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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.
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“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?”
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.
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.”
“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.'”