As more footage trickles out in advance of the Dec. 18 release for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” anticipation is reaching fever pitch, and director J.J. Abrams knows that his penchant for mystery has a tendency to drive fans a little crazy — but he promises the end result will be worth the wait.
“There’s a really positive side to keeping quiet. You can protect the audience from spoilers or certain moments that, in a way, obviate the movie experience,” Abrams tells Wired magazine in a new interview. “But on the other hand, you risk being seen as coy or as a withholding s–thead. That’s never my intent.”
Abrams says Disney has been just as protective as him when it comes to preserving “Episode VII’s” secrets, which came as something of a surprise to him: “When it came to marketing, I was expecting Disney to want to put out an overabundance of material. But they’ve been incredibly reluctant to do that. They want this thing to be an experience for people when they go to see the film. And I’m grateful for that … But I don’t want to destroy too many illusions. We’re walking a tightrope. If you fall on one side it’s no good, because we’re showing too much. If you fall on the other side it’s no good, because we’re not showing anything and we look like arrogant jerks.”
While most people who have access to any kind of screen probably have at least a passing familiarity with “Star Wars,” Abrams tells Wired that “The Force Awakens” is designed to be accessible to new viewers, in addition to tapping into the nostalgia of existing fans.
“We wanted to tell a story that had its own self-contained beginning, middle, and end but at the same time, like ‘A New Hope,’ implied a history that preceded it and also hinted at a future to follow,” Abrams notes. “‘The Force Awakens’ has this incredible advantage, not just of a passionate fan base but also of a backstory that is familiar to a lot of people. We’ve been able to use what came before in a very organic way, because we didn’t have to reboot anything. We didn’t have to come up with a backstory that would make sense; it’s all there. But these new characters, which ‘Force’ is very much about, find themselves in new situations — so even if you don’t know anything about ‘Star Wars,’ you’re right there with them. If you are a fan of ‘Star Wars,’ what they experience will have added meaning.”
A particular challenge for Abrams and his collaborators came from the knowledge that while they were ostensibly casting one movie, they were really filling out roles for a new trilogy. “The key in casting them was finding people who were able to do everything. When you think about all that these characters go through, not just in this movie but knowing their work would continue, these individuals needed to be worthy bearers of this burden and opportunity to continue to tell the story,” Abrams notes. “I think about the ‘Harry Potter’ movies — that’s unbelievable that they cast those films the way they did. And for what, eight movies?! That was a miracle. They needed to be able to do everything, and they all killed it.”
While it was important for the new cast members to have chemistry, it was equally important for the newcomers to gel with the returning stars of the franchise, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. “Daisy and John could work together, but what happens when Harrison’s in the mix? What will that feel like? If it doesn’t spark, it’s a f–king disaster,” Abrams points out. “Yes, BB-8 is a great character, amazingly puppeteered, but what will happen when he’s suddenly in a scene with C-3P0 or R2-D2? Will it feel bizarre? Will it feel wrong? Somehow it didn’t. When Anthony Daniels told me, ‘Oh my God, I love BB-8!’ I said, ‘We’re going to be OK.’ Because if he’s OK, it’s working. Or seeing the sweetness between Han and Rey or the tension and comedy between Han and Finn.”
Far from feeling trapped by what came before and what is sure to come after, Abrams found “Episode VII’s” position within the “Star Wars” franchise somewhat liberating. “We are making the first in a new trilogy of movies, and it’s not very often that you get to work on something where you know there’s a continuum, where you know it’s basically part seven of nine — at least. That’s a very interesting way to approach a story, and it’s kind of great. It unburdens you,” he tells Wired. “Working on this new movie has been as much about trying to set up elements of what is beyond what you’re seeing as it has been about telling a story that will be satisfying in and of itself. But it can’t feel like a cop-out — like we’re just setting things up and not resolving them.”
Abrams collaborated on the story for “The Force Awakens” with “Star Wars” veteran Lawrence Kasdan, who cowrote “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” According to Abrams, he and Kasdan had only one requirement for “Episode VII”: “The movie needed to be delightful. It was not about explaining everything away, not about introducing a certain number of toys for a corporation, not about trying to appease anyone. This has only ever been about what gets us excited.”
As for what comes after — according to Abrams, he’s perfectly content to pass the baton to “Episode VIII” writer-director Rian Johnson, whose script is already written.
“What Larry and I did was set up certain key relationships, certain key questions, conflicts. And we knew where certain things were going … I showed Rian an early cut of the movie, because I knew he was doing his rewrite and prepping. And as executive producer of ‘VIII,’ I need that movie to be really good. Withholding serves no one and certainly not the fans. So we’ve been as transparent as possible,” Abrams says. “Rian has asked for a couple of things here and there that he needs for his story. He is an incredibly accomplished filmmaker and an incredibly strong writer. So the story he told took what we were doing and went in the direction that he felt was best but that is very much in line with what we were thinking as well.”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” hits theaters on Dec. 18.
To read Abrams’ full interview with Wired, click here.