18 Things We Learned From The Star Wars: The Force Awakens Documentary

Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey is a big title for an hour-long documentary, but the film itself brings to light the full journey of creating a new Star Wars film.
By  · Published on March 16th, 2016

It’s a little weird to screen a documentary designed as a DVD extra at a film festival, let alone one as major as South by Southwest. But as Janet Pierson, the festival’s director, explained during her intro, SXSW has always been about being the nexus of the zeitgeist. In layman’s terms, they’ve always been about what’s cool right now ‐ in film, television, technology, music, sports, fashion and much more.

J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the kind of cool that breaks traditions, so why not play its making of documentary at a film festival, in the largest theater, to a massive and hungry crowd of fans? The moment J.J. Abrams walked on-stage to provide his own intro, it was clear that this was more than just marketing. Because The Force Awakens doesn’t need a marketing stunt to sell Blu-rays when they hit shelves on April 5. The film has grossed $2 billion worldwide. It doesn’t need any help. Instead, Abrams explained that this screening was about saying thank you to fans. It also helped that he was booked for a panel later that day at SXSW.

Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey is a big title for an hour-long documentary, but the film itself brings to light the full journey of creating a new Star Wars film. From the terror that J.J. Abrams and crew experienced not knowing whether any of it would work to breaking down some of the film’s most dramatic sequences, the doc is impressively thorough.

What follows is a list of some, though not all the things we learned from the new documentary. We have to leave something for you to discover yourself.

It all started with Rey

According to J.J. Abrams, the starting point for the creative team was always a central heroine, who eventually grew to become Rey (Daisey Ridley). The doc shows a number of different character designs, including a more Mad Max-esque warrior look for Rey.

Michael Arndt was too slow

Original screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) was eventually replaced by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan. As Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy explains in the doc, he’s the kind of writer who fully immerses himself and takes a few years to produce a shooting script. For this film, they didn’t have a few years.

The generational handoff was behind the scenes, as well

The big theme of The Force Awakens is about handing the story off to a new generation of characters. The same kind of hand-off happened behind the scenes, with effects wizard Dennis Muren coming back to advise the ILM team working on the new movie. There were even members of the crew whose parents worked on the original trilogy.

It was always about the feeling

“The important thing is that we capture that feeling of Star Wars,” explained Kennedy. The amount of pressure the entire production felt to make the film feel connected to the original trilogy is readily apparent in their behind the scenes interviews.

Not all creatures were made for the screen

The creature shop designers noted that many of the practical creatures created for the film were done so well before they knew if J.J. Abrams would even use them in the film. They basically just created a bunch and he would pick the ones he wanted, which sounds like an exhausting version of The Bachelor: Creatures of Star Wars Edition.

Daisy Ridley killed in her audition

In footage from her original audition, we see Daisy Ridley acting out the scene in which Rey is being tortured by Kylo Ren. This is one of her more difficult scenes in the movie, and even in that first audition, she nailed it.

John Boyega auditioned nine times

It was persistence and enthusiasm that defined John Boyega’s work on The Force Awakens. In his quest to get himself cast, he auditioned on nine different occasions. The result was Finn, a character that wears Boyega’s own enthusiasm on his sleeve.

The First Order had a lot of diversity in fascism

You wouldn’t notice it, as the costumes aren’t feminized in any way (something Gwendoline Christie praised for her own character, Captain Phasma), but a number of the Stormtroopers in the film are played by female performers, including one of the film’s assistant directors.

Poe Dameron had more in common with Han Solo than we know

It’s long been reported that Poe Dameron, the ace X-Wing pilot played by Oscar Isaac, was supposed to die in The Force Awakens. Only after hesitating to take the role because he didn’t want to have another of his characters die did Isaac convince J.J. Abrams to keep Poe around. He was also designed to have a very Han Solo vibe about him, according to Lawrence Kasdan.

More things we learned on the next page…

Luke Skywalker had a old samurai phase

The doc shows off a lot of concept art, including numerous alternative looks at Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). One included him sporting a very samurai-esque ponytail. Another was a shot of Luke holding Darth Vader’s burnt helmet.

Kylo Ren’s costume was a nightmare

“I was so pissed by the time we were ready to shoot, it was perfect,” explained Adam Driver on the “event” of getting in and out of Kylo Ren’s costume. The costume was originally supposed to be silver, but the design was put aside (and eventually used as a basis for Captain Phasma) and replaced with the black number you see in the movie.

The set had many famous visitors

We know about the likes of Simon Pegg, Michael Giacchino and Daniel Craig who made it into the movie. And Bill Hader, who consulted on the mannerisms of BB–8. There were a number of other notable visitors to the set of The Force Awakens, including filmmaker Peter Jackson, activist Malala Yousafzai and actor Karl Urban.

Captain Phasma’s name has nerdy origins

Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma wasn’t a character that came from George Lucas’ notes or even necessarily the original story. Her look was born from the failed Kylo Ren costume and her name was derived from one of J.J. Abrams’ favorite films: Phantasm.

Maz Kanata also came from the personal inspiration of J.J. Abrams

The look of Maz Kanata is based on one of J.J. Abrams’ favorite school teachers, Rose Gilbert. Glasses and all, she’s a match for the character eventually played by Lupita Nyong’o.

The new generation of actors have great an affinity for Star Wars

One fun moment of the doc was seeing Lupita Nyong’o humming the original Star Wars theme while being fitted with her motion capture outfit. Sprinkled among the documentary are a lot of little moments that display the affection the younger members of the cast feel for the world of Star Wars.

R2-D2 was built by people like you and me

For the building of R2-D2, Kathleen Kennedy tapped a group of fans she had met at a Star Wars Celebration event a few years prior to the production of The Force Awakens. They’re easy to spot in the documentary, as they have smiles from ear-to-ear.

Read More: SXSW Coverage

Han’s death was a moment of great weight for cast and crew

Adam Driver describes filming the Han death scene as one of the most difficult days on set. “It’s not that I wanted Han to die,” explained Harrison Ford in another segment. “I wanted him to add emotional weight and be useful.” As J.J. Abrams explained, the meaning of The Force “awakening,” as the title suggests, is more than The Force coming to life within our hero Rey. It’s about the Dark Side fully awakening in Kylo Ren, which happens during that final scene with Han.

Skellig Island was tough, and Luke is still conflicted

The end of the documentary shows the trials of filming the big Rey/Luke scene on Skellig Island off the coast of Ireland. The island was so small that the production could only bring 50 crew members and everyone had to traverse the more than 600 steps (the same steps we see Rey walk in the film). Mark Hamill would go on to explain that in that final moment, there’s a lot going on in Luke’s mind: “I think he’s really conflicted. He has reservations.” This suggests that he might not be the enthusiastic Force-instructor right away in Episode VIII.

On the next page, you’ll find a bonus thing I learned about how people are idiots….

Perhaps it’s the populist nature of something like Star Wars that brings stupid people out of the woodwork. Perhaps it was the fact that our screening was at noon on the Monday of SXSW and wasn’t really up against anything big. But I couldn’t help but notice that there was some real idiocy happening in the audience.

Example 1:

When Janet Pierson brought J.J. Abrams on stage for the intro, she didn’t announce his name. She simply said, “I’ve brought along a special guest,” acting under the assumption that an audience filled with Star Wars fans would know who J.J. Abrams is. I ended up sitting in front of one such person who was unaware. “Who is this?” the man asked the person next to him. “Did he write Star Wars?”


Example 2:

About 20 minutes into the documentary, the open seat to my right became unexpectedly occupied by a man who had stumbled in late. As if that weren’t bad enough, he immediately took out his phone and began Tweeting and checking messages. I gave him my usual deep stare (I don’t like to make noise, but will make someone feel very uncomfortable by staring at them and/or reading what they are doing on their phone until they put it away.) This man was undeterred. He was a force of nature. He continued tweeting for a while (he was tweeting at Charlie Sheen, by the way), then stopped. After a few moments, he noticed that I was taking notes and took this as a sign that I would be open to conversing with him during the movie. “Is George Lucas here?” he asked, to which I politely shushed him and went back to watching THE MOVIE PLAYING ON THE HUGE SCREEN RIGHT IN FRONT OF US.

This was the final deterrent for this master-tweeter. He got up and moved back a row, immediately attempting to strike up a conversation with the person behind me. When they ignored him, he stumbled off toward the back of the theater, never to be seen again.

That is, until I left the theater after the movie and found him on Twitter. The Charlie Sheen tweets were there, exactly timed to when he should have been watching the movie. For me, this was proof that this man was not merely a figure of my imagination. He was a very real, very inconsiderate pile of wasted carbon.

This is him.

Don’t be this guy. Ever.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)