I’ve talked before about my love of meeting people who are passionate about what they do. Regardless of their job or title I love to just sit down with them and let them wax poetic about their passion…whatever it is. Some things also bring out my nerd girl more than others. As a super long time fan of J.J. Abrams I can say that this is one of my best interviews of the year. He had such a respect for the idea and legacy of Star Wars. He truly didn’t want to mess it up. Which in turn made him the perfect person for the job. With his creative vision and a franchise we love it was kismet. Not only did he extend his time for us, but he was generous and just special. I wanted to go up to him after and shake his hand, but found myself nervous like a child. A fellow blogger and friend pushed me forward. With trepidation I softly said, “Thank you Mr. Abrams I’m a huge fan.” He shook it off thanked me and shook my hand. Staci said I was blushing after the fact. I was blushing because yet again throughout the entire press junket for Star Wars: The Force Awakens we had been treated with so much respect, kindness, and just love. J.J. (We are on a first name basis now) will always a have a fan and a supporter in me. So without further ado let’s get to the last interview:
J.J. on how being a fan affected production:
J.J.: 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 engrained 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. Somehow they do and even those kids who haven’t played the games are 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 story tellers and filmmakers.
I was surrounded by people like Lawrence Kasdan, who’d written obviously the original Empire Strikes Back and the, the Return of the Jedi, and actors who had been there from the beginning, all the way through visual effects and sound to, of course, John Williams who collaborating with him is like cheating, ’cause he’s just speaks to our soul with music in a way that I think is super-human. 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.
Q: It was reported that you had collaborated with Lin Manuel Miranda for the music and I was wondering how did that relationship come about?
J.J.: Our 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. 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. 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. He said hi. I was like oh, my God. Do you understand what you’ve done? He’s like yes. I was just essentially fawning over him and he said in this jokey, off-hand way, if you need music for the cantina, you know, I’m happy to do it. 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. He said this one scene in the film which is essentially, if we have a version of a kind of cantina scene, ah, if like someone I work with said Star Wars is a Western, there’s a sort of a salon in every Western, and this was our salon. And John said, you know, I’d rather not work on this music because I have so much other score to do, and this is really source music. I was like, alright. I thought crap what are we gonna do and, you know, and I started working on something as a 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. He emails back. He’s like I’ll drop everything. I’m like oh, my God. You’re kidding me. 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. We came up with this piece of music, actually two pieces of music for this sequence, and to get to work with him was was preposterously fun. I got to hang out with him subsequently and if you haven’t seen his appearance on Jimmy Fallon, it’s one of the greatest things you’ve ever seen because it’s freestyle rap, which is actually, truly unprepared in any way, and staggering, you know. He is amazing.
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?
J.J.: Yeah, it was Kathleen Kennedy, who I’ve known for a long time and 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. Partly 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 knowof 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. I mean, literally through the 3D pass, the reviews that we’ve had, and I’m not always the biggest 3D fan, but I will tell you there are things in this movie that I actually felt were shockingly better in 3D, because there are literally shots that I couldn’t believe I saw things in in 3D that I hadn’t seen in 2D. It was so strange and I know this might sound like I’m selling the 3D, and to anyone who doesn’t really care, see it in 2D. Don’t see it in 3D, you know. It’s okay. I was amazed at how, how great that looked. 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.
Q: It’s kind of a different thing for nowadays to use actual puppets. Can you talk about your choice in that in this?
J.J.: Yes. Well, I remember seeing Star Wars and Empire and Jedi, and of course, that was before there was such a thing as a CG character. 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, the cantina, there were a number of creatures there as well as other sequences, but a lot in that one scene. 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 that Neil 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, home spun, do it yourself genius that was when the Muppets were brought to life, of course, 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 BB8, who is our new droid, who 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, 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. 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 BB8 not to bring BB8 into the shot but to remove the puppeteers. So we, we use CG quite a bit to actually get rid of legs poke, 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, ah, and BB8, the most important one, live and present and, and in the frame and in the shot. So that when there where CG creatures, when there were things that we couldn’t do physically, there was a standard to match, which was actually captured on film.
Q: How do you find the balance between the preservation of what Star Wars is and integrating the new technology and new things?
J.J.: 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 an 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 light sabers 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.
All 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, on, 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.
***Disclosure: I attended the #StarWarsEvent + #ABCTVEvent My flight, lodgings, and expenses were covered by Disney All opinions are 100% mine. ***