Can you propel a franchise into the future by clinging to the stories of old characters? That’s a central question that the "Star Wars" series faces following "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." But in a half-hour conversation with Lawrence Kasdan following a Directors Guild Of America screening, director J.J. Abrams explained the balance they were trying to achieve.
"For us it was very purposefully going backwards to go forwards — a purposeful step backwards to tell a new story with new characters," he said.
Part of that process involved bringing Kasdan into the fold, a veteran of this cinematic world and the characters within. However, as the screenwriter tells Empire in a spoiler talk, he was actually first approached for the "Star Wars" sequel by Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas before Lucasfilm‘s sale to Disney. And even afterward, Kasdan had some hesitation about jumping into the fray.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to be involved. And I was a little relieved when they said Michael Arndt had been hired to write ‘Episode VII,’ because whoever writes that episode, I don’t know what you do with it. But they said, ‘Here are these other stories we’d like to do.’ And the one that caught my attention was a young Han Solo because that’s my favorite character,” he explained.
Indeed, Kasdan is working on the spinoff movie with his son Jon Kasdan. As for ‘The Force Awakens,’ Kasdan was a consultant at first as Arndt worked on the script, but when it became clear his vision wasn’t what Lucasfilm and co. had in mind, and time started becoming a factor, Kasdan jumped in, and together with Abrams, they got things back on track very fast. "We were able to produce a first draft in six weeks and kept writing for two more years. It was two years of intense writing,” he said.
Part of the success of ‘The Force Awakens’ (or for some, the frustration) is how closely it reflects certain elements and moments from the original trilogy, and Kasdan reveals those were always part of the fabric of the film. "I think a lot of those have to do with J.J. and a lot of people on the huge crew saying, ‘We could put so-and-so here and so-and-so there.’ There are certain [callbacks] we knew were essential and even when Michael Arndt was involved we were talking about, ‘Well, we gotta have a little of this and a little of that,’ " he explained. "When J.J. and I took over the project we said, ‘OK, we’re starting again, let’s know specifically what we want in this movie.’ There were certain absolute, must-have things we wanted in the movie, for no reason…our own which was: ‘I wanna see this, I wanna see that.’ "
However, that doesn’t mean putting things in just for the sake of it. Kasdan quietly points toward the prequels as an example of what happens when there’s not so much care in revisiting "Star Wars" galaxy. “Some things had been given away without enough value during the period when I was away from the saga. You’d just see too much, you’d see it too fast, there was no specialness to the presentation of something which is iconic,” he said.
But change is a big part of "Star Wars," and fans were surprised and shaken to see Han Solo (Harrison Ford) murdered by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ford’s desire to see his character killed in the original trilogy is part of cinematic lore now, and Kasdan defends Lucas’ decision to keep him alive across those three films.
“When I was working on the first trilogy I was always lobbying to kill somebody major because I felt that that gave gravitas to the story. If everyone came out fine all the time there was no danger, there’s no jeopardy," he said. "And Harrison who was ambivalent at that time about his participation was all for that in ‘Jedi.’ And I was pushing George, I was saying ‘That would be a great idea, I think it should cost us.’ And by the end of ‘Empire,’ you do have to worry about Han, but I think George was correct to keep Han alive. So that’s always been an issue: how much danger is there and what is the real jeopardy in this saga.”
The story of Han Solo will still continue in a manner of speaking, with the spinoff movie to be directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, focusing on the hero in his younger days. And Kasdan assures fans, it won’t be an origin story. "It will not be here’s where he was born and this is how he was raised. I think what it will be is, what was he like 10 years earlier, maybe a little earlier, you’ll get a glimpse. But Kurosawa once said the heroes are the ones that are still changing and the villains are locked and petrified into what they are. And Harrison embodies in ‘Force Awakens’ someone who is still not settled on who he is," Kasdan said. And it’s probably been that way for almost all of Han’s life.
Check out both the Empire and DGA conversations below.