Star Wars is something that’s so special to so many people, that the mere idea of actually creating something new and fresh in that universe would be daunting. And yet, that’s what J.J. Abrams did with The Force Awakens.
Abrams co-wrote the script for Episode VII with Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. This wasn’t the plan at first. Originally, Abrams was set to direct, with Kasdan consulting, and Oscar-winner Michael Arndt penning the script. So how did we end up with the script we have today? We asked Abrams to take us through the early days and explain how this new story came to be.
“The very first discussions we had were about feeling,” Abrams told io9 last weekend. “What did we want to feel in this film? What did we want the audience to experience and feel? I know that sounds so stupid and obvious, but it was the most important thing to me. The absolute fundamental ‘What do we want the experience to feel like?’”
The team settled on a huge mix of things: exhilaration, thrills, heartbreak, joy, fear and spirituality, to name a few. And that lead them to the next step.
“Why are we telling the story at all? If we wanna feel that way, how do we do it? Who are these new characters? ‘Cause this had to be a new story about new people. And that was all gonna be about trying to serve that feeling,” he said.
Abrams confirmed that Star Wars creator George Lucas provided outlines for the films before Abrams came on board, but “Disney had determined they wanted to go a different direction.” That direction was developed over the next six to eight months—basically the better part of 2013. He, Kasdan, Arndt and others came up with a structure and lots of elements everyone loved, but Abrams said “some things were still unsolved.”
At that point, they hit a bit of a bump. Arndt – who Abrams describes as a “precise gentleman” – said he needed 18 months to finish the script. He only had six.
“Despite my absolute, burning desire to direct a script that Michael Arndt had written, I realized I didn’t have that time,” Abrams said. “[Lucasfilm President] Kathy [Kennedy] didn’t have that time. Disney didn’t have that time. And so I sat with Larry and I said, ‘Look, there are things about the story that I know are right. And I believe we could actually answer the questions that we still need to be answered if we wrote this together.’”
Kasdan agreed, but because he was now coming on board with a different position, he decided he wanted to wipe the slate clean.
“For Larry’s psyche, he wanted to sort of start fresh” and abandon the script they had been working on with Arndt, Abrams said. “And I said to him, ‘Look, we’re gonna start to reincorporate very quickly many things because I know I want this young woman to be at the center of this thing. I know I want this Stormtrooper to abandon his post.’ There are just fundamental tenets of what we had come up with [with Arndt] that were gonna stick.”
“That is kind of what this entire experience has been at every level,” adds Abrams: “Going backwards to go forwards.”
One instance where they didn’t go backward, though, was with some of the preconceived sequels to Return of the Jedi in the Expanded Universe. In that world, there are several stories of what happened to Luke, Han, Leia, their kids and more. But Abrams realized quickly, those had to be thrown out.
“It became very clear that if we were adhere to the Expanded Universe, it would have been a very tricky thing to navigate,” Abrams said. “It wasn’t even clear what is canon in the Expanded Universe. And I don’t think the vast majority of Star Wars fans have ever read a [Star Wars] novel. We can’t try and please every fan of that universe first. We have to try and tell the best version of a Star Wars movie.”
That said, Abrams admitted they didn’t necessarily throw out every single thing.
“I thought ‘If ideas that come up feel like they overlap and feel like they work? Great,’” he said. “But we can’t adhere to something that is as vast [as the EU], and frankly [is] lesser known than the films.”
However, things being “lesser known” was one of the keys to making The Force Awakens stand up with the original films.
“The fact that the first movie that came out was essentially Episode IV says everything,” Abrams said. “What George Lucas did in that first movie is unparalleled. And one of the great things he did is he didn’t explain what the ‘dark times’ were. He didn’t explain what the Senate was, exactly. He didn’t explain what the Clone Wars were. He didn’t explain what a moisture farm was. I mean, almost nothing.”
“I think that’s what Larry Kasdan taught me most of all, which is ‘Don’t work so hard,” Abrams continued. “Trust the audience. Trust the characters and that the audience will feel more, in a way, the less you explain the stuff to them. And the challenge is always to make it satisfying and clear and not feel like you’re being preached to.”
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens already breaking all kinds of ticket sales records, fans are ready to be preached to, no matter what. And now, we get to do it again every single year.
“This is a very rare situation in film, to make a movie where you know this is the first in a trilogy,” Abrams said. “That’s very cool.”
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