There’s been a lot of consternation among some fans as to George Lucas’ lack of involvement in the new movies, particularly The Force Awakens. Sure, he wrote the initial treatments for Episodes VII-IX, but in January he very pointedly said the following:
The ones that I sold to Disney, they came up to the decision that they didn’t really want to do those. So they made up their own. So it’s not the ones that I originally wrote [for the sequel trilogy].
However, the June Vanity Fair article gives us a much clearer picture of how development actually proceeded. For starters, it is absolutely not the case that J.J. Abrams personally instigated the rejection of Lucas’ treatments:
“Disney and Kathy [Kennedy] decided they should consider other options,” as Abrams (not then involved) diplomatically put it. He said Lucas’s treatments had centered on very young characters—teenagers, Lucasfilm told me—which might have struck Disney executives as veering too close for comfort to The Phantom Menace and its 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker and 14-year-old Queen Amidala. “We’ve made some departures” from Lucas’s ideas, Kennedy conceded, but only in “exactly the way you would in any development process.”
Kennedy goes on to state that she regularly meets with Lucas but that he prefers not to know the story of the new movie.
This metamorphosis of the story is indeed part of the natural development process, as ideas get put to the test in order to bring to the screen the best story possible. A treatment is a starting point, not the final say. Compare Lucas’ treatment for The Star Wars to the film we got in 1977 if you want more evidence of this, or read J.W. Rinzler’s books on the making of the original trilogy.
So Kennedy had Lucas’ treatment for Episode VII but no usable script and no director. Her first port-of-call was to build the Story Group for developing story ideas for the barrage of Star Wars movies planned—the team initially included Kennedy’s long-time development executive Kiri Hart, Michael Arndt (who was brought on board prior to the sale to Disney), Lawrence Kasdan and Simon Kinberg. Together they spent roughly a year deconstructing Star Wars in order to get inside the mythology and really get to what made it special to Lucas, to the audience and to the people in the industry who were inspired by it.
Her next stop was to court Abrams, who eventually accepted once he realised the story was now a “blank canvas”. Lucas had apparently approached Abrams early on, and according to Abrams, Lucas said…
“‘Hey, you should do the movie. Are you going to do it?’ He was very sweet and said, ‘If you do this movie, it’s your thing. I’m here to help if you want, but this is yours.'”
Abrams was particularly drawn to exploring the questions that naturally grew out of the original trilogy, and he yearned to help create the same experience that those movies gave to audiences between 1977 and 1983:
“I know that there are many people who love and in some cases even prefer the prequels, and I know why they were necessary for George. But there was a feeling I had not had since the original trilogy that was so familiar to me and still very possible to tap into—the sense of being transported to some other place where anything was possible but that was specific to Star Wars in aesthetic, in history, in design, sound design, music. It was a very unique and specific world. I could taste and I could feel it.”
Kasdan adds, regarding the Story Group…
“There was a feeling, even I think when George was still there, that we wanted to have more of a slightly retro feeling—more tactile and less C.G. oriented.”
However, Abrams and Kasdan both admit that while they all had strong story ideas, Arndt was struggling to come up with a solid screenplay ready to shoot for a mid-2015 release. Arndt left the project, the release was pushed back to December 2015, and by mid-January 2014, Kasdan and Abrams had a first draft after hashing out the story in a lengthy series of recorded conversations, including an eight hour story meeting in the famous Paris café Les Deux Magots. Discussions regarding the story continued into production in London.
According to Abrams, part of that process of developing the story was in necessarily figuring out what had happened in the thirty-odd years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, which will then no doubt be fleshed-out by the Story Group via various novels, comics, films and (as Abrams hints) animated TV shows.
But as much reverence Abrams has for the original trilogy, he’s aware of the danger that brings, such as a reunion-for-the-sake-of-a-reunion, which is how the prequels felt at times:
That, to me, has been the constant struggle: to make sure that none of these things are treated like either they’re a museum piece and we’re trying to honor them or they’re gratuitous and thrown in because, well, it’s a Star Wars movie so you’ve got to put these things in. Everything has got to be essential to the characters in the film.
What is the take-away from Vanity Fair‘s coverage of The Force Awakens? That this is a return to the original trilogy ethos but not a pastiche of those films’ more memorable moments; that Kennedy, Abrams and Kasdan are invested in making the best Star Wars movie they can; and that the production has Lucas’ full blessing. This is maybe not the sequel to Return of the Jedi that Lucas expected to be made, but it’s the one that needed to be made.