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Star Wars: The Force Awakens screened for terminally ill fans

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Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

It’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens Blu-ray week. With the disc set now on sale, Entertainment Weekly is featuring five days of new behind-the-scenes stories from director J.J. Abrams. Here’s the third installment…

EPISODE III: More Powerful Than You Can Imagine

Periodically, in the run-up to the debut of The Force Awakens, word would get out that a gravely ill fan who was not expected to live until the release date had asked Lucasfilm for a glimpse of the rough-cut.

In the case of Daniel Fleetwood, a 32-year-old Texas man battling a connective tissue cancer called spindle cell sarcoma, a hashtag made the rounds on social media: #ForceForDaniel. The studio and filmmakers didn’t comment on these situations publicly, but in his case some of the actors got behind it and shared the hashtag.

In July of last year, Fleetwood was given two months to live. He beat that prognosis by a few months, passing away in his sleep on Nov. 10. Just five days before that, he was shown a rough version of the movie.

When J.J. Abrams was asked about his favorite fan encounters during his experience with The Force Awakens, he had an unexpectedly serious answer, and talked about people like Fleetwood, whose dying wish was to see the story he and his crew were trying to finish in time for the Dec. 15 debut.

And the filmmaker revealed something unexpected — there were many terminally ill people who got to see the film early.

“You know, there are a lot of examples of passionate and excitable people but the most, I think, profound experience was that in the time before the movie came out — about a month before — we had a couple people go around to those fans who were not going to survive because of terminal illness until the movie came out,” Abrams said. “The movie was screened probably two dozen or so times to various people who, tragically, were struck with illness that would prevent them from seeing the movie otherwise.”

Not only would a representative from Lucasfilm and Abrams’ Bad Robot production company travel to the patient’s home or hospital to show the film, but the director himself would call to introduce it.

“I would speak with these people before and after,” Abrams said. “Sometimes they were adults and other times they were children and it was always… it was the most profound thing to be reminded in such a clear and wonderful and heartbreaking way how important this world was that George Lucas created, what it meant to these people.”

Some were children. Some were adults who had simply loved Star Wars since they were children.

“It was a reminder to all of us how what we were doing was really important to so many people,” Abrams said. “It was also a reminder about what was important in life with all the pressure and everyone always asking, ‘Oh, how do you deal with the pressure?’ Then you talk to someone who’s going through something like this, or a family member who’s going through something like this, and you very quickly realize that this pressure [of making the movie] is nothing. This pressure is a luxury. And that was probably the most impactful type of experience with a Star Wars fan.”

Although Abrams seldom talks about it, this kind of experience is not new to him. Abrams granted a similar wish for a dying fan in 2013, arranging for a Star Trek fan with terminal cancer to see Star Trek Into Darkness before it was released. That man also died just days after seeing the film. Sources close to Abrams say there are many other stories like this that remain private.

While we know about Fleetwood because his family was public about their request to see the film, most of the requests happened quietly and the fans and their families remain unknown. “We didn’t want it to turn into a publicity stunt,” Abrams says. “This was a quiet thing we were doing for people who will remain anonymous but it was you know… the exchanges and the conversations that we all had with these families and these people were really moving.”

Abrams also had his share of unabashedly happy fan encounters. “I mean, it’s hard to go to Comic-Con and see so many people who are so deeply connected to and so passionate about this universe and single anyone out,” he says. “There are so many people… My favorite ones are the little kids who you feel are almost too young. Who are, like, three. You think there’s no way that they really care so much. It must be their parents who are fans.”

But… they usually surprised him. “Then they talk to you about the characters, they ask you questions about BB-8. Or there’s a little girl at an airport who’s dressed as Rey who is clearly a fan herself, and you realize how young and how painfully adorable some of these kids are,” Abrams says. “Hearing about kids fighting, boys and girls fighting over who gets to play Rey when they play Star Wars. Things like that make me so happy.”

The Blu-ray combo pack includes a featurette dedicated to the fans, focusing on the Force For Change charity drive, which raised approximately $10 million for UNICEF. “It was very important to me that we do a piece on the Force for Change because I thought that was a really wonderful aspect of the production and post of this movie,” Abrams says. “That was really because of the fans and I thought the work that they did deserved to be talked about, too.”

With Episode VIII currently shooting, a new Force For Change campaign has just begun, with one of the first prizes for donors being a trip to Skellig Michael, the real-life Irish island used as the location of the Jedi temple where Luke Skywalker is found in exile. Check out the details at CrowdRise.com/ForceForChange.

For more Star Wars news, follow @Breznican.

More from EW’s The Force Awakens Blu-ray week:

Part I —  Mark Hamill’s ‘hurculean’ role in that famous table read.

Part II —  Kylo Ren’s mysterious table of ashes explained

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