Earlier this week Wired talked with director J.J. Abrams about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and one of the most-repeated words was balance. From writing to casting and all the way through to marketing, Abrams has a holistic approach to rejuvenating the Star Wars franchise for not just this next movie, but a new era for the franchise itself.
"Star Wars is so boundless in terms of the world, the characters, the conflicts. When we began working on this film, [Larry Kasdan] and I started by making a list of things that we knew held interest for us, the things we wanted to see, the things we felt were important," said Abrams. Kasdan co-wrote Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. "There’s a very real issue with doing this movie: Every detail, whether it was the design of a costume or the music or a set-dressing choice, must be embraced as coming from Star Wars. You’re inheriting Star Wars! That’s not something you can do lightly. You have to really understand the design choices, because everything is important. At the same time, it’s just Star Wars, meaning: It doesn’t make it automatically interesting just because it’s in that galaxy."
The concept of time and events happening off-screen before the movie is something Abrams struck on as something integral from the original Star Wars film and something he's seeding in Force Awakens, from C-3PO's red arm to modifications to the Millennium Falcon.
"You know the moment when you reconnect with someone after years apart?," the writer director said. "You see the lines on their face, you think, oh, they’ve lived 10 years! Or when you see someone has a scar they didn’t have—physical or emotional—you recognize it. It lets you know it’s not two minutes later. It was important that Han Solo be Han Solo but not feel like he’s playing a 30-year-old dude. When you’re 70, you will have lived a different set of experiences. That has to be apparent in who he is. Harrison was required to bring a level of complexity that a 30-year-old Han wouldn’t be required to have."
Abrams went on to describe the changes to the Millennium Falcon -- partly blamed on Lando Calrissian.
"Then there were things like the radar dish on the Falcon, which clearly was ripped off in [Return of the Jedi], so it needed a new one," said Abrams. "But part of the decision was made as a fan. There’s a part of me that wants to know: That’s the Falcon from this era. Now I know that when I see the Falcon with the rectangular dish, we’re at a moment after it traded hands. It also helped us mark time."
Time is also something Abrams was cognizant of in casting, as many of the characters will appear in multiple movies.
"We knew we weren’t just casting one movie—we were casting at least three. That, to me, was the biggest challenge," said the director. "When we met Daisy Ridley, when we found John Boyega, and then Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver came aboard, we got really excited. And yes, 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***ing disaster. 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."
One thing Abrams and Daniels have disagreed on is the secrecy of the movie the ardent avoidance of spoilers by the director, along with Lucasfilm and Disney.
"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," Abrams revealed. "They want this thing to be an experience for people when they go to see the film. And I’m grateful for that."
"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. But on the other hand, you risk being seen as coy or as a withholding shithead. That’s never my intent," said the director. "Because Lucasfilm has been so engaged with the fans and so forthcoming about what they’re doing, it would have felt oddly inconsistent to not show anything until just before the movie came out. I actually personally pushed to have a teaser come out a year before, just because it felt like, as a fan of Star Wars, if I could see even the littlest thing I’d be psyched a year out. Why not? So we did."
Reviving the Star Wars franchise and learning from the perceived missteps of the most recent trilogy, Abrams described the marketing of the film as like a circus.
"But I don’t want to destroy too many illusions. We’re walking a tightrope," said Abrams. "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."