J.J. Abrams Unloads About 'The Force Awakens,' Marketing, Giving Rian Johnson All The Secrets

Even though J.J. Abrams has been a fan of Star Wars for a long time, he's never been more engulfed in the galaxy far, far away than he has for the past two or three years. Given the Herculean task of delivering a new film in the iconic sci-fi saga that will launch a new era of Star Wars for fans both old and new, Abrams has had a lot on his plate, and a new extensive interview with the director gives us a glimpse into his mindset both as a filmmaker and as a fan.

Below, we round up some of the more fascinating quotes from Abrams, featuring his perspective on Star Wars: The Force Awakens marketing, giving secrets to Episode VIII director Rian Johnson, working with the legendary John Williams and much more.

Cracking the Story

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: jj abrams and lawrence kasdanWired really landed some good stuff in their JJ Abrams interview, pulling some fascinating stuff about how the filmmaker approached something as massive as The Force Awakens – a movie where even coming up with a title was a difficult task to complete. How does someone like Abrams tackle a movie like this?

We really tried to look at it from the inside out. What makes this story have a beating heart? What makes it romantic or fun or surprising or heartbreaking or hysterically funny? We simply approached this narrative from the point of view that this is a story about a young man and a young woman, not with the idea that we can do anything we want.

I asked questions like "How do we make this movie delightful?" That was really the only requirement [co-writer Lawrence Kasdan] and I imposed on each other: The movie needed to be delightful. It was not about explaining everything away, not about introducing a certain number of toys for a corporation, not about trying to appease anyone. This has only ever been about what gets us excited.

A Movie for Fans New and Old

Han Solo Star Wars: the force awakens

Obviously Star Wars already has a built-in fanbase, but how much consideration was given to how this movie will appeal to people who may not care about Star Wars? Or new fans who might experience the galaxy for the first time with this movie? Abrams took cues from the original film:

We wanted to tell a story that had its own self-contained beginning, middle, and end but at the same time, like A New Hope, implied a history that preceded it and also hinted at a future to follow. When Star Wars first came out, it was a film that both allowed the audience to understand a new story but also to infer all sorts of exciting things that might be. In that first movie, Luke wasn't necessarily the son of Vader, he wasn't necessarily the brother of Leia, but it was all possible.

The Force Awakens has this incredible advantage, not just of a passionate fan base but also of a backstory that is familiar to a lot of people. We've been able to use what came before in a very organic way, because we didn't have to reboot anything. We didn't have to come up with a backstory that would make sense; it's all there. But these new characters, which Force is very much about, find themselves in new situations—so even if you don't know anything about Star Wars, you're right there with them. If you are a fan of Star Wars, what they experience will have added meaning.

For me, setting The Force Awakens 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi is key. It creates a situation where not even diehard fans really know the state of the galaxy, or what our characters have been up to this whole time. That also allows any non-hardcore fans to jump in and pretty much be in the same boat as everyone else.

Avoiding Pointless Fan Service

The Force Awakens - J.J. Abrams

Abrams also set out to avoid including things that were cool or iconic about Star Wars just to appease fans. He wanted to make sure that every element of the movie was interesting and had purpose:

For example, when we were on-set and we were shooting a scene, it was always amazing to me to see Harrison Ford dressed as Han Solo. Or, wow, there's a guy — a stormtrooper! — and he looks exactly like a stormtrooper. Remember the feeling of the villain stepping off his ship? Or the sound of the TIE fighters when they roar past you? We've all seen TIE fighters roar past us now for nearly 40 years; what makes that interesting? The point is, these scenes aren't good just because those characters or things are there, even though it's the greatest eye candy in the history of time.

On the next page, J.J. Abrams talks marketing and learning from his own mistakes.

J.J. Abrams broke his back

Learning From Past Mistakes

So Abrams tried to figure out the best way to approach the story for fans and general audiences alike. But was there anything he tried to avoid? From a filmmaking standpoint, Abrams shows plenty of self-awareness, referencing how his previous storytelling efforts have progressed in comparison to how The Force Awakens unfolded:

More than anything, I drew on personal experiences as cautionary tales, things that I didn't want to do again. For example, I didn't want to enter into making a movie where we didn't really own our story. I feel like I've done that a couple of times in my career. That's not to say I'm not proud of my work, but the fact is I remember starting to shoot 'Super 8' and 'Star Trek Into Darkness' and feeling like I hadn't really solved some fundamental story problems. The collaboration [with Kasdan], for me, was an education in storytelling and doing so with clarity, with efficiency, brevity — wit. It was a little like taking an extended master class. And because he's also a director, he knew what I was going through in prep and in production, and he allowed for my needs.

Casting for Three Movies

rey and finn Star Wars: the force awakens

Finding the right talent to lead any movie is key, but when you're dealing with casting a movie that is meant to be the first in a new trilogy, you have to remember that these people are going to be around for multiple films as these characters. Abrams says casting for characters who will be with us for years was one of the hardest parts about making the movie:

We knew we weren't just casting one movie—we were casting at least three. That, to me, was the biggest challenge. 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 fucking 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.

Marketing, Marketing, Marketing

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Poster

With a movie like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, shooting the film is just one part of the production process. Unlike with most other films, the marketing is something that requires just as much thought as cracking the story. You need to sell the film to audiences (especially in order to move merchandise), but you don't want to give away too much too soon. At the same time, you don't want to be stingy.

And while Abrams is notorious for keeping things secret, even when they don't need to be (e.g., that villain "twist" in Star Trek Into Darkness), the filmmaker says he was actually the one who wanted to get a teaser out for the movie back in fall 2014:

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.

Of course, Abrams is still keeping plenty of secrets, though he's very well aware of just how much to give away to fans in order to keep them satisfied:

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.

But I don't want to destroy too many illusions. We're walking a tightrope. 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.

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. They want this thing to be an experience for people when they go to see the film. And I'm grateful for that.

And when it comes to the massive merchandising that comes with a movie like Star Wars, Abrams has been very involved in determining what gets released by way of toys, lunch boxes and all that stuff:

You just have to kind of ask yourself at every turn, at every convention, at every opportunity, every promotion, "What feels right?" Of course, with this movie there are more licensing and merchandising balls to juggle than I've ever experienced. There are so many things, each one a little bit of a window into the story. It's not just about what piece you put out for a talk show. This is also about: Well, what does that character say as a toy in that particular line of action figures, as opposed to that one? We want to preserve some of the rarefied air of the actual experience and not open all the windows so it all just gets depleted.

On the next page, Abrams talks about Episode VIII and John Williams.

Star Wars New Trilogy

Star Wars Beyond

J.J. Abrams is kicking off this new era of Star Wars with The Force Awakens, but he's letting someone else take the reins for Episode VIII. Abrams will still executive produce the film, but Looper director Rian Johnson will get behind the camera as director. It sounds like the two have already been collaborating quite a bit, so much that the script for Episode VIII is completed:

The script for VIII is written. I'm sure rewrites are going to be endless, like they always are. But what [Kasdan] and I did was set up certain key relationships, certain key questions, conflicts. And we knew where certain things were going. We had meetings with Rian and Ram Bergman, the producer of VIII. They were watching dailies when we were shooting our movie. We wanted them to be part of the process, to make the transition to their film as seamless as possible. I showed Rian an early cut of the movie, because I knew he was doing his rewrite and prepping. And as executive producer of VIII, I need that movie to be really good. Withholding serves no one and certainly not the fans. So we've been as transparent as possible.

But just because Abrams is helping doesn't mean that this won't be Johnson's movie through and through:

Rian has asked for a couple of things here and there that he needs for his story. He is an incredibly accomplished filmmaker and an incredibly strong writer. So the story he told took what we were doing and went in the direction that he felt was best but that is very much in line with what we were thinking as well. But you're right — that will be his movie; he's going to do it in the way he sees fit. He's neither asking for nor does he need me to oversee the process.

Ladies and Gentlemen, John Williams

The Empire Strikes Back without music

And as thrilling as it might be just to make a Star Wars movie, Abrams got really excited when asked about working with legendary composer John Williams. The man isn't just responsible or Star Wars, but for some of the greatest scores ever composed, including those for Jaws and all the Indiana Jones movies. Abrams could not contain his love for Williams:

Oh my God! First of all, forget his talent and his achievement. As a person, he's the guy you want to know more than anyone. He is the sweetest soul I've ever met. He's like this jazzman who became one of the greatest composers of all time. He literally calls you "baby"! Like, "Hey, baby." He calls me "J.J. Baby." I waited all my life to meet someone who would call me that!

He works in pencil. You go to his home and listen to him play notes on the piano, and while you're listening, you extrapolate what it will be like when you hear the melody with an orchestra. It is unforgettable, a truly miraculous thing to behold. He has every one of his scores leather-bound. I was like, "Do you mind if I ...?" He goes, "No, go ahead!" So I pulled out the Jaws score, and sure enough, there it is, in pencil on paper: baaaa-bum, baaaa-bum. You're like, "Well, that's what he wrote!" It's as if you're hanging out with Mozart, who happened to score your favorite movies.

What's Next?

Since The Force Awakens is essentially finished, and due to hit theaters in a little over a month, does Abrams have any idea what he's going to do next? The director says:

My mom used to do this thing where we'd be eating lunch and she'd say, "So what do you want for dinner?" And I'd say, "Mom! We're eating lunch. We're literally just starting to eat lunch." I feel like I just need to finish my lunch. Right now, I just want to get this film into the world.

And he wants you to see the movie almost as badly as you want to see it:

I can't wait for people to see the movie. We've been baking this cake for a long time, and now it's time to serve it.

Hopefully it's a tasty cake when it comes out of the oven. Star Wars: The Force Awakens starts playing on December 17th.

For tons more from J.J. Abrams, check out the full interview over at Wired.