J.J. Abrams on Making Star Wars 7 With Original Trilogy Practical Effects

With a body of work already behind him that includes creating TV shows like Lost and Alias, directing movies including Mission: Impossible III and rebooting the Star Trek franchise with two blockbuster films, writer/producer/director J.J. Abrams has taken on the biggest challenge of his career by co-scripting and directing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh chapter in the most iconic genre franchise of all time.

A passionate Star Wars fan, Abrams and Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy had one goal in mind, as he puts it: to make a movie worthy of the original, universally beloved trilogy. Melding the classic cast of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Anthony Daniels with newer faces like Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega was the first step, while going old school with as many of the visuals as possible was another. While the plot remains under wraps for another week or so, Abrams shared his creative goals with us during our chat this past weekend at the film’s press junket.

You didn’t want this job at first – you were a little hesitant. How did your thinking evolve on that?

Well, I’d say no for various reasons, one of which was that I done other sequels, and I cared about the project so much that the potential of a Star Wars movie was a little intimidating. But then when I met with Kathy Kennedy and we started talking about what this thing could be, it didn’t take much convincing to get drawn in. It was such an unbelievable and crazy opportunity.

Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams at Star Wars Celebration
Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams at Star Wars Celebration

What was your mandate in continuing the story?

Well, to my absolute surprise, there was no mandate from anyone. There was no mandate from Kathy, other than it be something that felt worthy of the opportunity. No mandate from Disney, which was shocking to me – they didn’t say anything about what they needed. They just let us do our job and I think part of that was because we had Kathy Kennedy sort of at the helm of this, of Lucasfilm.

But working with Lawrence Kasdan, who of course wrote Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the only mandate that we had – and it was really sort of his term – was that the movie be delightful. And I think what he meant by that, which was a thing that really struck a nerve for me, was that it had to have that feeling that we both had when we first saw Star Wars. It had to be genuinely, viscerally thrilling. Not to say delightful is all happy, you know, but to say that it is something that needed to have that power, and so it was one of the little touchstones that we had in the beginning of the process: “Does this feel like it’s the right thing for this movie?” Because it was a very important and specific opportunity that we didn’t want to screw up.

Star Wars - J.J. Abrams with a stormtrooper on The Force Awakens set

How far did you want to go in terms of marrying the look of this film to the original films? Obviously you’re making a movie in 2015 and there’s a lot of different things going on, but you wanted to use a lot of practical effects and so on…

This was really important, that the movie, in a way, go backwards to go forwards. This was very much about new characters and a new story, and like Star Wars has always been at its best, a generational tale of understanding young people and understanding their place in the world. So these are brand new characters that we’re meeting, but I wanted it to look and feel the way the original trilogy did – which is to say, when I saw those two droids in the desert of Tatooine, that was real. Like, I knew it. I didn’t know necessarily that they were shooting in Tunisia, I didn’t know how they did what they did, I just knew as a kid, as we all did, that’s real.

There was something about seeing that that inspired us to shoot in Abu Dhabi and shoot in Ireland and Wales, and build elaborate sets at Pinewood, exterior and interior. So it was very much a conscientious thing to have BB-8, the new droid, be a performed character and not a CG thing we add later. It helped in countless ways, mostly for the actors, to be able to be on sets and interacting with creatures and ‘droids and things that were physically, tangibly there and use CG, in many cases, to remove things –remove the puppeteer, remove the legs sticking out of the bottom of the creature, that kind of thing.

NEXT: Harrison Ford Interview for Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The film is directed by J.J. Abrams and stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Max Von Sydow. Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk are producing with Tommy Harper and Jason McGatlin serving as executive producers. The screenplay is by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens releases in theaters on December 18th, 2015, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.

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