When J.J. Abrams accepted the mantle of “Star Wars: Episode VII Director”, it wasn’t simply signing on to direct a sequel or franchise film—it was agreeing to essentially build an entire new corner of an existing franchise from the ground up. Disney didn’t buy Lucasfilm to make one, two, or three new Star Wars films; they’re in this thing for the long haul, so they needed Episode VII to be a satisfying story all its own first and foremost, but also the foundation on which they can build a new empire.
So yeah, you could say Abrams had quite a bit of pressure once he signed on. This likely explains why it took so long to get the script just right, and why Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan took over scripting duties from Michael Arndt after a year of work had been done on the screenplay. This isn’t something you throw together and just start shooting. Episode VII had to be exactly right, and it had to be able to set up future installments.
“Working on this new movie has been as much about trying to set up elements of what is beyond what you’re seeing as it has been about telling a story that will be satisfying in and of itself. But it can’t feel like a cop-out—like we’re just setting things up and not resolving them.”
That is an incredibly difficult balance to strike, and once Rian Johnson was hired to write and direct Episode VIII, Abrams says he worked closely with Johnson and producer Ram Bergman to ensure that they were setting up the next installment in the right way:
“The script for VIII is written. I’m sure rewrites are going to be endless, like they always are. But what [Larry Kasdan] and I did was set up certain key relationships, certain key questions, conflicts. And we knew where certain things were going. We had meetings with Rian and Ram Bergman, the producer of VIII. They were watching dailies when we were shooting our movie. We wanted them to be part of the process, to make the transition to their film as seamless as possible. I showed Rian an early cut of the movie, because I knew he was doing his rewrite and prepping. And as executive producer of VIII, I need that movie to be really good. Withholding serves no one and certainly not the fans. So we’ve been as transparent as possible.”
The street went both ways, it appears, as Abrams reveals that Johnson had a bit of input on The Force Awakens, although Episode VIII will be as much a Rian Johnson film as The Force Awakens was a J.J. Abrams film:
“Rian has asked for a couple of things here and there that he needs for his story. He is an incredibly accomplished filmmaker and an incredibly strong writer. So the story he told took what we were doing and went in the direction that he felt was best but that is very much in line with what we were thinking as well. But you’re right—that will be his movie; he’s going to do it in the way he sees fit. He’s neither asking for nor does he need me to oversee the process.”
Abrams not only had to set up story elements for the franchise going forward, but he had to cast key roles that will be major parts of future films for which he will have minimal involvement. The filmmaker described this very specific process by pointing to another franchise that cast perfectly for the future:
“When you think about all that these characters go through, not just in this movie but knowing their work would continue, these individuals needed to be worthy bearers of this burden and opportunity to continue to tell the story. I think about the Harry Potter movies—that’s unbelievable that they cast those films the way they did. And for what, eight movies?! That was a miracle. They needed to be able to do everything, and they all killed it.”
With directors already set for the next few Star Wars films up through the year 2019, it’s unlikely Abrams will be returning to this franchise in a directorial capacity anytime soon. But it’s nice to see that in addition to working incredibly hard to ensure that he was building the best foundation possible for what’s to come, Abrams was also involved in the baton-passing to the next installment with Rian Johnson. Now, here’s hoping The Force Awakens is good.
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