Today at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, the world premiere of a brand new documentary on the making of one of the most popular movies of all time was unleashed. And given that South by Southwest crowds are infamously enthusiastic, we can only imagine how it was received. This documentary is amazing, and sheds light on the production of what feels like an instant classic while still maintaining the film’s essential magic (and in some ways even enhancing it). Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey definitely is the making-of documentary you’ve been looking for.
Charmingly, the documentary starts off with a montage of actors looking at someone off-camera and saying “Am I allowed to talk about this?” (or some variation to the effect). Not only is it a wonderful little moment and cements these actors as people who you’d like to have dinner with on a biweekly basis, but it solidifies the fact that this documentary, being released after the phenomenal success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens means that, yes, everything will be talked about. So consider this a spoiler warning, for both the documentary and the movie itself.
The documentary is divided into chapters (on the forthcoming Blu-ray release, you can handily access those chapters individually), each dealing with a different phase of production. And the amount of insight and candor on display is pretty impressive, especially for an officially produced documentary. Producer Kathleen Kennedy talks about being given the job of running Lucasfilm, and Mark Hamill says that, when he first heard about the next film he thought it was a “terrible idea.” There’s really great footage early on in the documentary, of a board meeting in 2013 when Kennedy announces that they’ve found their Episode VII filmmaker: J.J. Abrams.
And it’s Abrams who you can feel throughout most of this documentary. Not just when he’s interviewed, or in the never-before-screened behind-the-scenes footage, where Abrams comes across as a bouncy kid instead of the filmmaker responsible for resurrecting one of the most beloved cinematic franchises ever (sometimes he directly addresses the documentarians on set, which is insanely charming), but in the entire approach to the movie. Production designer Rick Carter is another constant in this documentary, and you can tell that he’s following direct orders from Abrams to make these worlds feel real, tangible, vibrant. Star Wars: The Force Awakens seems as personal and handcrafted as anything Abrams has done, even though hundreds of people worked on and it and it’s a continuation of a beloved, well-established series.
Given the airtight secrecy surrounding the movie, both while it was in production and in the lead-up to its release, it’s just fun to see some of this stuff for the first time. All of the scripts were printed on dark red pages, so that they couldn’t be photocopied. One of the greatest reveals was that during that initial script read-through (the one that was immortalized in that black-and-white photo), Mark Hamill actually read the in-between stuff (the stage directions, notes, descriptions, etc.), which is both insanely cool and makes complete sense given how little screen time he had in the actual movie (total words spoken: 0). Also of note during this section of the documentary, is that many of the things Hamill reads from the script are nowhere to be seen in the finished movie (planets with a “copper sea” and “mushroom-shaped trees”) and that the final words of the script, describing that last scene, were once, “The promise of an adventure just beginning …” Not only does that describe the final scene, but it pretty much describes all of Star Wars: The Force Awakens too.
As the documentary runs through production—from the sweltering Abu Dhabi sets that stood in for Jakku (fun fact: Captain Phasma isn’t the only female stormtrooper, as revealed by female extras who said Abrams wanted there to be many female stormtroopers) to the massive British sound stages that housed everything from the Millennium Falcon (meticulously pieced together from original blueprints and schematics) to Maz’s castle bar. In all of this, we get amazing nuggets like a story about the time Peter Jackson visited the set; animator Phil Tippett, who worked on the original holographic chess sequence in the first film, revealing that the new chess sequence actually picks off where the original left off; and what a massive moment the “Chewie, we’re home” sequence was for pretty much everyone involved (Abrams seems to barely hold it together). Also, interestingly, was a section of the documentary devoted to the motion-capture work of Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Serkis (Serkis was actually performing to the actors from a lattice high on the set, to approximate Snoke’s huge viewpoint).
And, of course, some of the most poignant material in this documentary, directed by the insanely talented Laurent Bouzereau (chances are if you have a favorite making-of documentary or Blu-ray special feature, he’s behind it), is the stuff related to the death of Han Solo. Harrison Ford, who is a very open presence in the documentary, says that he thought the character was interesting in the first two films but by the time Return of the Jedi rolled around, he thought the character needed to go. “I wanted Han Solo to carry significant emotional weight,” Ford said. And in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he finally got his wish. Just watching Ford film the scene with Adam Driver, stripped of all the music and visual effects, is hugely affecting. You can tell that everyone felt the loss very, very deeply (we got choked up when Abrams announced that it was Ford’s last day and Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo, dressed fully as Chewbacca, hugged him goodbye) but that the decision wasn’t arbitrary or hasty. As Abrams says in the documentary, “The film felt like a generational hand off. And you can’t have that hand off without cost.”
While the documentary is subtitled “A Cinematic Journey,” this is really an emotional journey more than anything else. Showing the entire scope and scale of the production in a little over an hour, it really allows you to appreciate everything that went into the creation of this movie. (And for those looking for insights into more specific aspects of the production, there are a ton of additional supplements on the Blu-ray that will scratch all of those itches.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a very special film because so many people worked so hard and cared so deeply, and Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey illustrates that beautifully. Quite frankly, after watching the documentary we were struck by the same sensation as when we left Star Wars: The Force Awakens–we can’t wait to see it again.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens comes to Digital HD & Disney Movies Anywhere April 1 and Blu-ray on April 5.