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Friday, December 18 2015 09:18

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS' J.J. Abrams - Bringing The Force into the Present, While Setting up the Future and Honoring the Past...

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Earlier this month, deep within the heart of a top secret location somewhere in Los Angeles, I capped off a day of interviews with nearly the entire principal cast of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (review here) by meeting with J.J. Abrams - the Director, Producer and Co-Writer (with Lawrence Kasdan) of our return trip to "a galaxy far, far away." Today a journey that began in 2012 with the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney, is both complete, and just beginning. The release of THE FORCE AWAKENS completes the delivery of the first-ever Disney-produced STAR WARS film, but what begins is a new era in which audiences will be treated to a new STAR WARS film each year for the foreseeable future - with a new Trilogy accented by standalone "STAR WARS Stories" on the off-years in-between. After noting that the selection of toys (a mix of vintage Kenner, and new Hasbro) I brought to the junket as table props were "Nicely done!," we delved into some tales of how an 11-year-old STAR WARS fan became the 49-year-old filmmaker that's setting up STAR WARS before passing the torch lightsaber to other filmmakers to continue the saga in the years to come.

"STAR WARS was something that meant so much to me for so long," recalls Abrams, speaking to a small room full writers from around the pop culture parenting space. "The thing is that it's because it's been ingrained in all of our consciousness for so long that it’s become a birthright to just know STAR WARS. You're sort of born, you know what a light saber is... Darth Vader... you understand that. At three years old, kids talk about STAR WARS in a way that is so eerie, 'cause you think, 'How could you possibly know so much?' And somehow they do - even those kids who haven't seen the films, played the games or seen the shows. I don't know how it is that they understand Star Wars immediately."

J.J. Abrams directs Daisy Ridley

"My job wasn't to be a fanboy, or an 11-year-old kid. It was to be a nearly 50-year-old movie director, so I tried to approach this thing from a point of view of obviously acknowledging how much I love what George Lucas created, but understand that being a fan doesn't make the story work. Being a fan doesn't make the scene any good. Being a fan is great but we all had to be storytellers and filmmakers. I was surrounded by people like Lawrence Kasdan, who'd written THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, and actors who had been there from the beginning, all the way through to visual effects and sound. Of course, there's John Williams, who collaborating with him is like cheating, 'cause he speaks to our soul with music in a way that I think is super-human. The whole process was really about trying to love it but also be hard on it, so that the story meant something and was emotional and not just a fan film."

To bring STAR WARS back to life in a manner that audiences have been craving, Abrams and his team has to find the perfect balance between crafting a modern film while looking toward the future to honor the past. Abrams explained the process in detail...

The first read...

"This whole process has been going backwards to go forwards. It's the next chapter - you know, what happened in  4, 5, and 6. This is 7. It needs to feel like there's the continuum, and to do that the important thing was recognizing what are the tenants of STAR WARS - the things that make STAR WARS specifically STAR WARS, and not one of the many attempts to rip off what George Lucas created."

"The beauty of what we had was we actually inherited STAR WARS. We could actually put TIE Fighters and Lightsabers and Star Destroyers in our movie, and it feel essential as opposed to derivative. But this was all about telling a new story, so the brilliant luck of having Lawrence Kasdan along for the ride is that he knew, having written EMPIRE and JEDI and having lived with it for decades, about that world and where it might have gone."

J.J. Abrams

"So discussions with him were informed discussions. And the most important thing was always, well, why are we doing this? What’s the point of trying a new STAR WARS story? What do we want people to feel? And who are the main characters? That was the most exciting part - finding this young woman, Rey, this character who from the beginning was a central role and voice in the story, to find this character Finn, who we started to fall in love with very early on, and to realize that their story of discovering what their role is in this universe, and not just any universe but the STAR WARS universe, that was thrilling."

"All of that was happening before we were even really talking about what the original characters were gonna do. We realized there was a story that was working, not because it was nostalgic trip and that we were relying on things that came before, but because there was a pulse to the story now, they could use the fabric of what had come before to tell that story. In terms of technology, we had at our disposal kind of everything - it was great to be able to use practical, tangible puppets were necessary, to use CG when required, when better."

"Finally, I think you'll see that there are some upgrades - BB-8 has a slightly better hologram than R2-D2 does. There are things that happen that you go, 'Oh, I see how there have been advancements,' but in testament to the amazing work of the design team, it feels of the DNA of the movies we've seen before."

J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy

Having since seen the film, Abrams has succeeded in crafting a masterful blend of old and new, a testament not only to his own love and care for the franchise, but to the meticulous planning involved - the guidance of Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy, and the Story Trust who carefully oversees all that will become canon in the STAR WARS timeline. After delivering the STAR WARS film that fans have been waiting for over the past 32 years, I couldn't help thinking about the future - one not set to include Abrams. 

I asked J.J. - "Being here to help relaunch this saga for a new generation of families, and you're kind of passing the torch to future directors that are going to be exploring this in different offshoots and what not, will you be able to really sit back and enjoy it as a fan now without thinking of what your creative stamp would be as the saga continues?" 

THE FORCE AWAKENS"Well, I will say that I knew getting involved in this project that it was an honor to be asked," he says. " And I knew that my role would be as 'temporary guardian' of this saga. I knew also as I was working on it, that if the movie works, what a great time to step down. And if the movie doesn't work, who wants me to work on the next one anyway, you know? So it was win-win."

"I'm really looking forward to telling original stories that I've been sort of wonderfully and happily sidetracked from with the movies I've been working on, but I do look forward to working on something that doesn't need to have a number in the title. And, I cannot wait to see what the directors who are named and being discussed [Rian Johnson & Colin Trevorrow, Gareth Edwards, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller] will do in this universe coming up, because there's some really talented people that I know are doing extraordinary things."

"It’s very exciting to get to work with Larry Kasdan to begin what we knew was the start of a new trilogy.  It was a rare thing in a movie, which is to start a story that you know needs to be satisfying in and of itself, but also serve as the beginning of a larger tale."

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is now playing in theaters everywhere. Get tickets now via Fandango.

Check out more Exclusive Coverage of the STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS Launch:

For the latest on THE FORCE AWAKENS, ROGUE ONE, EPISODE VIII and more, keep your browser pointed at TheRockFather.com/StarWars

Disclosure: THE ROCK FATHER Magazine has partnered with Disney/Lucasfilm for this coverage series. Travel and accommodations provided by Mickey Mouse. Thanks to Louise Bishop of MomStart.com for taking photos of the interview.

James Zahn

James Zahn is not a journalist, nor a blogger, though he may be credited as such by others, or even accept the title... depending on the circumstance.  Instead, he considers himself largely to be an "entertainment and lifestyle writer," bringing 25+ years of experience in the entertainment and publishing industries into the family realm as THE ROCK FATHER™.

As a media personality, commentator, adventurer and raconteur, James now finds himself raising a pair young girls - The Rock Daughters™ - along with his wife from their Illinois home.

He is a member of The Toy Insider Parent Advisory Board, a writer for the Netflix #StreamTeam, and serves as a Brand Ambassador and spokesperson for several Globally-recognized pop culture and lifestyle brands in addition to consulting for a number of toy manufacturers. Current special projects include promotional campaigns for PJ Masks (eOne/Disney Junior) and Beat Bugs (Netflix). 

Creatively, James has directed/edited music videos, lyric videos, and album trailers for bands such as FEAR FACTORY, has appeared as an actor in feature films and commercials, written comic books, and performed in bands. He currently serves as an artist manager and video director for Napalm Records' PRODUCT OF HATE.

James and/or his work have been featured in/on CNN, NBC, ABC, WGN, G4, The Chicago Tribune, BusinessWire, Babble, Fangoria, Starlog and more. He's appeared as a music expert on CNN's AC360 alongside Anderson Cooper, and has been interviewed by Larry King. In the past he served as a writer for  Fandango Family and PBS KIDS, penned articles for Sprout and PopSugar, and was a contributor to Chicago Parent.

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