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Star Wars: The Force Awakens has awakened in a major way: J.J. Abrams‘ installment of the beloved franchise opened to record-breaking numbers at the box office and an impressive 95 percent approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com; landed a spot on the AFI’s list of the top 10 films of the year; was added on to the list of best picture Critics’ Choice Award nominees; and, last but certainly not least, was warmly embraced by Oscar voters — at its premiere, at its official Academy screening on Saturday and at a Disney-organized screening at the Academy on Friday night, after which I moderated a Q&A with many of the key talent behind the film.
Friday night’s screening, which drew more than 200 Academy members (in addition to 600 others from the various guilds), couldn’t have gone over any better with attendees. There was enthusiastic applause in all the right places — as each beloved character from the previous installments resurfaced, and for a full minute at the end of the film — and certainly in response to a number of answers during the Q&A, which featured Abrams, producer Kathleen Kennedy, co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, VFX supervisor Roger Guyett, editors Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon, cinematographer Daniel Mindel, costume designer Michael Kaplan and co-production designer Rick Carter, all of whom had returned to L.A. from the film’s London premiere only hours earlier.
(You can watch footage of that conversation at the top of this post or read about it below — beware of a few spoilers!)
As Steven Spielberg recorded the conversation on his iPhone from the audience, Kennedy, his longtime producer who became co-chair of Lucasfilm in 2012, shared the remarkable story of how, more than 30 years ago, while working as Spielberg’s assistant, she first crossed paths with Abrams.
Abrams, who previously directed two Star Trek films, spoke about taking on another franchise with rabid fans: “There is no comparison, I don’t think, from my point of view, between working on this project and anything else — on every level it feels sort of bigger than all of us, this thing that George Lucas created.” He also spoke about why, despite loving Star Wars since he first saw it at age 10, he initially turned down the opportunity to direct The Force Awakens, and why he later reconsidered; why it was important to have Kasdan as a collaborator; how the cast came together, and specifically the casting of Daisy Ridley as Rey; and what Harrison Ford‘s first day on set was like; and how it feels now that he has come through the fear and pressure of making the film.
Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, spoke about returning to the franchise 32 years after last being involved with it, and how he and Abrams sought to honor the prior installments while also giving this one an identity of its own. “It’s a balancing act,” he said. “We had only one rule: does it delight us?”
Carter emphasized that the production design was less a process of discovery than “rediscovery,” since he and his co-production designer essentially were tasked with picking up the saga from where Return of the Jedi left off, only reflecting the sorts of advances that happen over 30-plus years. Kaplan, the costumer, agreed. “Star Wars just needed to be updated,” he said. “It was a simplification, as opposed to an elaboration” (As for the look of new characters, he said of Rey: “I wanted her to be very spare and I wanted it to feel like everything that she wore and everything that she had was for a reason.”)
Mindel was delighted that Abrams fought to shoot The Force Awakens the traditional way: “I was totally surprised when we committed to film. I thought the last movie we did was the last time I was going to see it.”
Like Mindel, Markey (who’d never seen a Star Wars film) and Brandon (a lifelong Star Wars fan) have collaborated with Abrams on many projects. They explained how they divide up material in order to process large volumes of it faster, while still working together. And they talked about the discussions that led to the retention of wipe cuts, which featured prominently in earlier installments, in the last installment — whereupon Abrams interjected, “It’s Star Wars, you do the wipes!”
Guyett, for his part, spoke about the concerted effort made by him and his team at ILM to make the whole world of the film feel real, although “the irony of it is that a lot it just isn’t real,” he noted. Two contributions of which he and his team are particularly proud are the characters of Maz Kanata and Snoke, which were achieved through motion capture technology that turned performances by Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Serkis into otherworldly individuals who appear to interact seamlessly with real-life actors.
If all of the above hasn’t convinced you that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a serious awards player and that Disney is going to push it with all it’s got, then perhaps the following information will: this was only one of several awards-related pushes made by the Star Wars team over the course of its very busy opening weekend.
Before sitting down with me, many of these same contributors participated in a Q&A following the film’s PGA screening. Then on Saturday they returned to the Academy — with Harrison Ford in tow, to the surprise of attendees — for the film’s official Academy screening. (I’m told it drew as many members as any screening this year, right up there with Bridge of Spies, The Martian and Spectre, and that the Academy is now beginning to consider implementing an RSVP system to try to prevent having to turn people away.) Also on Saturday, the film had its official WGA screening, after which the relevant talent participated in a Q&A. And on Sunday the focus was fully on Abrams at the film’s official DGA screening.
The Force clearly is with the Force Awakens team. And, based on early indications, so, too, is the Academy.
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