, behind this magic door is your bedroom at 9-years-old.” You can walk into that bedroom, and you can feel it, and smell it, and open drawers in your desk and find the things you had. What would be in that desk? What would be under your bed? That feeling of, it’s yours, and you know it. So, when you go back to it, it has to look like what you remember. So, we made sure we almost forensically recreated the Falcon. We had the most incredible crew. Our art director, Mark Harris, who worked on The Empire Strikes Back, was like a scientist figuring out how the Falcon changed from Star Wars to Empire. The size of the cockpit expanded, and the scale of the ship got bigger in the second film. We realized that with the stuff you thought was canon, big changes were being made. You can’t adhere to what you think it was, and do what they did. If something needs adjusting, go for it. But, aesthetically, it can’t look or sound different than the ship you know. An incredible amount of human hours were put into it, and making it as we know it. How did you come up with the idea of having a central character that is a stormtrooper? It was a pitch that Larry [Kasdan] had when we were talking about the back-story of these characters. This idea that there was a guy underneath the uniform that became a main character in the film, and one of our central heroes, was interesting. The only time we had seen people in stormtrooper uniforms was when Luke and Han put them on to help save Leia. It felt like a great beginning of something. Whether he was a spy, or a turncoat, we knew it was an exciting way into this world. I loved that it spoke to who are you behind that mask. The other thing that having a main character as a stormtrooper did was, it thematically connected to this idea of “Who are these people behind these masks?” All the new characters when we meet them, are masked. Kylo-Ren is masked; Rey is masked when you first meet her, and Finn.