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How They Put The Force into the Design of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (SPOILER ALERT)

How They Put The Force into the Design of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' (SPOILER ALERT)


Rick Carter, who signed on to  “The Force Awakens” even before J.J. Abrams, always looks for the Zen in a movie, so the first thing he did was huddle with George Lucas to figure out how to visualize The Force. It was like a meeting between Yoda and Obi-Wan.

“He told me that when he was young he used to look at everything as though they were through binoculars, and as he got older, the view shifted to the other end,” recalled the two-time Oscar winner (“Avatar,” “Lincoln”). “The tableau was no longer as vivid up close. And I could relate to that. It’s one of the reasons that I co-production design with younger people and wanted Darren Gilford. His attention to detail and execution allowed me to go in deeply as well as stand back. Also, Darren has a personal connection to ‘Star Wars.’ His father [Ira Gilford, the Hot Wheels car designer] illustrated the ‘Star Wars’ ‘Cinefex’ cover in 1977.”

Not surprisingly, the generational aspect and, in particular, “the sins of the father,” were strong hooks for Carter. But, for him, the heart and soul of “The Force Awakens” was Han Solo and his three-part character arc, played by Harrison Ford with a brilliantly understated force.

“At first, he comes in and he’s dead man walking without a purpose (he even says he used to be Han Solo),” Carter explained. “Then at least he finds a short-term purpose in helping them get to the Resistance base. But then the plot thickens from both the outside and the inside because not only has Luke [Mark Hamill] been invoked, but he’s also reunited with Leia [Carrie Fisher] and he’s forced to confront their son.

“Ultimately, I believe by the end we will come to understand Han’s journey as a version of how the Force works. Because here’s a guy who didn’t believe in it, then he tells you it’s all true, then there’s that comedic moment where he says, ‘That’s not how the Force works,’  and then he’s drawn into creating a sacrifice for something that’s much bigger than him.”

Carter found it fascinating to be at the center of the storytelling, taking part in a visualists brainstorming session with Abrams and other filmmakers, including ILM VFX guru Dennis Muren. “I asked the question: ‘What would frighten the audience if the First Order were to emerge is a powerful way?’ And Dennis was the one who said, ‘If they could take the light out of the sky, they could take the energy out of the sun and darken the sun.’ And J.J. heard that and said, ‘What if they could make a weapon out of that?”

In terms of updating the design, they focused on simple shapes: a triangle for the Star Destroyer, an X for the winged Resistance fighters and a bat for the Tie Fighters. In addition, the planets grew out of the nature mythology as well: desert (Jakku), forest (Tokadana) ice and water. 

“I actually found some old designs that Ralph McQuarrie had done for a Darth Vader castle,” Carter revealed. “By lightening it up and not being so heavy and being true to the shapes that Ralph initially thought of, I found the right locale for Maz Kanata [Lupita Nyong’o). It was like Yoda to tap into this.”

Talk about Zen, Kanata is actually based on an English teacher (Rose Gilbert) that both Carter and Abrams had 17 years apart at Palisades High. “She was this this little woman with big glasses who taught existentialism until she was 94. Maz actually looks like a combination of her and J.J.”

A further discovery was a castle on a lake up in Scotland’s Isle of Skye. “And now we’re in a swashbuckling, medieval movie with knights and we’re finding Excalibur. And the next step is we actually get to go with Snow White out in a forest and the Dark Prince comes and puts her in a spell and carries her off. But then, when she’s being raped mentally, she’s able to fight him off and reverse the spell where he’s afraid. 

“And in the middle of the movie, having what J.J. called a ‘Force Back,’ which was a vision quest that happens by touching a Talisman [Luke’s lightsaber] and being projected into her past and beyond into the future. And then they’re fighting for Excalibur. And then, of course, in a classical way she denies it and doesn’t take the call when it first comes. But then she hears the Force spoken by Kylo Ren [Adam Driver] and we go back to what Maz said, ‘Close your eyes and let it in.’ And that’s a fourth wall breakdown for the audience. That’s the only way through this.”

Then they thought about a water planet at the end and when Carter Googled exotic islands, up popped Skellig Islands in Ireland. “It’s the Himalayas of the water. Then I found out that there was a fifth century church, and, for a thousand years, they made those stones. It’s so spiritual.”

Indeed, this Zen-like experience with “The Force Awakens,” represents the continuation of a Millennial journey making war-themed movies that Carter calls “the nature of conscience and the Goya-esque disasters of war.” In fact, he also includes two other recent movies, “Jurassic World” and “The BFG.”

“I started with Hal Ashby on ‘Bound for Glory’ and to see the road movie go into outer space with ‘Star Wars’ had a profound impact on me,” Carter admitted. “I had been a world traveler. It was a post-hippie movie and I was out of that era. So with J.J. trying to go to that level of being authentic with shooting on set was a natural place for me….

“But what this film taps into now is even more frighteningly relevant than it was in 1977. I think it’s more volatile now where people’s discovery of what the dark forces can be is heavier.”

Yet there’s still “a new hope” tied to Solo’s sacrifice: “When he puts his hand up to his son’s face, he’s marking him emotionally, the way the first Stormtrooper marked Finn [John Boyega] with blood in battle. Of course, the important thing is that it’s witnessed by Rey [Daisy Ridley]. It’s like what Obi-Wan tells Darth Vader: ‘If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.'”

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