What do we really know about our heroes?
“Noooo! I’ll never join you!” That’s what Luke Skywalker cried out when Darth Vader asked him to cross over to the Dark Side and rule the galaxy alongside him, and J.J Abrams basically said the same thing (perhaps more politely) to Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy when she first reached out to ask if he’d sign on to help launch the first in a new constellation of Star Wars films.
The director, who had previously rebooted Star Trek for the big screen in 2009 and was in the midst of finishing his 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, simply said he preferred to turn to some original projects. Undeterred, Kennedy persuaded him to helm Star Wars: The Force Awakens by asking a simple question, one with the potential to upend our core beliefs about the galaxy far, far away. “In the context of talking about story and laying out what we were thinking, I said one thing to him,” Kennedy recalls. “‘Who is Luke Skywalker?’”
Abrams, who’s 49 now but was only 11 when the original Star Wars debuted in 1977, decided he needed to know the answer, even if he had to devise it himself. “He said, ‘Oh my God, I just got the chills. I’m in,’” Kennedy says. “I mean, it really was almost that quickly.”
Abrams says his wife also helped him get over his hesitation. “You rarely get a chance to be involved in something that you would typically be an audience for. Katie, my wife, said, ‘If you want to do this and you don’t, you’re going to regret this.’ It was really about being willing to take that leap, and jump into the possibilities of what these characters are doing, and where they are.”
There were a lot of possibilities on the table when Abrams signed on, but no finalized story. Lawrence Kasdan, who had written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, was developing a young Han Solo standalone movie, which was just recently confirmed but began development years ago. He joined with Michael Arndt, who’d won an Oscar for the script to Little Miss Sunshine, and Simon Kinberg, who wrote Mr. & Mrs. Smith and X-Men: First Class, to break down trilogy possibilities with Kennedy.
“[They] had just been hypothesizing and throwing out a bunch of what-ifs, but there was no story in place,” Abrams says. “It was, without doubt, a formidable assignment. There were so many options and so many paths that could be taken. Even when we were in debate — and sometimes it was frustrating and heated — it was always thrilling, because it seemed almost everywhere you looked there was something potentially extraordinary, which felt very much like the DNA of Star Wars itself.”
With Abrams on board, this story team began asking questions. They knew they had Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher already committed — so that gave them Luke, Princess Leia, and Han Solo to play with. “My guess is that any question that anyone would be having was among the endless questions we were asking at the very beginning,” Abrams says.
Most important: What was the state of the galaxy?
THIS WEEK’S COVER: Exclusive look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens
“Any good story has conflict,” Abrams says. “And if all were rosy 30-some years post-Jedi, we would be hard-pressed to find an interesting story to tell.” He’s not ready to reveal the political layout of the galaxy in The Force Awakens just yet, but what we know so far: There is no peace in the heavens.
The Empire has morphed into a junta known as The First Order, while X-Wing pilots like Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron now fly for a splinter group known as the Resistance. Princess Leia (Fisher) has come into possession of the lightsaber once possessed by her father, Darth Vader, and later lost by Luke (Hamill) when Vader separated him from his arm during that “join me” duel in The Empire Strikes Back.
The amount of screentime the Skywalker twins may get is still unclear, although Luke’s fate is obviously a key factor. Ford’s Han Solo, however, will be one of the leads, piloting the Millennium Falcon alongside his old pal Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew.) Among the newcomers, desert scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and runaway stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) will be running for their lives, with the rolling droid BB-8 trying to keep up. Eventually all five of them end up aboard that familiar starship.
On Team Dark Side is Darth Vader obsessive Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), The First Order’s merciless General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and chrome-armored officer Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).
But those four words — Who is Luke Skywalker? — created a disturbance in the Force for Abrams. After all these years, we thought we knew him, but what if there was more to that Tatooine farmboy? Or… what if there was less? The answer could alter not just how audiences look at the original trilogy, but the arc of a planned universe that now tallies at least five more upcoming films.
There’s no question, the Luke we watched staring off at the twin suns of Tatooine in the original Star Wars is not the same Luke we last saw standing in the shadows of Endor while his victorious friends celebrated the fall of the Emperor, the death of Darth Vader, and the destruction of the second Death Star. War distorts any soul, and getting older always comes with compromises. Each one takes a piece of you — parts that can’t be replaced like a cybernetic hand.
“The themes and ideas that we all continue to talk about are the themes and ideas that were the inherent in the original movies,” Kennedy says. “We’re looking, obviously, for aspiration, for characters who are conflicted between good and evil, dark and light.”
People often ask what role George Lucas has in the creation of The Force Awakens, having sold his Lucasfilm empire to The Walt Disney Co. and announced his retirement. Even though he is not involved with the story or the making of the movie, here’s where Kennedy says his influence is still vital: “George spoke often about that tension in everybody between what’s good and bad. He always felt that it was easier to be bad than good,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not sure all people would agree, but I think that that’s always an interesting conflict to explore. So that’s a big part of the themes inside of Episode VII.”
Was there anything from the original films they struggled to echo in The Force Awakens? “I think we can’t explore in quite as much detail issues of compassion, the way [Lucas] did in terms of the values of the Jedi,” Kennedy says. “But we’re going to get there, let’s put it that way. In the arc of all three movies, that will increase.”
To begin crafting Episode VII, Abrams relied heavily on Kasdan, who was sort of like his own, personal Han Solo — a veteran of the original tales, joining forces with a newcomer. They didn’t hunker down doing research into how the original trilogy came together. It wasn’t necessary. They were making new canon, and after eschewing three decades of “expanded universe” storytelling in books, games, and comics, there was no history except the one they were writing.
“If those movies have been as big a part of your life as they’ve been for me and for J.J., you don’t have to do much reference work,” Kasdan says. “It’s part of you, and you know what you’ve missed, what you want to bring back, and what you’re hoping the new trilogy will embody.”
Kasdan, who went on from his early Star Wars years to write and direct 1983’s The Big Chill, 1988’s The Accidental Tourist, and 1991’s Grand Canyon, among others, says he didn’t join on to the prequels in the late ‘90s because he was no longer intrigued by the galaxy.
“When George asked me to work on the other movies, I didn’t,” he says. “That wasn’t where I was at.” But a decade and a half later, Kasdan found himself in Abrams’ shoes — unable to resist finding out what happened to the original characters. Intrigued, once again, by similar questions, like: Who is Luke Skywalker?
“I thought, ‘Wow, okay, these people have lived — they’re in a different place in their lives, Han and Leia and so on. They’ve lived the same 30 years I have. What would that be like? How would you see things differently?’” Kasdan says. “And I was trying to figure out how I saw things differently, and one of the surprises is that you don’t learn all that much. You haven’t become much wiser than you were, and things are not clearer to you, and the world is just as confusing as it always was — and that’s a kind of lovely thing to get to write about again. Age does not necessarily bring wisdom; it just brings experience.”
His process of devising the story with Abrams was a literal marathon writing session. The pair would walk. “We were walking miles and miles,” Kasdan said. With a handheld recorder going, they mapped out the galaxy. Eventually, they walked far enough to find what they were looking for.
But soon, they’ll be giving it back. “The truth is, I am the temporary captain of this ship that George built,” Abrams says.
THIS WEEK’S COVER: Exclusive look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens
When Abrams is finished relaunching the Star Wars universe, it will fall into the hands of Rian Johnson, the writer-director of the 2012 time-travel crime saga Looper and the 2005 high-school noir Brick. Johnson has signed on to write and direct Episode VIII, set to hit theaters in May 2017, but when Abrams is asked about the odds he’ll return to the trilogy later, he’s unwavering. “No, I’m not going to direct Episode IX, as much as I am deeply envious of anyone who gets to work with this group of people on the future movies,” he says.
The story arcs he and Kasdan mapped out will be picked up by Johnson, so Abrams will find himself becoming sort of like ghost Obi-Wan Kenobi in Empire and Jedi — a presence, an influence, but not part of the action. He likes that. “It’s a thrill to see [Johnson] take things and elevate them beyond what we had imagined at the time,” Abrams says.
Kennedy says the trilogy story has been approximated, but is ever-evolving. “We know where we’re going, but only in the broadest sense,” she says. “When Rian came in and started writing his script, he started from scratch, other than knowing what we had done in Episode VII and projecting out where it was going. He then sat down and put pen to paper, and it’s 100 percent him.”
For now, there’s still Episode VII to finish, and its release is just over four months away. Not a long, long time at all. “I’m still editing and we’re working on refining the cut, but it’s incredibly fun to see the movie come together. You go through, and you realize certain things that you don’t need, certain things that you can pull out,” Abrams says.
How does he know when he’s finished, when the quest is complete? “I will let you know when we get there,” Abrams says.
To continue reading the cover story on EW’s Fall Movie Preview, and to see more exclusive photos, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday, or buy it here.
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