The American Society of Cinematographers

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Kathleen Kennedy
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Interview with J.J. Abrams

A Q&A with Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams.

Unit photography by David James, courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Shortly before the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams spoke to AC about his collaborative efforts with cinematographer Dan Mindel, ASC, BSC, and the creative team at Lucasfilm to give the Star Wars universe a modern upgrade, while keeping the saga firmly rooted in its hallowed history.

American Cinematographer: Tell us about the importance of having a non-cynical perspective when taking on a project like The Force Awakens.

J.J. Abrams: Since I was 11 years old, when I saw Star Wars for the first time, what it had at its core was a sense of possibility, optimism and hope. So the approach had to be in that spirit, in an authentic and not in a Pollyannaish way. From the very beginning, working with Lawrence Kasdan, one of the [saga’s] original storytellers, this was about embracing a spirit that we love so desperately.

You have collaborated on three other films with Dan Mindel, two Star Trek films and Mission: Impossible 3. What draws you to work with him?

Abrams: One of the things that I love about Dan, [beyond] his versatility, is his love of film itself and his appreciation for the look of anamorphic lenses. There’s a kind of aesthetic that he and I both get excited about. I learned so much from Dan on M:I3, which was my first movie. He was the first cinematographer I worked with on a feature, and his generosity and patience with me were sort of stunning — and something for which I am still so grateful. He was an amazing collaborator from the very beginning, and we immediately found ourselves laughing more often than not, and celebrating a great shot. We found ourselves in such sync. Dan is someone who I consider to be not just an incredible genius and a brilliant cinematographer, but also a dear friend.

How did you set out to create the look of The Force Awakens?

Abrams: What I really wanted to do was embrace a feeling more than a particular aesthetic. [It was] the feeling that I felt when I saw Star Wars for the first time; there was a scope and a scale and an authenticity to those early movies. When you looked at the gorgeous lighting in Empire [Strikes Back], or the scenes in the ice fields of Hoth, or in the desert with the diffusion on Threepio when they shot in Tunisia for Tatooine; or if you looked at the forest of Endor, you knew you were in real places. And it gave you license, as a viewer, to let go and be in a real place, and it made all the other locations feel real. For example, when you're in some of the ice caves in Hoth, I suppose you could scrutinize those sets and say, ‘That looks a little like a set.’ But you believe it 100 percent because you were just outside in what you knew was a legitimate location. Aesthetically, that was the most important thing for me. I wanted people to feel like they really were in these places. Dan and I talked a lot about what lenses we could get that were closest to, if not the actual, original lenses that were used on a particular original Star Wars movie. And we knew shooting on film was essential. It was really a question of trying to serve the feeling more than it was trying to copy a certain aesthetic.

How did you and Dan go about creating that realism?

Abrams: Part of it was location shooting, making sure that we were on actual sets and builds and locations wherever possible. The ability to shoot actual locations — in Abu Dhabi, or in the forests of Wales, or on [Skellig Michael] in Ireland, or getting plates in Iceland — was enormous, and something we’re really grateful for on this movie. And part of it was embracing and encouraging the unexpected. Whether it’s atmosphere or natural light, it’s embracing the things that you sometimes desperately try to re-create in post, where you can spend a lot of time trying to make something that nature is often giving you for free. This was more about the approach, and not just to the photography of the movie, but to the creatures and the props. For the lightsaber battles, we were very lucky to actually have sabers that were practical, that could light up incredibly brightly. And while [the prop itself] certainly doesn't make a scene with a lightsaber work or not, it’s certainly a visually stunning thing to see how much interactive light actually occurs when [you're holding] something in your hand that's that bright and colorful. That was just one of many things that allowed us to take advantage of whatever resources were available to us and apply each when necessary.

Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy explained to us that concept art would be brought into story brainstorming sessions, and that it sometimes inspired an idea that would take the story in a different direction. Can you elaborate?

Abrams: There were times when certain images came in that we felt could be applicable to certain scenes. One of the great opportunities on this movie was working with Rick Carter and Darren Gilford, our production designers. I brought Rick into the story process at the very beginning, probably because I knew how inspiring Ralph McQuarrie’s designs were to George Lucas when he was working on the original films. Rather than write the script and then hand it off to a designer and ask him to design everything that was written, it felt like we had such a brain trust — and I should also say a ‘soul trust’ — in Rick and Darren. Rick is such a dreamer and such a glorious connection maker, with a capability to hear what we were talking about, and then go work on something and bring it in and show us; it might have been a detail we would have forgotten or overlooked, but Rick visualized it and brought it to life. Or he’d bring in something that we hadn't thought of. It was an inspiring thing to see the work of such extraordinary conceptual artists and designers. And to begin to identify which images could apply to the movie, just because you knew it and you felt it was right, was as informative to how our story was going to unfold as anything. All we’re saying is that the best idea wins. And the sooner you have smart people helping and working on something from any angle, the better.

How was this film influenced by the work of original-trilogy concept artists Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston?

Abrams: I knew this movie needed to feel like it was part of a continuum, and part of it was a gut feeling of what makes a Star Wars movie a Star Wars movie. Films have been trying to do what George did since Star Wars came out, and this was an incredible opportunity because we were actually inheriting the legacy of Star Wars. The question became, ‘What do we embrace and what do we let go of?’ And for certain elements — like the Millennium Falcon, an X-wing, a TIE fighter or a Star Destroyer — that were so gloriously associated with this world, it felt criminal to not use them. And when you look at what Ralph McQuarrie did, and certainly Joe Johnston and others, there was a kind of unbelievable simplicity. When you look at a triangular Star Destroyer, or the sphere and two planes of a TIE fighter, or the literal ‘X’ of an X-wing, there was such a ‘primary color’ approach to some of these things, which were then rendered and executed in such incredible detail. The wear and tear and the sense of practicality to these fanciful designs were really inspiring. So we knew that going forward we needed to embrace these iconic pieces of the puzzle, and yet we needed to adjust them in ways that made them new again. Sometimes the feeling you wanted to [evoke] wouldn't be effective if [you were] literally re-creating it as it was. Some things needed to be embellished; you want to see some adjustments, some changes, some advances for things to be believable in a story taking place nearly 40 years after the first movie. With [costume designer] Michael Kaplan, there was an enormous amount of work to be done on costume for characters that no one had ever seen before. And, of course, they all needed to be unique and stand out and be different from each other. The design of the movie — from locations to set design to props and wardrobe — all of it, even the casting of it, was about, ‘What feels right? What feels like it is the Star Wars movie that’s relevant for now?’

Were there any sets that made you particularly nervous, where you asked yourself, ‘Will this really work?’

Abrams: Probably because I was so obsessively critical of the process, I think every set had a little bit of that. I guess for me, the thing that was the most surprising was working on the set of the Falcon. Because it was a set that I knew so well as a fan, and I’d seen some of my favorite scenes on that set, what I found myself feeling was that the scenes we were shooting needed to be as good as the set was. It wasn’t so much that I was concerned that the set might or might not work, but the set itself challenged the scenes!

When we spoke with Kathleen Kennedy, she mentioned that it was almost three years to the day since you and she sat down and talked about whether you would take on this project. What do you feel today that you didn’t feel then?

Abrams: Gratitude for the work that everyone did on this movie. It is one thing to theorize and anticipate and hope for and expect a certain kind of commitment and passion from a cast and a crew, and it is quite another thing to get to know those people and watch them constantly exceed expectations. I feel more grateful to everyone, from Kathy Kennedy to the original cast, and I feel gratitude toward the film community in London. And given that the work that so many have done is so good, I’m actually — not theoretically, but actually — excited for people to see the movie. Maybe it’s an obvious thing to say, but it’s nice to have come through this and not just feel overwhelmed by it, beaten down by it or exhausted by it. I’m a little bit of all those things, but I’m mostly excited for people to see the movie.

The overriding theme of Star Wars is the balance between good and evil, light and dark. Lucas, in fact, once said, ‘Do unto others' is the philosophy that permeates his work. What are your thoughts on those ideas?

Abrams: The idea of good vs. evil, light vs. dark, is certainly the core of Star Wars. There’s the temptation of power and greed — the Dark Side — and the sacrifice and nobility of fighting for justice, [which is] the light. These are the tenets of the Star Wars universe, and all the props and gizmos and spaceships are incredibly cool, but the core and heart of the story is family and which path you’re going to take. The beauty of working on this movie was getting to play in this incredible sandbox that George Lucas created. Everyone who worked on this film approached it from a place of reverence, but everyone was also determined to do it proud and to tell that story of good vs. evil. And, like the main characters of the film, we worked hard to make sure that the Dark Side gets its ass kicked!


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