J.J. Abrams discusses taking on directing Episode IX

J.J. Abrams doesn’t exactly speak publicly all that much, so we haven’t heard a lot from the director of Star Wars: Episode IX.  But that will change in just a few days, when Abrams will appear on the Episode IX panel at Celebration.

Even before that, however, Abrams did an interview with Fast Company, talking about a number of things, including Episode IX.  He wasn’t slated to direct it initially, but as Lucasfilm decided to move on from Colin Trevorrow, Abrams explained that Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy called him up and asked him to consider doing it.  Abrams almost said no, explaining that he’s such a huge Star Wars fan that he didn’t want to get too close to it, and he said that he felt like they “dodged a bullet” with The Force Awakens.  Ultimately, Abrams said that he left TFA loving Star Wars as much as ever, and his wife urged him to do IX, which Abrams calls “a crazy leap of faith.”

But perhaps the most interesting part of the interview, as it pertains to Star Wars fans, came when Abrams discussed the unique challenges he faced with Episode IX.  He explained that the quick timeframe when he came on board caused him to quickly call up Chris Terrio about co-writing the script, and when asked whether Terrio screamed out of excitement or nervousness, Abrams said:

“Probably a bit of both, but I think definitely excitement.  And what I realized in that moment was, I hadn’t been aware until then that I needed to work with someone who would scream at the prospect of working on Star Wars.  Because I had been through the process, and I was looking at brass tacks: This is what it’s going to take, this is the reality of it.  And he was looking at it sort of childlike: Oh my God, I can’t believe we get to play in this world, which I needed to be reminded of.  I needed that point of view, because that’s not where I was.  Of course, I was excited about what we could do, but I was acutely aware of how little time we had to do a fairly enormous job.

“So to answer your question, I went into it in an all-in leap of faith, aware that Katie [McGrath] was very supportive of this thing and felt it was the right thing.  And so her divining rod of what’s real and what’s right was a comfort, despite her not being in London (where most of the shooting took place).  And it was just an immediate immersion into the what-ifs of it all, which is the fun of it, but also the pressure of it.  And I’m not complaining when I say this, but it was having to make decisions based on gut.  When Damon Lindelof and I created Lost, we had essentially 12 weeks to write, cast, shoot, cut, and turn in a two-hour pilot with a big cast.  And that was a crazy short amount of time.  The benefit of that was, we didn’t have time to overthink.  There wasn’t time to get studio notes that end up sometimes taking you in lateral positions and making you adjust things—death by a thousand cuts—to a place where something doesn’t resemble what it should be, and you can’t remember why you got there or how.  So the good news was I was jumping in with a writer whom I admired enormously; with Kathy and Callum Greene, a producer whom I’d never met; Michelle Rejwan, who had been my assistant, and whom Kathy had hired to work with her as a producer.  But it was a completely unknown scenario.  I had some gut instincts about where the story would have gone.  But without getting in the weeds on episode eight, that was a story that Rian [Johnson] wrote and was telling based on seven before we met.  So he was taking the thing in another direction.  So we also had to respond to Episode VIII.  So our movie was not just following what we had started, it was following what we had started and then had been advanced by someone else.  So there was that, and, finally, it was resolving nine movies.  While there are some threads of larger ideas and some big picture things that had been conceived decades ago and a lot of ideas that Lawrence Kasdan and I had when we were doing Episode VII, the lack of absolute inevitability, the lack of a complete structure for this thing, given the way it was being run was an enormous challenge.

“However, to answer your question—truly, finally—now that I’m back, the difference is I feel like we might’ve done it.  Like, I actually feel like this crazy challenge that could have been a wildly uncomfortable contortion of ideas, and a kind of shoving-in of answers and Band-Aids and bridges and things that would have felt messy.  Strangely, we were sort of relentless and almost unbearably disciplined about the story and forcing ourselves to question and answer some fundamental things that at the beginning, I absolutely had no clue how we would begin to address.  I feel like we’ve gotten to a place—without jinxing anything or sounding more confident than I deserve to be—I feel like we’re in a place where we might have something incredibly special.  So I feel relief being home, and I feel gratitude that I got to do it.  And more than anything, I’m excited about what I think we might have.”

I appreciate J.J.’s honesty in this answer, as he’s being pretty open about some of the challenges that he faced when approaching Episode IX.  In particular, there are three challenges that he highlighted:

  • TIME.  Now, you probably wouldn’t think that someone being hired a little over two years before the release of IX wouldn’t view time as a constraint, but Abrams explained that they had a set date already and nothing else – the story, cast, designers, sets, etc. weren’t in place.  And I might add that, in particular, on a film with the size and significance of Episode IX, it puts creates more pressure time-wise.
  • CONTINUING SOMEONE ELSE’S STORY.  Abrams admitted that he had ideas for where the story might go after The Force Awakens, but that Rian Johnson took things in some different directions.  Johnson wrote The Last Jedi before TFA even came out, and so it’s understandable that Abrams would mention this as another challenge.  It would be challenging enough to simply continue your own Star Wars story, but in IX Abrams not only has to take into account what he did in TFA but what Johnson did in TLJ.
  • FINISHING A NINE FILM SAGA.  And on top of it all, there’s a lot of challenge simply because Abrams is tasked with wrapping up the Skywalker saga, which spans nine films now.

Now, I’m sure that many people who didn’t like what Rian Johnson did with The Last Jedi will be quick to point out that J.J. Abrams mentioned him taking things in a different direction, but I wouldn’t read too much into that.  Abrams served as an Executive Producer on TLJ, has publicly said he liked the direction that it took, and is mainly here talking about the difficulty of following up someone else’s ideas.  That doesn’t have to mean that Abrams didn’t like those ideas, just that he would have done things differently.  So now he’s not only having to follow up with what he did with TFA but what someone else did with TLJ.  That adds some additional challenges.

I appreciate Abrams’s willingness to discuss openly some of the challenges that he faced in doing Episode IX.  But at the end of the day, he seems genuinely excited about what they’ve put together, and it seems that he is very confident in the work they have done to answer those challenges.  I can’t wait to hear more about it on Friday, and I can’t wait to see it this December!

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