Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt talk about the daunting task of reawakening the Star Wars saga for Episode VII and dissect that one spoiler moment in The Force Awakens you can’t talk about.
(December 22, 2015)
Photo: Michael Jones
Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan, and J.J. Abrams at the Guild Screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Imagine being tasked with the responsibility of reviving an epic tale so culturally significant, it has become the defining modern myth for generations of moviegoers, a film franchise so cinematically historic, it practically invented the Hollywood blockbuster. Consider also that when your work is finally revealed, every last minute detail of your efforts will be scrutinized instantaneously in trillions of blogs, social media posts, and trending topics across the globe. The thought alone of bearing such a weighty burden could be enough to cast less brave souls into a Great Carkoon-like pit of writer’s block from which they might never emerge. Such was the responsibility set upon the writers of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Fortunately for Star Wars fanatics and Comic-Con attendees everywhere, there were no creative minds more suited to carry the saga’s lightsaber forward than Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt. Kasdan is, of course, the triumvirate’s Obi-Wan. He is the writer who crafted the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi with Leigh Brackett (on Empire) and creator George Lucas. Arndt, whose experience ranges from the intimacy of the indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine to the epic scale of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, was the first to be brought on board by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. J.J. Abrams was so perfectly suited for the gig, he famously turned it down. A lifelong Star Wars superfan, the writer-director was coming off the Star Trek reboot when Kennedy approached him and was reluctant to work on another sequel. It was her pitch about a young female Jedi and the myth of Luke Skywalker that changed his mind. “I thought, Oh my God, it’s an incredible thing,” he said recently during a Guild Screenings Q&A with the screenwriters. “Luke Skywalker is potentially an unknown. Luke Skywalker is potentially a myth. Luke Skywalker, is like, you know, King Arthur. To someone who’s 19 years old, what does that mean?”
The following is an edited transcript of that conversation in which the writers discuss with Entertainment Weekly’s Anthony Breznican what they wanted to accomplish when they first set out on this journey, why the Star Wars legacy has endured for four decades, and the thoughts that went into making a crucial decision behind one of the film’s most dramatic moments.
(Warned, are you. Within, major spoilers lurk.)
I feel like this year we had like an extra holiday. We had Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, now Star Wars, and then Christmas, and then New Year’s.
J.J. Abrams: What you’re saying is true and that, but it has to do with this…All the frenzy of this thing is all about this world that George created and the idea that we got to play in that. People really want to go back to that. And the job of this movie from the beginning was to go backwards, to go forwards…We always knew it was a bridge and we always knew that it was going to be something we were going to have to harness. Obviously, you meet someone in the desert, it ends with a trench run. I mean, we took these pieces that we knew were sort of these fundamental tenets that were familiar. We did it not to be sneaky, but to find a way to introduce brand new characters in the beginning of a new trilogy. And to get to do that and have people embrace it the way they have just literally speaks to the power of this thing that George did impossibly brilliantly in ’77.
Well, I want to go back to the beginning, the earliest stages of this…So the decision is made to create new Star Wars films. And, Michael, you were there to break the story. You, Simon Kinberg, you went up to the Lucasfilm archives, right, and began thinking about this?
Michael Arndt: Yeah, it was I think May 2012, and I was just sort of doing nothing. I was back in New York and trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I just finished working on The Hunger Games, and I was like, “Okay, like no more big Hollywood franchises. I’m going to go back and do my own original stuff.” And then [Kathleen Kennedy] called me up and the initial thing was she wanted me to write VII, VIII, and IX together, and I said, “There’s no way I can do that because it’s just too crazy and daunting.” And then the story that she pitched me was she just said it’s an origin story of a female Jedi. And I was like, “I’m in. I can’t say no to that. I have to do it.” I went to the ranch and I met with George and we spent a lot of time talking about samurai movies basically. I passed that test, you know? I had spent five years at Pixar and became a big believer in writers helping each other out, so Kathy was just brilliant in having Larry come onboard, having Simon Kinberg come onboard, and have all of us get together and sit down and just start kicking around ideas about what we wanted Star Wars to be. So that was the beginning of it.
Do you begin with characters? Or do you start by saying, “What is the world we’re in and then supply the people who live in it?”
Michael Arndt: It was all of a piece. Actually the thing that we talked about – and this happened when J.J. came onboard also – was we went back to feelings. Like, “How did it make us feel?” You know? Like, joy, euphoria, but a sort of awe and myth. You know, we’re creating a modern myth. Even before we talked about character and story, we were talking about the quality of…I mean, we had a whiteboard, and I remember we started writing down adjectives of what it meant, what a Star Wars film meant. And so we’re writing “mythic but fun.” I remember that was one of the first things we said was, “You know, it has to be fun.” So even before characters or anything else, it was really trying to define what the Star Wars feeling was.
Lawrence Kasdan: We’re hoping that Rian Johnson can figure that out. We were really stymied.
You just put a TK next to that for him…
Lawrence Kasdan: We were just, “Screw it. Let Rian figure it out.” Yeah.
But I assume there must have been some conversation about that in the writing process too, how much to reveal and how. Because the audience does need some things to attach to. So can you talk about figuring out how much to say about her and how much to hold back?
J.J. Abrams: The thing about Star Wars is everyone who has seen these movies thinks, you know, “I am your father.” It’s one of the first things you think about. And, “There is another.” And moments like that. But when you think about those big moments and then you stop and go, oh, neither of those things were in Star Wars. You know, Star Wars didn’t say that Luke was the son of Vader. Star Wars didn’t say that Leia was the sister of Luke. You didn’t really understand what these references were. The Empire, dark times, Clone Wars. There are these things that are discussed that don’t get explained. It was Episode IV. You know, George, among the unbelievable list of brilliant things he did, dropped you into a story and respected you and said, “You will infer everything necessary to understand exactly what you need to know.” And that’s what we tried to do with this. We knew we were going to have a moment when Snoke was going to say to Ren, “Your dad’s in the picture.” Can this movie actually also hold, you know, “And Rey is this and Finn is that and this is where Poe…”? It was one of those things, and again it speaks to your restraint...Look, this is the first, this is an opportunity of a lifetime to write a movie that is the first of a series, and there is a story to be told. And it will be. But this movie, it felt like “the droid is in the hands of your father, Han Solo” was probably the one real revelatory familial piece we could get away with.
There’s a dream sequence in this movie that’s the first one in a Star Wars film. That supplies a little bit of a hint of her background. Did you experiment much with telling a lot more and then pulling back? Or was it always going to be that impressionistic?
Lawrence Kasdan: It was always impressionistic. That really has so much to do with J.J.’s wanting to see certain images, which we all found very powerful. And, you know, there’s just a touch of the Knights of Ren. I want to see the movie about the Knights of Ren. I don’t think I want to write it, but I do want to see it. Because they have great outfits, and they’re really cool. So you see a little bit of them in there. But J.J. worked that thing again and over and over and never stopped. It’s very much an expression of his, the impressionistic revelation of emotion that she’s going through. She’s mystified. She’s really mystified by what’s happening to her. And I thought J.J. captured that.
You hear some voices in that sequence too. Can you tell us any more about that?
J.J. Abrams: Well, I’ll say this, is that it was never…the disaster for that sequence I think would have been if it felt like it was a travelogue or a literal narrative. Because then it would become exposition as opposed to overwhelming. The idea was that this young woman who is a critical piece of this puzzle is being reached out to by a force that she is not in tune with. So it’s almost like having a radio, but it’s not tuned to the right frequency. It comes and goes. You’re hearing these distant waves of sound. And the notion of this cry that’s coming out that ends up actually being herself as a girl was something that came out over time after number of iterations of the sequence. But the thing that happens with the voices is we wanted the audience to feel and not necessarily be presented right in your face this idea that familiar moments, force voices, four strong voices were connecting with her as well as they could. So you do hear a little bit of Yoda in this. You hear Luke yelling out, “No!” from the moment in Empire, and you hear Obi-Wan at the end and he says to her – I’m just going to tell this story because who cares? You hear Obi-Wan say – and this came up when we were working on the sequence over months and months in post. You hear him say to her, “Rey.” And then she falls out. “These are your first steps.” Here’s the cool part. We asked Ewan McGregor to come in and do the line. He did it and was awesome and was, you know, very grateful. He was incredibly sweet and handsome and all that stuff. And then he like went off on his motorcycle. Literally it was coolest voiceover thing ever. And it was like [makes motorcycle sounds]. This handsome guy comes out. He does his, you know, “Hey, these are your first steps.” And then he [makes motorcycle sounds]. Who the fuck was that? It’s unbelievable. So anyway, he does that. And then Bryan Burk, one of the producers of the film, said, “I have an idea.” He worked on this thing for a long time, and he literally brought me back this piece of audio that was, “Rey.” It was just amazing. I was like, “Oh my God, that’s cool. That’s the thing from Ewan McGregor?” He’s like, “No, we took a line from Alec Guinness saying ‘afraid’ and they cut it.” If you hear the performance, he’s saying it the way I would have begged and prayed Alec Guinness would have said it. “Rey.” He does it in this way that’s so crazy perfect. So when you’re hearing Obi-Wan talk to Rey, it is both Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor speaking with her in that.
That’s the coolest thing in the world. Is Frank Oz doing the…Is it a Yoda sample from a previous film?
J.J. Abrams: Frank Oz actually came in and recorded some stuff for us. The piece that we ended up using was actually a pre-existing piece, but he was incredibly generous. He came in, and we were at Bad Robot in our little recording area, and he was doing Yoda, saying a number of lines that we had given him. Again, this whole experience of working on this movie has literally been one outrageous moment after another. I was just watching Frank Oz, [imitates Yoda voice], doing his thing. And I’m like, Holy…you know. You look at him, and when you talk to Frank Oz, he has an incredibly deep voice, and then he like does this Yoda voice that sounds nothing like [him]. I mean, I don’t know why I would have thought he sounded like Miss Piggy, but he’s incredible. So he did come in and I want to [say], “Thank you, Frank Oz.” He was very generous to say, “Whatever makes the movie better, I’m happy to help out.”
Tell me about the collaboration with Rian Johnson. Now, he begins shooting Episode VIII next month I think Kathy said a week or so ago. So what was the back and forth with him as you’re setting up his film essentially. Were there things he asked you to include or were there things he asked you to not include?
Lawrence Kasdan: For me, the real issue is not that, not the communication back and forth, but that this saga, all six films really that preceded this are defined by their directors. And in the case of Episode IV and then I through III, we have George at very different ages in his life, very different concerns in his life, very different relationship to Hollywood because…Star Wars is very much a parable about Hollywood. George was a rabid revolutionary against Hollywood when he made A New Hope. When he went and made I, II, and III he was at a different place in his relationship in his own life. He was living a different life. When he finished A New Hope, which too is just absolutely genius, instead of saying, “I’m going to do the next one too and it’ll be more of this,” he said, “I’m going to get one of my teachers from [USC], Irvin Kershner,” who had made only New York art films, who’d made Loving and Eyes of Laura Mars, and who was a dark, serious, very funny, very intellectual guy who I loved, but couldn’t have been more different from George or from that sunny spirit of A New Hope. And George knew that he needed that for The Empire Strikes Back. And The Empire Strikes Back just is a Kershner movie.
He was also a war veteran who’d seen a lot of serious action [in] World War II.
Lawrence Kasdan: Yes, he’d seen everything. A real radical, a political radical, a serious radical, and a very religious guy, very spiritual. After Empire, George turned to Richard Marquand, who died way too young but was the nicest, most upbeat kind of sunny person. He knew that Jedi really is kind of upbeat. The people who are dissatisfied with Jedi are naturally. It’s everything works out fine. How interesting is that, you know? But he found the right director and in each case. That’s why I thought it was so great when J.J. came onto VII because the directors have always defined these movies. People don’t always recognize it. They think, Oh, it’s the saga. But it’s not. It’s really a director’s thing. And Rian is a fascinating young, experimental, wonderful director. What he’s going to do is going to be amazing. It’s going to be very different from what you’ve just seen.
You had a challenge with this film that very few other storytellers or filmmakers have, which is everybody or a large group of people wanted to know the story before you were ready to present it. It’s sort of like baking something and having somebody come into the kitchen every five minutes and try and dip their spoon into your mix. Were there any extraordinary measures you took for secrecy? I notice that some of the things we saw in the trailer are not the things that happen in the film. For instance, we saw Maz’s hand hand the lightsaber to what appears to be Leia’s hand. Was that misdirection or was that just the process of editing and rewriting the film as you went along?
J.J. Abrams: That was a scene that we actually filmed for the movie that we took out. At one point Maz used to continue along with the characters back to the resistance base. But we realized that she really had nothing to do there of value, and to have her sitting around – Lupita filmed scenes on the set for that sequence. It was a little bit like we were going right just to go left, and it was a lateral move and unnecessary. So we ended up losing those things. But the moment was nice, and the people who cut the trailer didn’t give a shit what was in the movie…
Probably didn’t know, right?
J.J. Abrams: No, no, no. They didn’t know. I’m kidding. Yeah, they’re very mean. No, they’re not. You know, there’s a shot where Kylo Ren turns on his lightsaber, which is also not in the movie. There were a bunch of things that we ended up not using, of course. There were a lot of Disney-hired people walking around with earwigs, who I never got to know and in various ways helped make sure that all the digital stuff was secure. But it was mostly about a cast and a crew who really wanted to preserve as much as possible for as long as possible the experience for the audience. I’m very grateful to them. I was especially happy in this day and age of instant information that we all feel entitled to know whenever we want it, how many people in the last couple or few weeks were saying, “Please, no more trailers. I don’t want to know any more. Don’t tell me anything else.” I think it spoke to this desire to have a communal experience and not to have it like be like everything else in the world.
Before I came here tonight, I sent out a little tweet and said, “Hey, I’m going to be talking to these guys. Any questions?" And nobody had any. It was really weird. Number one question I got was if there was any insight you could give about R2’s awakening and at the end of the film.
Michael Arndt: The whole movie is a series of character introductions, and you want all your character introductions to be A+. You want to give each person their moment when they come. Even the Millennium Falcon, that was Bryan Burk’s idea that they’re running to get a ship, it blows up, and so you turn and there’s the backup. It turns out to be the Millennium Falcon. I remember I had initially written R2 and C-3PO showing up together, and Larry very intelligently said, “Well, maybe you want to meet them separately from each other.” And of course I’m like, “No, no, no, Larry, you don’t get it at all.” But then you go, “Oh, of course, of course.” You want to have each to go where are you going to meet them and what feels logical? And, I mean, it’s asking the question about what happened to Luke. I’ll just say very quickly that very early on I tried writing versions of the movie where the girl is at home, her home gets destroyed, she goes on the road, she meets Luke, and then she goes and she kicks the bad guy’s ass. It just never worked. I struggled with this. This was back in 2012. It just felt like every time Luke came in and entered the movie, he just took it over. Suddenly, you didn’t care about your main character anymore because like, “Oh fuck, Luke Skywalker’s here. I want to see what he’s going to do.” This was like a huge thing. I feel so bad for J.J. because it was like, "The good news is you get to make a Star Wars movie, but the bad news is…" We had long conversations about this, and J.J. so much wanted to have Luke Skywalker in his movie. But to finally say, again, any time Luke showed up, it suddenly became his movie. So you had to push it to the very end. And once you made that decision, then you go back to R2 and you go, “What does that mean for R2?” It was just this thing that he hasn’t been the same since Master Luke left. I mean, we had a gazillion scenarios about plugging into the information base on the Death Star, and that’s how he was able to get the full map and where the, all the Jedi temples were and stuff like that.
J.J. Abrams: That was the idea, which is that…It’s not said in the movie because at that point in the movie the last thing you want to hear is how shit happened 30 years ago. But the idea was that in that scene where R2 plugged in that he downloaded the archives of the Empire, which was referenced by Kylo Ren. So that in that moment when BB-8 comes up and says something to him, which is basically, “I’ve got this piece of the map, do you happen to have the rest?” R2 who’s been all over the galaxy would in his sort of coma hear this. It would trigger something, and it would ultimately wake him up. That was the idea. Of course, while it may seem completely lucky and easy and a way out, at that point in the movie when you’ve lost this person desperately, someone else you hopefully care about is unconscious, you want someone to return. It took a bunch of work and time and things, but it felt like the way to bring R2 back. But that line that you stated is something you had literally in the earliest cards on the wall, which is, “R2 hasn’t been the same since Master Luke went away.”