April 13, 2016

15 Secrets from Behind the Scenes of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

From Kylo Ren's original costume to J.J. Abrams invoking the spirit of Steve Jobs, here's how Lucasfilm made Star Wars: The Force Awakens a massive success.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out on Blu-Ray/DVD/digital last week to much fanfare and an absurd variety of "limited-edition-based-on-the-superstore-you-bought-it-at" versions. The 3-disc special edition comes chock-full of bonus features and behind-the-scenes segments, and if you're a Star Wars fan, they are a dream come true.

We checked out the five-part hour-long documentary Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journeywhich premiered at SXSW this year, to see if there were any filmmaking nuggets worth sharing.

Turns out there were a bunch. Below, we've highlighted the best of the best.

1. It all began with a single image from Abrams' imagination

When Kathleen Kennedy first called up J.J. Abrams to offer him a shot at directing The Force Awakens, he was prepared to reject it outright. His attitude reflected the fact that "he'd done sequels" and "didn't want to do that again." He was most likely worried that his involvement with the Star Trek franchise would cause audiences to show up with certain expectations (namely, that they were in for just another two and a half hours of lens flares).

Then, stricken by a divine force of inspiration, he came up with an image that, in his own words, "gave him chills."

Concept art for Rey from "Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey" on the "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens" Blu Ray.

"The image was of a young woman—we have no idea what her story is—saying, 'Where’s Luke Skywalker?'" said Abrams. And just like that, the central story for three entire films was put it into motion.

"It was just so titillating," said Abrams, "to think about the notion that this character, who we all know, would be discovered by some new young heroine. It was incredibly intriguing to me." (The money probably was, too.)

2. Concept art drove the movie

After Abrams was attached to the project, the reboot kicked off with a focus on concept art. Production designer Rick Carter's first question in an initial meeting at Industrial Light & Magic proved to set the tone for the entire film: "How strong is the force, what’s its relevance, and why make a Star Wars movie now?"

"We developed the script and almost in tandem someone was illustrating it."

Ralph McQuarrie, the late genius behind the art direction of Episodes IV, V, & VI  was a huge influence on the team. Everyone agreed that the new films should look like they’re in the same universe as the original trilogy.

VFX Supervisor Roger Guyett lets us in on an interesting element of the process, which also serves as a great reference for storyboarding in general. “We’d have these images that you could refer to," Guyett explains, "and some of them became kind of iconic. They informed the whole pre-production unit and they would then go off and react to that. It was kind of interesting watching the way the two things informed each other; we developed the script, and almost in tandem someone was illustrating it.”

Concept art for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" from "Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey"

3. The ghost of Steve Jobs helped Abrams and Lawerence Kasdan create the story

Many of the initial meetings about the script were collaborative discussions between Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, Abrams, and Kathleen Kennedy. The majority of the writing duties would eventually be handed over to Arndt, who was the primary screenwriter. First, however, Kasdan and Abrams developed the major plot by simply taking walks, discussing themes, and recording the conversations on Abrams' iPhone.

This was famously Steve Jobs' favorite way to hold a meeting as well. Kasdan remarked on the benefits of this practice: "I've collaborated with a bunch of people, and this is the most fun I've ever had. Where it tends to be claustrophobic, airless, and tiring, this was not."

"It felt good to be in motion because so much of the movie is in motion," added Abrams.

4. John Boyega had to audition nine times before they gave him the part

5. The force is strong in the family of Star Wars crew members

The film was generational in many respects, but one element was entirely literal: many members of the art and production design teams on the original movies ended up having children that evolved similar interests. If you think Star Wars had a lasting effect on you as a child, imagine the effect it had on a child whose parent created the worlds they fell in love with. It's only natural that this interest would then lead them to careers in the very same field.

The sons and daughters of many a crew member on the original Star Wars ended up working on the VFX and design teams for The Force Awakens.

For that reason, the sons and daughters of many a crew member on the original Star Wars ended up working on the VFX and design teams for The Force Awakens. For example, Gary Tomkins, the senior art director of vehicles on the Force Awakens, is the son of Alan Tomkins, the art director who created such iconic vehicles as the snow-speeder in The Empire Strikes Back.

The majority of the film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England, where the original films were shot. Members of the crew from those films were invited back to The Force Awakensand they brought their offspring along with them to help build the sets.

Creature models from "Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey"

5. Not every painstakingly-created creature made the final cut

Creature and Droid FX creative supervisor Neal Scanlan said that Abrams employed a "give me everything you got" approach to building creatures. Basically, there was never a guarantee that any given creature would appear in the film. As a result, the team would work tirelessly to create an insane number of creatures from which Abrams chose his favorites.

“In some films in the past you’d get a build list, and you’d be like, 'I have to build this, this and this.'" said Scanlan. "We had to earn our stars, so you had to get that character to a point where it was worthy of being on screen. Anything you would make was not a ticket to appear in the film.... We would show something to J.J. and we would have to impress him enough so he would say, 'I can use that.'"

6. There are two entirely different BB-8s

Sure, they may look the same, but the two BB-8 droids were actually built with very different purposes in mind. Their modes of operationthe method in which the droid was controlledactually ended up defining each of the droid's characters. One BB-8 was a remote control droid while the other was a puppet.

The puppet version of BB-8 from "Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey"

The remote control droid had to be operated by three different crew members: one operating the head, one in control of the LED lights on the body, and one for the drive system. The puppet version was attached to two long rods and manipulated by a puppeteer who dressed in a green suit to be digitally removed later.

True to the original trilogy, the crew ended up using the puppet version more often because they were able to garner a more organic performance from it. 

7. The chess game on the Millenium Falcon picks up exactly where it left off in A New Hope

8. Kasdan wanted another Han Solo

...So he created Poe Dameron. Kasdan says he wrote the character with Han Solo in mind—he wanted their archetypes to be the same. Dameron was "the one that draws your eye, because you don’t know what he’s going to do," Kasdan said. Oscar Isaac's cocky pilot (like Solo in the original trilogy) serves that purpose. 

Abrams decided to rewrite the film so Poe Dameron would survive and Oscar Isaac would sign on​.

Also of note: originally, Poe was supposed to die early in the film. When Abrams offered Isaac the role, however, Isaac made it clear that his character's early death was his main beef with the script; he told Abrams he'd recently made four movies where he died early on, so he didn’t want it to happen again.

In what turned out to be a really good move, Abrams decided to rewrite the film so Poe would survive and Isaac would sign on.

9. Captain Phasma was named after a cult horror film from 1979

Captain Phasma's iconic chrome armor was created by costume designer Michael Kaplan, whose first film was Blade Runner. Interestingly, the armor was intended to be used by Kylo Ren, but Abrams wanted to move in a more subtle direction with his primary antagonist. When Kathleen Kennedy saw the designs, however, she insisted they remained in the film in some capacity. Thus, Captain Phasma was born.

Abrams chose the name as an homage to Don Coscarelli's Phantasm. It reminded him of a spiky chrome ball the villain used as a weapon. 

10. For most of the movie, Peter Mayhew is not the guy in the Chewbacca suit

Peter Mayhew and Joonas Suotamo.
The legendary actor was on set for the majority of the shoot and would play his famous role when it didn't call for any movement, but, due to a tendon injury which forced him to get knee replacement surgery, he was mostly limited to scenes in which Chewie is sitting or lying down.

His body double was Joonas Suotamo, a 30-year-old Finnish former basketball player who went to Penn State and studied film. The major difference between the two? About two inches. Mayhew is 7'2" while Suotamo is 7'. 

11. In addition to playing Supreme Leader Snoke, Andy Serkis was basically a member of the VFX team

Lupita Ny'ongo gave a stellar performance as Maz Kanata, but the Academy award-winning actress's transition into acting for motion capture was a little shaky. She admits to having felt uncomfortable and out of place while walking around on her knees in the cantina scenes in suit and full headgear. Perhaps the most intense part was having 149 dots painstakingly applied to her face every single morning before the shoot.

Luckily for Ny'ongo, the man who basically invented the technology was on set to help out. Andy Serkis came to her aid as an "overseer and a consultant."

His best piece of advice? "Let go of the oddness of the things you are wearing and go into the circumstance just as you would with any other character."

"[Day one] was basically the worst day I ever had on a film set in my life." Carrie Fisher

Oliver Steeples and his R2 unit

12. R2D2 was built by a couple of random nerds

R2D2 in The Force Awakens was built by an electro-mechanical engineer named Oliver Steeples. Steeples had just finished university and was looking for a way to keep entertained, so he joined an R2 builders club. He started building his R2 in 2003 and completed it four years later, in time for London's 2007 Star Wars Celebration. His model was so impressive that he managed to get a couple of VIP backstage passes, where he noticed Kennedy hanging around. In what he describes as a "cheeky" move, he asked her to contact him if they were ever making any new Star Wars. A few months later, he got an email.

This just goes to show: you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take. (Steeples will also be creating the robots for Rogue One.)

13. Carrie Fisher says her first day on set was the worst day she’d ever had on a film set 

"I’m the custodian of Princess Leia, so it’s my job to kind of protect her," said Fisher. "It’s my whole life, so I was very nervous. The first day I had was this massive scene. I was scared that I would make mistakes, and I made mistakes.”

“It was basically the worst day I ever had on a film set in my life,” she continued. “It ended, and I got to go to sleep and come in another day, and it was better.”

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Abrams has a theory for Fisher's misery: "She hadn’t acted in a while, and I think she was nervous going into this," he said. "Once we started to do it, she seemed to fall into it very easily. To bring a character to life that you hadn’t played in 30-some years… I understand how daunting that could be."

14. Harrison Ford didn't want Han Solo to die in Return of the Jedi

Ford just wanted Han Solo to play a role as a human sacrifice. “I enjoyed playing the character in the first," said Ford. "I enjoyed playing the character in the second. By the time we got to the third, I thought there was possibly no useful purpose for this character except maybe as a human sacrifice. It’s not that I wanted Han Solo to die; I wanted Han Solo to lend some significant emotional wake to the story."

15. There were 600 steps to the top of Luke's island

...and the crew had to carry everything up to the top. By hand.      

Your Comment

7 Comments

The new stormtrooper design makes them look fat.

When you redesign something like a stormtrooper costume you immediately alienate the literally thousands of fans with the old design. Stupid. And for zero reason, just so the designer can put their mark on it.

And why is ky loren a sooky emo kid with daddy issues? Would someone in his position really be such a big baby?

And another thing. Promise this is the last thing I have to say about the crappest star wars ever. How is it possible that Ray has no powers or at least clue as to how to understand them and then mid-fight in the forrest she shuts her eyes and concentrates for 10 seconds then opens them and kicks Ky Lorens ass. When it look Luke basically 3 movies to reach that level after training with Yoda in a swamp for who knows how long etc A progression of several years.

Abrams star wars world is a lame one if all you have to do is shut your eyes, open them and have powers. Maybe he had his eyes shut writing the script.

Also its shot too tight, not enough wide shots. Looks like a TV show.

April 13, 2016 at 7:40PM, Edited April 13, 7:40PM

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>> And why is ky loren a sooky emo kid with daddy issues? Would someone in his position really be such a big baby?

He is a descendant of Anakin, who was a whiney Emo kid.
It's like poetry. It rhymes.

April 13, 2016 at 10:34PM

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kyleclements
Artist / Photographer
937

Thats awesome, so true.

April 13, 2016 at 11:41PM

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Emo indeed, have you read the fanfic rewrite of 7 on buzzfeed with Kylo as the protagonist?
https://www.buzzfeed.com/danieldalton/the-feels-awaken

April 14, 2016 at 12:47AM

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Daniel Reed
Hat Collector
794

"...the man who basically invented the technology was on set to help out. "
this is wrong and dismissive (if not just insulting) to the many people over many years who, in fact, did invent and develop motion capture.

April 13, 2016 at 8:26PM, Edited April 13, 8:26PM

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Michael Goldfarb
Senior Technical Director - Side Effects
310

Yeah. Didn`t know that Andy Serkis started his acting career as a software developer. Completely hilarious. In this sense James Cameron invented computer generated visual effects. Serkis is just a user of that technology - even though he owns a company that offer mocap services.

April 14, 2016 at 5:00AM

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There is an error regarding No.5 - "The majority of the film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England, where the original films were shot."

The original films were in fact shot at EMI Elstree Studios in Borehamwood Hertfordshire, just outside of London. Some of the pick-ups from Episode II or III were also filmed here on the George Lucas stage.

April 14, 2016 at 5:31PM, Edited April 14, 5:31PM

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Derek Boyes
Writer/Director
84