The Complications of Creating a New Star Wars

A new look behind the scenes of The Force Awakens reminds of the many meta questions that go into a nostalgic modern blockbuster.

J.J. Abrams and Daisy Ridley on set (Disney)

The behind-the-scenes documentary that comes with the home release of The Force Awakens opens with a montage of actors and filmmakers in a state of confusion. “Are we allowed to talk about that?” Daisy Ridley asks an unseen interviewer asking an unknown question. Gwendoline Christie: “Am I allowed to talk about the process?” Mark Hamill: “I can’t talk about that.” J.J. Abrams: “This would be after the movie comes out?” John Boyega: “Seriously?”  Christie again, with a cackle: “And then when I do the interviews, don’t say anything?”

It’s a reminder not only of the immense secrecy that surrounded the production of the Episode VII, but also of the double consciousness involved with all aspects of Star Wars—and, to a lesser extent, many other media franchises—these days. The fact that Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey was filmed before the theatrical release of The Force Awakens in order to be packaged with DVDs, Blu-Rays, and digital copies in April is not unusual, but it is a sign of the forethought involved with a movie like this. Hollywood’s booming nostalgia industry industry is a fundamentally trippy thing, where trying to recycle old film mythology into new film mythology creates a kind of self-consciousness—and a layer of mythmaking about the process itself.

The sequel to Return of the Jedi made 32 years later, the first Star Wars film to not involve George Lucas, would necessarily be a piece of movie history—and unlike some events that end up being history, its participants understood its significance the entire time. So the creation of the film can be considered a performance nearly as much as the film itself was one. In Secrets of The Force Awakens, we see footage of the private Disney shareholders meeting where Kathleen Kennedy announced she’d just hired Abrams. We also see a bit of the famous Episode VII  “table read,” the first time the cast assembled to go through the movie’s script. Two years ago, a photo of that event made for the first substantive bit of info about the movie to be publicized; released in black-and-white, it was a presumptive museum artifact from the start.

The documentary reveals that Mark Hamill emceed the table read by reciting all the non-dialog text (in the absence of Luke Skywalker having any lines). This was just one of Abrams’s many symbolic staffing decisions. The actor Peter Mayhew can’t walk very well anymore, but he’s shown professing gratitude that he got to wear the Chewbacca costume for scenes that didn’t require a spry seven-foot-tall body double from Finland. Warwick Davis, who was the Ewok Wicket in Return of the Jedi, was brought back for a bit part as a new alien. These efforts were not essential to making the movie, one imagines, but they do add a little more excitement to behind-the-scenes footage and press coverage. The same goes for unrecognizable cameos from Simon Pegg, Daniel Craig, and other celebrities. It’s casting for what’s offscreen as much as what’s on.

A good deal of the documentary demonstrates the impressive work Abrams’s crew undertook pursuing what you might call fictional verisimilitude. To recreate an R2-D2 identical to the one used in the ’70s and ’80s, Abrams’s crew hired fan hobbyists who have been building replica droids for years. To build the Millennium Falcon, they painstakingly rewatched old scenes to get every single antennae and bit of interior paneling correct (the one big update was adding springs to the toggle switches in the cockpit, at Harrison Ford’s request). Even the hologame that Finn starts up on the ship picks up exactly where the one that Chewbacca played in A New Hope left off. These efforts obviously do matter onscreen: You never doubt that these are the same locations, characters, and creatures that were in the original trilogy. But the recreation also has other effects, lending credibility and creating bonus content.

The notion of bonus content figured into The Force Awakens in more concrete ways, too. In the movie, there’s a gag about C-3PO offering to explain why he has a new red arm and no one taking him up on it. In the documentary, Abrams reveals that the backstory of that red arm will be in a comic book. This is confirmation of the sense among some viewers that certain information was withheld from the plot of the movie in part to drum up interest in tie-in video-games, novels, and comics. The lightsaber battle Finn has with a random baton-wielding stormtrooper on Takodana becomes a less inexplicable when you’re told that trooper’s backstory in a post. The relationship between the Republic, the Resistance, the Empire, and the First Order remains hazy to anyone who’s watched the movie one time, but not to anyone who’s read Disney’s spin-off literature.

The story itself acknowledges its inherently meta aspects in a few ways, including the fact that the movie—the first since the largely maligned prequels—is entirely a search for Luke Skywalker. But a more poignant example might be Kylo Ren, the son of Han and Leia who obsesses over Darth Vader to only a slightly greater extent than many real-life Star Wars fans have. The most exciting part of the documentary is seeing the alternate designs that the art department offered up for many characters and creatures; in Kylo Ren’s case, there were helmets of varying colors and shapes, some of which didn’t so closely resemble Vader’s. Abrams opted for an option that wrapped homage and novelty into a slick package, as he did with so many other aspects of the film.

That a movie freighted with the need to be so much more than just a movie succeeded so wildly at the box office might be seen as miraculous. But it’s probably more accurately seen as inevitable. Whether the franchise is Marvel or DC comics or Star Wars, the force of a movie’s gravitational pull on viewers seems, these days, only to be increased when mass is added by history and Hollywood. The next Star Wars film, a spin-off called Rogue One, is currently in production; so too, surely, is its behind-the-scenes feature.