J.J. Abrams on the most 'dangerous' and shocking act in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'
This interview with the makers of Star Wars: The Force Awakens explores the decisions behind a major spoiler.
You’ve been warned.
Why did he have to do it?
That’s what Star Wars fans emerging from The Force Awakens kept asking themselves about Kylo Ren, the Darth Vader-obsessed antagonist whose rage leads to a crushing moment of grief in the film.
At a post-screening Q&A for Episode VII at the Writers Guild of America this weekend, director J.J. Abrams discussed the creation of the monster — and, for the first time, he and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt talked publicly about the decision to have him murder a hero we’ve loved for decades.
The thing that drives the action in the galaxy is “potential energy.”
In our real-world physics, that’s the term used for the stored-up power that an object has yet to unleash, and in Star Wars, it’s basically the same thing, but applied to people — the likelihood of a character to rise toward the light or sink into the darkness. Every Star Wars story is a coming-of-age tale.
That’s how the makers of The Force Awakens shaped their new heroes: Daisy Ridley’s scavenger Rey and John Boyega’s runaway stormtrooper Finn, who each find out they’re better than the “nobodies” they’d thought they were.
But Kylo Ren… Kylo Ren proves he is worse than anyone imagined.
“People always say, ‘Why do you think this saga is so popular?’” said Kasdan, who not only co-wrote the new film, but also The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. “I really do believe the underlying theme is recognizing your potential and understanding what you’re capable of.”
He said it’s a quest we’re all on our entire lives. “It doesn’t end. To understand what you’ve inherited, and what you like about that and what you don’t like about that. Have you fulfilled yourself completely — or is it too late?” Kasdan said. “What is dormant? That’s a very real and tangible thing for people every day.”
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Until, of course, your life stops. At that point, you just hope you did enough to leave some kind of impact on the world (or the star system.)
To create someone new that Star Wars fans would hate and fear, Abrams says they made the hard choice to kill off someone who definitely made that type of mark, someone we love: a particular scoundrel who also proved he was more heroic than anyone might have guessed back when we first met him.
“Star Wars had the greatest villain in cinema history. So, how you bring a new villain into that world is a very tricky thing,” Abrams told the crowd. “We knew we needed to do something f—king bold. The only reason why Kylo Ren has any hope of being a worthy successor is because we lose one of the most beloved characters.”
If you’ve seen the film, you already know: Kylo Ren, who was born Ben Solo, runs his ragged, crossguard lightsaber straight through the heart of his father — Harrison Ford’s Han Solo.
It’s a crushing moment that comes as Solo, at the behest of the boy’s mother, Leia, reaches out in the hope of finding something good inside the son who has already hurt so many others. The boy had already chosen a new name and a new fate after joining the monstrous Knights of Ren — but the slaying of his father is the final step in his transformation.
The act was intended to be proof — to Ren himself, if no one else — that there was no light left in him.
“Long before we had this title, the idea of The Force Awakens was that this would become the evolution of not just a hero, but a villain,” Abrams said. “And not a villain who was the finished, ready-made villain, but someone who was in process.”
He said he took inspiration from real world fears. Anyone raising a child knows the parental anxiety that they might grow up wrong, make poor choices, and then keep spiraling into self-destruction.
“All of us bring our own experiences to it,” Abrams said. “As a father, as a friend to people who have children, I know what it’s like to see struggle, to be part of struggle. I know how painful it can be. I know how real it is. And this is, of course, an insane extrapolated version,” he added with a laugh. “Patricide is not ideal.”
Like the “Join me” father-son issues that permeate the original trilogy, The Force Awakens just takes the common clashes and heartbreaks of family life and stretches them to mythological proportions.
“It’s this massive tradeoff,” Abrams said of Han Solo’s death. “How can we possibly do that!? But… if we hadn’t done that, the movie wouldn’t have any guts at all. It felt very dangerous.”
Michael Arndt, who helped craft the story before Abrams and Kasdan penned the script, said Kylo Ren began merely as a way to separate the heroes we remember from the original trilogy.
“In my early drafts, my thinking was we had to bridge the end of Return of the Jedi to what happens in this movie, and we didn’t want everybody to start off all together. We wanted them to be spread all throughout the galaxy,” Arndt said.
The problem was, Return of the Jedi concluded with such a robust happily-ever-after that the writers of The Force Awakens had to find a way to undo that.
“We came up with a backstory that Luke had a pupil who turned against him and fought him, and killed all the other pupils, and that was a thing that exploded the family and destroyed Han and Leia’s relationship,” Arndt said.
Even then, however, they didn’t know Han had to die.
“I had thought Han’s story and Leia’s story was just about them coming back together. At the end of the movie they would have reconciled and gotten over their differences. And you would have said, ‘Okay, bad stuff happened, but at least they’re back together again,” Arndt said. “J.J. rightly asked, ‘What is Han doing in this movie?’ If we’re not going to have something important and irreversible happen to him, then he kind of feels like luggage. He feels like this great, sexy piece of luggage you have in your movie. But he’s not really evolving. He’s not really pushing the story forward.”
Audiences have been grieving the character all weekend. So did Harrison Ford, you know… take it hard? “Nah, he was fine,” Abrams said, waving his hand curtly as the audience laughed.
As we all know, Ford was way ahead of them. He’d been advocating decades ago for Solo’s death as an emotional sacrifice. “He was all for it back when we were doing Empire and Jedi,” Kasdan said. “He may have rethought it a little bit in the interim.”
Abrams said his fears about taking such an extreme measure were assuaged by Kasdan’s enthusiasm for the idea. “You wrote some of the greatest lines that Han ever spoke, so there was a level of comfort in the danger,” Abrams told him. “You were willing to go there, which made me feel like it wasn’t necessarily the worst idea.”
There are reports of adults breaking into tears during that scene, but it’s probably not the shock of that lightsaber stabbing through their favorite character that triggers the waterworks: It’s more likely what Han does with his final moments of life, reaching out to touch the face of his lost son. It’s not Han Solo’s fate that is sealed in that moment, it’s Kylo Ren’s. And the cruelest act in Star Wars was followed by one of its most tender.
So what was it like on set for that scene?
“It was really chilling,” Abrams said “Seeing these two actors, they weren’t chewing up the scenery. They were just doing this thing in a way that, frankly, was disturbing. To see Harrison reach out and touch Adam. I know this sounds stupid, but literally watching it, I forgot — I forgot that he wasn’t his son. He did it so beautifully.”
There’s no denying — it was one hell of a goodbye.