Keys to the Kingdom: Understanding Star Wars
In this special edition of Understanding Screenwriting #139, Tom Stempel takes an in-depth look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
By Tom Stempel.
I liked this movie a lot. I liked it almost as much as I admired it.
I went to see the first Star Wars film on opening day, May 25,1977, since it was the first film I knew of that had a former student of mine in the credits. She was Mary M. Lind, who was the Film Control Coordinator. Keeping with that tradition, the new one has another student of mine, Karen Huie, in the credits in the Additional Voices category. She did at least one of the screams you hear in the film.
My twelve-year-old daughter went along with me for that first film, and we both loved the picture. But as I wrote in my diary that night, I “had second thoughts almost as soon as I left the theatre: it really is a film for twelve-year-old film freaks. It has a certain sophistication about how we respond to old movie types (it uses a lot of them), but an enormous naïveté about people. It seems the ultimate film students’ film: technology and old movies are the answer to everything.” Needless to say, my film students loved it. And they of course were not alone.
There were a lot of script problems with it. The characterization was very simple: Leia, supposed to be a Princess, comes across as such a typically bratty kid sister that we were not surprised to learn later that she was Luke’s sister. George Lucas’s problem with characterization, especially of women, goes back to the first draft scripts for his previous hit American Graffiti (1973). Those drafts were mostly about cars. He brought in Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to “punch up” the characters, as Lucas described it, and add to the dialogue.
He also had Hyuck and Katz help with the Star Wars dialogue, but he was more concerned with the world he was creating, and by one count only about 15% of the dialogue in the film comes from Hyuck and Katz. Most of it is Lucas’s. While there are lines in Star Wars that we remember, it is more because of their context than the quality of dialogue. By the time that Lucas did Episodes I-III, he admitted he was “the king of wooden dialogue.” Or as Harrison Ford so eloquently put it while working on the first film, “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it.”
On the plus side, Star Wars moves quickly and clearly, since Lucas was determined that the audiences not get lost. As I wrote in my book FrameWork, “The virtues of Star Wars are the characteristics of American adolescent males: speed, noise, simplicity, and a stunning lack of awareness of the realities of life.” In short, an entertaining piece of pure escapism.
Lucas realized his limitations as a writer and for the next one, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), he hired Leigh Brackett to do the first draft. (The background material on Empire is from Dale Pollack’s 1983 book Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas.) Brackett, then in her sixties, had credits that included The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959). Her witty dialogue was one of the inspirations for Hyuck and Katz in American Graffiti. It also helped that she had written several science fiction novels.
She died shortly after completing the first draft of the script, and Lucas brought in Lawrence Kasdan, whom Steven Spielberg had suggested to Lucas as a writer for their upcoming Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Kasdan’s writing in his first, as-yet-then-unproduced script Continental Divide (eventually made and released in 1981) impressed Lucas, who hired him for Raiders. Since Spielberg was working on other projects, Lucas moved Kasdan over to Empire.
The script for Empire moves just as fast as Star Wars, but it goes a little deeper than the earlier movie. A little, but not a lot, deeper. There was simply a limitation in Lucas’s conception of the characters that Kasdan could not completely overcome. If Star Wars is a film for twelve-year-olds, then Empire is for fifteen-year-olds. The second film does give us new worlds (the ice planet Hoth and the swamp planet Dagobah) and new characters (Lando Calrissian and of course Yoda), since Lucas has said he did not like to repeat himself.
Lucas wrote the first draft of the third film Return of the Jedi (1983) in four weeks, then got Kasdan to come back to work with him on the script. In an interview in Backstory 4, Kasdan said it was difficult because he had started directing his own scripts and he felt that there was always a tension “between George’s concerns, which are archetypal and mine, which were very specific and human.” Kasdan said, “But we sort of turned it into a lark. George is good company and we had fun.” In recent interview with Kasdan in the Los Angeles Times, he said that he always liked the Star Wars films because they had a “goofy” quality, as opposed to his more serious films, such as The Big Chill (1983) and The Accidental Tourist (1988). The balance between Lucas and Kasdan’s viewpoints strengthen the scripts for their two collaborations. Lucas, however, is the one responsible for the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, a creation that defines what Kasdan means by goofy.
In the nineties Lucas decided to do prequels, not sequels, to the first three films, which were now re-titled as Episodes IV-VI. He assumed that we the audience would be interested in how Luke’s father came to be Darth Vader, which did not provide him with quite enough material for three films. Lucas said later that about 60% of the story he came up with was in Star Wars: Episode Three: The Revenge of the Sith, leaving only about 20% for Episodes I and II, which meant that he was eliminating one of the strengths of the first films: speed in telling the story.
In my 2008 book, Understanding Screenwriting: Learning from Good, Not-Quite-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays, I did complete analyses of Episodes I-III. I will not duplicate that, for but our purposes here a few comments will serve to carry through this discussion so you will understand the connections between those films and The Force Awakens.
Lucas, alas, decided to write all three episodes himself, using a collaborator only on II. Unfortunately we do not get Lucas at his best. As mentioned above, the trilogy is lopsided, with more story in III, easily the best of the three scripts.
Lucas described what he was doing in I and II as “jazz riffs,” including things just because he liked them, forgetting William Faulkner’s great advice to writers: “Kill all your darlings.”
We get more about the culture of the various civilizations such as a nightclub in II that seems a cross between Las Vegas and Tokyo, and a theatre with the equivalent of what I call in the book “a galactic Cirque du Soleil.” Obi-Wan in II goes into an archive to look something up, which suggests a degree of high culture, but the librarian has pencils in her hair done up in a strict bun. You might have thought Lucas could model her on the sexy bookstore owner in The Big Sleep as a tribute to Leigh Brackett instead, but Lucas’s version shows his total lack of interest in characterization.
It is that lack that is lethal to I, II, and III. In I, we start with two Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jin and the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, but they are emotionally blank, which is part of the Jedi mystique, which in turn makes them not very interesting to watch. We soon pick up Queen Amidala, who is awfully young to be queen, but she is older and more mature than the ten-year-old Anakin Skywalker. Which makes her supposed attraction to him baffling, to say the least. It is a little more understandable when he is older, but Lucas has not developed the older Anni either.
This is a real problem in II, which centers on the developing love story between Anni and Amidala. It is on II that Lucas brought in a second writer Jonathan Hales. Hales’s credits both before and after II are on the young Indiana Jones made-for-television movies, and neither he nor Lucas develop the dialogue that makes the romance convincing.
And lo, then there is Jar Jar Binks, a combination of bad characterization and terrible dialogue. He is a bumbler of the first order, which we are supposed to find cute. We may have found the Ewoks cute, but they were fighters. Jar Jar just messes things up. As I wrote in the book,
The problem with Jar Jar comes from George Lucas’s tin ear for writing dialogue. In the haphazard English he has given Jar Jar, the phrase “I’m” becomes “meesa,” a version I assume of “me is.” “Meesa” unfortunately sounds awfully close to “massa,” the traditional African-American slave dialect for “master.” That, combined with his physical klutziness and his subservience, convinced many viewers, and not just African-Americans, that Lucas was making Jar Jar a racist stereotype. Lucas was probably just sloppy rather than racist.
Episode IV, as Star Wars was retitled, starts with a title crawl setting up the first action scene. I starts with a crawl about turmoil in the Galactic Republic over “taxation of trade to outlying star systems,” and then has scenes of diplomatic missions. It is not a good way to start a Star Wars movie, and sets up plotting that is thoroughly confusing. Lucas had simply lost his focus on making the story clear.
Of the three prequels, III is like the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. It opens with a great battle, does not have to deal much with the romance between Anni and Amidala, and has a stronger narrative flow in Palpatine’s seduction of Anni to the Dark Side of the Force. There are even a few Palpatine-Anni scenes that make dramatic sense, and even give the actors a chance to act, at least a little.
By the early teens, Lucas had begun to develop story ideas for a proposed third trilogy, Episodes VII-IX. But his company, Lucasfilms, had been losing money and he was concerned for his employees (some of this background comes from the now-famous interview Lucas gave to Charlie Rose in late 2015). He sold the company in 2012 to Disney, and the sale included the Star Wars franchise.
He had already appointed producer Kathleen Kennedy as head of Lucasfilms. Kennedy has had a long and successful career as a producer on films such as Back to the Future (1985), Hereafter (2010), and multiple Steven Spielberg films, including some of the Indiana Jones films. Kennedy went to Disney as head of Lucasfilms and continued working on the new Star Wars movies.
The first writer she worked with was Michael Arndt, whose credits include Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Toy Story 3 (2010), and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013). Arndt’s focus was on telling the story of the children of Han Solo, Leia, and Luke. He may have been working off one of Lucas’s ideas.
Lucas wanted to do generational family “soap operas,” as he explained to Charlie Rose. Kennedy brought in J.J. Abrams to direct Episode VII, and Abrams wanted to focus as much on the trio from the first trilogy as the younger generation. There are at least two versions of how Arndt left the project. In one he was asked to leave after Abrams came on it because of Abrams’s different vision. In other the project was up against time pressures and it was felt that Arndt was not fast enough. There may be other reasons floating around the internet. I suspect the first one is more accurate.
While Disney would have liked to have Lucas working on the film, Lucas knew a collaboration would not work out. He thought that the film Abrams and Disney wanted to do was “retro” and was written for the fans (and by fans). While there are retro elements in Episode VII, there are other ways the film is fresh, as we will see. Lucas thought doing something different in each film meant “different planets, different spaceships,” and while there is some of that in VII, the new material gets into character in a way Lucas never did. As for it being written for fans and by fans, that is true and it pays off in some spectacular ways, as we shall also see.
Lucasfilms under Kennedy was planning several other Star Wars projects, including a film about the younger Han Solo, and she engaged Lawrence Kasdan to write it. Solo had always been his favorite character to write and he liked the idea of returning to him. When Kennedy brought Abrams onto the project, she then got Kasdan to help with the rewrite of the script. Kathleen Kennedy had been given the keys to the Lucasfilms kingdom, and she was turning the keys to the Star Wars branch of the kingdom over to Abrams and Kasdan.
Why Abrams? The obvious answer is that he revitalized the Star Trek film franchise, but his credits are more interesting than just that. After writing some feature screenplays in the nineties, including Armaggedon (1998), he moved into television and created Felicity (1998-2001) and Alias (2001-2005), both of which were centered on strong women leads. He co-wrote and directed Mission Impossible III (2006), the best of the MI films, and then took on two Star Trek films. One of his best films is the 2011 Super 8, and in my review of it I pointed out his two great skills as both writer and director: handles both plot and character very well. Like Lucas he can tell the story cleanly and clearly, and like Kasdan he is great at individual characters.
Neither Abrams nor Kasdan are as interested as Lucas is in the archetypal, which is one reason why Lucas is lukewarm about the new movie. (At one point I thought about covering this movie as a memo from Lucas to himself complaining about it, but while it would have been funny, it was limiting. Besides, Lucas was unintentionally funnier on Charlie Rose, including his comparing Disney to white slavers. I couldn’t have topped that.)
The movie starts with the usual title crawl, but you know you are good hands when it does not talk about taxation and trade routes. The first line is simple: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” Even if you have never seen a Star Wars movie before the line will grab you: who is he? And why has he vanished? If you know the films, you know Luke and you will want to find out about him. That’s the writers channeling Lucas’s narrative drive.
We get a shot of a planet, which is slowly covered by a spaceship, which recalls the famous opening of Star Wars. Then we are plunged into battle, and the pilot Poe Dameron entrusts a bit of information to a droid, recalling Princess Leia given R2D2 a similar piece of information. So is Poe the new Princess Leia? Or the new Han Solo? He is pilot, and has a jacket that looks like it belonged to Han. Oh, wait a minute. It doesn’t look like it belonged to Han, but to Indiana Jones. Somebody is having a fun time creating this movie.
The new droid is BB-8, and you may be asking, why not just bring back R2D2? Well, the writers are saving R2D2 for an important scene later. And BB-8 is a more interesting character than R2D2. What? R2D2 is so CUTE! But he is also rather limited. Yes, his “language” can be funny and semi-expressive, but physically he is a block of metal. He does not move well or quickly. BB-8 is two round balls, the smaller one on top and the lower one below. R2D2 can only swivel his head, BB-8 can tilt his. R2D2 scurries, but BB-8 can run like a bat out of hell. Look at the scene in the forest and you can see what BB-8 gives you that R2D2 can’t.
We open in the middle of a fight as the stormtroopers from the First Order, the remains of the old Empire, are trying to get the information Poe has given to BB-8. One of the troopers is shot and scrapes his bloody hand over the helmet of another trooper. Blood? In a Star Wars movie? This is a simple way to tell us we are in a new Star Wars world.
Then the trooper with the bloody helmet takes it off. For the first time we see the real face of a stormtrooper. He is not anonymous any more. And he is black. He is shocked by the violence, and begins his journey away from the First Force and into helping the Resistance, as the Republic is now called.
So is he our new Luke? One problem I have with Finn, as the character comes to be called, is that the writers have not developed him as well as they could. The writers probably felt it would slow the story down, and they may be right, but there is more to be done with Finn in his feelings about his shifting allegiances.
Then we pick up a new character Rey in a virtually wordless scene. We see Rey work as a scavenger, collecting stuff and selling it. Hmm, maybe the new Han Solo? Except that Rey is a young woman. And she does not stand around being the bratty kid sister, nor does she try to act wearing those ridiculous headdresses that Lucas gave Amidala. She does stuff.
When she and Finn connect, she’s better at beating up on bad guys than he is. And she is a pilot and mechanic. We are definitely in a new Star Wars world. It helps that she is played by Daisy Ridley, easily the breakout star of the film. Finn is played by John Boyega, who does not have Ridley’s charisma, in addition to not being given enough to work with in the script.
So now we know we are in a new world, but wait, Rey and Finn just passed an old friend of ours, the Millennium Falcon, wrecked in the sand. Did your heart skip a beat when you saw it? Mine did. Then, half an hour into the movie, after the writers have pulled us into the new characters, Han Solo and Chewbacca show up. And they fit right in. Han and Rey develop a terrific relationship, not just the kind of banter he had with Princess Leia. I’m guessing that their scenes were written by Kasdan, and Abrams was smart enough not to screw them up as either co-writer or director.
And then alas, we come to the baddies. The First Force is led by Supreme Leader Snoke. That’s one of those typically silly names Lucas seemed to love. Fortunately the writers here generally avoid those, but not with Snoke. Would you follow a leader named Snoke?
Worse, he is a CGI creation. He is voiced by the great Andy Sirkis, but isn’t it about time that somebody let Sirkis on camera as something other than a CGI construct? Maybe we will get to see the real Sirkis in future episodes.
One of his generals, Hux, pushes the actor playing him, Domhnall Gleeson, into the same situation the many British actors who played employees of the Empire faced: acting stiff and speaking stiff dialogue. Think Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin (see what I said about Lucas’s names?; that one always sounded to me like something in one of the porn versions of Star Wars) in Episode IV. Gleeson is a wonderful actor (see him in the current Brooklyn), but he is badly used here.
The one exception to this here is Kylo Ren, a sort of Darth Vader on training wheels. He is dressed like Vader, although so many of the First Force people are dressed in masks, I originally thought Kylo was two different characters. It eventually became clear to me he was just one person, but he runs around a lot.
One of the twists is when we find out how he is related to Han, Leia, and Luke, which carries through Lucas’s ideas about family and generations. Late in the picture he takes off his mask, and he is much more interesting with Adam Driver’s face than with a mask. Kylo Ren may turn out to be a more interesting character than Darth Vader was, if not quite as archetypal.
So Han, Rey, Finn and BB-8 are zipping around the galaxy with the information BB-8 is carrying that may help them figure out where Luke is, since Luke is the Last Jedi, and presumably is needed to lead the Resistance. One stop introduces them to Maz Kanata. She is another CGI-created character, who bears more than a passing resemblance to costume designer Edna “E” Mode in The Incredibles (2004).
She’s a combination of witch, saloon owner (not quite up to the famous Cantina scene is Episode IV, but then none of Lucas’s other attempts at that succeeded either), and hock shop operator. She is one of the livelier non-human characters, but I have a similar problem with her that I did with Snoke. She is voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, but Nyong’o is one of the most visually charismatic actors around, and you really miss what visually she could give to the part. Think of the current Miss Moneypenny, Naomie Harris, as Tia Dalma in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
I admire the writers for not bringing in a light saber battle until well into the picture, as opposed to Lucas in Episodes I-III, where he had one every time you turned around. Still, I suppose the writers cannot avoid the hallmark/bane of all Star Wars movies: a lot of running around in corridors zapping each other with whatever those pistols are called. Hey, I’ve just seen all the Star Wars movies; I haven’t memorized all their technology.
Eventually our gang gets to the center of the Resistance, which is lead by now-General Leia. I’m a bit dubious about promoting her to general, since military leadership never seemed to be her strong suit, but I’ll let it go here because the scene brings together Leia and Han in the best scene in the picture. Leia and Han were married a long time ago, and had at least one child we know about, but are separated and have not seen each other in many years, just as we have not seen them in many years. In Episodes IV-VII they were not very deep as characters, but we loved them and their banter.
So we are glad to see them together. Their dialogue is not particularly striking in this scene, but seeing them together moves us because of how we feel about them. I suspect if you saw Force Awakens immediately after seeing Episodes IV-VI, this scene would seem a little off-key and not fit with their scenes in the earlier films. This scene suggests they are deeper characters than they were in the earlier films, but the suggestion comes not so much from the writing of the scene, or even the good performances of Fisher and Ford, but from our feelings for the characters.
Lucas has complained about this film being written by and for fans, but this scene shows you the great advantage of being written that way. I am not sure there is any other franchise that could bring this off in this kind of way. And I cannot tell you how to write a scene like that, since it is so much dependent on us watching these characters in this situation. Yes, my heart skipped a beat during this scene as well.
The writers spread some interesting plot twists throughout the movie. We think Poe is killed in a crash early on, but we learn later he has survived, and he leads the attack to blow up this year’s Death Star. I mentioned the one about Kylo, and then there is The Big One, which even at this late date I am not going to give away. Let’s just say the writers have earned the right to do it. They have been showing you all along that this is not your father’s Star Wars, and if you did not quite believe them before The Big One, you do now.
An even bigger twist comes a little earlier in the picture. Kylo captures Rey and is trying to torture her into giving the information on the location of Luke. And she resists him because…because…because she may possess the Force.
Woa! In Lucas’s world, girls were obnoxious twerps with cooties and only little boys could have the Force. And we have been led to believe that the Force is genetic, and we have no idea where Rey got it from. So Rey may be the new Luke.
It then makes senses that once the pieces of information on Luke’s whereabouts are put together that Rey is the one to go off to find him. For a variety of reasons Han is not able to make the flight, so Rey takes the Millennium Falcon for the search. And Chewie is along as her co-pilot. I don’t know if it is in the script or just something Abrams added in the shooting, but there is a wonderful exchange of looks between Rey and Chewie, each accepting the other and ready to work together. In one sense, everything in the movie has been leading to that, so the new characters are now integrated in the Star Wars universe with the old characters. Yep, skipped a beat here too.
And when Rey gets ready to do, it is General Leia who says to her a line we have not yet heard in this episode, “May the Force be with you.” Lucas’s semi-misogynistic archetypal Empire has been dragged into the 21st Century by the Kennedy-Abrams-Kasdan humanist Rebel Alliance.
So Rey and Chewie zip off to yet another new planet, this one very green, and Rey has to climb a lot more stairs than she needs to to find…it’s not a spoiler, is it, if I tell you it’s Luke?
You think they’ve set us up for the next episode? Yes, very well, but I can’t help but be concerned. Kasdan is going off to write the young Han Solo project, and Abrams is not directing, nor apparently writing, Episode VIII. There are different directors planned for VIII and VIX, but that worked out all right for Episodes V and VI. I think the key figure here will be Kathleen Kennedy. She’s still got the keys to the Lucasfilms kingdom, and she only loaned the ones to the Star Wars branch to Abrams for VII. The Star Wars films have always been in one sense producer’s films, and, based on VII, Kennedy is a great choice to lead the way.
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