J.J. Abrams Awakens the Force – Exclusive Star Wars Interview #StarWarsEvent

The wait it OVER! Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now playing in theaters and minus a few criticisms here and there, the reviews for what J.J. and company have done are glowing (In fact, you can read our Force Awakens review to see what I think about the movie & J.J.’s work!) At the #StarWarsEvent Press Junket a couple weeks ago, I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Abrams on all things Star Wars. It was an experience I’ll never forget!
J.J. Abrams Star Wars InterviewAs Kathleen Kennedy told us in our interview, J.J. Abrams was who she wanted to direct this movie from the get-go. But it wasn’t the easiest decision for J.J.

Q: Can you tell us about the beginning of Episode 7 –Who asked you to be involved and what you felt when you were first asked?

Yeah, it was Kathleen Kennedy, who I’ve known for a long time. She called and asked if I was interested in working on Star Wars. It was a very surreal question and it was very flattering. 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 a while, partly because I’d worked on a number of sequels, and it felt like enough is enough. Because I care about Star Wars so much that the idea of taking it on felt like a kind of a thing that I couldn’t imagine, and intimidating. I said no thank you, and she said can we get together. I said yes. When Kathy Kennedy and you get together, she’ll convince you of whatever it is she wants you to. She just was amazing and basically said this was 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 to 15 years after that movie. They’d (be), looking back on what we know of the story, that would be ancient history for kids who were 19, 20 years old. What do they know? What do they believe? What do they believe in? The idea of finding these young people who exist in a Star Wars universe was so compelling to me, and that feeling of, of re-discovering a world and a feeling that was so powerful for growing up, was undeniable.

After the meeting, I went downstairs and found Katie, my wife, and I just said I think I really want to do this. She said, “really?”. I said “yes”. She said, “you know this is definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity. And, you really need to consider it, if this is something you want to do”. I did and it wasn’t an easy for us, for our family, for my company Bad Robot. There were a lot of issues that came with it and yet I knew that as challenging as it would be, that if we could all get our sea legs and do it right, that it could be an extraordinary situation and an amazing experience, in every category from prep and figuring out the story and writing the script with Lawrence Kasdan and designing the movie and shooting it and editing it and doing post and scoring it. Every stage has been as gratifying as it was challenging, and it’s all because of the unparalleled and unbelievable work that everyone did at every turn. And I’m very grateful.

Kathleen Kennedy & J.J. AbramsQ: You were just 11 when your love of Star Wars began, did that influence the way that you approach producing this film?

Of course it did, because it was something that meant so much to me for so long. The thing is that it’s because it’s been ingrained in sort of all of our conscientiousness for so long that it’s become a birthright to just know Star Wars, you know. You’re sort of born, you know what a light saber is, Darth Vader, you understand that. At three 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.

But 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 original Empire Strikes Back and the Return of the Jedi, and actors who had been there from the beginning, all the way through, you know, visual effects and sound too. Of course, John Williams who collaborating with him is like cheating, ’cause he’s just, he speaks to our soul with music in a way that I think is super-human. And 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.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensQ: How do you find the balance between the preservation of what Star Wars is and integrating the new technology and new things? 

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This whole process has been going backwards to go forwards, you know. It’s the next chapter in what happened in 4, 5, and 6. This is 7. It needs to feel like there’s the continuum to that. But the important thing was recognizing what are the tenants of Star Wars and the things that make Star Wars specifically “Star Wars” and not one of the many attempts to rip off what George Lucas created. The beauty of what we had, was we actually inherited Star Wars. We could actually put tie fighters and lightsabers and star destroyers in our movie and it feel essential as opposed to derivative. But this was all about telling a new story. So the brilliant luck of having Laurence Kasdan along for the ride is, he knew having written Empire and Jedi, having lived with it for decades, about that world and where it might have gone. So discussions with him were informed discussions. The most important thing was always, ‘well, why are we doing this. What’s the point of trying a new Star Wars story? What do we want people to feel? Who are the main characters?’ That was the most exciting part– 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.

Star Wars Force Awakens ReviewAll of that was happening before we were even really talking about what the original characters were gonna do. That was why we started getting excited. We realized there was a story that was working, not because it was nostalgic trip and that we were relying on things that came before, but because there was a pulse to the story now. They could use the fabric of what had come before to tell that story. In terms of technology, real quick, we had at our disposal kind of everything and it was great to be able to like we’re saying use practical, tangible puppets were necessary, to use CG when, when required, when better. Finally, I think you’ll see that there are some, BB8 has a slightly better hologram that R2D2 does.There are things that happen that you go, oh, I see how, you know, there have been advancements, but it feels, I think, in testament to the amazing work of the design team, it feels of the DNA of the movies we’ve seen before.

JJ Abrams Star Wars InterviewWe also talked about all things puppetry and limiting the use of CG. He sang the praises of the amazing puppeteer Neal Scanlan who worked on the film and particularly sang his praises about bringing BB-8 to life.

It was so wonderful to have that, and as the shoot continued, the biggest advantage was in BB8, who is our new droid. In scenes with the other actors, Daisy and John and Harrison this droid was alive, was expressive, was 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 ILM and made that work, but it never would have looked quite as good, quite as real, Daisy, who is now starring in her first movie, is fearless and sweet and vulnerable and tough and a revelation in this movie. To have her interact with BB8, performed by Brian and David, Brian always right there next to him, so off and on camera, David with the remote control off camera. We use CG for BB-8 not to bring BB-8 into the shot but to remove the puppeteers. So we, we use CG 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, and in the frame and in the shot. Star-Wars-Rey-BB-8This then gave me the perfect opportunity to ask MY question for J.J., which was all about BB-8 (because every already is in-love with BB-8). So, I asked J.J. all about how BB-8 came about – whose idea he was, etc.

What happened was, we were working on the story trying to figure it out, and 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 bi-pedal like C3PO or roll around like R2D2, or some other thing. I just had this idea that if we had a sphere and semi-sphere on top, you could get quite a bit of expression without a face. So I drew a sketch of BB-8 and I had the eye and the little antenna and everything. It didn’t have a color pattern and it didn’t have all the critical details that Neal Scanlan and his team brought in. But I sent that to Neal and they began to come up with designs that would sort of follow that. It was amazing how quickly it looked like it could work! 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! I will never forget the first day that we came to their office to see BB-8 being performed, after we agreed on designs and scale and everything. We walked in and Brian the puppeteer came out and wheeled out BB-8 on his rig, and literally within seconds Brian disappeared. He was right there, but 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 earlier today ‘every time we weren’t shooting and we were on a break and BB-8 was just sort of sitting there not being performed, it was like ‘heartbreaking’ because he was this inert thing, and you were like ‘where is he’. Then Brian would get him and you’d be like ‘there he is.’ it was all a result of Neal Scanlan and his amazing team.

Meeting BB-8INCREDIBLE! The whole thing was just incredible! J.J. was running late and we waited over an hour for this interview. And it was SO worth the wait!!! He was amazing to talk with – and he gave us extra time. Which means that this post is already over 2,000 words! Hahah! So, I’m going to wrap this up! But, suffice it to say I’m a HUGE J.J. Abrams fan now.

He did an incredible job with this movie and I have a such a HUGE respect for the enormous creative job he had!! JJ Abrams Group InterviewStar Wars: The Force Awakens is NOW PLAYING in theaters!!! Do YOU have your tickets yet?!?!?! Have you seen it yet?

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Disclaimer: I was invited and hosted by Disney and LucasFilm to cover the #StarWarsEvent as part of an all-expenses paid press trip. As always, all opinions and love of Star Wars are entirely my own. Photos used in the post are courtesy of Disney and MomStart.com.

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