J.J. Abrams Shares How BB-8 Was Created
Disclosure: Disney sponsored my travel, accommodations and activities during my stay in Los Angeles.
I saw the movie last night, friends. I will not say a word about the story, but let me say that it was brilliantly done.
As you expected, I am back today to share another amazing interview that I did during the STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS press junket! So far, I have shared my interview with Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Kathleen Kennedy and Oscar Issac and Lupita Nyong’o. This interview is the big one – Director J.J. Abrams.
It was reported that you had collaborated with Lynn Emanuel Miranda for the music and I was wondering how did that relationship come about?
“My 17 year old son and I went to see Hamilton, which if you haven’t seen it, is one of the great experiences of all time. You hear crazy hyperbolic language being used about it, then you go to see it, and it’s better than anyone described it. At intermission, I was thinking it can’t possibly continue at this level, and it just gets better.
I was distracted at intermission by a tap on my shoulder and I turned around it was Lynn Emanuel Miranda, who normally stars in this thing he wrote the songs for, but this night it was his understudy.
He said in this jokey, off-hand way, if you need music for the cantina, I’m happy to do it. It was so weird because a couple weeks earlier, John Williams had said to me he really wanted to focus on the score. There’s a lot of music in the movie. He said this one scene in the film which is essentially a version of a kind of cantina scene he’d rather not work because he had so much other score to do, and this is really source music. I was like, alright.
Anyway, Miranda says this to me and I can’t believe it. So, I email Lynn and say listen, ‘I know you were joking, but the truth is we sort of have a need for some music in the scene, if you’re serious.’ He emails back and says he’ll drop everything. So we started collaborating on this music and we both use the same music software and we would send files back and forth. We came up with this piece of music, actually two pieces of music for this sequence and to get to work with him was preposterously fun.”
Who asked you to be involved with Episode 7 and how did you feel when you were first asked?
“It was Kathleen Kennedy, who I’ve known for a long time. She called and asked if I was interested in working on Star Wars. Of course, it was a very surreal question and it was very flattering. My answer was no, partly because Katie, my wife, and I had plans to take our kids away. I’d been working on a lot of back-to-back projects for a while, partly because I’d worked on a number of sequels and it felt like enough is enough and partly because I care about Star Wars so much that the idea of taking it on felt like a something that I couldn’t imagine.
So, I said no thank you and ‘she said can we get together?’ I said yes. When Kathy Kennedy and you get together, she’ll convince you of whatever it is she wants you to. She was amazing and basically said this was going to be an opportunity to continue the story since Return of the Jedi. I realized this is 30-some years after the fact, the main characters would have been born 10 to 15 years after that movie.
They’d be looking back on what we know of the story, which would be ancient history for kids who were 19, 20 years old. What do they know? What do they believe? What do they believe in? The idea of finding these young people who exist in a Star Wars universe was so compelling to me, and that feeling of re-discovering a world and a feeling that was so powerful for growing up, was undeniable. After the meeting, I went downstairs and found Katie, my wife, and I just said I think I really want to do this.
She said this is definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity. She said I really needed to consider it – if this is something I wanted to do. I did and it wasn’t easy for us, our family, or my company, Bad Robot.
There were a lot of issues that came with it and yet I knew that as challenging as it would be that if we could all get our sea legs and do it right, it could be an extraordinary situation and an amazing experience in every category from prep and figuring out the story and writing the script with Lawrence Kasdan, and designing the movie, shooting it, editing it, doing post and scoring it.”
It’s a different thing nowadays to use actual puppets in movie. Can you talk about your choice in this?
“Well, I remember seeing Star Wars and Empire and Jedi and that was before there was such a thing as a CG character. There is a kind of creative, home spun, do it yourself genius that was when the Muppets were brought to life.
George Lucas used the same technology to create what appeared to be living, breathing flesh and blood characters. It was so wonderful to have that, and as the shooting continued, the biggest advantage was in BB-8, who is our new droid in scenes with Daisy, John and Harrison, this droid was alive, was expressive, passionate, curious, helpful, afraid and daring.
He was literally on camera, in scenes doing everything that you could have ever dreamed of. We could have worked with our extraordinary computer graphics department at ILM and made that work, but it never would have looked quite as good, quite as real.
When there were CG creatures there was a standard to match, which was actually captured on film.”
I wondered, like everyone’s fallen in love with BB8 already, how did the idea for him come about?
“We knew we had a droid that was gonna be a critical piece of the puzzle, but we didn’t know if he was going to be sort of bi-pedal, like 3PO or roll around like R2 or some other thing. I just had this idea that if we had a sphere and a semi-sphere on top, you could get quite a bit of expression without a face.
I drew a sketch of BB-8 and I had the eye and little antenna and everything and it didn’t have a color pattern and it didn’t have all the critical details that Neil and his team brought in, but I sent that to Neil Scandlan and then began to come up with designs that would follow that. It was amazing how quickly it looked like it could work and I didn’t know if they would be able to create something that could be performed on camera, which I knew was going to be important.
They did and I will never forget the first day that we came to their offices to see BB-8 agreed on design, etcetera and scale and everything. We walked in and Brian, the puppeteer, came out and wheeled out BB8 on his rig. Literally within seconds, Brian disappeared, like he was right there, but it was like he wasn’t there and this thing was looking around and curious and you could feel the soul because Brian was imbuing him with life.
Daisy said at one point earlier today, every time we weren’t shooting, we were on a break, and BB8 was just sort of sitting there and not being performed, it was heartbreaking because he was this inert thing and you were where is he.”
How do you find the balance between the preservation of what Star Wars is and integrating new technology and new things?
“It’s a great question. This whole process has been going backwards to go forwards. It’s the next chapter in what happened in 4, 5, and 6. This is 7. It needs to feel like there’s the continuum to that, but the important thing was recognizing what the tenants of Star Wars are – the things that make Star Wars specifically Star Wars and not one of the many attempts to rip off what George Lucas created.
The beauty of what we had was we actually inherited Star Wars. We could actually put tie fighters and light sabers and star destroyers in our movie it feel essential as opposed to derivative. This was all about telling a new story, so the brilliant luck of having Laurence Kasdan along for the ride is, he knew having written Empire and Jedi, having lived with it for decades, about that world and where it might have gone.
Discussions with him were informed discussions. What’s the point of trying a new Star Wars story? What do we want people to feel? Who are the main characters? That was the most exciting part. Finding this young woman, Rey, who from the beginning was a central role and character and voice in the story, to find this character Finn, who we started to fall in love with very early on, and to realize that their story of discovering what their role is in this universe, and not just any universe but the Star Wars universe, was thrilling.”
I want to thank you for the diverse cast for a new generation. I love the idea that you’ve come up with the first female villain, too. So, how did that come about?
“It was really important when we began working on this script that this movie feel and look a little bit more like the world than one might have thought. When I say one might have thought, I don’t know who that one is, but I’m sure that person’s out there because when people say thank you for this, it sort of means that they haven’t seen it like this before on some level. I know that looking at the story from the very beginning, Rey was always at the center of this story.
We knew Leah was going to be in the movie from the beginning, of course. This character of Maz Kanata that is played beautifully by Lupita Nyong’o was always a character and somehow always named Maz Kanata, who was part of this world. Captain Phasma came about because we were trying to figure out the look of Kylo Ren and this amazing design was presented and it we just were floored. It was the coolest thing we’d ever seen.
We knew it didn’t make sense for Kylo Ren, but it was really great so we started coming up with this character that was the head of all the stormtroopers. We wanted to have female stormtroopers, and there are in the movie, but we knew we wanted to have the head of the stormtroopers be an important character, and we thought why not have her be female. Gwendoline Christie’s name came up and I was already a fan.
Somehow she was available and our British casting director, Nina Gold, also cast Game of Thrones, and so luckily there was a connection there already. Gwendoline came in and is as lovely as you’d ever want someone to be, and was such a Star Wars fan. She got exactly what it needed to be instantly and was just an utter joy to work with. So we have good guys and bad guys who are not guys. We have female humans and non-humans.”
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS arrives in theaters everywhere TODAY !!!