An Open Letter to J.J. Abrams


JJAbrams660371I’m sure you don’t need my help.  You’ve got multiple TV series and movies under your belt.  You clearly know what you’re doing, or you wouldn’t have gotten the Star Wars gig in the first place.  You’re actually doing this stuff, while I’m sitting at a computer pretending I know what I’m talking about.  But I’ve been a Star Wars fan for over thirty-five years now.  If that’s taught me anything, it’s that I have an inalienable right to complain on the internet.  Plus, I’d like to think that I have a good idea as to why the original films have stayed with me for so long, and how you might be able to recapture that feeling.  And so, some humble advice.  Absolutely free, although if you want to throw me some points, I certainly won’t complain.

1.  Use the damn theme.

Whether you manage to get John Williams back or you bring in your go-to guy Michael Giacchino, remember you’ve got one of the most recognizable movie themes in history at your disposal.  And I’m not just talking about running it over the main titles.  The prequels got that part right at least.  No, it needs to live throughout the entire score.  One of the biggest things that kept the prequels from feeling as Star Wars-y as they could have was that Williams pretty much kept the main theme out of the mix.  Not that “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes” were bad compositions, but go listen to the scores for Star Wars and Empire and Jedi.  Hear how that main theme weaves through all three films.  It’s so much more prevalent, and used creatively too.  Sometimes it’s somber, sometimes it’s boldly heroic, but it’s an ever-present reminder of the adventurous spirit of the films.  Its presence was sorely lacking in the prequels, and if you want to firmly plant Episode VII back in the hearts and minds of the fans, leaning on the classic music is a great way to start.

2.  Give it a backdrop.

The original trilogy felt epic because, while in a lot of ways it was an intensely personal story of Luke’s journey and Vader’s redemption, it took place amid this enormous conflict that embroiled the entire galaxy.  There were individual stakes that also carried enormous consequences for the larger story.  With the prequels, everything felt small and isolated.  In The Phantom Menace, everything hinged around a trade dispute over one single planet.  The Clone Wars, the cryptic event we’d been waiting to see since Leia mentioned them in the very first film, happened almost entirely off-screen.  The on-screen deaths of a handful of Jedi we barely knew and the off-screen deaths of the child Padawans were all we saw of a purge that was supposed to have wiped out every Jedi but Obi-Wan and Yoda.  The prequels lacked a grander canvas, telling us what we were seeing was of galactic importance instead of showing us.  So have something already going on when Episode VII starts.  Maybe it’s a counter-rebellion by long-forgotten remnants of the Empire, maybe it’s a civil war brought on by internal strife within the New Republic, maybe it’s an invasion by something we haven’t seen yet.  Whatever it is, give your story an epic stage on which to play itself out.

3.   Give yourself a Han.

And no, I don’t mean make an aging Harrison Ford the star of the film.  If anything, Ford and Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher should be nothing more than torch-passing cameos in the new films.  But you do need that winking cynic, the character often seems to tell the audience, “Yeah, this is a little ridiculous, but it sure is fun, isn’t it?”  I get that, by the nature of the ground they had to cover, the prequels were a bit darker, but that wasn’t an excuse for how humorless they were.  It’s not like the original trilogy wasn’t dealing with the possibility of the Rebellion being wiped out by the Empire at every turn, but they never played out like a funeral march the way the prequels sometimes did.  There’s nothing wrong with a little light in the darkness.  And no, fart jokes and Threepio making bad puns in Attack of the Clones don’t count.  Look at what you did with Star Trek.  That was the perfect balance right there.

4.  Have fun.

I know that might seem impossible, what with the behemoth that is Disney breathing down your neck to make sure their investment pays off.  But if anything tainted the prequels, it was the overriding sense that George Lucas was doing them because he had to, because of that gap left by Star Wars being Episode IV.  The same malaise clung to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, an attitude of, “Fine, here’s the damn thing already.”  The audience picks up on that.  If you weren’t excited about making the movie, why should we be excited about watching it?  So keep in mind that you are being allowed to play in the biggest sandbox imaginable, one we’d all kill to spend five minutes in.  Bask in it. Enjoy it.  Have the time of your life making the movie of your life.  You’re never going to get another first shot at this, and if you’re half the Star Wars fan you say you are, you should want to start shooting yesterday.  Get that feeling on-screen, and we’ll follow where you want to go.

What it all boils down to is remember how those original films made you feel, and try to make your new one feel the same way.  Sure, it’s a different time and a different set of expectations.  But you can’t control any of that.  What you can control is what goes up on that screen.  Make it true to the spirit of that title that goes flying off into space at the beginning of every film, and you can’t go wrong.  But if somehow you do, well, forget I said anything.  You can even keep the points.

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5 thoughts on “An Open Letter to J.J. Abrams

  1. I know this sounds awful “dark side” of me, but I’m actually relying on the corporate side of Disney to reign in JJ’s ambitions. He’s actually quite hit and miss with me (Trek reboot not being my cup of Earl Gray), but his strengths could also be a shot in the arm for the series in places where a singular, yet non-modern-Lucas vision.is needed. Remaining cautiously excited for the project.

    And as for his legendary secrecy… I’m all for that! I absolute LOVED scouring the internet for minutiae before TPM came out. It’s the thrill of the chase, basically.

    Excellent points above, by the way. Well said!

    • I just felt like writing something a little more encouraging than what I’ve been seeing online. One article went so far as to express a concern that an Abrams Star Wars film would be “too well made.” It’s like they’re looking for reasons to be disappointed.

  2. Well said! All excellent points…though I will say I enjoyed a few laughs in Episodes I & II. Granted, I learned later that laughing at Episide I made me a racist in some people’s opinion while the laughs in Episode II were not exactly for the right reasons. (Anakin’s ‘I hate sand, but I love you’ line? Priceless!)

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