As he prepares to reenter the “Star Wars” universe with his upcoming (and still-untitled) Episode IX, “Force Awakens” filmmaker J.J. Abrams is unbothered by the recent backlash to the diversity of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Asked by IndieWire about pushback from “Star Wars” fans who decried Rian Johnson’s film for its focus on more female-centric stories (bolstered by the edition of franchise newbies like Laura Dern and Kelly Marie Tran), Abrams was clear: “Their problem isn’t ‘Star Wars,’ their problem is being threatened.”
In December, an alt-right group claimed responsibility for lowering the film’s Rotten Tomatoes scores, claiming that its issues with the film partially stemmed from “introducing more female characters into the franchise’s universe.” As The Telegraph noted at the time, user reviews included comments like “Politically correct to the point of boredom,” “SJW propaganda” and “I’m frustrated that feminism and diversity have made their way into this film. This has ruined Star Wars for me as well as my kids. Keep liberalism out of it and stop ruining once good things.”
Abrams was unfazed. “‘Star Wars’ is a big galaxy, and you can sort of find almost anything you want to in ‘Star Wars,'” he said. “If you are someone who feels threatened by women and needs to lash out against them, you can probably find an enemy in ‘Star Wars.’ You can probably look at the first movie that George [Lucas] did [‘Star Wars: A New Hope’] and say that Leia was too outspoken, or she was too tough. Anyone who wants to find a problem with anything can find the problem. The internet seems to be made for that.”
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Asked if fan outcry would at all impact his vision for the upcoming film, Abrams was clear. “Not in the least,” he said, adding, “There’s a lot that I would like to say about it, but I feel like it’s a little early to be having the ‘Episode IX’ conversation … I will say that the story of Rey and Poe and Finn and Kylo Ren — and if you look, there are three men and one woman, to those that are complaining that there are too many women in ‘Star Wars’ — their story continues in a way that I couldn’t be more excited about and cannot wait for people to see.”
Abrams has weathered this sort of blowback before. “I think everyone is going to have their point of view,” Abrams said. “Certainly something I discovered early on in the ‘Star Wars’ world, is that you’re going to have an incredibly passionate and vocal fanbase, and they’re all going to have a lot of specific opinions.”
Equality in the industry is currently top of mind for the filmmaker, as Abrams is being honored next week with the Athena Film Festival’s Leading Man Award, given to “men in Hollywood who have a strong track record of serving as vocal allies of and effective advocates for women in entertainment.” Previous honorees include Paul Feig and David Oyelowo.
“I wish it weren’t something that there was a need to do,” he said when asked about the honor. “It’s a bit like Black History Month, like why should it just be a month? Why can’t it just be part of history? Why does there have to be a special award for someone who is working to be as collaborative with as many women as possible? That’s simply good business … We will keep making mistakes and trying to do better, but the end game is equality.”
Abrams and his wife Katie McGrath are co-CEOs of production company Bad Robot, and Abrams emphasized that equality in the industry and continuing to advocate for women inside of it is “enormously important” to them, and it impacts many of his production decisions.
The filmmaker shared that, in recent meetings targeted around employing crews and filmmakers for projects, he and McGrath have asked their agency CAA for lists of potential collaborators “that represent the makeup of the country” and “that immediately changed the conversation.” He added, “When you would look at lists through the optics or the lens of equality, they were shocking.”
He emphasized a need for the industry to look beyond its current talent rosters.
“A lot of the issue, I think, stems not from people who are capable or people who are worthy of being given a shot, but rather people who just don’t even get to be in the room, they don’t get to be considered, they don’t look the way the usual suspects look,” Abrams said. “You can’t possibly have change if the options that are being considered are just of one pool.”
Abrams then cited Black List founder Franklin Leonard, who tweeted in October of 2015, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
Abrams said the sentiment resonated for him on many levels. “We’re not asking to take away the male point of view or male artistry or male contribution,” he said. “We’re simply saying, ‘What is fair?’ I can see why people might get freaked out by it, but the people who are getting freaked out are the people who are accustomed to that privilege, and this is not oppression, this is about fairness.”