KATHLEEN KENNEDY CO-PRODUCER, THE FORCE AWAKENS
Star Wars Insider: Kathleen, you go a long way back with George Lucas— over 30 years. How did you first meet?
Kathleen Kennedy: I started working with Steven Spielberg in 1978, and asked to be a part of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1980. I met George Lucas at that time because he was working on the movie with Steven Spielberg. I also met my husband, Frank Marshall, so it proved to be a pretty exciting period of time in my life. But, George was incredibly memorable, obviously, because I was in college when I saw Star Wars. So, to meet George at that point, coming off the huge success of Star Wars, was very exciting.
Bryan, how long have you known J.J. Abrams?
Bryan Burk: I’ve known J.J. Abrams for years, but we actually first started working together in 2001 on the TV series Alias for ABC. Ever since then, we have worked on numerous projects and started Bad Robot together. We did the TV shows Lost, Fringe, and currently Person of Interest. On the movie side, we did the Star Trek reboot, as well as Cloverfield and Super 8. We also make the Mission: Impossible franchise with Tom Cruise.
Kathleen, what was it like working on Raiders of the Lost Ark?
Kathleen Kennedy: We started Raiders in 1980 and then went on to do three movies together. We all stayed very close friends in that process, because, obviously Steven and George were already very close. So, our working relationship extended beyond Raiders and into Star Wars. In fact, when we were casting Raiders, George had just come out with The Empire Strikes Back, and we kept thinking to ourselves that Harrison Ford would be perfect as Indiana Jones, but we couldn’t cast him because he’s Han Solo. So, we all walked in to see The Empire Strikes Back together and we walked out of the theater and agreed that he did need to be Indiana Jones. It’s pretty amazing to think Harrison has developed a character as beloved as Han Solo and at the same time created Indiana Jones.
Whose idea was it to make the new Star Wars films?
George Lucas and I sat down right when I came to the company, and we started talking about what VII, VIII, and IX might be. Obviously, George had given this a lot of thought beforehand. He had created the first six films, and it’s something that had evolved over his entire life. So, he had strong feelings about where those stories would go, and he had created the world in which those stories could be told. But I have to hand it to our writers, Michael Arndt, J.J. Abrams, and Lawrence Kasdan, because they really took everything that George gave us and worked it, and took it to the level that we’ve made the movie. I think they found a very exciting story that honors all those things that George so meticulously created.
Did you have any reservations about bringing the franchise back?
I think what’s been thrilling about this experience is that every person who has come to the project has been a huge Star Wars fan. So, that’s anybody who grew up with Star Wars, like J.J. Abrams and many of the contemporaries that he’s worked with on the film. Anybody who was post-high school, college age, like me, were still bringing a sense of nostalgia. Then, there were younger people. Some of the people that I was working with on this film never saw the original Star Wars in the theater. So, it’s this crossgenerational group of people who are bringing all those sensibilities to the making of this movie. That’s what is so incredibly exciting. It makes you feel like you’re in this with so many people who genuinely care about it, that it’s all going to be okay. The fans are sitting out there wondering what we’re going to do with it, and everybody inside the process is a fan. So, you’ve extended out to this community that is becoming a part of making the movie. So, even though there’s no guarantee, and there’s stress and expectation, I think it’s something genuinely we feel that we’re in together. It’s nice to be involved in a movie that everyone cares so much about. It’s not just that they care because they’re a fan, but it had something to do with their life. It’s something they’ve drawn from. It’s the reason they got into the movie business. That, to me, just means it will show up on the screen one way or another.
How did you first meet J.J. Abrams?
I was working with Steven Spielberg early in my career. This goes back 30 years ago. There were two boys written up in the LA Times who had won a video contest. I told Steven we should hire these two kids and they could clean up his student films and transfer them to video tape. He agreed, and we hired them. The two 16-year-old boys who walked into the offi ce were J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves. Matt has gone on to be a big director/producer. And J.J., I have to say from the moment we met him, it was very clear he was going to have quite a career in the movie business. It’s strange to meet someone at that point in their life and then have that person play such an important role, not only in my life, but in their life and in this whole world of Star Wars. He never dreamed at 16 that he’d be directing a Star Wars movie. I certainly never dreamed that I’d be producing a Star Wars movie, or running Lucasfilm. It’s interesting to think about those moments in your life when there’s a collision that happens, and you don’t know what the outcome maybe. This is one of a shared experience. It’s nice to be at this point where I can work with J.J. and know him as a fully-formed creative director. There really aren’t photos of them back then, because none of us really took note of it. Steven and J.J. ended up working on Super 8, but it all started when we hired them to transfer these films!
How did you get J.J. Abrams to agree to direct?
I had never talked to J.J. personally about Star Wars. I thought that once I got in a room and had a chance to walk through what bringing back the movies to a new generation would mean, that it would resonate with him in a different way. Rather than, “Would you take a beloved franchise and bring it back?” That was something that J.J. did with Star Trek, and I knew that wouldn’t be something that would be appealing to him. With this, I knew it was something that was personal to him, so we talked about what it meant to him. What it meant to me. What he could do with it.
Bryan, how did you hear that Lucasfilm would be making new Star Wars?
Bryan Burk: When we first found out about it, we, like everybody, read that Lucasfi lm was going to Disney and that Kathy Kennedy was going to be heading up the company and that there were going to be new Star Wars films, so we were over the moon just purely as fans. We were excited. The idea of our getting involved was not something we were even thinking about at the time. I first heard about it when J.J. was contacted by Kathy and he said that she was interested in meeting with him and talking to him about the project. It still felt like an impossibility and something that other people would do, but we would be the first people in line to see that movie. The fact that it actually came to fruition and we’re involved in it is still amazing. To be honest, for us, the idea of taking on Star Wars, having just worked on the Star Trek films, really didn’t feel like a conflict at all. Other than having one word shared in their titles, they’re completely different films and even genres. Star Trek is obviously much more of a science-fiction film and Star Wars feels much more fantasy. But the similarities are so far and vast that I don’t think, when people see the movie, that they will see any similarity between them. We love them separately and equally.
Kathleen, why were you convinced J.J. Abrams was the man for the job?
Kathleen Kennedy: J.J. was certainly one of my first choices. I think Star Wars has this unique sensibility; this combination of adventure and fantasy and humor. I think there are very few directors who embody all of those sensibilities as an artist. J.J. is one of the few. He was one of the first people I thought of when we were discussing it.
Why was it important to get Lawrence Kasdan to co-write?
I knew Larry during Raiders of the Lost Ark. He is one of the icons of the Star Wars series. His sensibility inside these movies is unique. Larry brings to it a sense of humor, but there’s an irony in the humor. It’s an emotional depth in the humor. He understands characters, and understands that banter. He’s a real film noir buff and looks back at that fast-talking, 1930s style of dialogue. He infuses that in a very modern way in Star Wars.
Why did you come back to shoot at Pinewood Studios?
In large part, this is the home of Star Wars. All six of the previous films were made in England. I think returning to the UK and setting up at Pinewood, and working with these crews, and generations of people who go back to the early days of Star Wars brings a sensibility to the process that’s pretty great. It’s nice to have it all back here.
There are a lot of crew-members whose families worked on the films. How does that make you feel?
We used to laugh because George had talked about how long they’d been making Star Wars. The people he had hired had gotten married, had kids and those kids were now working on Star Wars. You do get a sense of ownership, working on the movie. How important was it to keep the practical look of the first movies? J.J. and I talked right away about real creatures and real sets. It’s just a grounded sensibility that goes back to the first three movies. I’ve always had a feeling inside the world of special effects where it’s so important to give the audience what’s familiar. You want to ground it in what’s familiar and these movies operate in a grounded way, even though the stories take place in outer space. That was important to J.J., too. What he loved more than anything, and I love, were the tactile sensibilities inside the first three movies. All of the design began with that premise. We sat down and immediately talked about what we could build for real, where could we shoot real locations and how much of the movie we could design in that way. It’s pretty remarkable that we designed the majority of the film with that kind of thinking. I don’t think we thought initially that we could do that, but the work that Neal Scanlan and his team have done and the artists we’ve been able to bring into the process just pushed it and pushed it. The technology inside that tactile world has improved to the same extent that the CG world has improved. It’s been very rewarding to see what people can bring in front of the camera and to be able to look at raw footage. It seems like such a new and modern conceit to be sitting in dailies and looking at real things, instead of blue screen waiting for things to come months later. For the cast to be able to act in an environment where they’ve got real creatures, and sets that they can touch and interact with makes a difference. It immediately feels real.
Bryan, how did you insure that the film feels relevant?
Bryan Burk: The process of putting together the Star Wars fi lm for us was a very natural and easy process. Particularly in the beginning, because, as fans of Star Wars, we just started talking about all the things that we love. All of us involved were able to articulate what we remembered from our childhood and what we loved when we went to the theater for the first time and what we experienced. If we were to see another Star Wars film, what is that we’d want to experience again? Really the whole process was just discussing things that we love in Star Wars and would want to see in the Star Wars sequels if we weren’t working on it.
Kathleen, you championed Adam Driver’s casting. Why was he so right for Kylo Ren?
Kathleen Kennedy: I had the good fortune of working with Adam Driver on Lincoln. That was my first introduction. The minute we started to realize this character of Kylo Ren, it just seemed obvious to me that he was one of those rare actors that could embody that character. J.J. didn’t know him as well as I did, but the minute he met him, he instantly responded. He was one of the first people we identified, and quickly decided on. One of the most interesting things about Kylo Ren is that he’s young. So often, villains in stories are damaged, troubled, older characters. To bring a character into Star Wars as a villain who’s only 30-years-old is interesting. It takes advantage of a troubled teenage life and a back-story that we don’t know much about. We recognize this tension between dark and light, which is prevalent in Star Wars. We can use it as a metaphor for the path from young adulthood to being an adult. Anybody is capable of having interest in the dark side, and that tension of being drawn into something that is somewhat dangerous is relatable. For audiences today, that’s a new and exciting and appealing character. When we look at our own lives, it’s about the choices we make. This is a character that has made a lot of bad choices but not necessarily in the world of Star Wars, because that can go in any direction. This story is a mirror on the world. A lot of kids are experiencing a very troubled landscape politically and a lot of things are happening that suggest that people are being drawn in by danger, turmoil, and unrest. A lot of change seems to be going on politically in terms of world order. Star Wars has uniquely mirrored that in the political structure of the stories. Kylo Ren represents that dark side of society that we can be drawn to, not knowing whose side to be on and not having a clear-cut idea of what’s good or bad. All of those things make for a very complex character in Kylo Ren and gives us a lot of opportunity for where we can go with the character.
The cast is very diverse. Was that a conscious decision?
J.J. and I said right away that when we cast this movie, we would make it more diverse than the way you perceive Star Wars was made in the 1970s. We wanted to make it more reflective of society today. That ethnic mix, of course, would exist in outer space, just as it does here on Earth. We very much wanted that to be a part of a story. How did you go about persuading the original cast to return? George sat down with Carrie and Mark, because we had made the decision right around Celebration two years ago, in Orlando. Harrison was not there, so both George and I went to Harrison after that. He told them what the plans were. I think everybody was incredibly excited. There had been talk that there would be more movies. As much as it was a surprise, I don’t think it was a shock. They knew there was always the chance there would be more movies.
Were they on board from the start?
Everybody was keen from the get-go. Everybody was keen to know what we were doing. They wanted to know who was directing and the direction of the story, but they were all excited. Bryan, how did you begin the process of making the movie? Bryan Burk: We started with research. Research was an interesting process for this fi lm. First of all, because it’s Star Wars, there are numerous people out in the world who are die-hard fans and a lot of them happen to be our friends. So we could have conversations with them and they knew about the lore and what was missing, or what had been heard to be lost in the archives or whatever it may be. So, to have the opportunity to go up to George Lucas’s ranch and to go to the archives to see all this amazing artwork done by all of these amazing artists was incredible.
So much of Ralph McQuarrie’s work was never used, so we put it in this film. Why not?
It’s gorgeous and totally timeless. On top of it, meeting people like Pablo Hidalgo at Lucasfi lm who are beyond experts on the world of Star Wars, and know everything about it, from the Legends universe to all the fi lms, was an invaluable aid in making this fi lm. Visiting George Lucas’ archives was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It was literally a journey through my entire childhood. Seeing all of the props and costumes and artwork from some of my favorite movies growing up was amazing. It obviously includes all of the Star Wars fi lms and all the different costumes; even the original Chewbacca outfit was still there, but slowly deteriorating. There was also the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark and all the whips from the different Indiana Jones movies, and even stuff from Willow. There were so many amazing things to look at in every corner and at every turn; it’s just this bombardment of inspiration. When George Lucas opens up his museum with all of his artwork and all of his memorabilia from his different movies, I think people are going to lose their minds.
How did you choose the heads of the departments?
A lot of the department heads existed before we even got involved. Rick Carter, the production designer, who is a genius, worked with Kathleen Kennedy for years on numerous movies before. He was like no production designer I’d ever worked with, in the sense that for him it wasn’t just about the look of the movie, it was about the feel of the movie and the tone of the movie. We really just started talking about story with Rick, who was involved in all the story meetings throughout the entire process. He understood the franchise and the film itself—what we wanted it to be, and what Kathy wanted it to be. We had worked with costume designer Michael Kaplan before; J.J. first worked with him on Mission: Impossible III, and then we worked with him on both of the Star Trek films as well as Ghost Protocol. We’ve been fans of Michael’s forever. He began his career with Blade Runner and eight gazillion movies since then. So, the opportunity to work with him yet again, let alone in something as iconic and personal for all of us, was undeniable. Dan Mindel, director of photography, and his camera department, has been someone that J.J. has been working with for years. He started with him on Mission: Impossible III and we worked with him on the Star Trek films. Not only does Dan Mindel have such a beautiful eye when he’s looking at things, but his entire team is a pleasure to work with. They are constantly bringing new ideas to the table, finding new ways to shoot things and constantly inventing things that we’ve never seen before on film.
Neal Scanlan, who is a special effects artist, was another brilliant person that Kathleen brought on. There are not a lot of people who are making puppets today, let alone creatures, and let alone tangible ones. It’s a craft that I’d never seen fi rst-hand until I had the opportunity to work with Neal and his team. I’m hoping if nothing less, after the Star Wars films, that many other fi lms will start embracing the long-lost craft of creating creatures and tangible co-stars.
Was it a conscious decision to carry on the tradition of using unknowns?
Whenever we do any film or TV, we often look at whether or not the project would be great with recognizable actors or would it possibly be better with less recognizable actors. Sometimes it feels like you want to bring on new people or find unknown actors so that you can go into the world a little easier and not have to undo what your brain is saying. It’s like, “Oh, there’s Clint Eastwood playing a rock star.” In this case, when we started the casting process for Star Wars, we did think that we wanted to find some new actors and some fresh new faces that we could put into the Star Wars universe. Obviously, it worked spectacularly for George in the original films. So, in this case, we decided to continue that. When we started the casting process, our casting directors, April Webster, Alyssa Weisberg and Nina Gold were scouring all the different agencies and trying to find that needle in a haystack for those young actors for this film that we knew were out there, but we just didn’t know who they were. Somewhere in the process, we realized if we had an open casting call, we would have an opportunity to see people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to audition for Star Wars or who didn’t have an agent. It opened up the fl oodgates of talent. A lot of people came through and there are some amazing people out there. Not all of them made it into the film, but it was a great experience to be able to see so many different people who were so touched by Star Wars.
Kathleen, how have you made Star Wars deliver on so many levels?
Kathleen Kennedy: The interesting thing is, when you look at Star Wars, it does deliver on different levels. I think all of us were quite amazed when we started to pick it apart and discovered what incredibly good storytelling it was. How simple it was and how spare it was. And how much fun. It made us appreciate what we all have to do. We needed to understand what worked and why it resonated with so many people on so many levels. When you do a movie like this, you have to take it seriously. You can’t treat it like lightweight storytelling. Everything George did was serious. It drew upon tried and true mythology, a basis of all religious thought, family values and key values around aspiration.
What does it mean to make people feel like they can do anything?
If they live their life well, they can achieve greatness. Those are the values and ideas inherent in Star Wars. You don’t want to make that pedantic and pretentious, so you need to find a way to preserve those values and make it fun and have it be an adventure. That’s what we spent our focus on—isolating all these elements inside the Star Wars mythology and doing the best job we could to emulate what George had created.
Have you ever snuck into the back of a cinema to see an audiences reaction?
Yes, I love to do that. I have quite a bit of anonymity, so I can go in the back of the cinema and watch the audience react. I just want people to scream and yell and have a great time. All you can hope for is to go back to those feelings of going to movies when you felt like you were at a rock concert. That was the best.