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Star Wars: The Rewrite Awakens
By Jacob Krueger
Whether you are one of the many that loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens and saw it again and again, or one of the disappointed few who were frustrated with the rehashed scenes and safe choices of the film, there is no doubt that there is a ton that you can learn from this movie as a screenwriter, particularly when it comes to rewriting your screenplay.
As I was watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it occurred to me that in many ways, this movie is just a rewrite of Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back with a little spattering of Return of the Jedi splashed in there.
And like any effective rewrite, the structure and the approach of Star Wars: The Force Awakens focuses on two vital concepts: Compression and Amplification.
Compression begins with identifying the very best elements of your early draft, and cutting out all the boring, average, or even good stuff in between, so that you’re left with only the very best of the best.
And Amplification is about “turning up the volume” on those vital elements, visualizing them even more closely, exploring them even more deeply, and pushing them even further than you knew they could go.
On a creative level, this brings the essence of your script to the surface, allowing you to get right to the heart of what really matters, without distracting yourself, or your audience, with all that stuff in between.
On a commercial level, this makes every page a heck of a lot more compelling to read (and worthy of the thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars it’s going to take to shoot each line you write).
But most importantly, on a story level, this means you can tell more of your story faster, allowing you to take your character, your audience, and even yourself further than they (and you) were expecting when you first sat down to write.
In this way (and in true Star Wars fashion), rewriting isn’t just a mechanical process of making your script better or following a bunch of suggestions from coverage readers or producers. It’s also a spiritual journey towards connecting with yourself and with your voice as a writer.
It’s interesting that The Force Awakens came to the theatres just as we were talking about the concept of “The Engine” of so many successful TV series on this podcast. Because every movie also has an engine. And once you’ve identified that engine, both structurally and thematically, the process of compression, and amplification, and revision, becomes much easier.
It’s a search for that sweet spot, where it still feels like the same movie, even as it changes, deepens, pushes and surprises.
So it’s fitting that (after originally embarking on a different path with Michael Arndt, the writer of Little Miss Sunshine) Disney brought in Lawrence Kasdan, the writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to bring their mega-franchise to the promised land.
Because if anyone understood the engine of Star Wars, he was the guy.
And if you’re one of the disgruntled, who were hoping that a guy like Kasdan was going to deliver something revolutionary in The Force Awakens, the way he did in his sequels to the original Star Wars, you need to think for a moment where Disney was coming from.
They’d just spent over 4 billion dollars to acquire the rights to Star Wars from George Lucas. They were building theme parks, video games, re-doing Disney World. But they had a problem. Despite the financial success of the last three installments, there was a nearly universal agreement that those movies were just not that good.
Much like a young writer showing their script for the first time, they had one chance to prove to the world what a post-Lucas Star Wars could look like. And if they messed it up and lost the trust of their audience, they were going to have a dying franchise on their hands, and were never going to make that 4 billion dollars back.
They’d tried to go down the road of something new with Michael Arndt, and for whatever reason weren’t so happy with what they got.
So they decided to play it safe. Brought back good ol’ Lawrence Kasdan, and gave him a chance to do something very few writers ever get to do—rewrite a script he’d done over 30 years ago, with all those years of experience behind him.
And what they got was something that felt the same, but also different. Just what they, and most of their audiences, were really dreaming of.
Jessica Hinds, who teaches our Meditative Writing classes here at the Studio, often talks about the idea of rewriting from the blank page. Not being locked into the plot of what you’ve written in the past, but instead using those elements as inspiration for a deeper exploration of the same underlying structure.
You are, she reminds her students, a better writer today than you were when you wrote your first draft. Simply through the experience of having written it, and the studying you’ve done as a writer.
Understanding how malleable these structural elements can become is one of the most important concepts in rewriting.
A bored and privileged orphaned boy living in the safety of his uncle’s farm on Tatooine, can become a tough and self sufficient orphaned girl, living off the scraps of broken robots in the dangerous underbelly of Tatooine.
The secret plans that show the vulnerability of the death star can become the secret plans that show the location of Luke Skywalker.
The death of Obi-Wan Kenobi at the hands of Darth Vader can become the death of Han Solo at the hands of his own son…
And on, and on, and on…
Having invested our own “4 billion dollars” of passion and sweat and tears into an early draft, we don’t just want to throw everything out the window in search of something new.
We want to be building on the infrastructure that we’ve established, tapping into the hidden engine that drew us to the project in the first place and made it matter for us.
But we also don’t want to be trapped by our past decisions, and we want to give ourselves the freedom to dig deeper, to amplify, and to reimagine, even as we hold onto the elements that matter most to us.
So how do you know what to let go of, and what to hold on to? What to amplify, what to compress, and what to simply abandon as you rewrite a screenplay?
If your early draft is a mess, your urge is going to be to look for what’s wrong, to fix it, and make it conform to whatever you think other people are expecting of you as a screenwriter.
But that’s not going to lead you to great writing. And it’s not going to lead you to the kind of script that breaks you into the business. It’s going to lead you to boring writing, and the kind of script that, best case scenario, people have to admit is “pretty professional” but nobody actually wants to make.
To get the kind of rewrite that inspires some passion in your reader, that makes a produce say “I have to make this!” you don’t start by thinking about what is wrong. You start by thinking about what is right.
You start by thinking about what the movie is really about, and then identifying, in relation to that theme, what is truly great about this draft of your screenplay. No matter how brilliant, or how terrible, your early draft may be, if you’re going to build, you’ve got to know what you’re building upon.
You look for the things you love, the things that move you, or make you laugh. The things that feel, look, or sound truthful to you. The things that make you say “this is the movie!”
These are the things that you are going to build around, the structural elements you’re going to play with, shape, deepen and explore, the aspects of your story around which you are going to build your hook, your character’s journey, and your success as a writer.
These are the things you’re going to compress around. And these are the things you’re going to deepen and amplify.
Over Christmas, I was up in Boston visiting my nieces, Clara and Mia, who are 8 and 10 years old and like any respectable American children, are Star Wars fanatics. But when we put on the original Star Wars, it turned out Mia had a litany of complaints…
“This is my least favorite Star Wars… it’s so booooring… nothing haaaaapenssss…”
Isn’t that interesting! We’re talking about one of the greatest, and still most successful movies of all time. But we’re also talking about a movie that moves at a 70’s pace. As a child of this generation, Mia’s been trained by Hollywood to believe that movies happen Now! Now! Now! Faster! Faster! Faster!
And it would seem that Lawrence Kasdan agrees with her.
Because just look at what he manages to do with this rewrite! He essentially squeezes all of Star Wars and most of The Empire Strikes Back into one movie! He’s moving at nearly twice the speed of the earlier scripts. And the incredible thing is, it doesn’t feel like anything was lost.
This is the power of Compression.
And it will work with your movie as well. If you’ve written something great, it will allow you to make it better. And if you’ve written something messy, it will allow you to clear out all the clutter, and see where the heart, the theme, and the engine of your movie really lie.
If Lawrence Kasdan can do all of Star Wars and most of Empire Strikes Back in one screenplay, just think how far you can push your story. How much room you actually have to explore and deepen your structure. When things happen fast, your characters get to go on huge journeys, that grab our attention, and defy our expectations.
And with this comes a natural form of Amplification.
There are two ways to amplify your scenes. The one is to use Compression to cut away the extra stuff that acts likes insulation around a live wire, cutting us off from the full power of what lies beneath.
And the other is by using the space that Compression opens up to explore each moment, the themes, and the structure of your movie more deeply, asking yourself “if this is true, what else is true?”
And this is one of the areas where The Force Awakens was most successful as a rewrite. Because for all the chatter about “it’s just the same movie” the truth is, Kasdan has actually deepened many of the best elements of the original Star Wars, by going back to the themes that made it matter in the first place.
He started with one the weakest elements of his original scripts, the Storm Troopers, whom we can all agree are probably the least intimidating fighting force in the Galaxy. You may have had nightmares about Darth Vader as a child, but you certainly didn’t have Storm Trooper nightmares. In the history of Star Wars, no Storm Trooper has successfully shot anything, or done anything but say yes to Obi-Wan Kenobi or die.
So Kasdan started to Amplify, to look closer at what the Storm Troopers could actually be. To step into their world, and wonder what it would be like to be one of them, and ask himself—what if Storm Troopers were not just a dehumanized army? What if they were real people? What if The Force was in them too? What if one of them started to realize it?
Similarly, Kasdan started to amplify, reexamine and deepen one of the most successful elements of the original episodes, The Force itself.
We’re told by Obi-Wan in Star Wars that The Force flows through all of us and connects everything in the universe. And yet, in those early episodes, it seems that the only people who actually have access to The Force are the descendents of Anakin Skywalker.
So Kasdan asks himself, if The Force really flows through all of us. Then there must be a way that all of us can access, even if we don’t yet have the proper training to harness it effectively. So what if it wasn’t solely confined to the Skywalker clan. What if it could Awaken in anyone?
And there he found not only a title, and a new element to the structure, but also an even more powerful underlying theme, not imposed upon the rewrite, but growing naturally out of what was already most successful.
People come to the movies in search of a feeling. When they see a sequel, they may want the story to be different, but they want to leave feeling the same. They want to recapture the feeling of the original experience. And this is what the best sequels deliver, whether it’s The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather, Part 2, or The Dark Knight.
Many young writers mistake this concept as a need to manipulate the audience, trying to “make them cry” or “make them laugh.” But the truth is as a young writer, the chances are your craft is not yet good enough to manipulate an audience effectively. And even if it was, external manipulation like this rarely delivers a great script.
It’s just like in real life. You know the guy who’s trying too hard to be funny at the party? He doesn’t actually make you laugh. He just makes you want to escape.
In great scripts, and great rewrites, this feeling grows organically from the personal themes the writer is truly wrestling with as they write the story. If you want them to cry, don’t try to make them cry. Try to make yourself cry. If you want them to laugh, try to make yourself laugh.
In Star Wars terms, it’s not the technology of writing that lets you blow up the Death Star. It’s The Force inside of you. The unique voice that comes from getting more of you into your rewrite.
And you can see this in the difference between the original Episodes 4, 5 and 6 of Star Wars and the more recent Episodes 1, 2 and 3.
Watch episodes 4, 5, and 6 of Star Wars, and you’ll notice that even though the plots changed tremendously, the feelings of the movies did not. The movies were always about The Force. Always about the pressure between technology and social expectations, and the connections to the instincts inside of you. Always about the choices we have to make when we choose the path of love rather than the powerful path of anger. And always about dysfunctional relationships between fathers and sons.
These were the primal elements that made the Star Wars franchise such a huge success, and distinguished it from every other sci-fi franchise. Because these were themes that anyone could connect to, that everyone in the world has felt.
But if you look at Episodes 1, 2, and 3 of Star Wars, you’ll notice a huge tonal disparity, a total difference in the feeling of these movies. Even the most essential element of Star Wars, The Force, is reduced from a spiritual concept– something that you had believe in even though you couldn’t see it—to something that can be measured in a person with a magical thermometer, like life points in a video game.
And what’s so interesting is that from a plot perspective all 6 episodes are built on the same bones—the same formula—of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and the visual style of the old Spaghetti Westerns.
But it’s not the formula that makes the movie. It’s the primal, thematic structure underneath. It’s the unique voice of the writer, and the exploration of the themes that matter.
Where did these themes come from in those early episodes? They didn’t come from the Spaghetti Westerns, they didn’t come from Joseph Campbell, and they certainly didn’t come from some formulaic screenwriting book or from some magical screenwriting software that pretends it can tell you what needs to happen in your movie.
They came from George Lucas.
Remember the completion of Luke Skywalker’s journey from A New Hope and you will see George Lucas’s life journey all over it.
Ultimately, Luke’s journey is not just to understand The Force, but also to let go of the things that make him feel safe, but ultimately cut him off from The Force inside himself.To destroy the Death Star, and defeat the dark father in himself—Darth Vader, the man who has been made into a machine– Luke must let go of his own attachment to technology, defy the requirements of other people’s expectations, and learn to trust his own instincts instead.
Now think of George Lucas’s journey as an artist.
This is the brilliant director who would end up abandoning the camera for most of his career, to focus on selling toys and building a technology company called THX.
This is the artist who would end up re-editing his own greatest works, bloating them with CGI sequences that did the exact opposite of the Compression and Amplification we saw in Lawrence Kasdan’s script. But instead undercut his purest instincts and his most successful choices.
This is the artist who go from creating Yoda to creating Jar Jar Binks, the world’s most hollow CGI character.
This is the artist who would go from being inspired by Joseph Campbell to seek the Hero’s Journey in himself, to being a slave to Joseph Campbell’s formula, applying the same technological formula to his last three movies, without the emotional essence underneath.
This is the artist who would reduce his own greatest creation, The Force, to something that could be measured with technology.
This is an artist who as a young man, was truly wrestling with two parts of himself, in a brilliant screenplay called Star Wars. And for whom one side was ultimately killed by the other, just as Anakin Skywalker was “killed” by Darth Vadar.
And you can see the results in the difference between the first three movies and the second three.
Ultimately, as writers, and as rewriters, we all have that battle inside of us. A battle between the art and the craft of writing. The part of us that wants the power of success, and the part of us that knows that the only route that will lead us there comes through trusting our voice.
Ultimately, it’s not about killing off one side in favor of the other. But learning how to develop them both, so that they can dance together, rather than fighting.
Thanks Jacob for an absolutely amazing podcast. This really makes you think about Star Wars and about the magic of the screenplay. As one of the movie-goers who complained about the similarities of The Force Awakens with the original movies, I now have a new perspective and understanding of it. In fact, Lawrence Kasden looks more like a genius now than ever.