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“It is a remarkable thing and I’m incredibly grateful and it is a testament, I think, to how much people wanted to go back to a place that means a lot to so many,” says J.J. Abrams as we sit down at the Santa Monica offices of his Bad Robot production company to record the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast and I congratulate him on Star Wars: The Force Awakens becoming the highest-grossing film of all time this week.
“For three years I had people asking how I was dealing with all the pressure,” he continues. That’s a long time to have that question coming at you. Especially towards the end, it seemed to increase every minute we got closer to the film’s release. It got to a point where I thought, ‘Okay, I think I’m gonna have to have a heart attack because literally I’m being asked this question so many times that the only possible answer is for me to implode. And the relief that I feel now that the movie’s out and it didn’t just crash and burn is enormous.”
(You can play and read the conversation below or by clicking here you can download it and past episodes on iTunes — recent guests include Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart, Eddie Redmayne, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Charlotte Rampling, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Olivia Wilde, Benicio Del Toro and Lily Tomlin.)
It seems almost fated that Abrams, 49, would revive the greatest “franchise” in movie history, which flagged with its second trilogy (1999, 2002 and 2005) years after its first (1977, 1980 and 1983) changed the movie business forever. Raised in L.A., he was “a non-athletic kid who wasn’t a particularly great student,” and who found “a bit of salvation” making little movies with the Super 8 camera given to him by his grandfather. He became obsessed with movies and magic, consuming mountains of material about both subjects; writing letters to creators he most admired (he developed a correspondence with the legendary makeup artist Dick Smith); and eventually making his own films alongside pals including Matt Reeves (who since has gone on to great success in the film business, as well).
When Abrams was 16, a Los Angeles Times article about him and Reeves was read by Steven Spielberg‘s then-assistant Kathleen Kennedy — future chief of Lucasfilm and producer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens — who reached out and hired them to repair Spielberg’s childhood films; in return for their efforts, they didn’t get to meet their hero then, but they did make $300. His other early accomplishments are astounding: At 16, music he composed was featured in a film. While studying at Sarah Lawrence College, he sold a script that became a film. And the list goes on. But he downplays all of that: “I was hardly a prodigy. I was just desperate and it was just a passion I had.”
His first massive-scale project was Armageddon (1998), for which he served as a script doctor. But he soon became more focused on the small screen than the big one, helping to bring to life the highly acclaimed TV shows Felicity (1998-2002), Alias (2001-2006) and Lost (2004-2010). Alias had a fan in Tom Cruise, who sought out Abrams to direct one of his next films War of the Worlds (2005). Abrams’ boarding the project was impossible due to scheduling conflicts, but Mission: Impossible III (2006) was not, and that’s how Abrams’ feature directorial debut wound up being a $150 million spy thriller starring the biggest movie star on the planet. It’s notable that it also was the first — but certainly not the last — time he assumed responsibility for a giant and beloved film franchise.
“I remember when I was a kid I always sort of looked down on sequels,” says Abrams. “I remember saying, ‘The sequel never equals.’ I was a snob.” Nevertheless, he found irresistible the opportunities to direct not only MI3, but also the reboot of Star Trek (2009) and a sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). “I was never a Star Trek fan,” he acknowledges. “The only reason why I was intrigued was, I thought, this was a way to find a way to love it the way my friends loved it.”
When the offer to direct the first installment of the new Disney-distributed Star Wars films came along, he more hesitant. In this case his reservations were very different: he was a huge fan of the series (“I loved that franchise so much that I actually was scared to take it on”) and he also didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a filmmaker (“I didn’t want to be the person that you go to when you want to do a sequel”). But, in the end, he just couldn’t say no because, he says, “There was a compelling opportunity to tell a kind of story on a certain kind of stage that I would never have a chance to do again.”
Already in place when he signed on the film were the old-guard stars, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill; Lawrence Kasdan (who last worked on a Star Wars film 32 years ago) and Simon Kinberg, to work as consultants; and Michael Arndt to write the script. Arndt’s screenwriting duties ended up being assumed by Abrams and Kasdan, which Abrams now describes as “one of the most educational and gratifying creative collaborations I’ve ever had.” Together, they faced great — perhaps impossible — expectations. “I knew that, whatever we did, there would be a group of people — and I was just hoping and praying that it would be smaller than not — that would take issue with any number of things,” Abrams acknowledges. “But I knew we weren’t making the movie for any other reason than we believed that it could be something meaningful and special and entertaining and worthy of people’s time.”
Another make-or-break aspect of the production was finding the next generation of Star Wars stars. “These needed to be actors that could not only hold the screen with Harrison Ford and hold up this movie and let it rest on their shoulders and be the true stars of the film — because we knew the story was gonna be about them — but this was gonna be the beginning of at least a new a trilogy of stories and these characters needed to be worthy of a longer story and of the audience’s time.” Through a massive casting process, he wound up with a group of people who now are huge stars, but were already strong actors, including Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o and Domhnall Gleeson.
The vast majority of not only audiences but also critics and awards groups have strongly embraced The Force Awakens. Interestingly, though, those who like it and those who dislike it tend to cite the same reason: It reminds them very much of their experience seeing the original Star Wars. “I respect every reaction,” says Abrams. “I completely see that that is a problem for some people.” That said, he feels the case should be made for why that was necessary.
“It was obviously a wildly intentional thing that we go backwards, in some ways, to go forwards in the important ways, given that this is a genre — that Star Wars is a kind of specific gorgeous concoction of George [Lucas]’s — that combines all sorts of things. Ultimately the structure of Star Wars itself is as classic and tried and true as you can get. It was itself derivative of all of these things that George loved so much, from the most obvious, Flash Gordon and Joseph Campbell, to the [Akira] Kurosawa references, to Westerns — I mean, all of these elements were part of what made Star Wars.”
He continues, “I can understand that someone might say, ‘Oh, it’s a complete rip-off!’ We inherited Star Wars. The story of history repeating itself was, I believe, an obvious and intentional thing, and the structure of meeting a character who comes from a nowhere desert and discovers that she has a power within her, where the bad guys have a weapon that is destructive but that ends up being destroyed — those simple tenets are by far the least important aspects of this movie, and they provide bones that were well-proven long before they were used in Star Wars.”
He adds, “What was important for me was introducing brand new characters using relationships that were embracing the history that we know to tell a story that is new — to go backwards to go forwards. So I understand that this movie, I would argue much more than the ones that follow, needed to take a couple of steps backwards into very familiar terrain, and using a structure of nobodies becoming somebodies defeating the baddies — which is, again, I would argue, not a brand new concept, admittedly — but use that to do, I think, a far more important thing, which is introduce this young woman, who’s a character we’ve not seen before and who has a story we have not seen before, meeting the first Storm Trooper we’ve ever seen who we get to know as a human being; to see the two of them have an adventure in a way that no one has had yet, with Han Solo; to see those characters go to find someone who is a brand new character who, yes, may be diminutive, but is as far from Yoda as I think a description of a character can get, who gets to enlighten almost the way a wonderful older teacher or grandparent or great-aunt might, you know, something that is confirming a kind of belief system that is rejected by the main character; and to tell a story of being a parent and being a child and the struggles that that entails — clearly Star Wars has always been a familial story, but never in the way that we’ve told here.”
“And,” he goes on, “yes, they destroy a weapon at the end of this movie, but then something else happens which is, I think, far more critical and far more important — and I think even in that moment, when that is happening, the thing I think the audience is focused on and cares more about is not, ‘Is that big planet gonna blow up?’ — ’cause we all know it’s gonna blow up. What you really care about is what’s gonna happen in the forest between these two characters who are now alone.”
In summation, he says, “Yes, the bones of the thing we always knew would be a genre comfort zone, but what the thing looks like — we all have a skeleton that looks somewhat similar, but none of us look the same. To me, the important thing was not, ‘What are the bones of this thing?’ To me, it was meeting new characters who discover themselves that they are in a universe that is spiritual and that is optimistic, in a world where you meet people that will become your family.”
Abrams will not be returning for another installment of the franchise — three years away from his family was time enough, he says — but he has helped to make sure that the hand-off of the baton to the next director is a smooth one. “Larry and I had a bunch of thoughts of where certain things could go and we shared those things with Rian Johnson, who’s directing VIII. He had things that he came up with where he asked if it was possible if we could make some adjustments with what we were doing at the end, most of which we did — there were just a couple that didn’t feel right, so he made adjustments — but it was just collaboration. We’re all fans and friends and supporters of each other, and there’s been no one cheerleading and supporting louder and more consistently than Rian on this, and I feel that I am grateful that I now get to take that position for him.”
For the first time since before Felicity, Abrams is uncertain of his own future plans. For now, he’s trying to take some time to reflect on what he’s just come through and enjoy how it’s been received. “Everywhere I looked I was watching people who were the best in what they do, doing the best they’ve ever done again and again and again,” he says of the making of The Force Awakens. “I know what we all did and I’m proud to be associated with it.”
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released by Disney on Dec. 18. Awards voters are being asked to consider the film for best picture and Abrams for best director.
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