Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey
By Kevan and Jason.
At SXSW this year, Star Wars premiered a 60-minute documentary covering the complete story behind The Force Awakens – A Cinematic Journey. The documentary provided in-depth footage and exclusive interviews with the actors and filmmakers. The doc will be an extra on the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens Blu-ray:
Here is a spoiler-full synopsis of that was in the documentary.
The documentary opens with a general approach on how people came into the project. Kathleen Kennedy talked about how important it was to know the history of Star Wars and the characters involved. In fact, they included many of the original set designers and architects that build original props. The documentary also had sound bites from the original designers and made a point to show how many people worked on the Original Trilogy as well as the Prequel Trilogy.
George Lucas was interviewed which was nice to see. He talked about how it was time to transition the franchise and how much he trusted Kathleen Kennedy and Disney to continue the stories that he started. From his perspective, Disney was one of the only corporate entities that was large enough to handle the massive world that he created.
There is loads of concept art shown. They also showed how almost everything Star Wars is stored in a warehouse like in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The documentary opens with Carrie Fisher essentially asking why are they making this movie now? She feels she looked better ten years ago. Ford says he didn’t see the potential in a sequel to the films they made. Even Adam Driver was afraid he might not be able to pull it off and J.J. Abrams intended on declining to make the movie.. The documentary then explores George Lucas stepping away and passing Lucasfilm over to Kathleen Kennedy as he wanted to protect Lucasfilm’s future and Star Wars.
There was a moment that got a lot of laughs when Kathleen Kennedy explained that initially they were making the movie with Michael Arndt as the writer. But he needs three years to make a movie and they were hoping it would go faster, it didn’t. So they brought Abrams and Kasdan together to make the script happen as Disney wanted a film in 2015. Kennedy explained that they were coming at this film like they would any other tentpole production with concept art. Rick Carter then spoke a little about iconography and the importance to making the film connect with audiences. Concept artist Doug Chiang said that Abrams wanted the look of the film to have the spirit of Ralph McQuarrie in it and that informed the look and direction of the work they did.
The concept art phase informed a lot of the film and they used concept art pitches to come up with sequences in the film at times (visually it implies the TIE crash was inspired by the art). The art was being done in tandem with the script, often times informing it. Kasdan and Abrams wrote in Los Angeles, New York, and Paris at this time while Skyping with the art department. Kasdan commented that writing The Empire Strikes Back was fast and he never expected any of this to come from it. You get the sense that there was a lot of pressure to make this The Force Awakens great. Abrams said once again that he wanted the film to delight.
Kathleen Kennedy spoke about what George Lucas created with Star Wars. But now they all had to become students of Star Wars to learn what makes it work and its rules. We then get a glimpse of some footage of J.J. at the Ranch presumably looking at a model of the second Death Star from Return of the Jedi. J.J. then talks about seeing the Jawa sandcrawler’s treads in A New Hope and how “real world” that felt. He wanted to capture that vibe in The Force Awakens.
The documentary in tone is very similar to what J.J. Abrams provided at Star Wars: Celebration Anaheim and SDCC in 2015. Most of the scenes in the SDCC video were included and expended on for this documentary.
All the main actors and actresses had a few minutes to talk about their characters and scenes. There was also a few minutes showing a behind-the-scenes look at the first read through. Mark Hamill narrated and led the read through we all saw in that famous photograph from when the production began.
Daisy Ridley. The funniest scene in the documentary was when Daisy talked about the sequence where she has to wash parts for Unkar Plutt. She said they had to do multiple takes and that her arms were very sore from the many takes.
She described her first scene she shot for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The first scene shot was with BB-8. She said at first it was awkward to film without a human being, but the puppeteers did a great job with making him come to life, allowing Ridley to interact with the him.
It was revealed how BB-8 mechanically worked for the puppeteers. At times, they rolled him around with hockey stick-type looking things. Sometimes they controlled him with two mechanical attachments (like a wheelbarrow with controls).
Adam Driver. Abrams introduced Driver as the actor to whom the “dark side of the Force awakens.” I thought that line was interesting because it may imply that the dark side was sleeping as well. Apparently the awakening was not just for Rey, but Kylo as well. Adam Driver spoke about Kylo and his motivations. Driver said that the character was mainly motivated by the feelings of abandonment from his family.
Abrams also added some backstory saying that Han couldn’t stay in one place and that Leia couldn’t stop fighting. His nature as a rogue and her nature as a freedom fighter clashed. Against that backdrop, Snoke targeted Kylo because of his powers and potential. The implication was that in the absence of solid parenting, Kylo Ren emerged.
John Boyega. The insights in the documentary were pretty consistent with what we know so far about him not wanting to be a stormtrooper. The documentary focused on his physical performance. For example, he was lying on his back in the escape pod chair in the hot sun covered in sand and Abrams yells, “OK! Wake up!”
Harrison Ford. Harrison Ford brought emotional content to the documentary. In one scene he kisses a pair of gold dice and hangs them up in the Falcon. Ford also talks about Han’s death saying that he didn’t want Han to die, just that he wanted Han Solo to contribute to the emotional part of the story. He said he had fun working on A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back (he left out Return of the Jedi).
The documentary spends some time on Han’s death, which is nice to see addressed. The sequence was filmed almost entirely on a green screen. Ford’s goal was to support Adam Driver and help set him up as the best villain in the Star Wars saga. Driver said that his scene was easy because Ford was such a good actor that he made it easy to react to him emotionally.
At the end of filming the death scene, Harrison Ford was tearing up and sobbing a little. I think it was as hard for him to say goodbye to Han as it was for us to see it. The other members of the cast were also moved by his performance and cried and hugged him. It was really cool to see this captured on film and makes this documentary work.
The Falcon. J.J. spends a lot of time showing us how they made the Falcon. He described it as being like going back to your childhood room. He wanted to make sure that that every detail was right. In a funny insight into the Falcon, Ford talks about how a lot the switches didn’t work in the other movies. Like, they would fall down after a while. He said that there was no budget for “springs” in the past. Now, with The Force Awakens, they could have buttons that would stay up. Progress!
Carrie Fisher. Carrie was charming. She talked about how the first few days of filming were very hard for her and she was not happy with her performance. She then said that she felt at the end that it was much easier to play Leia and it all started coming back to her.
Peter Mayhew. The documentary spent time showing how it is hard for Peter to walk now and that he needed a stunt double. The double said that Peter spent a lot of time coaching him on how to play the mighty Chewbacca. So while Mayhew might not be Chewbacca in every scene he does consult on it and guide the performance.
Anthony Daniels. The documentary spent only a little time with Daniels as an actor, but spent more time on C-3PO the character. For example, the C-3PO arc in The Force Awakens was intended to show how he got his gold arm back at the end of the picture. Abrams spoke about how important it was to incorporate the new comics into the story, explaining that the full story would happen on the inked page.
Oscar Issac. Kasdan and Oscar talked about Poe Dameron. The idea around Poe was to show a character that was iconic and unpredictable like Han Solo. Poe was intended to die, but Oscar talked Abrams into letting him live. Oscar said that one day J.J. called him and said I figured out how to make it work where you don’t die and Oscar was happy “because he didn’t die.” It was a funny bit of dialogue in the feature.
Female Stormtroopers. The documentary spent some time on showing that there were female stormtroopers. They had interviews with two actresses talking about their roles. One of them was named Chloe Chesterton. It was a good glimpse into how they practiced diversity in the film.
Gwendoline Christie. There are a lot of behind the scenes interviews with Gwen and she steals the show. She talks about how the armor was put together and how happy she was to first put it on. She also talked about how it was good they didn’t sexualize her costume, at the same time she wanted to make sure people knew that it was a woman inside the suit.
Abrams also added that the name Phasma came from a horror movie called Phantasm (there is a connection to the chrome silver ball in the movie).
Lupita Nyong’o. The documentary delved into the motion-captured characters. It explored how the production developed the concept of “Rose,” J.J.’s old teacher to what we see in the finished film. Serkis spoke a little about Snoke. Not much in the way of background on the characters was discussed, unfortunately. The documentary focused more on how the actors interacted with other actors and what it was like having hundred of dots added daily.
John Williams. The documentary spent some time with the scoring process. There was not a lot of new material included. He said it was an honor to work on all seven films so far.
Admiral Ackbar. The documentary spent some time with Ackbar. They talked about bringing him back and making him like the original. There was an “It’s a trap” impersonation from one of the people that worked on Admiral Ackbar which pleased viewers.
R2-D2. The people that designed R2-D2 for The Force Awakens were fans that built Artoo as a hobby. They reached out to Kathleen Kennedy and said they were happy to provide droids. They were surprised when they got a call from her asking them to work on the droids for the film.
Mark Hamill. Mark talked a little about working on Skellig Michael. Abrams spent some time talking about Luke, saying that the other movies will focus on what happens to him next. This was the only real forward-looking vision provided in the documentary.
The documentary has a lot of content familiar to fans that followed the production closely over the last year. That said, this is for the Blu-ray and it is really the best way to present this information for the home archive. There’s never a moment where you’re bored with the documentary; it was really great. I’m not sure it is as good as From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga or The Beginning but it does encapsulate a lot of the interesting sound bites we’ve heard from the marketing build-up for the film, before the release, and after.