Here's part 2 of an exclusive interview with J.J. Abrams (read part 1 here)
I'm a HUGE J.J. Abrams fan. So when I heard he was going to be part of the interviews for the press junket/press conference for Star Wars: The Force Awakens playing in theatres now (you can read my review here), I was a giddy fan girl inside. J.J. Abrams! The man's work includes some of my favorite television shows and some great movies: Felicity, Alias, Lost, Person of Interest, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and so many more. It was one of the most amazing interviews I've had, and I've had the pleasure to interview a lot of cool and wildly talented people over the years.
Of all the press junket interviews I've done, this was the first where we didn't screen the film first, and because there was so little out about the movie, it made coming up with questions somewhat challenging. However, it IS J.J. Abrams, so if you can't think of questions to ask J.J. Abrams, regardless of whether or not you've seen the movie, you are in the wrong profession.
Our interview with J.J. Abrams was fun. His storytelling skills come through just in his recounting of things such as his encounter with Lin-Manuel Miranda at the theatre. He's kind of like a nearly 50-year-old kid, but more mature than that; all the best qualities if you could combine the creativity of a child with the diligence and maturity of an adult. He was engaged, interested, and despite the fact that it was at the tail end of a REALLY long day for all of us, even when the end of our time slot was up, and our last question warning was given, J.J. Abrams said, “We can do a couple more, right? Let's do like two more questions.” Which turned into four longs ones, one short one, and 12 minutes, nearly doubling our interview time. Clearly he liked us as much as we liked him. And he thanked US for staying so late to talk to him. Talk about amazing and humble and genuine.
Read on to see what J.J. Abrams had to tell us about how BB-8 was created, on a diverse cast and the development of Captain Phasma, and on keeping the old while bringing the new to the Star Wars universe.
On how BB-8 was created
J.J Abrams: We knew we had a droid that was gonna be a critical piece of the puzzle, but we didn't know if he was going to be sort of bi-pedal like 3PO, or roll around like R2, or some other thing. And I just had this idea that if we had a sphere and then a semi-sphere on top, you could get quite a bit of expression without a face.
And so I drew a sketch of BB-8, and I had the eye and little antenna and everything, and it didn't have a color pattern, and it didn't have all the critical details that, that Neal [Scanlan] and his team brought in, but I sent that to Neal, and they began to come up with designs that would sort of follow that. And it was amazing how quickly it looked like it could work; I didn't know if they would be able to create something that could be performed on camera, which I knew was going to be important.
And they did, and I will never forget the first day that we came to their offices to see BB-8 being performed after we'd agreed on design, etc., and scale and everything. And we walked in and Brian, the puppeteer, came out and wheeled out BB-8 on his rig. And literally within seconds, Brian disappeared, like he was right there, but it was like he wasn't there, and this thing was looking around and and curious and you could feel the soul because Brian was imbuing him with life.
And Daisy [Ridley] said at one point earlier today, every time we weren't shooting, we were on a break, and BB-8 was just sort of sitting there and not being performed, it was like heartbreaking, because he was this like inert thing and you were like. “Where is he?” And then Brian would get him, you'd be like,”There he is.” And it was this very odd and very important thing, but it was a result of Neal Scanlan and his amazing team.
On being able to relaunch the saga for a generation of families and passing the torch for new directors
J.J Abrams: I knew getting involved in this project that it was an honor to be asked, and I knew that my role would be as temporary guardian of this saga. I knew also as I was working on it, that if the movie works, what a great time to step down. And if the movie doesn't work, who wants me to work on the next one anyway, you know? So it was win-win.
I'm really looking forward to telling original stories that I've been sort of wonderfully and happily sidetracked with the movies I've been working on, but I do look forward to working on something that doesn't need to have a number in the title. And I cannot wait to see what the directors who are named and being discussed will do in this universe coming up, because there's some really talented people that I know are doing extraordinary things.
So it’s very exciting, and to get to work with Larry Kasdan to begin what we knew was the start of a trilogy, was a rare thing in a movie, which is to start a story that you know needs to be satisfying in and of itself, but also is the beginning of a larger tail. So that was really cool to get to do.
On his all-time favorite work
J.J Abrams: There are things that I've worked on that I've felt everything has its own sort of story. and it's hard to think about any of the things that I've been lucky enough to work on and not feel like, “Oh, my God.” Those kids from Super 8 or doing Felicity with Kerri Russell was so amazing, or Alias with Jen Garner and obviously, getting over Tom Cruise and the opportunity he gave me to do that.
Finding the cast for Star Trek, it was such an unbelievable, lightning-in-a-bottle thing to get that group together. They were so incredible. A knee-jerk reaction for whatever reason, The Force Awakens aside, because I feel like I'm so close to this thing in the moment, it's hard to know, but I look back to the pilot of Lost and I think that working on that with Damon, it was so crazy and so exciting and so quick how the whole thing came together, that it's hard to think of something that was more like nuts and kind of seat-of-your-pants, let's just figure this out and do it.
So that was really a special moment, but having said all that, I really desperately can't wait for you to see this movie, because I can't wait, really, the work that the cast has done is unbelievable. You'll see it, you'll know what I mean.
On the balance between the preservation of what Star Wars is and the integration of new technology
J.J Abrams: It's a great question. This whole process has been going backwards to go forwards. It the next chapter in what happened in 4, 5, and 6. This is 7. It needs to feel like there's the continuum to that, but the important thing was recognizing what are the tenants of Star Wars and the things that make Star Wars specifically Star Wars and not one of the many attempts to rip off what George Lucas created.
And the beauty of what we had was we actually inherited Star Wars. We could actually put tie fighters and lightsabers and star destroyers in our movie and it feels essential, as opposed to derivative. But this was all about telling a new story, so the brilliant luck of having Lawrence Kasdan along for the ride is, he knew having written Empire and Jedi, having lived with it for decades, about that world and where it might have gone.
So discussions with him were informed discussions. And the most important thing was always, well, why are we doing this. What’s the point of trying a new Star Wars story? What do we want people to feel? And who are the main characters? And that was the most exciting part, is, is finding, you know, this young woman, Rey, this character who from the beginning was a central role and character and voice in the story, to find this character Finn, who we started to fall in love with very early on, and to realize that their story of discovering what their role is in this universe, and not just any universe but the Star Wars universe, that was thrilling.
And all of that was happening before we were even really talking about what the original characters were gonna do. And that was why we started getting excited. We realized, early on, there was a story that was working, not because it was nostalgic trip and that we were relying on things that came before, but because there was a pulse to the story now, they could use the fabric of what had come before to tell that story. In terms of technology, real quick, we had at our disposal kind of everything and it was great to be able to, like we're saying, use practical, tangible puppets were necessary, to use CG when required, when better.
I think you'll see that there are some, BB-8 has a slightly better hologram that R2-D2 does. There are things that happen that you go, “Oh, I see how there have been advancements, but it feels—in testament to the amazing work of the design team—it feels of the DNA of the movies we've seen before.”
On a diverse cast and a female villain
J.J Abrams: It was really important when we began working on this script, that this movie feel and look a little bit more like the world than one might have thought. When I say one might have thought, I don't know who that “one” is, but I'm sure that person's out there, because when people say thank you for this, it sort of means that they haven't seen it like this before on some level. I know that looking at the story from the very beginning, Rey—and she wasn't always named Rey—but Rey was always at the center of this story.
And we knew Leia was going to be the movie from the beginning, of course. This character of Maz Kanata that is played just beautifully by Lupita Nyong'o was always a character and somehow always named Maz Kanata, who was part of this of this world. Phasma came about because we were trying to figure out the look of the, of Kylo Ren and this amazing design was presented and it was like, we just were floored. It was the coolest thing we'd ever seen.
We knew it didn't make sense for Kylo Ren, but it was really great, and so we started coming up with this character that was inspired by this, that was the head of all the Stormtroopers and working on, on that character. And the idea, we knew we wanted to have female Stormtroopers—and there are in the movie—but we knew we wanted to have the head of the Stormtroopers be an important character, and we thought well why not have her be female? And Gwendoline Christie's name came up, and I was already a fan, but just thought oh, my God. That would be unbelievable if that was possible.
Somehow she was available and our British casting director, Nina Gold, also cast Game of Thrones, and so luckily there was a connection there already. And Gwendoline came in and is as lovely as you'd ever want someone to be, and was such a Star Wars fan, and she got exactly what it needed to be instantly and was just a utter joy to work with. So we have good guys and bad guys who are not guys. We have female humans and non-humans.
In casting Finn for example, we had no idea what he looked like. We had no idea what Rey would look like. We just started casting knowing like with Lost, for example, you needed to be inclusive. We ended up finding Daisy Ridley, who was like a prayer answered. And we ended up finding, John Boyega, whose work I was an enormous fan of from Attack The Block. Oscar Isaac, who couldn't be better, and Adam Driver, who was Kathy Kennedy's idea, the only name ever mentioned for this part
Ah, we say, “Okay, so who should we cast for Kylo Ren?” She's like, “How about Adam Driver?” Like, “Done! Who's next?” I'm grateful to Judd Apatow and Leena Dunham, who actually had to do a crazy sort of sneaky work to get him available to us because they had him as first position on their show, Girls, and contorted things somehow to allow him to be in this movie. So I'm enormously grateful to them.
I will tell you that the experience of working on this movie really has been nothing sort of shocking to me, because it kept living up to it's potential in a way that didn't really feel like it would. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it's never too late, I guess, for that to happen, but regardless of what the reception is or what the result of the movie is, I know for a fact that when you see the movie, you will be seeing truly extraordinary work by thousands of people.
And it is something I will be grateful for forever. And to you guys for being here today, and staying so late, so thank you so much.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is now playing in theatres everywhere
I’ve been invited to LA courtesy of Disney for a media event. All opinions are my own.