1. There was initially a lot more with Luke Skywalker — including a shot of him holding Darth Vader’s helmet.
As early as a month after J.J. Abrams landed the job of directing Episode VII in January 2013, producer and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy began employing a small army of concept illustrators to begin imagining the world of the movie — following in the footsteps of the creative process for George Lucas’s original Star Wars movie, much of which grew from Ralph McQuarrie’s art.
The Secrets of “The Force Awakens”: A Cinematic Journey — the behind-the-scenes documentary that premiered at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival in advance of the digital and Blu-ray release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in April — showcases a great deal of art that never made the finished film, like an evocative field of broken TIE-fighter cockpits. Most prominently, there were several images of Luke Skywalker in action, including a shot of him holding a lightsaber, and another shot of him holding Darth Vader’s helmet.
2. The audition that clinched Daisy Ridley the role of Rey was her interrogation scene with Kylo Ren.
The task of casting an unknown to play Rey — a character who had to be at once fierce and vulnerable, earnest and capable — was a daunting one for Abrams and his team. But the documentary includes footage of one of Ridley’s auditions, in which Kylo Ren tries to use the Force to get inside Rey’s head, and it is clear the part was hers. “She just blew my mind,” Abrams says in The Secrets of “The Force Awakens”: A Cinematic Journey. “She’s reaching this depth of struggle, and tears are streaming down her face. … I thought, Oh my god.”
3. John Boyega auditioned with Finn’s first conversation with Poe multiple times before he got the role.
Abrams estimates that Boyega auditioned nine times before he was cast as the erstwhile Stormtrooper. The doc stitches together three of those auditions to recreate the scene in which Finn admits that he’s rescuing Poe because he needs a pilot. (And even at that stage, the British-born Boyega was using an American accent for the role.)
4. Mark Hamill read all the stage directions at the initial script read-through with the cast.
In The Secrets of “The Force Awakens”: A Cinematic Journey, audiences finally get to see footage from that fateful first table read of the entire cast.
And since Mark Hamill had no lines to speak as Luke Skywalker, Abrams asked the actor to read through all the stage directions. “Usually, the director does that,” Hamill says in the documentary. “But in this case, he said he wanted to observe.”
The final line of the screenplay? “The promise of an adventure just beginning.”
5. There was (or is?) a planet called Takkar, but it did not make the film as it is described in the screenplay.
During the read-through, we hear Hamill describe X-wing fighters heading to a planet “with green flora and a copper sea… [and] massive, mushroom-shaped trees.” Hamill calls the planet “Takkar” — but that spelling of the planet is just a guess.
6. Ridley asked Abrams for more scenes with BB-8.
BB-8 was the first character Ridley acted with on set, and while that was daunting to her at first, the puppeteers who controlled him were so good that she quickly grew to love working with him. “I asked J.J. if I could have a bit more with BB-8 because I think it’s such a nice relationship,” she says in the doc. “He’s this talisman that’s the first constant that Rey’s ever had.”
In a way, that was also a relationship with her director: The Force Awakens supervising sound editor Matthew Wood explained that Abrams would perform BB-8’s voice during filming in a Q&A after the screening at SXSW.
7. Abrams insisted that some of the stormtroopers should be played by women.
Several of the stormtroopers who appear in The Force Awakens are played by women, which was part of Abrams’ effort to expand the diversity of the Star Wars cinematic universe. That included members of the crew, one of whom said wearing the armor was like wearing “a heavy rucksack.”
8. Kylo Ren’s costume was so complicated to get on that it helped Adam Driver get into character.
The costume for The Force Awakens’ main villain was the most difficult for costume designer Michael Kaplan to get right. “J.J. looked at hundreds of sketches,” Kaplan says. He ultimately settled on a subtly chromed helmet so light could reflect off of it, and patterned Ren’s black cloak so it would appear more dynamic in movement.
“Putting it on was such an event,” Adam Driver says with a laugh in the doc. “I was so pissed by the time we were ready to start shooting that I felt totally ready [to play the villain].”
9. Harrison Ford had a specific request about the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit.
The production team pored through every last scrap of visual material of the original Millennium Falcon set in order to make their version as authentic as possible. But Ford did make a request for one unseen change: Put springs in the toggle switches in the cockpit.
“They bought broken switches because they were much cheaper,” Ford says in the documentary, demonstrating how the switches would slowly fall down after he’d clicked them up during a scene. “There was no spring in them — no budget for springs.”
10. But he’d forgotten what the cockpit actually looked like.
“I’d been away so long, I looked at it and I said, ‘This doesn’t look right. Was this here?’” Ford says with a smile in the documentary. “And they said, ‘Yeeeess.’ It was fun to see it again.”
11. The production spent one whole day on the “Chewie, we’re home” scene.
“Everyone was waiting for the line,” says Ridley. “J.J. really wanted it to be perfect.” Abrams was indeed so gobsmacked by the scene, there’s a shot of him mouthing, “OH MY GOD” directly to the documentary crew’s camera.
12. The “Force-back” sequence was originally a standard flashback.
In the post-screening Q&A, co-producer Michelle Rejwan explained that the sequence they refer to as the “Force-back” — an abstract montage that hits Rey after she touches Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber for the first time — was initially conceived as a more standard flashback as told by Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) as she recounts both the history of the previous movies, and what had happened after the events of Return of the Jedi. “We realized it was going to be more powerful if the characters could experience it themselves, rather than just hear the story,” she said. “So it became an experiential sequence with Rey in the center of it.”
13. Leia originally sported a long ponytail.
Throughout the documentary, Carrie Fisher can be seen in character as General Leia Organa with a long ponytail draped over her left shoulder — but that hairstyle did not make the movie. The change is never remarked upon during the documentary, but the behind-the-scenes shots of Fisher’s scenes with Ford seem identical to the finished film, which indicates that Leia’s ponytail was likely erased digitally in post-production. (Disney did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on what happened with Leia’s hair.)
14. Abrams’ farewell speech to Ford made the actor cry.
Befitting the film’s biggest spoiler, there were very few people on set for the scene in which Kylo Ren kills Han Solo. (In his interview for the documentary, in fact, Ford cannot bring himself to say that Han dies. Instead, he says, “Han Solo meets his fate.”)
But there was a much bigger crowd present for Ford’s final day of shooting on The Force Awakens. After the actor had wrapped, Abrams delivered a speech to the cast and crew, calling Ford “a man who was a hero to us before this movie, but he is even more so today.” The actor stood quietly surrounded by everyone, clasping his hands, tears filling his eyes, and welcoming a hug from Chewbacca as he ended the last day he will ever spend on a Star Wars movie set.
Unless, of course, Han Solo comes back as a ghost.