Meet The Guy Who's Seen 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' More Than 20 Times In Theaters

I was in Los Angeles recently on a business trip when I got to have lunch with my friend, writer/director Bradley King, whose film Time Lapse is a fun genre thriller that recently hit Netflix. As typically occurs when I meet with fellow film nerds, we started talking about what films he'd seen recently. That's when he admitted he'd seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens more than 23 times in theaters, as of this writing, and had no plans to stop going.

I enjoyed The Force Awakens myself when it was first released, but I can't quite imagine seeing any movie that many times in theaters, let alone that specific one. I needed to understand the depths and purpose of this obsession, so King agreed to let me interview him. Hit the jump to read a transcript of our interview, which has been edited for grammar and clarity, as we explore why King does it, what theaters he chooses to go to, and what he learns from each viewing. And of course, the following contains massive spoilers for The Force Awakens.

Why don't we start by you telling us what your relationship has been to Star Wars?

I was a child of the '80s, born in 1976. My parents must've taken me to Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back in my youth, but I have a clear memory of seeing Return of the Jedi. It seems like a story we've heard a lot now, but I had a Star Wars childhood.

The first birthday present I distinctly remember was on my 5th birthday, I got the Millenium Falcon. It was the only thing I got, but I was totally delighted. Most of what my friends and I played on the playground were variations on Star Wars stories, whether it was with action figures or with sticks or whatever. It was a really big part of my childhood.

All was well until I started going to Colorado Film School in 1997, and there was a little bit of backlash against popcorn movies in general. I experienced a little distancing from the movies, just because I had to be interested in the French New Wave or German expressionists or whatever. But secretly in my heart of hearts I always think movies of that period and Star Wars in particular were formative for me and my imagination.

While I was in film school, The Phantom Menace's trailer came out and the poster came out. We were all really excited. I did have a friend in film school who was in the same boat as me, really liked Star Wars, had worked on Starship Troopers. We went to see the new film together.

Unfortunately, the prequels did not go over very well with me, and they kind of soured me on the originals unfortunately. I found myself really struggling to access the wonder and the excitement and the nostalgia that I used to feel about the originals, to the point where probably for about 10 years I didn't really watch any of the films. If I saw the action figures in the store, I wasn't interested. It was just kind of a sore spot.

I came to terms with the fact that Star Wars was something that was just going to be in my past that I wasn't going to feel much about.

What was it about the prequels that so soured you?

That's a big question. I certainly have specific writing issues with them. The overwhelming amount of CG which may not hold up that well these days. It felt like pretty mediocre fan fiction. It felt like someone who was familiar with the Star Wars universe had taken it in a direction that didn't really feel that authentic to the originals.

Also, they tried to demystify the Force. The kid in me, who had spent time every morning trying to move my cereal bowl with my mind, he did not like the idea that the Force was just a blood disease or whatever. I think on many levels I was struggling with those prequels.

What were your feelings going into Force Awakens? Did you have high hopes?

I was tentatively hopeful. I'm a pretty optimistic person in general. I definitely had friends that were cynical about it and felt like they had been burned so badly by the prequels that there wasn't any way it could be a return to the original luster. I had seen one trailer for The Force Awakens and it really moved me.

When did you see it for the first time?

Within a week of release I saw it with some high school friends I reunite with every year.

What was your initial reaction to The Force Awakens?

Well, it was mixed. There was a lot that I liked, but obviously J.J. Abrams had this whole idea of going back to go forward — sometimes it really landed for me and I felt very good. Sometimes it took me out of the film. "Well, have I seen this before? Is it changed enough to feel fresh or does this feel redundant?" Even now, I wouldn't say "This movie's perfect. That's why I keep seeing it."

But coming out of the first screening, I was with people who almost uniformly didn't like it. We spent an hour and a half driving back home picking it apart and talking about the things that didn't work so well. By the end of that drive, I would say I was leaning towards not feeling so good about it. I was very confused because of all the discussion and all the various feelings I was having.

When did you start to come around on the film and how did that happen?

The next day I had to go see the film with my parents. I wanted to explore more of what I was feeling, because I did feel very confused and conflicted. We went and saw it together in my hometown in a much smaller theater and a much less grandiose setting. And I don't know what happened. If I had to diagnose it, I would say maybe I had sort of come to terms with the potential flaws and the problems and was prepared for an unpleasant experience — a further letdown that would make me feel less excited.

But the exact opposite happened. It just sort of wiggled its way into my heart. Suddenly I felt freed up to appreciate the sort of things that I've now come to genuinely love very strongly about it. I was really excited. Coming out of that screening I felt not that the movie was perfect, but that I really loved it and it engendered things I was excited to be feeling.

Bradley Brighter

What things were you excited to be feeling from seeing the film?

I catch a lot of flack from my friends for seeing this movie so many times. One of the things they give me grief about is, "Oh, well, you're just feeling nostalgia."

To that I say, "Well, why didn't I feel nostalgia for the prequels, if that's all it is? If it's just seeing Star Wars stuff."

I mean undoubtedly nostalgia is happening. But beyond that, the performances affected me. I think anytime John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, or Harrison Ford are on screen, I'm interested. I'm in. I want to watch them. They probably could've been doing dishes for some of those scenes and I would've been riveted. But the performances were really good and the arcs worked for me in the movie. I cried. I cry every single time, in fact.

That was the deal I made with myself. I would stop going when I stop crying. And I have yet to not cry at a screening of this movie.

What parts do you cry at?

Certainly, I cry when we see the Millenium Falcon for the first time. When Harrison Ford comes on screen, when he dies. Rey and her arc, I think even just when we're introduced to her — seeing her inhabit this world that is populated by the relics of my childhood, all dusty and laying in the desert and forgotten, and seeing her engage with this world and get sucked into it and get to interact with Han Solo and the Millenium Falcon and all that stuff in a way that as a kid I always dreamed — obviously that was part of J.J.'s plan to try to do that. It worked wonderfully. It really activated that part of my imagination and excitement.

Do you usually watch it by yourself or go with others?

Usually by myself, but I have taken a few people. I'm kind of careful now to take people who either already actively like it or I think might enjoy it, because I've already had all the arguments about what's working and what's not working, or whether things are being rehashed to much or whether this or that aspect works. Now, because I'm going for my own edification, and to study it and study my own reactions to it, I don't want to take someone who wants to go just to complain about it afterwards.

Do you have a preferred theatrical experience? Do you go to different theaters?

The more I watch it the more I am experimenting with the experience. I'll go one time and just study the shots. "Let me see if I can figure out what lens they were using in all these shots."

One thing this has done is gotten me into a bunch of different theaters, because of course it's been leaving theaters one by one. When I first started going, I saw it at the Dome at the Arclight in 3D a couple times. Then I saw it at the Dome in 2D. Then I had to go to Mann's Chinese Theater, because of course that's where Star Wars began way back in the 1970s. I saw it there several times, and then I saw it at the Capitan, where Disney always does a little opening, like a laser light show before the movie, and that was fun.

I've been seeing it at the Grove, mostly because that's now where it's still playing. It's left most other theaters. Over time, I started seeing it in smaller and smaller theaters.

I did walk out of one screening because of the nature of how it was presented was so atrocious, I had to leave. Nothing against the theater — it was Regal Cinemas in Downtown Los Angeles and they had this thing called 4DX...

We had a segment on the /Filmcast about that!

You know all about it then! I knew nothing. I had heard about the one with the rumble seats, but this was a whole other level. The seats are on a gimbal, and you're getting blasted with air and water. I think smell too? Or maybe the air just smelled bad.

The parts that really got me were the strobe lights in the theater. The director obviously spent a lot of time and money trying to make the light look beautiful in this movie, and you're going to add strobe lights to this experience? I thought that was absurd.

What really got me out of the theater was, you know those little arms in the seats that are kidney-punching you occasionally during action scenes? After about 15 minutes of that I had to leave. I couldn't handle it.

You mentioned using each screening to study a different element of the film. What are some things you've noticed in recent screenings that you didn't notice in your first few viewings?

Last night I was studying transitions between scenes. Basically how the last shot of a scene lined up with the first shot of the next scene. The director has a lot of vital jobs, but arguably that's one that's not just important for smoothing the audience's transition from one scene to the next without losing them, but also it's interesting to study the art of it and how sometimes, you have a transition that's thematic and there's an idea sliding you from one scene to the next. But sometimes it's a shot matching up with another shot in the next scene. So yeah, yesterday was all about that.

What is a specific transition that really struck you and why?

An easy one to that everyone might even remember is when John Boyega is back on the Star Destroyer at the beginning of the movie and he's taking his helmet off and he's kind of freaking out. Captain Phasma comes up and gives him grief about it and asks him "Who told you you could take your helmet off?!" And so he puts it back on. And then we have a match cut basically to Rey — same proportions, her head just about as big in the frame, staring right at us the way John Boyega was. She's wearing a helmet or a mask apparatus that she's cobbled together from old stormtrooper parts, so the eyes especially are from an old stormtrooper helmet. It's a really smooth interesting cut and we sort of finished our introduction to John Boyega's character and we're sliding into meeting Rey.

I think even the first time I saw it, I thought, "Oh wow, that was a neat transition."

But then there's more subtle ones. Like later in the movie when the planet is about to implode, and I think some of the guys in the control center, they're watching TIE fighters blow up and fire outside the window. One of them starts to abandon his post, and someone yells at him, "Don't abandon your post!" And then he says "We're never going to survive!" and he runs out the door.

And then we cut to General Hux running into the chamber where he's talking to the supreme leader giving him orders. It's really simple but kind of subtle where your eye isis following this one guy out the door, and then you cut to this scene where someone is coming in a door, and they're positioned physically in the same spot on the frame. So your eye doesn't have to wander or leap across the screen. Especially when you're in a really big screening environment, you almost have to turn your head to go from one side of the screen to the other. So, it just sort of facilitates smooth continuation of attention. It's not really in your face, but it's not meant to be. It's just sort of meant to keep you moving in what is a fast series of cuts, in terms of what's happening in the movie at that point.

Star Wars The Force Awakens starkiller base 3

Other than transitions, is there anything else you've noticed?

When you've watched a movie more than 20 times, your attention is free to wander, because you're no longer subject to movie magic that's forcing you to look at this spot or that spot. Sometimes you'll see a ship going through the background. I noticed one of the new AT-AT walkers walking way off in the distance in one of the snow shots. I just noticed that on my 20th viewing. It's nice that there are little tiny things going on in the background.

But at the same time, one of the beefs my friends and I had with the prequels is that it felt as though there was too much being jammed into every frame. Or maybe, they were being jammed in a way that wasn't allowing us to focus during the first viewing, and then, of course we never got to a 20th viewing. It started to feel overwhelming. There's a fine line between putting in Easter eggs, and overwhelming the viewer with visual stimuli.

What drives you to keep seeing this film over and over again?

Other than the promise I made to myself to not stop going until I stopped crying — although I guess it's more of a dare than a promise — part of it really is that right now I'm in the transition period into hopefully getting another project going myself after having made my first film. And I am reaching for inspiration, and the fire to be excited. My next movie isn't going to be a space opera but I think the excitement I feel coming out of a movie that I like, and thinking about the characters and the themes, and about my own life in relation to those, that's really good.

This year, I tried to make a commitment to see one movie per day in theaters. Honestly, that is pretty hard because there aren't that many movies in theaters that I'd even want to see twice. The last time I went to see a movie like this over and over again was In Bruges. Same deal, that one also made me cry. But it's not just the tears. It's also the excitement. In this case, seeing a fantasy world being brought to life in a believable way is really inspiring. So, as a filmmaker, I only have so many sources of excitement. I try really hard to see a wide range of things, but when I land on one that is repeatedly exciting me, I guess I have to keep going and investigating that and trying to figure out why. Why did this do this to me?

No matter how many times I see this movie, I may never be able to answer the nostalgia question. How much of the magic of The Force Awakens is based on the stories that came before it? And even if the answer is "a lot", does that necessarily lessen its value as a work of art?

Regardless, there's no escaping the fact that the movie has healed my feelings about the Star Wars universe. I enjoy talking about it again. I hum the score when I walk down the street. I look up the vintage toys on eBay, and remember what it was like to play with them. Thanks to this movie, works of art that moved me so profoundly in my youth are now recovered territory. For that I'm very grateful.

I assume watching it over and over on Blu-ray or home video would not be the same for you?

No. I have a projection screening environment at home and surround sound, but a huge part of it is being with the audience at the theater. 23 different audiences over time. In the beginning, the theaters were packed, so when a joke landed, 50 people laughed or 100 people laughed. That was really gratifying. Now, I'm in a theater with five people or two people, and it's interesting to me to witness which jokes create a laugh, which jokes don't? Sometimes I'll sneak a peek at the audience and see if people are reacting the same way when it was a crowd of 500. Even if there's just one other person there, I still get a lot out of it.

How many times do you think you'll continue to see this film in theaters?

Trust me, I am shocked that I still continue to moved by this movie. At this point, it doesn't really seem like there's an end in sight so I'm going to keep going until it leaves theaters.

Have there been any unusual reactions that people have?

I think my favorite is the children. In a lot of other movies, I hate it when kids pipe up or start making noise or whatever. But for this, I think because I was a child seeing Star Wars, when I hear a child getting really excited and saying "Oh my gosh, there's Rey!" it's totally touching because I think, well hey, there's me some years ago. And I love it.

Any other thoughts?

Supposedly Orson Welles' only preparation for making Citizen Kane was to watch John Ford's Stagecoach 40 times. Even in film school, I thought, "That's ridiculous!" But I actually think if a movie is magical enough, it's hard to penetrate why it's working, because the illusion is so good and the magic is there. For me, it's extremely valuable to watch a movie that I love over and over and over again, because it does allow me to start peeking behind the curtain and say, "Oh wow, the transitions are helping smooth this," or "Actually, I didn't notice that the music right there is touching back to this other moment in the movie. No wonder I feel so much right here."

I feel like those observations don't come that easily when you're being blasted by this mystical experience that movies can be sometimes. For filmmakers, I'd definitely recommend, maybe not this movie, but a movie you like, watching it as many times as you can.

Bradley Dean King is a writer/director living in Los Angeles. You can find his film Time Lapse on Netflix.