J.J. Abrams was on Howard Stern on Monday. For me, this was the best of the best. Stern was a little pumped for Abrams and didn’t let Abrams finish his questions as much as I would have liked, but at the same time it kept Abrams from speaking in soundbites. I highly recommend listening to it. If you can’t, here is my write-up:
The show started with Howard playing the classic John Williams Star Wars theme song. Howard asks Abrams if he used this music and Abrams responded, “Of course! I’m not reinventing the franchise.” Abrams then explains he’s making a continuation of the story and he wrote it with Larry Kasdan and it’s 40 years in the future (after Return of the Jedi).
Abrams and his family knew the year they filmed Star Wars was going to be grueling. Abrams sees it as a selfish movie to make. He and his wife were committing to a lot of struggle. He then stops himself and says that compared to other people like those in the military, it really isn’t that bad. His daughter went to England with him and his wife and sons stayed back in Los Angeles. Stern says the difference is he made a ton of money as a director and he didn’t need to do this movie, he wanted to do it.
The amount Disney spend on this film is about $400 million with advertising so the pressure is pretty strong. Abrams was afraid there was going to be a corporate approach to the movie, but that really wasn’t his experience with making The Force Awakens. Bob Iger and Alan Horn let Abrams and his team make the movie they wanted to make. He couldn’t believe it. They were watching dailies but they weren’t hands-on. They were simply curious about the money they were spending and were collaborative.
Abrams feels there is little critical difference when it comes down to the important aspects of making a film. If he’s making Felicity or Star Wars, everything is relative so when you make a small movie you never have enough money but when you make a big movie, you still need more money than you have.
Abrams on making Star Wars:
It was insanely challenging.
They two then go on to talk about the process of having to show the movie to Disney’s Alan Horn, Bob Iger, and Alan Bergman. They screened the movie and it was “horrifying.” He was nervous beyond words showing a movie that was so far from finished. There wasn’t a visual effect in it. Stern then commented on how dangerous it is to ask someone like that to use their imagination. Abrams responded by saying you don’t know what their imagination’s showing them. Abrams was reading their body language while they were watching the movie. The execs gave some notes but Abrams had way more notes he took than the execs did. Abrams filled a whole pad with content he felt was a disaster and needed tweaking and tuning. He then felt relieved and immediately turned cynical as those guys spend $4 billion, they have to love it. The execs’ kind responses made Abrams feel like they were just being kind to him.
They then jump back to when he agreed to do the picture after initially saying he wasn’t interested. Kathleen Kennedy asked him to sit down and he agreed. He was sick of doing sequels and movies with numbers in the titles. As a fan, Abrams would rather just go to the theater and watch the movie. But he sat down with Kathleen Kennedy:
We started talking about what this thing could be. As we were talking about it, I found myself suddenly on fire about it. We were talking about the idea of these characters. When George Lucas did Star Wars, he wanted to do Flash Gordon. He couldn’t get the rights to Flash Gordon. So he created Star Wars. But what’s amazing is that the movie we just did is about 40 years after Star Wars (A New Hope) and Star Wars (A New Hope) was about 40 years after Flash Gordon. There’s this feeling of wanting to continue this retro feeling which I love. I love the feeling when I watched the original film.
Stern then interjects:
Wait a second, in other words, you mean your fantasy was we’re gonna find out what happened to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and what happened 40 years later?
When Kathy (Kennedy) and I started talking about these characters, the idea that Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, this is 40 years ago. For someone that is like 19 years old, this is their myths. Who knows what they know about them! People wouldn’t know who some of these characters are. The thing that got me, that grabbed me was that feeling of a new young character, in the case of this conversation was a female character. Did’t know anything about her. But in the conversation the question of this young woman asking ‘who is Luke Skywalker?’ I don’t know why…but it made me feel like, fuck that’s so cool!
Abrams then goes on to compare the idea that the audience would be like the girl they thought up in some ways. The new kids seeing this movie wouldn’t know who they were either. The idea of rediscovering that world turned him on.
Howard Stern then addresses the controversy that Abrams cast a black guy as a stormtrooper and the film’s male lead. Abrams feels the people that have a problem with it have bigger problems than a black stormtrooper and all he knows is that John Boyega is exceptional in the film. He’s not concerned with those people.
They then talk about how Abrams broke his back:
When his hydraulic door came down, it pushed down the person that happened to be right there under it, who happened to be Harrison Ford. Not the ideal scenario. His leg broke at the ankle. His ankle went sideways, like 90 degrees. It was really horrific. And so I’m there with one of my idols who is now down on the ground. Not an ideal scenario for him. So I go and try and lift up this door, as any of us would with a kind of Hulk ‘I’m going lift the car up off the person I love’ energy.
Abrams laughs and continues:
Right! What I discover in doing that are two things. One is that a hydraulic door cannot be lifted unless it wants to be lifted. And secondly, bones break. I feel this pop in my lower back and I think ‘fuck what is that! Is it a muscle or whatever?’ All I’m trying to do is help my friend. And seconds later the door is opened up by a gentlemen who has a giant button and all day my back is hurting and of course all I care about is the fact that Harrison Ford has broken his ankle and what else? Because you just don’t know at that moment.
They had to wait three months for Harrison Ford to come and shoot his role for Star Wars: The Force Awakens as Han Solo. They rearranged the schedule and shot everything they could upfront. Harrison went off to recover. A week later he goes to the doctor and gets a scan and the doctor is explaining how he probably has a strain. Then the doctor’s face goes white and he explains Abrams had a broken back.
Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher were already onboard before Abrams signed on to make The Force Awakens. The trio had already been approached and accepted the offer to return before Abrams was involved. Writing the movie without their involvement would have been a nightmare but thankfully Lucasfilm worked that out.
Stern asks how crucial they are to the story and Abrams responds:
Hugely important. The movie is about the new cast of characters. But their (the old cast’s) roles are very important.
They then discuss Daniel Fleetwood. Abrams says they have been able to show the film to a handful of people in unfortunate situations. Stern asks him if these are people that are looking to see the movie early and Abrams says these are not people looking to screw them over by fooling them. Robin then chimes in that he “owned up and died.” Abrams laughs at the absurdity of the comment “he owned up.” Abrams then says:
The fact that these people care enough about this world George Lucas created to wanna see the movie is very touching.
Stern then asks:
Did any of the dying people come to you and say ‘thank you for showing this to me but boy oh boy, this was a huge disappointment. I don’t know why I bothered with this? I mean I only have a few days left to live and you FUCKED ME OVER!
Abrams laughs and says that has yet to happen. He has not gotten that reaction.
They haven’t done test screenings of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They have shown the movie to casual friends and family. None of it has been focus testing. It is too hard with a movie getting this amount of scrutiny and attention.
When security around the movie is brought up, Abrams says all he knows is that people are walking around with their hands on their ears. Disney has made sure this movie is pretty “lock and key.” Abrams and Stern then change the subject to 3D and both men say they don’t like seeing movies in 3D. It didn’t annoy Abrams as he thinks there are certain moments are really fun in 3D. Abrams simply prefers to watch movies without the glasses on. He puts the glasses over his glasses.
Mick the Nerd is then brought in to ask his question of Abrams. Mick asks how many Ewoks Kylo Ren had to kill to get Darth Vader’s burned up mask off Endor. Stern misunderstands the question, calls it trivia and they move on, unfortunately (in the after interview, Stern apologizes to Mick for misunderstanding him). They thought he was testing him. Abrams says there’s no proper answer to that question.
Mick then asks what is more dynamic, X-wing or a TIE fighter? Abrams says their is no drag in space so it doesn’t matter but picks the X-wing.
Stern asks Mick the Nerd about the racists complaining about a black stormtrooper. The funny part is during this Abrams utters “It’s because of the clones, yeah?” So Abrams seems aware that one part of the audience is just racist and the other part doesn’t understand that stormtroopers aren’t cloned any longer. Mick just calls them all-out racists. After that most of the talk is just playful and ultimately about Star Trek and winding the appearance down.
I highly recommend listening to the interview on the SiriusXM app. It is a really fun and funny interview. I think the write-up above captures the points Abrams made but none of the fun or the spirit of the interview.