“Noooo! I’ll never join you!” That’s what Luke Skywalker cried out when Darth Vader asked him to cross over to the Dark Side and rule the galaxy alongside him, and J.J Abrams basically said the same thing (perhaps more politely) to Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy when she first reached out to ask if he’d sign on to help launch the first in a new constellation of Star Wars films.
The director, who had previously rebooted Star Trek for the big screen in 2009 and was in the midst of finishing his 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, simply said he preferred to turn to some original projects. Undeterred, Kennedy persuaded him to helm Star Wars: The Force Awakens by asking a simple question, one with the potential to upend our core beliefs about the galaxy far, far away. “In the context of talking about story and laying out what we were thinking, I said one thing to him,” Kennedy recalls. “‘Who is Luke Skywalker?’”
Abrams, who’s 49 now but was only 11 when the original Star Wars debuted in 1977, decided he needed to know the answer, even if he had to devise it himself. “He said, ‘Oh my God, I just got the chills. I’m in,’” Kennedy says. “I mean, it really was almost that quickly.”
Abrams says his wife also helped him get over his hesitation. “You rarely get a chance to be involved in something that you would typically be an audience for. Katie, my wife, said, ‘If you want to do this and you don’t, you’re going to regret this.’ It was really about being willing to take that leap, and jump into the possibilities of what these characters are doing, and where they are.”
There were a lot of possibilities on the table when Abrams signed on, but no finalized story. Lawrence Kasdan, who had written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, was developing a young Han Solo standalone movie, which was just recently confirmed but began development years ago. He joined with Michael Arndt, who’d won an Oscar for the script to Little Miss Sunshine, and Simon Kinberg, who wrote Mr. & Mrs. Smith and X-Men: First Class, to break down trilogy possibilities with Kennedy.
“[They] had just been hypothesizing and throwing out a bunch of what-ifs, but there was no story in place,” Abrams says. “It was, without doubt, a formidable assignment. There were so many options and so many paths that could be taken. Even when we were in debate — and sometimes it was frustrating and heated — it was always thrilling, because it seemed almost everywhere you looked there was something potentially extraordinary, which felt very much like the DNA of Star Wars itself.”
With Abrams on board, this story team began asking questions. They knew they had Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher already committed — so that gave them Luke, Princess Leia, and Han Solo to play with. “My guess is that any question that anyone would be having was among the endless questions we were asking at the very beginning,” Abrams says.
Most important: What was the state of the galaxy?
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