Fanboy or Director or Both-An Exclusive Interview With J. J. Abrams #StarWarsEvent
When J.J. Abrams enters a room, you can feel his excitement and delight for the project he is about to talk to you about. His enthusiasm is contagious and you sense that you’re about to sit down and talk to not the director, writer and producer of what’s surely to be the biggest movie of all time, but instead the super fan whose life was changed by the movie all those years ago. The movie of course is Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Abrams, at heart may still be that fan boy, but when it comes to Star Wars, you come to find he was very meticulous and deliberate in his choices all the way.
We sat down to talk to the boy who once sat in that movie theater in 1977 and whose life would be profoundly changed by Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope, to talk to him about what it was like to have the torch passed to him continue the tale of good vs. evil, the ultimate of fair tales, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
On directing a film that you’re a fan of:
“Obviously Star Wars is something that meant so much to me for so long The thing is that it’s because it’s been engrained in sort of all of our conscientiousness for so long, it’s become a birthright to just know Star Wars. You know what a lightsaber is, Darth Vader, you understand that. At 3 years old, kids talk about Star Wars in a way that is so eerie, ’cause you think, ‘How could you possibly know so much?’ And somehow they do, and even those kids who haven’t played the games or seen the shows, I don’t know how it is that they understand Star Wars immediately.”
“My job wasn’t to be a fan boy or an 11-year-old kid. It was to be a nearly 50-year-old movie director, so I tried to approach this thing from a point of view of obviously acknowledging how much I love what George Lucas created, but understand that being a fan doesn’t make the story work. Being a fan doesn’t make the scene any good. Being a fan is great, but we all had to be storytellers and filmmakers. I was surrounded by people like Lawrence Kasdan, who’d written the Empire Strikes Back and the Return of the Jedi, and actors who had been there from the beginning, all the way through visual effects and sound of course John Williams, who collaborating with him is like cheating because he speaks to our soul with music in a way that I think is super-human. So the whole process was really about trying to love it but also be hard on it so that the story meant something and was emotional and not just a fan film.”
On being asked to direct- and at first, turning it down:
“It was Kathleen Kennedy, whom I’ve known for a long time, and she called and asked if I was interested in working on Star Wars. Of course, it was a very surreal question, and it was very flattering, and my answer was no. Partly because Katie, my wife, and I, had plans to take our kids away. I’d been working on a lot of back to back projects for awhile. Partly because I’ve worked on a number of sequels and it felt like enough is enough. And, partly because I care about Star Wars so much that the idea of taking it on felt like, kind of a thing that I couldn’t even imagine, and intimidating. So, I said ‘no thank you’ and she said ‘can we get together’ and I said yes. When you get together with Kathy Kennedy she’ll convince you of whatever it is she wants you to, and she just was amazing. Basically, she said this is going to be an opportunity to continue the story since Return of the Jedi. As we were talking, I realized this is 30 some years after the fact. The main characters would have been born 10-15 years after that movie. Looking back on what we know of the story, that would be ancient history for kids who are 19 – 20 years old. ‘What do they know? What do they believe and what do they believe in?’ The idea of finding these young people who exist in the Star Wars universe was so compelling to me, and that feeling of rediscovering a world and a feeling that was so powerful, for me growing up, was undeniable.”
On making a movie that would appeal to fans old and new:
“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. Abrams also set out to avoid including things that were cool or iconic about Star Wars just to appease fans.”
“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. The most important thing was always why are we doing this? What’s the point of trying a new Star Wars story? What do we want people to feel? And who are the main characters? And that was the most exciting part is finding this young woman, Rey, this character who from the beginning was a central role and character and voice in the story, to find this character Finn, who we started to fall in love with very early on, and to realize that their story of discovering what their role is in this universe, and not just any universe but the Star Wars universe, that was thrilling.”
On the casting of the film:
“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 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!’ and I thought to myself that we’re going to be OK. because if he’s OK, it’s working. It was really important when we began working on this script that this movie feel and look a little bit more like the world than one might have thought. And when I say one might have thought, I don’t know who that one is, but I’m sure that person’s out there because when people say thank you for this, it sort of means that they haven’t seen it like this before on some level.”
“I know that looking at the story from the very beginning, Rey was, and she wasn’t always named Rey, but Rey was always at the center of this story. In casting Finn for example, we had no idea what he looked like. We had no idea what Rey would look like. We just started casting knowing you needed to be inclusive. We ended up finding, Daisy Ridley, who was like a prayer answered. And we ended up finding, John Boyega, who’s work I was an enormous fan of from Attack The Block. Oscar Isaac, who couldn’t be better, Adam Driver, who was Kathy Kennedy’s idea, the only name ever mentioned for this part. We’d say okay, so who should we cast for Kylo Ren? She’s like how about Adam Driver? I’m grateful to Judd Apatow and Leena Dunham, who actually had to do a crazy, sort of sneaky work to get him available to us, because they had him as the first position on their show, Girls, and contorted things somehow to allow him to be in this movie. So I’m enormously grateful to them. We knew Leia was going to be in the movie, from the beginning, of course.”
“This character of Maz Kanata that is played just beautifully by Lupita Nyong’o was always a character and somehow always named Maz Kanata, who was part of this, of this world. Phasma came about because we were trying to figure out the look of the, of Kylo Ren and this amazing design was presented and it was like, we just were floored. It was the coolest thing we’d ever seen. As far as having the first female villain, we knew it didn’t make sense for Kylo Ren, but we started coming up with this character that was inspired by this, that was the head of all the Stormtroopers and working on, on that character. And the idea, we knew we wanted to have female Stormtroopers in the movie, but we knew we wanted to have the head of the Stormtroopers be an important character, and we thought well why not have her be female. Gwendoline Christie’s name came up and I was already a fan, but just thought that would be unbelievable if that was possible. Somehow she was available and Gwendoline came in and is as lovely as you’d ever want someone to be, and she was such a Star Wars fan. She got exactly what it needed to be instantly and was just an utter joy to work with. So we have good guys and bad guys who are not guys. We have female humans and non-humans. We truly have something for everyone.”
On the use of puppetry vs. CGI
“I remember seeing Star Wars and Empire and Jedi, and of course that was before there was such a thing as a CG character. And the use of puppetry was so brilliant and it reminded me, this is so strange because when we were shooting the scene that I was referring to in the cantina, there were a number of creatures there as well as in other sequences, but a lot in that one scene. And I remember looking around and there were just puppeteers under every table and poking through things and there were just all these people there were basically invisible, but they were performing these characters and that Neal Scanlan and his team created. I remember feeling like, ‘Oh, my God. It’s like we’re on the set of a Muppet movie.’ It was so cool and I realized, of course, Frank Oz, and this Venn diagram of what Jim Henson and his workshop did, and what George Lucas did, not only to overlap obviously in Yoda but that there was a kind of creative, homespun, do-it-yourself genius that was when the Muppets were brought to life they were playing these sort of often plush, comedic characters.”
“George Lucas used the same technology to create what appeared to be living, breathing flesh and blood characters. It was so wonderful to have that, and as the shoot continued, the biggest advantage was in BB-8, who is our new droid, who in scenes with the other actors, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega and Harrison Ford. This droid was alive, was expressive, passionate, curious, helpful, afraid, daring. He was literally on camera, in scenes doing everything that you could have ever dreamed of. We could have worked with our extraordinary, computer graphics department, at I.L.M. and made that work, but it never would have looked quite as good, quite as real, and Daisy, who is now starring in her first movie and is fearless and sweet and vulnerable and tough and a revelation, in this movie and to be able to have her interact with BB-8 which is performed by Brian and David, Brian always right there next to him, so off and on camera, and David with the remote control off-camera. We only used CGI for BB-8 not to bring BB-8 into the shot but to remove the puppeteers. In that regard, we used CGI quite a bit to actually get rid of legs poking out from the bottom of a creature, wires, rigs, arms, and stuff like that, but it was really an amazing thing to have all those creatures and BB-8—the most important one—live and present and in the frame and in the shot. On the few times that there where CGI creatures, when there were things that we couldn’t do physically, there was a standard to match, which was actually captured on film.”
On how BB8 first came to life:
“What happened was we were working on the story, trying to figure out, we knew we had a droid that was going to be a critical piece of the puzzle, but we didn’t know if he was going to be sort of bi-pedal, like, C-3PO, or roll around like R2-D2 or some other thing. And I just had this idea that if we had a sphere and then a semi-sphere on top, you could get quite a bit of expression without a face. I drew a sketch of BB-8 and I had the eye and little antenna and everything and it didn’t have a color pattern and it didn’t have all the critical details that Neil and his team brought in, but I sent that to Neal Scanlan and the began to come up with designs that would sort of following that. And it was amazing how quickly it looked like it could work, and I didn’t know if they would be able to create something that could be performed on camera, which I knew was going to be important. And they did, and I will never forget the first day that we came to their offices to see BB-8 being performed after we’d agreed on design, etcetera and scale and everything. And we walked in and Brian, the puppeteer, came out and wheeled out BB-8 on his rig. And literally within seconds, Brian disappeared, like he was right there, but it was like he wasn’t there and this thing was looking around and curious and you could feel the soul because Brian was imbuing him with life. Daisy said at one point earlier today, every time we weren’t shooting, we were on a break, and BB-8 was just sort of sitting there and not being performed, it was like heartbreaking because he was this like inert thing and you were like where is he. And then Brian would get him, you’d be like there he is. It was this very odd and very important thing, but it was a result of Neil Scanlan and his amazing team.”
On Collaborating with Lin-Manuel Miranda
“My 17-year-old son and I went to see Hamilton, which if you haven’t seen it, is one of the great experiences of all time, which cannot be oversold. And you hear crazy hyperbolic language being used about it, and then you go to see it, and it’s better than anyone described it, and gets better as it goes, which is impossible. At intermission, I was thinking it can’t possibly continue at this level, and it just gets better. And then I was distracted at intermission by a tap on my shoulder and I turned around it was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who normally stars in this thing he wrote, and wrote the songs for, but this night it was his understudy. And Lin said,”Hi.” And I was like, “Oh, my God. Do you understand what you’ve done?” He’s like, “Yes.” And I was essentially fawning over him, and he said in this jokey, off-hand way, “If you need music for the Cantina, I’m happy to do it.” And it was so weird because a couple weeks earlier, John Williams, had said to me he really wanted to focus on the score. There’s a lot of music in the movie. And he said this one scene in the, in the film, which is essential, if we have a version of a kind of cantina scene, if someone I work with said Star Wars is a Western, there’s a sort of a saloon in every Western, and this was our saloon. And John said, “You know, I’d rather not work on this music because I have so much other scores to do, and this is really source music.” I was like, alright. I thought,” What are we going to do?” And I started working on something as sort of a hobbyist musician myself. So I was working on a piece of music. Anyway, Miranda says this to me, I can’t believe it. So I email Lin and I say, “Listen, I know you were joking, but the truth is we sort of have a need for some music in the scene if you’re serious.” And he emails back. He’s like, “I’ll drop everything.” I’m like, “You’re kidding me.” And so we started collaborating on this music, and we both use the same music software, and we have Dropbox, and we would send files back and forth. And we came up with this piece of music, actually two pieces of music for this sequence, and to get to work with him was preposterously fun.”
On being here to relaunch the saga for a new generation and then passing the torch to future directors:
“Well, I will say that I knew getting involved in this project that it was an honor to be asked and I knew that my role would be as temporary guardian of this saga. I knew also as I was working on it that if the movie works, what a great time to step down. And if the movie doesn’t work, who wants me to work on the next one anyway. So it was win-win. I’m really looking forward to telling original stories that I’ve been sort of wonderfully and happily sidetracked with the movies I’ve been working on, but I do look forward to working on something that doesn’t need to have a number in the title. And I cannot wait to see what the directors who are named and being discussed will do in this universe coming up, because there are some really talented people that I know are doing extraordinary things. So it’s very exciting, and to get to work with Larry Kasdan to begin what we knew was the start of a trilogy, was a rare thing in a movie, which is to start a story that you know needs to be satisfying, in and of itself, but also is the beginning of a larger tail. So that was really cool to get to do.”
Thank you J.J. Abrams for taking on the task of continuing the saga that is so much a part of all of our lives, and the lives of generations to come. We think that once an 11-year-old fanboy who once sat in the movie theater all those years ago, will approve of what you’ve accomplished.
Read all the interviews from this week’s Star Wars Coverage and Interviews:
There’s Been An Awakening…
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Disclosure: I have been invited by Disney to cover this media event. All material and expenses for this event have been provided courtesy of Walt Disney Studios but all opinions my own.