10 things we learned from JJ Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens commentary
My most anticipated release of 2016 — JJ Abrams' commentary track for Star Wars: The Force Awakens — is finally here, and it's worth the wait.
Well, okay — truth be told, I'm looking forward to Rogue One just a smidgen more than I was looking forward to Abrams' TFA commentary. But Abrams' insights are fascinating, and have given me an even greater appreciation for my favourite film of 2015.
If you're on the fence about picking up the 3D Collector's Edition of TFA just for the commentary and a few extra special features, that's understandable — but if you're a big fan of the film, I think it's absolutely worth your while. Heck, even if you hate the film, you might find the reasoning behind Abrams' choices to be interesting.
Oh, and rest assured, you don't need a 3D Blu-Ray player to watch the commentary — it's actually on the 2D disc that comes with the 3D disc.
I don't want to give away all the stories Abrams tells throughout the commentary — partly because I'd rather you went out and bought it yourself, and partly because it's 2am here now and I want to go to sleep — but I thought I'd share a few tasty morsels with you.
The Spielberg is strong with this one
Aside from pushing Abrams into making the film, Steven Spielberg directly suggested two things we saw in the film. Finn and Poe's stolen TIE Fighter suddenly exploding after being swallowed up by the sands of Jakku was Spielberg's idea; the legendary director was also the one who suggested that trees should be falling during Kylo and Rey's lightsaber battle to emphasise the viciousness of their attacks.
Pixar has that power, too
If you love BB-8 as much as I suspect you do, you've partly got Toy Story director John Lasseter — the chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, and the principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering — to thank for that.
Lasseter suggested to Abrams that he should amp up the physical comedy with the personable droid, and that doing so would make him feel like more of a lovable character. BB-8's iconic thumbs-up, according to Abrams, was directly inspired by this suggestion from Lasseter.
Do you want to see a magic trick?
Abrams says that it was Lucasfilm Story Group guru Pablo Hidalgo who came up with the idea of poisoning the Stormtroopers supposedly about to board the Millennium Falcon (you know, because their masks don't filter out toxins — quite the design flaw, IMO).
The goal is to get you thinking there really must be Stormtroopers coming through that door, because we're going to have to see Finn's plan in action — but then, nope, it's Han and Chewie. It's a "magic trick", Abrams says — we're looking at his left hand, but we should have been looking at his right.
Trust the process
When Han asks Maz Kanata where she got Luke's lightsaber, her response — that it's a good question for another time — sounds a bit like a cop-out on the behalf of the creative team. But don't worry — Abrams says he knows exactly how Maz got that lightsaber, and that the process of it ending up in her basement was originally meant to be seen in the film as a montage. Instead, he decided there were "other ways we could tell that story later".
All of this has happened before and will happen again
Yes, Abrams is keenly aware that some of the events and locations in his film are similar to those depicted in previous entries in the Star Wars saga. We can probably stop pointing that out now.
"This whole location of Maz's, of course, mirrors the cantina from A New Hope, as this, Starkiller Base, mirrors the Death Star. These were the kind of locations that felt like a given in Star Wars," Abrams says.
"For example, we looked at it like a Western, or a fairytale. What are the elements you're going to see that makes it this genre, this specific genre? And clearly, in a Western, you're going to have the dusty Main Street, the saloon. You're gonna have cowboys, you're gonna have the bad guy. He's probably going to be dressed in black.
"You're probably going to have a castle and a prince and a princess, if you're looking at a fairytale. We wanted to have these fundamental, not cosmetic, but prerequisite elements, these locations in which we can set our new story and our new characters."
Later, during the 'trench run' tribute on Starkiller Base, Abrams says he likes the idea of "history repeating itself", albeit with a few twists.
No Neil deGrasse Tysons allowed
Abrams has heard your criticisms of his scientific knowledge (or lack thereof), and while he doesn't exactly disagree, he fails to see how that's relevant.
"Some people have said, you know, that's not how space works, you wouldn't see the light from a different star system. And to those people I say, you're absolutely right," Abrams says.
"The Force Awakens is not a science lesson."
Apocalypse When, Exactly?
Abrams is also aware that, while that shot of those approaching TIE Fighters emerging out of the sunset looks amazing, it doesn't exactly make sense. The rule of cool applies here — it was something production designer Rick Carter had shown him in pre-production, and he just knew it had to be in the movie.
"It makes no sense, lighting-wise," Abrams admits. "The sun looks nothing like that in the rest of this sequence."
Abrams also explains exactly why Kylo Ren wears that mask. This isn't exactly revelatory, but sometimes it's good to know that fans are interpreting things the way the director actually intended.
"Because of Vader, I think you expect him to need the mask. That, like Vader, it's some kind of breathing apparatus. Some sort of necessity," Abrams says.
"But when his mask comes off, you see Adam Driver, and he just looks like a sort of prince. And it makes no sense. Why would he need to wear a mask?
"But the question of why he wears the mask was answered in his insecurity. He's involved with the Knights of Ren, which we have a whole backstory for, but the idea is that he was using that mask for intimidation, that he, like many terrorists, is a coward.
"He's someone who is hiding, who is trying to scare you, and he knows that what you don't see is more frightening."
Abrams adds that the Force battle between Rey and Kylo in this unmasking scene reminds him of the psychic battles in Scanners. Hey, any excuse to watch Scanners again is a good one.
The assassination of Han Solo by the coward Kylo Ren
A lot of people ask Abrams whether Kylo Ren was really considering turning his back on the dark side before he killed Han, or whether he was just playing with his father's emotions — but Abrams says Kylo was for real.
"The truth is, I think that Kylo Ren, in this moment, is actually being convinced to walk away from this," Abrams insists.
"Snoke is, as Han says, using him, and I think that somewhere, Ben knows this. But I think that he can't accept it. Deep down, he has gone too far... But I don't think, in this moment, that this is a put-on. I think that Ben is legitimately going to give up."
Putting a new spin on Leia's reaction to Han's death, Abrams says that even though Kylo sees killing Han as the final step on his journey to the dark side, "the instant that he's done it, he regrets it" — and that this regret is what his mother feels across the galaxy.
(Putting a weird Oedipal spin on all this is Abrams' revelation that Jon Kasdan, the son of TFA co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, helped write this scene, and that he punched up the uncertainty that Kylo felt about killing Han.)
Yes, OK, Chewie should have hugged Leia
One of the most common criticisms of The Force Awakens is also JJ's biggest regret about the film.
"While there are always a million things I wish I'd done differently, one of the things is a shot coming up," Abrams says as the missed moment approaches.
"You've got this moment where they return to the base, and Chewie is so concerned with Finn and his injury and he's putting him down, and this is all working pretty well, and you've got Rey looking around. But in this next shot, I wish I'd not had Chewie there on the left. Because you think there'll be a reunion between the two of them [Chewie and Leia], and there should be. They've just lost someone that they both love.
"So it's a bit of a distraction, frankly, which I regret."
To hear the rest of JJ's inside info on the making of The Force Awakens, including plenty of heartwarming stories about how damn wonderful this cast is, and a few pertinent examples of reshoots that greatly improved the film, make sure you pick up the 3D Blu-Ray release!