He’s not just a “Star Wars” filmmaker — he’s also a fan. Producer, director and co-writer J.J. Abrams talks about nearly turning down “The Force Awakens,” his secret onscreen role, and what makes this new trilogy different from the last.
How does one come to be the first person in charge of “Star Wars” after George Lucas? Did Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy call you up and say, “We loved your ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Mission: Impossible,’ so do this now”? Or were you one of a doubtlessly select group of filmmakers asked to pitch ideas?
I know that Steven Spielberg was lobbying for me to get this job. I had known Kathy for a long time and she called and asked if I would consider it. I was so flattered. I didn’t know how many people she had to talk to and get rejected by for that call to happen, but I said, “No, thank you,” because I had done some sequels and though I loved “Star Wars” (1977) so much, I just thought this wasn’t the right thing for me. Plus my wife and I had plans to go away with our kids for a little while.
But Kathy said, “Could we could just get together?” So I said sure. She came over and we started talking about it, and the possibility of what the story could be was just so exciting to me that it suddenly went from a theoretical idea to “Oh my God, we could actually make a ‘Star Wars’ movie!” And that’s crazy! Then I went downstairs and said to Katie [McGrath, his wife], “I just had this meeting with Kathy and I’ve got to tell you, part of me really wants to do this thing.” So anyway, it came as a surprise to me that Kathy left and I found myself very hungry to do it.
Would you have regretted it if you’d said no?
Well, it’s funny, that’s what my wife said — that if you really want to do it and don’t, you may regret it.
The second trilogy, despite everyone’s best efforts, wasn’t received as well it might have been. What are you doing this time that’s different — aside from, presumably, not having Jar Jar Binks?
The fundamental thing about those first movies was that they were stories of underdogs, of people who came from seemingly nowhere special. They didn’t live in corridors of power — the only shining floors were the bad guys’, and that to me was “Star Wars”: a dusty, greasy, rusted, ragtag, homespun group of underdogs who are up against this crazy, high-tech, infinitely powerful institution.
And the second trilogy was more about people already powerful and influential. I get that. Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”), who did the first draft of the script, left in October 2013. Kathleen Kennedy then announced you and Lawrence Kasdan (“The Empire Strikes Back”) were working on it. Did you rewrite it or start fresh?
We didn’t rewrite a script. . . . We had this outline and then Michael essentially said that he needed quite a bit more time than anyone had to write the script. And so Larry and I basically started over and ended up incorporating many aspects of the story, which both of us loved, and we just wrote the script from there.
Do you have a cameo?
No. Well, my voice is somewhere in the movie. . . !