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J.J. Abrams on going old school and how 'Star Wars' differs from 'Star Trek'

If you think the long build-up to this week's release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," has been intense, try putting yourself in J.J. Abrams' shoes for a moment. 

Abrams has loved the "Star Wars" universe from the beginning, since first seeing "A New Hope" in 1977 at age 11 (he would later use the name of that theater, Avco, as the code word for filming "The Force Awakens" in Abu Dhabi). He played with the Kenner toys. He dressed up as a Jawa for Halloween. His fan cred is unquestionable.

Now he finds himself holding the keys to arguably the biggest pop culture franchise on the planet. With "The Force Awakens" hitting theaters Dec. 18, millions of "Star Wars" fans are hoping the Force is with him but the stakes are unimaginably high. It's "do or do not" time. There is no try.

JOIN US TONIGHT: Starting at 5 p.m. PST, The Times will have live red carpet coverage of the premiere >>

We spoke with Abrams earlier this month about what brought him to the "Star Wars" universe, where he hopes to take it and what it feels like to be in the eye of the hurricane.

The level of anticipation and expectations around this movie has been insane. What does it feel like to be experiencing it from the inside? There must be an unbelievable sense of pressure.

Sure, but here we are. It’s like I’m standing at the doorway of the airplane door and we’re about to open the door. Do I hope the parachute opens? Yes. But every time I feel remotely paralyzed by the noise or anticipation or expectation of it, I just look at the work I’ve seen done and I’m just grateful.

When you first heard they were making more “Star Wars” movies, did you immediately want to throw your hat in the ring to direct one?

No, partly because I didn’t know or think I’d be approached and partly because I just cared about it enormously. My knee-jerk response was, ‘I can’t wait to go see it but I don’t think I’d want to touch it.’ It didn’t feel like something I would campaign for because I love it so much and it feels [like a] sacrilege somehow to be involved. “Star Wars” was so big. It was so much its own unreachable, powerful thing. 

But mostly it was not the right time. Katie [McGrath], my wife, and I had a plan to take our kids away for a while. And I’d just worked on three sequels. I didn’t want to do another sequel. That was the last thing I wanted to do. 

But then I met with [Lucasfilm president] Kathy Kennedy and she and I had a conversation that was enormously compelling. After the meeting was over I just said to Katie, “I think I really want to do this.” I never expected to leave that meeting with that feeling.  

That was just the beginning of what has been almost three years of working in this world, and I haven’t regretted doing it. Not that it hasn’t been enormously challenging, but I’m so grateful that she came to me.

What did she say in that meeting that turned it around for you?

She said that [screenwriters] Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan were already on board working – and I was an enormous fan of both of them. And she said that George [Lucas], having sold the company to Disney, would be stepping back and we wouldn’t be working under anything but what the story we wanted to tell was. That would be the master we were serving. And she said this movie takes place 30-something years after “Return of the Jedi.” That was really it, and I started to feel like, ‘That’s really interesting.’ 

We were talking about this idea of who these characters are. I tend to gravitate towards stories of women, of young women in situations – as I did with “Felicity” and “Alias.” And we were talking about “Who could this be?” and I saw this young woman. Then Kathy brought up this idea of: “Who is Luke Skywalker to these people?” And I thought, "Oh my God, this is really compelling."

The thing that drew me in was this idea that there was this young woman out there in this vast universe who, 30 years after “Jedi,” might not know who Luke Skywalker is or might not know who that he was real or might not understand that she lives in a “Star Wars” universe. You know, what is it to live in the remnants of what we’ve seen? 

Then this whole story began to evolve – first with Michael and Larry, and then Larry and I wrote the script together – of these people, including this character who became Rey and this young man named Finn, who’s a Stormtrooper who abandons his post. And suddenly we had the thing that we needed, which was a reason to make this movie.

I’m sure there are all sorts of corporate reasons why a movie wanted to get made, but there were never any mandates from Disney. There were never any demands from them or through Kathy for what Disney wanted. They just wanted the best movie we could possibly make.  

What was amazing was getting to sit down with Kathy and Michael and Larry and others – including Rick Carter, the production designer, who was involved very early on – and literally just get to ask ourselves, “What do we want to feel?” I felt almost like there was this calling, that there were characters in this world, these young people, who I was beginning to feel needed us to find them and tell their story.

Working with Larry was an incredible experience and education, to be able to find these characters who lived in a world that he helped create 30-some years ago and figure out: What happened to the remnants of the Empire and to the Republic and where are the Jedi now?  

This whole experience was this bizarre journey backwards to go forwards.

You did something similar with “Star Trek” in a way, going back to the roots of the franchise to bring it forward.

But it’s so different. At the heart of “Star Wars” is the idea of the Force. It’s this spiritual thing – it’s almost antithetical to science-fiction. And “Star Trek” is such a science-fiction story. 

This movie at the core is the feeling of the underdog, of coming from nowhere, of crossing paths with an unlikely person who becomes the most important person to you. Of revelation, of desperation, of heartbreak, of hopefully hysterically funny comedy. 

To me, one of my favorite things about the first movie was how funny it was. I loved the visuals. I loved the magic trick of it. But the comedy of that first movie was unbelievably brilliant and so well done. 

The list of things that George Lucas did right [with “A New Hope”] is endless. Any one of those things that he did would have been enough for any other movie. It’s almost like the Beatles. Like, the Beatles wrote all those songs. You look at that movie and it had the music, the visual effects, the casting, the plot, the aesthetic and the design, the pace, the comedy, the romance, the heart. It's like, Holy [expletive]!

I’ve never been more in awe of what George did than in having gone through this process. 

The prequels are a tricky subject in the “Star Wars” world. They were obviously Lucas’ own vision and a whole new generation was introduced “Star Wars” through them, but a lot of older fans felt like they were a huge letdown. What’s your own perspective on them?

Well, look, I think when you’re 11 years old, the movie that comes out at that time is the movie that will sweep you up and grab you by the heart. So I know when you ask people who were 11 years old when the original trilogy came out, “What’s your favorite movie?” they’re going to tell you one of the original trilogy movies. When you ask someone who was 11 years old when the prequels came out, they’re going to say one of the prequels.

So I get when someone tells me that “Revenge of the Sith” is their favorite “Star Wars” movie – I get why they’re saying that. Just as when someone says “Empire” is their favorite, I get that too. It’s a testament to this unbelievable world that George tapped into and created and brought to all of us. 

What I’m grateful for, given that I’m such a fan of the original trilogy, is that the prequels chronologically preceded the movies that I loved so much growing up, which means that we get to follow the feeling and the spirit of what was “Episode VI.”

You're not making "Episode 3.5."

Exactly, right.

The prequels had a very different look and feel from the original trilogy that had a lot to do with Lucas’ love of CGI. At Comic-Con, you guys showed a behind-the-scenes reel that seemed designed to communicate to fans: "We’re going back to the old-school, tangible 'Star Wars.' "

That was a hugely important thing. What’s so weird about this movie is, I know that it’s “Star Wars,” that it’s a big investment and there’s all this expectation. But it felt more homespun somehow every day making this movie than anything I’ve worked on.

I don’t know why that is and I can’t quite put my finger on how it happened. It may be because everyone who was part of the process cared so much. It may be because so much of the crew in London had family who’d worked on the original movies. It might be because the studio let us make our movie how we wanted to make it and didn't impose things that would have made it something else. 

It also may be because we wanted to shoot this thing on film and use as much practical and tangible and physical things as possible. By doing that, it reminded me of making student films when I was a kid. It reminded me of that feeling of it being in camera, which it is far more than I think one might expect going into the movie.

Because you think, "'Star Wars' – well, it’s going to be all spectacle." And there’s a lot of that and there are 2,000-plus visual effects shots. This is not a movie lacking in amazing CG work. But what was so cool was how CG was often used to remove puppeteers or take out wires or rigs or legs sticking out of a creature. 

In that shot in the trailer where Daisy [Ridley] and John [Boyega] are running in the desert, everything you’re seeing in that shot, with the exception of the little teeny-tiny TIE Fighters and the blasters, it’s all in camera. The explosions are all practical and real. The entire set you’re seeing was in Abu Dhabi.

As much as we could physically, with whatever sources we had make it real, we tried to do. And I’m so happy we did because it gives the movie a look that I don’t know if you’d ever be able to get [with CGI alone].

How do you personally measure what success means on this movie? It seems like financial success is all but guaranteed.

Well, that’s absolutely not true. But the financial aspect of it – it can’t be that, or even the reviews of it. Of course everyone hopes that all of that stuff is good.

There are a few people whose opinions of what this is matter most – my wife primary among them, who is so horribly honest about things that it’s the worst when it goes south. She holds nothing back. So I already feel a little bit like, "Whatever happens, it’s all right."

But to go into a theater and to get to experience that thing that I just remember so clearly as an 11-year-old, seeing [“A New Hope”] and feeling and hearing and experiencing that adventure with a crowd. That communal power – that literally is at the center of what “Star Wars” is all about: the idea that we’re all connected somehow and that the Force surrounds and binds all of us together. The movie was literally doing the thing that it was talking about it and proving its point in a way.

In this age where we all have this thing in our pockets that we feel so connected through but is also isolating, the thing that will be, for me, the most exciting and would make this feel like it was a successful enterprise would be if people in those theaters, hundreds at a time, are looking up at one thing together and getting to laugh together and scream and cry and feel exhilaration together.

If that can happen and there can be a communal experience, I will feel like we did our job. 

JOIN US TONIGHT: Starting at 5 p.m. PST, The Times will have live red carpet coverage of the premiere >>

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