Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill were kind enough to welcome a Rolling Stone writer into their homes; Harrison Ford was kind enough not to slice him open like a Tauntaun after a hour’s worth of Star Wars questions. The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams, meanwhile, put aside his concern about spoilers long enough talk openly about the process behind the film, and allow fly-on-the-wall access to the editing room as he reviewed visual-effects shots. There was plenty that didn’t fit in the cover story, however; here are 15 things we learned about the upcoming movie.
Contrary to early rumors, there were never disagreements over how big a role the legacy characters would play in the new movie
“No, because the movie was always about the new characters,” says J.J. Abrams, “and the existing characters were always a critical piece of that. It was very much a bridge between what had transpired and what will. But there was never any disagreement that this movie needed to be – as Star Wars is at its core – a generational story.
Daisy Ridley’s initial auditions were with a fake script
“You know, it was stuff about spaceships and stuff,” she says. “It was just, like a girl and a guy and there was one character that was just called ‘Older Man.’ And then someone goes, ‘Well, that’s Han Solo,’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s not!’ Later I was like, ‘Oh! Maybe it was.’
Co-writer Lawrence Kasdan pushed J.J. Abrams toward a less-is-more approach to the screenplay
“I think part of it was efficiency,” says Abrams. “Learning how to say as much as we can by saying as little as possible, along with clarity of story and character intention. I would say that the greatest lesson/takeaway from working with Lawrence Kasdan, for me, was trusting the story, trusting the material, trusting the characters, not propping everything up [or] dancing so hard to sell a point. Trust that the audience will make the connection and give them room to do so. Larry was always the voice of ‘Say less’ — which is, by the way, a very funny thing because in some recent screenings we’ve had, he is shockingly the one arguing to put some lines of dialogue back in. And I’m always calling him up, saying, ‘How are you, Lawrence Kasdan, asking to put this line of dialogue back in?’ But I always loved when he misses a line.”
Even as they struggled to come up with a story for the new film, Kasdan never regretted co-writing the conclusive-seeming ending of Return of the Jedi – even if he never loved it in the first place
“That ending, it’s not nearly as fun as Empire, where everything is left hanging and everybody’s in trouble,” Kasdan says. “And that always was a problem for me about Jedi. I always used to say, ‘Oh, boy, like what? They’re getting more medals?’ But I never felt any wistfulness about, ‘We should have left it hanging,’ because everybody thought that would be it, you know?”
There are no clones left in the ranks of Stormtroopers – which is why John Boyega is under one of the helmets, rather than the guy who played Jango Fett in the prequels
“They’re not using clones anymore,” says Boyega, “and that is all cleared up in the film. It’s not that deep!”
Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy says that while the Force Awakens doesn’t follow George Lucas’ original treatments for a sequel trilogy, they were an inspiration
“We had discussions based off of George’s treatments,” she says, “and then when J.J. and Larry came into the process, there were new ideas being discussed, which is normally what would happen in a development process. We didn’t have a script, we didn’t have an extensive treatment of any kind, so we were still trying to find the story for the movie, so it’s not as though something was just read and then set aside, and everybody said, ‘Oh, we don’t want to do that, we’re going to start on this new thing.’ Everything emanated from what George had created with the original movies, and then some of the things he was talking about in this brief synopsis. We carried on from there.”
BB-8 began with a sketch by Abrams early in the Force Awakens process, while screenwriter Michael Arndt was still involved
“We knew there was going to be a droid in the movie,” says Abrams, “and if you look at Star Wars like a Western, there are certain things you know are going to happen in the movie, just like you’re going to have a dusty tavern somewhere, a bad guy, the jail and the sheriff. We knew we’d have a droid, and we knew that this droid needed to be very much inspired by what Ralph McQuarrie had designed — and yet, at the same time, a very new and very different thing. I just had this idea of a kind of snowman-type droid that was incredibly expressive without expressing itself with any facial features. That was part of Artoo and Threepio’s incredible charm – one of the reasons they’re so beloved is that George was very smart not to give them moving parts on their faces. I started to think if we had, essentially, a sphere and then a partial sphere, a lot of information could be expressed in the rhythm and in the head-turning. And the idea of this rolling droid that somehow magically could move around felt like a visually very cool thing.
“So I drew a little design of it on a couple different pieces of paper, one of which I still have, and gave it to Neal Scanlan, who’s our creatures department guy,” he continues. “They took all these different ideas and notes, and began to design BB-8. When it came time to name him, I thought of that, only because it felt sort of onomatopoeic. He looks like an ‘8,’ and in terms of letters, he looked like a ‘B.’ What’s so crazy – and I remember having this thought about Star Wars the first time I saw it – you can introduce a name, it can be this strange thing at first … and then quickly it just becomes the thing it is.”
“Jedi‘s ending, it’s not nearly as fun as Empire, where everything is left hanging and everybody’s in trouble. That always was a problem for me. I always used to say, ‘Oh, boy, like what? They’re getting more medals?'”—Lawrence Kasdan
Abrams has some kind words for the Star Wars prequels
”I enjoy the prequels,” he says. “I am a kid of the Seventies whose life was fundamentally impacted by the original films. And one of the reasons that I preferred the original trilogy was that it felt the characters were more everyman or everywoman characters. They felt scrappy and they felt real and lived in, and characters that were essentially nobodies who had to go up against some of the scariest and most intense villains of all time. That, for me, was inherently a more fun trilogy of stories. I felt that the use of technology, the use of design, the world-expanding that George did in the prequels is incredibly impressive. My favorite of the prequels is the third, which has some very powerful moments and some incredible imagery. But I know that when I went into doing The Force Awakens, my goal was to try and make a movie that felt like it was continuing from Return of the Jedi, which it is. As opposed to the significantly different aesthetic that George applied to the prequels, in his remarkable pushing of the boundaries of cinema.”
John Boyega went through an arduous seven-month-long audition process
“As each week goes by, there is a different challenge or a different scene to learn,” Boyega says. “So they give you enough time to learn a scene, but during that time you’re also training physically, becoming more and more what they want the character to look like. At the same time, you’re taking various meetings and having conversations with J.J. for creative collaboration. Also on top of that, there’s chemistry reads with other cast members. I was in Star Wars boot camp research for like a week or two; I put myself through that – that’s when I watched Mark Hamill’s and Harrison Ford’s original audition on YouTube. And that was my life for seven months. And also I was filming 24, the Jack Bauer TV show, at the same time as I was auditioning. So it was a rough process, but I got through it. I don’t know how, but I did.”
Mark Hamill narrated the non-dialogue portions of the screenplay during the first read-through of The Force Awakens
“That moment was fantastic because no one had been together, or even met one another in some cases, until we had that read through,” says Kennedy. “Mark was the one that volunteered to read the script; it gave everybody pretty significant chills in the room as this was all unfolding and beginning to come to life. I think everybody realized the reality of it, that we were actually going to do this. It was incredibly exciting.”
Abrams wanted Force Awakens to have a more restrained visual style than his own previous films
“I went into this wanting the thing to be a more confidently told movie,” he says. “I wanted to apply some of what Larry and talked about in the writing of the script, which was a confidence in what we were seeing, and less of a need to quick-cut or zoom the camera everywhere. Now, I knew that there are certain things that, as a current moviegoer, I would want to see, in terms of action. And sometimes that meant whipping the camera around. But not because I felt, ‘Oh, the kids need camera whips.’ It was because it felt like I wanted to have this thing give me the sensation now that I had when I saw the first TIE fighter fight. I couldn’t do certain sequences without doing direct and grateful homages to what George had done.
“And so there were cases where we literally used the same filters as the original movies so certain things would feel a certain way. The goal was to make something that felt very much of the DNA of Star Wars that we know and love, and yet, a new story. We didn’t have to worry about, ‘Well, how do we do a fighter that looks as cool as a TIE fighter, or an X-Wing?’ Instead, we wanted to acknowledge why there would be TIE fighters now, why there would be an X-Wing. What was appreciated about those elements? What worked, not just for the audience, aesthetically, but what worked practically, in that world, for this to remain in existence?”
Daisy Ridley is most looking forward to people seeing certain “emotional” scenes
“There are a couple, like, emotional things that were just really nice to film,” she says. “There was just this quiet feeling on set a couple times when we were doing emotional things, neither of which I can tell you about, [laughs] but one of those I’m really, really excited about. And there’s also an incredible action sequence, and you’ll know it when you see it. It involves a group of us, and that will be very exciting to see.”
John Boyega is convinced that Harrison Ford secretly loves Han Solo
“Of course he does!” says Boyega. “Harrison has a deep love for his characters. He treats them with absolute respect. Every freaking line of dialogue must be accurate to how he sees the character, and that’s fantastic. So he can’t have that much concentration, that much passion, without loving the characters that he plays. He loves Han Solo.”
Ford is well aware of Lucasfilm’s in-the-works Han Solo solo movie – which will cast a new actor as the young version of the character
“We talked a little bit about it,” says Kasdan, who’s writing that film’s screenplay. “We used to joke about it when we were on set. I don’t think even with CGI that Harrison can play the part!” And Kennedy says that film’s directors, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, hope to meet soon with Ford for advice.
For Abrams, it was essential to use real sets and locations for the films
“I love that feeling as an 11-year-old of being on Tatooine,” he says. “I didn’t know Tunisia, but I knew I was somewhere real. And that feeling is to me is to me a priceless thing. There was something about those forests in Jedi that you remember. There have been studies done where many of the great memories you have are experiences that take place outside. And I think despite the genius of what Industrial Light & Magic can do and visual effects are capable of, sometimes you have to work so hard to fake the truth that a lot of times you don’t have the time and the bandwidth to focus on what really matters. Which is what the characters are going through. So by using interior and exterior locations it allowed the actors and the crew – but mostly it allowed the audience – to not have to think twice about where they are. Because they will just be there.”