Plot kept secret to maintain surprise

J.J. Abrams (right), writer-director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with George Lucas (left), creator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, at the Hollywood premiere on Monday.
J.J. Abrams (right), writer-director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with George Lucas (left), creator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, at the Hollywood premiere on Monday.

The most anticipated movie of the year has also been the most secretive, with no press allowed to watch the film before its world premiere in Los Angeles on Monday night.

On top of that, the production went to extraordinary lengths to keep the plot under wraps and, at the recent Los Angeles press day, the cast and film-makers continued to tease fans by confirming only what the story will not feature: Ewoks or Jar Jar Binks.

Director J.J. Abrams - who made the Star Trek films (2009 and 2013) and Mission: Impossible III (2006) - is known for revealing as little as possible about his projects so as to preserve the element of surprise for audiences, who often know too much about the movies they go to see, he says.

And Abrams, 49, was surprised to learn that Disney, the studio that acquired the Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilm production company a few years ago, was on the same page.

"I realised how engaged with the fans and forthcoming Lucasfilm had always been, and my nature, which is to keep things quiet, was something that I was certain we were going to have fights about.

"But Disney, to my shock, was arguing to not ruin, not reveal, not show, every story beat. And we've all seen trailers for films that literally show you the movie in Cliff's Notes form and then you go to see the film and you're like, 'Yeah, that was literally the movie. I saw it in a two-minute, 10-second piece.'"

The director and studio went on to repeatedly implore the media covering publicity events for the film not to leak any details, to "maintain some level of surprise for people who get to see the movie and don't ruin it for them".

This cone of silence extended to the cast, too.

John Boyega, who plays the reluctant stormtrooper Finn, tells The Straits Times that he and the other actors had "to put a long black cloak over your costume if you were going to the toilet" between takes.

They had to hide from drone- mounted cameras that were trying to spy on the outdoor shoots. "We had to go underneath these large umbrellas because people were flying drones and taking pictures."

Another cast member, Heroes television star Greg Grunberg, who is rumoured to be playing an X-wing pilot, said many of the actors received the script on red paper, which was designed to stop them from photocopying or taking pictures of it. And they received only the scenes they were in and had to return the pages at the end of the day.

But Abrams, producer Kathleen Kennedy and several actors did throw a bone to the press by dropping a few hints about what will definitely not be in the film.

When a reporter tells Abrams that all he wants to know is if there are Ewoks in the movie, Abrams teasingly replies: "Living?"

There is a collective gasp before Abrams says he is just kidding. "No, there are no Ewoks in this film. There were rumours that some snuck onto set, but there are a lot of them in Return Of The Jedi."

Kennedy, 62, confirms the absence of Ewoks at a separate press conference. "Sorry, that's because Harrison insisted on it," she quips.

"It was in my contract," says the Han Solo actor,73.

Asked if he can dispel any of the rumours that have been circulating about the movie, Oscar Isaac, who plays the pilot Poe Dameron, says the craziest one he has heard is "that Jar Jar is Kylo Ren", referring to the new villain played by Adam Driver. "That's my favourite. I kind of wish that was true."

Many of the cast were wholeheartedly in favour of maintaining an air of mystery around the movie.

Says Boyega, 23: "I think every film that comes out after The Force Awakens should learn from this marketing process, from the secrecy.

"It's really healthy for a movie. Because we're all so conditioned to take in a lot of content, we pretty much go to see a film to confirm our assumptions, not to embark on a journey.

"And, on this movie, we're embarking on a journey."

Alison de Souza

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2015, with the headline 'Plot kept secret to maintain surprise'. Print Edition | Subscribe