Both Ewan McGregor and the late Alec Guinness brought Kenobi back.
There were more old friends in Star Wars: The Force Awakens than we may have realized.
Those who saw the film this weekend (and those who haven’t may want to stop here) know that midway through the movie Daisy Ridley’s lonely scavenger Rey has a vision, a dream-like flashback sequence after she discovers Luke Skywalker’s long-lost lightsaber in the basement of Maz Kanata’s castle.
As Rey touches it, she is hit with an impressionistic wave of images and sounds that depict a cloaked Luke Skywalker in mourning, reaching out for support (or to comfort) R2-D2 beside a fire. She sees bodies scattered in a rainstorm at the feet of Kylo Ren and the masked and menacing Knights of Ren. She sees herself as a young girl, being left in the coarse hands of junk dealer Unkar Plutt on the desert world of Jakku.
And within this, we hear at least two familiar voices: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. On Saturday night, I interviewed director J.J. Abrams and his co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt after a Writers Guild of America screening, and they revealed how – and why – that scene came together the way it did.
Abrams also confirmed that some iconic actors reprised their roles: Ewan McGregor, Frank Oz… and a clever editing movie also brought the late Alec Guinness, who died in 2000 at the age of 86, back to the Star Wars universe.
“The idea of the voices was, we wanted the audience to feel – but not necessarily be presented right in your face — this idea that familiar, Force-strong voices were connecting with her. At least as well as they could,” Abrams says.
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So for those who saw the movie, but were just as overwhelmed as Rey as that moment hit: what did we hear?
“You do hear a little bit of Yoda. You hear Luke yelling out, ‘Nooo!’ from that moment in Empire. And you hear Obi-Wan at the end say, ‘Rey … these are your first steps,’” Abrams says. “Here’s the cool part. We asked Ewan McGregor to come in and do the line. And he was awesome and we were very grateful. He was incredibly sweet and handsome, and all that stuff. Then he rode off on his motorcycle. Literally the coolest voice over actor ever.”
As they worked on editing the dream sequence, Bryan Burk, a longtime Bad Robot collaborator and one of the producers of the film, surprised Abrams one day with the gift of a single word: Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice saying the name “Rey …”
“I said, ‘That’s cool, is that the thing from Ewan McGregor?’” Abrams recalled. “He said ‘No, we took a line from Alec Guinness saying ‘Afraid.’”
Not only that, but the lilt in his voice from that truncated word happened to fit exactly what Abrams had in mind. “They cut it, and you hear the performance – he’s saying it the way I would have begged Alec Guinness to have said it. It is so crazy perfect,” Abrams says. “So when you hear Obi-Wan talk to Rey it is both Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor doing the voice.”
Frank Oz, a veteran of The Muppets who puppeteered Yoda and supplied his voice in the earlier movies, also contributed new dialogue for The Force Awakens, although Abrams says they ended up using pre-existing elements of the little green Jedi master’s voice.
“He was incredibly generous and came in to Bad Robot, where we had a recording area, and he was doing Yoda, saying a number of lines we gave to him,” Abrams says. “This whole experience has been one outrageous moment after another. Just watching Frank Oz, you look at him and talk to him and his voice is very deep. I don’t know why I would have thought he sounded like Miss Piggy!”
But Oz was more than willing to return to the jumbled syntax of Yoda. “He was very generous to say, ‘Whatever makes the movie better, I’m happy to help out,” Abrams said.
That means, maybe, we could get even more of the character’s spirit in the films to come. Writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) begins shooting Episode VIII next month.
As for what Rey’s dream sequence doesn’t reveal … Abrams and Kasdan said they knew they had to suggest her backstory, but everyone felt The Force Awakens would be the wrong place to dive too deeply into Rey’s past. “We’re hoping Rian Johnson can figure that out,” Kasdan joked. “We were really stymied!”
Of course, they do know who Rey is, where she comes from, and why she was abandoned. But Abrams says part of the appeal of the new trilogy will be spreading out those revelations.
“Everyone who has seen these movies thinks about ‘I am your father …’ and ‘There is another …’,” the director said. “But neither of those things were in [1977’s original] Star Wars. Star Wars didn’t say Luke was the son of Vader. Star Wars didn’t say Leia was the sister of Luke. You didn’t understand what these references were: the Empire, dark times, Clone Wars. There were these things that were discussed that don’t get explained. George [Lucas] dropped you into a story and respected you to infer everything necessary to understand what you need to know.”
The Force Awakens does confirm the family relationships of villain Kylo Ren, and Abrams felt that was enough. “Can this movie actually also hold, ‘And Rey is this … And Finn is that … And this is where Poe is from …’ This is the first of a series. There is a story to be told. And it will be.”