Interview: J.J. Abrams Talks About Abandoning George Lucas’ Treatments and Lessons of the Star Wars Prequels
Posted on Tuesday, December 15th, 2015 by Peter Sciretta
Since it was announced that J.J. Abrams was going to direct Episode 7 of the Star Wars saga, he hasn’t talked too deeply about the process of developing the new film. So when I had the opportunity to talk to Abrams at the Star Wars: The Force Awakens press junket, I was filled with questions about how his vision of the next episode of Star Wars came about.
After the jump you can read my full J.J. Abrams interview. Some of the quotes have been previously features on the site (for instance, the stuff on working with Rian Johnson and The Raid guys and also his belief on the Force being more inclusive than midi-chlorians and bloodlines). But the interview packs a lot more: I ask Abrams about how his vision of the future of the Skywalker saga differed from the treatments that George Lucas turned in for the upcoming sequel trilogy, the lessons he took away from the Star Wars prequels, and more.
And you’ll notice that Abrams uses his Jedi mind tricks to not directly answer some of these questions, but his answers (for instance, his response about what he loved about the original trilogy) are actually very calculated and telling responses.
JJ Abrams Interview: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
J.J. Abrams: Hey, nice to see you again.
Peter Sciretta: Yes. I’ve watched most of the interviews you’ve done for this film, and it seems a lot of the same questions are asked so I want to ask you some questions I haven’t seen yet.
J.J. Abrams: I’d be honored to answer anything you ask.
Peter: And I’m very interested in the development process, so its going to be heavy on that.
J.J. Abrams: Sure.
Peter: When you first came on and decided “I’m going to do it,” there was this George Lucas treatment for three new films but you guys decided to go your own way—
J.J. Abrams: No. I came on board and Disney had already decided they didn’t want to go that direction, so the mandate was to start from scratch and tell a story that was the continuum… And Kathleen Kennedy brought on Larry Kasdan and Michael Arndt, and it was those people I began working with.
Peter: Okay. How different is what you guys ended up making from what George had originally planned?
J.J. Abrams: I can’t quantify that, but I can say that the spirit of it, the feeling of it, the continuum and telling a brand new story set in a world that just like VI from V and V from IV would feel like a continuum, is always the thing Larry and I wanted to do. But it was very much about answering the questions: What do we want to feel? Why are we telling this story? Who are the characters that have any meaning or relevance or make us feel something? Because Larry had created some of the greatest lines in Star Wars, with Yoda and some of the great sequences, he had been living with Star Wars for decades. He was the dream collaborator to say “Where would we be now? What would have happened from the remnant of the Empire? Where is the republic now? What happened to Han, Leia, Luke and all these characters that we’ve come to know and love?” So he was the dream person to have in the trenches with you.
Peter: When you’re developing this story, and this isn’t me prying for info, but how do you balance developing this one movie versus planting the seeds for the rest of the new trilogy of films that have announced? Do you end up writing a treatment for the three films?
J.J. Abrams: We didn’t write a treatment but there are countless times we came up with something and said “oh, this would be so great for Episode VIII!” or “Thats what we could get to in IX!” It was just that kind of forward moving story. But we knew this had to neither be a backwards moving nostalgic trip only nor a beginning of a movie without a satisfying conclusion, and that was part of the balancing act — embracing what we have inherited and using that where and whenever possible to tell a story that hasn’t been seen yet. We also knew that certain things were inevitable in our minds but that didn’t mean it would be inevitable for whoever came in next. When Rian [Johnson], who I admire enormously and adore, came on board, we met and talked with him about all the things we were working on and playing with, and he as a spectacular writer and director has taken those things and has written an amazing script that I think will be an incredible next chapter, some of which incorporating things we were thinking of and other things are things we could never of dreamed of.
Peter: Does Rian read your script and maybe suggest some changes or additions for things he maybe wants to seed early for his film?
J.J. Abrams: There were a handful of things we talked about that were going to be helpful to him. Some were very easy to do, and some things were things that I didn’t want to do for other reasons, but I tried to be as accommodating as I could. And its so cool to see what happens next in a way that only someone as talented as Rian could do.
Peter: You bought in the team from The Raid to do an action sequence in The Force Awakens. How did that happen? You don’t have to spoil their part…
J.J. Abrams: I was just a fan. It was an opportunity. I knew we needed people for this one sequence that would be particularly fun to see a group of people working together. It was simply just as I had seen John Boyega in Attack the Block and thought “how cool would it be to work with that guy one day?” and the opportunity arose and it worked out. And opportunity arose for this and I thought “God, I wonder if the dudes from The Raid would be available?” And to my amazement, and they were willing, and they were incredible. They showed up and did a terrific job. Not enormous roles in the movie, but wonderful to have them in the film.
Peter: What are… I know this is going to come off like I’m prying but…
J.J. Abrams: What’s going on, you’re protesting quite a bit here. (Laughs.)
Peter: No, it’s just some of these questions sound like they could be digging for a controversial response, and it’s totally not that kind of thing, so I just want to be clear.
J.J. Abrams: Okay, ask me anything, ask away.
Peter: What were your thoughts about the Star Wars prequels? What did you like and what didn’t you like? What lessons did you take from those films for Episode VII?
J.J. Abrams: All I’ll say about the prequels is if you ask someone around the age I was when the original trilogy came out, “Whats your favorite Star Wars movie?” they will tell you one of the original trilogy. If you ask someone around that age when the prequels came out, they will say one of the prequels. And it’s scientifically proven and undeniable. The original trilogy was for me what Star Wars felt like. And it was what Star Wars was. The prequels had a different but apparently equally powerful draw for so many people, and in some cases a more powerful draw. What I loved about the original trilogy is how real it felt. I still to this moment can’t believe how it felt to look at the desert of what was supposed to be Tatooine and seeing these two droids walking along and no fantasy genre film had ever, in my experience, looked like that before. And suddenly this was real. And it made all the other sets look real. I remember seeing the sandcrawler and all the scenes that took place in front of those giant treads and feeling like “that’s impossible, they’re real!” And it’s because they actually built that piece of the sandcrawler. I remember seeing the hangar and not knowing where and how the matte painting begins and the in-camera shot ends. It was so miraculously visually authentic and it was one of the reasons why Kathleen Kennedy and I decided very early on, that’s what this movie needs to feel like. Which is why when it would have been easier and cheaper and faster to not go to Abu Dhabi, it wouldn’t have looked as good if we hadn’t. It would have been easier not to travel to Wales or to Ireland, Iceland or to build all these sets, exterior and interior, that we did. There are a lot of other ways to approach the movie that I think would have been okay, but it was so important that we made this movie feel authentic as much as possible. Now, what I’m describing doesn’t automatically make it any good but it was a piece of the puzzle that George got so unbelievably right in those first three films and it was really important to us that we adhere to that.
Peter: George Lucas based a lot of the saga on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, and we’ve seen a lot of “the chosen one” stories and the Star Wars prequels I think made the “chosen one” prophecy even more specific because Force/Jedi-potential was linked to having a high midi-chlorian count, making it seem like you had to be born into being a Jedi. Does The Force Awakens explore the possibility that anyone can have the power? Know what I mean?
J.J. Abrams: I do. I will just say this. I would never presume to question anything George Lucas says is canon in Star Wars. And our job was not to negate or undo… A lot of people who are critics, and I respect all of them, of Star Trek, the ones that we did, said we destroyed what they loved and negated everything. And we worked hard to clarify that we are not saying that our Star Trek over-rides a thing of the original Star Trek — it was a parallel timeline. I never wanted to negate canon that fans held so dear. And because I love Star Wars and have for too many years…
Peter: But I think, for me, as a kid watching Star Wars, part of the power of those stories were that I could be Luke Skywalker.
J.J. Abrams: Yes, and what I’m getting to is having said all that and meaning it — I don’t want to presume over-write or change what George says the rules are. I’m not someone who quite understands the science of the Force. To me Star Wars was never about science fiction — it was a spiritual story. And it was more of a fairytale in that regard. For me when I heard Obi-Wan say that the Force surrounds us and binds us all together, there was no judgement about who you were. This was something that we could all access. Being strong with the Force didn’t mean something scientific, it meant something spiritual. It meant someone who could believe, someone who could reach down to the depths of your feelings and follow this primal energy that was flowing through all of us. I mean, that’s what was said in that first film! And there I am sitting in the theater at almost 11 years old and that was a powerful notion. And I think this is what your point was, we would like to believe that when shit gets serious, that you could harness that Force I was told surrounds not just some of us but every living thing. And so, I really feel like the assumption that any character needs to have inherited a certain number of midi-chlorians or needs to be part of a bloodline. It’s not that I don’t believe that as part of the canon, I’m just saying that at 11 years old, that wasn’t where my heart was. And so I respect and adhere to the canon but I also say that the Force has always seemed to me to be more inclusive and stronger than that.
Peter: Thank you J.J.!
J.J. Abrams: My absolute pleasure sir. I’m a big fan of what you do.
Peter: You know I’m a fan. We try to cover the movies with excitement without spoiling the experience.
J.J. Abrams: I just love it because you guys come from a place of being real fans of movies.Cool Posts From Around the Web: