The Force Unleashed
This December, cinema's greatest-ever saga finally continues.
Empire got J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Kathleen Kennedy to shed light on the new-look Galaxy Far, Far Away...
KYLO REN IS NOT A. HE WORKS for...uh, do you mind holding on for a moment?"
And with that J.J.Abrams is gone. The director has been speaking to Empire from the airport at the tail end of a family holiday. For the past hour we have been delicately teasing out information about The Force Awakens, arguably the year's most closely guarded secret. We finally start to make headway at the exact moment Abrams reaches security. His phone, and with it Empire, is abruptly confiscated and placed in a tray alongside shoes, belt and wallet. As it trundles down the conveyor towards X-ray, only the customs official can hear our scream of frustration.
Black-robed and badass, Adam Driver's Kylo Ren is the character who launched a thousand memes when he first ignited that wicked, cross-beamed lightsaber in The Force Awakens' teaser. As the villain, he has, in true StarWars fashion, seized fans' imagination like nothing else. Blogs and gossip sites buzz with speculation about the man behind that cold, gunmetal faceplate. Who is this new sith? Vader's heir? What's with the cross-guard? Why is his 'saber so ragged? Tell us something!
“Hello, sorry, are you there? Where was I? Oh yes, Kylo Ren is not a sith Lord. He works under Supreme Leader Snoke, who is a powerful figure on the darkside of the Force."
Now we're getting somewhere...
March 4 2013. JUST TWO MONTHS Abrams' announcement as the man who will direct the as-yet-untitled Episode VII, Empire meets with him at his Bad Robot offices on a strip of road in the business district of Santa Monica. To the uninformed, it's an unremarkable red brick building, another anonymous structure baking in the LA sun. The signage outside reads: The National Typewriter Company. Its opaque front door is accompanied by a glowing, green button. Above that, a wooden plaque asks the question, “Are You Ready?
The answer is no. Inside it’s like you've stepped through the looking-glass. Film and television memorabilia are displayed floor to ceiling; everything from Dharma beer cans to Twilight Zone figurines and Tom Cruise's suction gloves from the Burj khalifa climb in M:I-4. Next to a miniature Steve Jobs sits a stylised, striped AT-AT. Half hidden by a skull in a bell jar is a discarded lightsaber hilt. At reception, we find a quarter size R2-D2, while upstairs, near Abrams' office, an X-wing jostles for space with a Darth Vader helmet-one that looks suspiciously like it might sometimes get worn.
Abrams may no longer be the wide-eyed 11-year-old who walked out of Los Angeles' Avco cinema back in the summer of 77 with a mile-wide grin on his face, but the impact of Star Wars has never left him:
“The narrative of that movie is brilliant: the propulsion of it, the unexpected nature of it, the way it makes you relate to two droids. It's remarkable how many things that movie does right," says the director, his hypercaffeinated dynamism barely held in check."Its very easy to say that Empire has more going on aesthetically, more character depth, more revelation, But Episode IV, for me, will always be the more powerful.”
As with most die-hard fans, the zealotry of his affection for both film and franchise radiates from Abrams like binary suns. However much people shell out for The Avengers, rhapsodise over Game Of Thrones or even squeal at One Direction, nothing quite measures up to the drooling fervour brought about by Star Wars - even in A-list filmmakers. One can only imagine the look on Abrams' face when he received the call that would have made his childhood self pitch a fit: Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy offering to hand him a Star Wars of his very own
Naturally, he said no.
Still polishing Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams had by then spent several years waist-deep in Vulcans and Klingons and the thought of launching straight into an even bigger space franchise was the last thing on his mind. But, more than that, he was absolutely terrified. To take on something so precious, that had so defined his childhood—what if he screwed it up?
“Getting too close to your idols, historically, is never a good thing.”he says. “It was so near and dear to my heart that the idea of being involved in it frankly felt dangerous, But Kathy asked if I would meet with her anyway. I fully intended to once again say, "Thank you but no thank you.' But when I heard how she wanted to do this in the most emotional, character based and authentic way, I found myself leaning forward and, just for a moment, imagining what it would be to direct a Star Wars movie.”
None could dispute Abrams passion or credentials, but one question still hung in the air, perhaps in the distant, disembodied voice of Alec Guinness; how do you make a Star Wars film without George Lucas?
“I think it’s been very difficult for George to let go," says Kennedy, when we manage to snatch a rare half-hour at Pinewood Studios, where she's overseeing Gareth Edwards' standalone spin-off Star Wars film, Rogue One,"I think it's been more difficult than he ever imagined. His identity has been wrapped up in Star Wars for most of his adult life. But you don't want to keep a toe in the water if you've made as significant a life decision as he did. He knew that time was going to be the only thing that allowed him to step away."
Lucas announced his retirement from filmmaking in 2012. He passed the running of Lucasfilm over to Kennedy and sold the company he'd spent his career building to Disney, lock, stock and barrel, for a whisker over $4 billion. Fans looked on aghast as Star Wars was handed to an evil corporate Empire (mouse-eared Death Stars popped up on Twitter within minutes), but Lucas was done Pausing only to drop the bombshell that Episodes VII,VIII and IX were in development, the saga's shy, softly spoken creator, with his precisely trimmed beard and wardrobe of endless plaid, took a bow and walked away.
"I've known J.J. since he was 15 years old." says Kennedy,"I think he was scared, to a certain extent, of stepping into these shoes but he was always way at the top of my list. Both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have a little bit of corniness in their sense of humour and the ability to find that balance between gravitas, real emotion and playfulness. J.J. is one of the few directors that has that kind of sensibility."
Lucasfilm's Star Wars brain trust — which included Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt and X-Men scribe Simon Kinberg — had already spitballed ideas for the sequels and Arndt was hard at work sculpting them into something more tangible. Time, unfortunately, was against him.
"Michael needed 18 months more than anyone had signed up for." says Abrams. “We had to decide: do we wait another year-and-a-half or not? It really wasn't an option for Kathy and the studio, and frankly I couldn't wait until sometime next year to begin shooting this thing. The silver lining was that Larry Kasdan agreed to write the script with me.”
If the brain trust is Lucasfilm's Jedi Council, then Lawrence Kasdan, screenwriter of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, is its Yoda. Kasdan had turned down Lucas' invitation to punch up The Phantom Menace but found himself tempted back by the lure of an old friend.
"I went up to Skywalker Ranch and they told me they were gonna do more Star Wars movies,” Kasdan explains."They showed me all the subjects they had in mind and said I could pick one. I chose young Han Solo.Then they came to me and said, "Would you leave Han for a while and come to work on VII? So here I am. I got to write for Harrison Ford again after 30 years, and then when I finished that job I got to go back and write that character when he's much younger".
"Having Lawrence Kasdan in the room when you are wondering, 'Just what happened to the Empire?" or, ‘Where is Leia at this moment?" was fabulous,” admits Abrams. “The way Jedi ends, it gives you a sense of closure and alignment and balance, but time marches on. What must have happened to these characters? We began to find moments that would make us laugh or give us chills and have us ask, ‘Well, what happens next?
PAN down from the twin suns of tatooine. We are now close on the mouth of the Sarlacc Pit. After a beat, the gloved, Mandalorian armoured gauntlet of Boba Fett grabs onto the sand outside the Sarlacc Pit - - and the feared bounty hunter pulls himself from the maw of the sand beast. Hard cut to a re-purposed Imperial destroyer, which has now been taken over by the Rebels. Commander Luke Skywalker, now a full.Jedi Knight, training new Padawans...We pan outside of the control window to a nearby asteroid where we see — and please allow me to finish this because it's gonna seem like a bit of a jump — we see Thanos".
Not the plot of Episode VII but rather Patton Oswalt's now famous filibuster on Parks and Recreation. For Star Wars fans, though, this kind of wild speculation was all they had. Beyond the announcement of the cast, which included faces both old (Lucas had locked in Hamill, Ford and Fisher before selling the company) and new, nothing was revealed of the script Kasdan and Abrams put together over those frantic weeks.
“The process carried us through Los Angeles, Santa Monica, London, Paris and New York City," says Kasdan. “We worked straight through Christmas on the phone, Skyping and writing pages. We wound up sitting in restaurants, the two of us yelling at each other about how things should go in the story. This is supposed to be the most secret script in history and we're sitting at the café Deux Magots in Paris saying, "I don't think Han should do that' and naming names!
In less than two months they had a script and the shutters of secrecy slammed closed like so many Death Star blast doors. Even now, just a few months prior to release, a sparse handful of facts are all that have been officially revealed (see panel, below), although those willing to brave the dark side of the internet can unearth a number of illicitly obtained, though unconfirmed, spoilers.
The story picks up 30 years after the Battle Of Endor, where the power vacuum left by the Emperor's death has been filled by the First Order. Led by Andy Serkis' Supreme Leader Snoke and Domhnall Gleeson's General Hux, they are an organisation whose livery and right-of-centre politics are not wildly dissimilar to those of the Galactic Empire's
“That all came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again." Abrams reveals.“What could be born of that? Could the First Order exist as a group that actually admired the Empire? Could the work of the Empire be seen as unfulfilled? And could Vader be a martyr? Could there be a need to see through what didn't get done? And if that were the case, why wouldn't stormtroopers exist? Why wouldn't you use what worked so well for the Empire and then build bigger and better from there?"
The result is TIE Fighters once more howling through the skies But gone are the drab, grey ships of Vader's fleet, replaced by black models with ice-white panels. The First Order stormtrooper meanwhile, are all curves and contours: sleeker, sexier and yet somehow more menacing for it. The Empire, reimagined by Apple.
Among the ranks of Abrams' new iTroopers is John Boyega's Finn, who teams up with scrapyard scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in a story that would seem to involve Anakin Skywalker's original lightsaber (last seen tumbling from a Bespin weather vane along with Luke's hand) Our heroes will encounter Princess Leia, Jedi Master Luke, a pair of familiar droids and, of course, everyone's favourite smuggler.
"We asked ourselves what might have happened to them during that time? How much had they changed?" says Kasdan. "We wanted new characters who will be interesting to you not just for one movie, but for three, Who have the potential to fit into this galaxy and yet be something different than we've ever seen. We've been very lucky with the casting there because those are three extraordinary actors. And then there's Adam Driver...”
Kylo Ren. Not a Sith, but one for whom the martyred Vader is an inspiration and whose mask is a nod to the Dark Lord's own. An acolyte from the mysterious Knights of Ren, whose custom-made lightsaber, constructed by his own hand, is as unruly and volatile as the man himself. "He'll be different from anything that's ever been in Star Wars.”
ANYONE WHO EVER pulled sandwiches from a Darth Vader lunchbox or lay down at night on a Chewbacca pillowcase has at some point re-played Return of the Jedi’s final minutes and fantasised about what happened next. On December 18, when those first, triumphant notes sound out in B-flat major, we will - finally know for sure. Because J.J. Abrams has nearly finished The Force Awakens, what must surely be the most extravagant work of fan fiction in entertainment history.
“It is a preposterous thing when you think about it that way;" he says, laughing, “I can't imagine how many fans have told their own versions of these stories. There were so many moments where I would be walking back to the camera having just talked to the actors and I would have a rush of, 'How the hell did this happen?”
Now reunited with both phone and footwear, sitting comfortably in the departure lounge, Abrams has come to the end of his brief getaway. The film is deep into post and, with a fleeting stop in New York for the Mission:Impossible Rogue Nation premiere, he'll soon be back in the edit room, finalising visual effects and prepping for October's scoring sessions.
There are four months until release. Sixteen agonising weeks until Star Wars' return, Behind it, a procession of follow-up films is already forming (single file, to hide their numbers). The first Anthology, Rogue One, has started shooting and Rian Johnson's Episode VIII is now in pre-production. Kasdan, meanwhile, has finished the first draft of Phil Lord and Chris Miller's Han Solo origin story. Disney's Star Wars machine is now fully operational and The Force Awakens will set the tone for everything that follows.
"Being the temporary captain of the ship that George built is an honour but the ship is larger than the man who built it," says Abrams, “When he created something as powerful as Star Wars, while it began with him, it became the world's."
Lucas' withdrawal has, in some quarters, been seen as an opportunity to put distance between the saga and those meddlesome midi-chlorians. For these fans Abrams is a lifeline — a new hope, if you will. Someone to take the saga back to its glory days. Before the dark times. Before the prequels.
“I don't take any comfort in people comparing The Force Awakens to something they might not have liked as much as something else," counters Abrams. “I don't think anyone is looking for anything other than the quintessential Star Wars when they get excited about The Force Awakens.”
In a year that has unleashed three of the six highest-grossing movies of all time in Age of Ultron, Fast & Furious 7 and the mighty Jurassic World, box-office success in 2015 is currently cruising at an altitude of around $1.4 billion. But this is Star Wars. Adjusted for inflation, Lucas' first installment remains the second-most successful movie in history.
"There's very little that takes the edge off the double-edged sword that there is enormous expectation for this movie," says Abrams, as an announcer loudly declares the boarding of his slight, heralding the director's return to civilisation and the end of our conversation.
"I want this movie to touch people," he goes on. "I want it to make them believe again in the power of the world that George created The power of the light side versus the dark side. The power of the Force."