April greets the arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on DVD, Blu-ray and all other formats worth bothering with (ie not LaserDisc). With the tenacity of a Bothan and the analytical skill of a protocol droid, we asked editors Mary Jo Marke and Maryann Brandon, creature designer Neal Scanlan and concept artist Doug Chiang for some of the secrets behind the movie's design. Happily, they obliged and no-one's planet needed blowing up. Pick up the new issue of Empire for the full breakdown.
1. Episode VII almost opened with a lightsaber floating through space
There were early rumours that Star Wars: Episode VII would open with a floating 'saber, and it turns out that scuttlebutt wasn't far from the mark. "There was [some] consideration that we'd open with Luke's lightsaber flying through space," remembers editor Mary Jo Markey, "landing on Jakku and Maz's hand pulling it out of the ground". Another option was a fake-out that disguised a stormtrooper's helmet as a planet. "We didn't get very far with that," adds Markey. Thankfully, neither involved Luke's severed hand.
2. Starkiller Base has rocket boosters
What was known for a while as "the Doom Star" became Starkiller Base, a glacial planet that's been weaponised by Supreme Leader Snoke. "We thought, 'What would a Death Star look like with 30 years of extra technology?'" says concept artist Doug Chiang. "Terraforming has been talked about in the scientific community for a long time, and we decided to magnify that idea." Fun facts that aren't revealed in the film: 1) the First Order chose this planet because of its minerals, and 2) yes, it can move, since it has rocket ports on its far side.
3. Kylo Ren nearly had a scarlet helmet
The First Order's judge, jury and executioner was, at one point in the scripting process, more of a Boba Fett-style bounty hunter. He also had a red oval helmet. And a metal hose coming out of his face. "We originally called him 'the Jedi Killer' as a placeholder," says Chiang. "As we learned more we started to modify the design." The red helmet ended up worn by the Guavian Death Gang that storm the Eravana (above left).
4. The rathtars were based on a dog's ball
Those ugly tentacled critters that break out of the hold of the Eravana are, explains creature designer Neal Scanlan, based on a dog's ball with spikes attached. Think Mad Max: Fury Road's Buzzards with added digestive system. "It's basically just an enormous stomach with one thing on its mind: to put as many things inside that stomach as it can. With Star Wars, simplicity is key. Like R2-D2 or BB-8, any child can draw a silhouette of a rathtar." Basically, if you're ever hauling rathtars, Solo-style, take plenty of meat with you.
5. The Raid's stars play Kanjiklubbers
The Millennium Falcon gets raided by the stars of, well, The Raid. Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, best-known for almost bringing down an Indonesian skyscraper with their combat skills, are here cast as two of the "little freaks" in Kanjiklub, an Outer Rim gang of ruffians who want Han Solo's head. They pack some serious hardware — "Huttsplitter" blaster rifles with gundark bone grips — but are disappointingly light on martial-arts moves.
6. Hurid-327 is Maz Kanata's Hagrid
Officially, this hulking robot glimpsed outside Maz's castle is called Hurid-327. To the people who worked on the movie, he's called Big Red. Though he's lumbering around with a purposeful stride, his motivations have remained a mystery... until now. "Our little backstory is that he's Maz's groundskeeper," says Scanlan. "A general looker-afterer. He'll pick up your suitcases and take them somewhere, but he's a bit lazy." Wonder if he takes tips.
7. Jakku's climate is closer to Hoth than Tatooine
Unlike its planetary lookalike, the hostile and arid Tatooine, Jakku was designed to be inhospitable in a different way. "It's a cold desert," says Chiang. "We had to make sure it looked distinct, so we settled on the Atacama Desert in South America and Wadi Rum in Jordan." Those crashed Star Destroyers were inspired by the vast, eerie ship-breaking yards of the Bay of Bengal. "We found very powerful images of huge ship hulls on beaches, being manually cut apart."
8. Rey drops acid. Kinda.
When Rey opens the case holding Luke's lightsaber, the film hurtles into a 'Force-back' sequence. "JJ kept calling it 'Rey's acid trip'," laughs editor Maryann Brandon. "Just to be clear, we did not call our dealer and drop acid before editing that scene!" The scene was thrashed out during a two-day meeting. "It got philosophical," says Markey. "We talked a lot about how the Light Side and the Dark Side are both revealing themselves. The shot of the Knights of Ren was something Kathy Kennedy was very passionate about. She kept talking about Kurosawa films. I believe it was the last shot we got on set in the UK."
9. Maz's clientele is "an X-Factor for aliens"
A nod to A New Hope's beastie-stuffed cantina, Maz's digs are teeming with out-there creations. Look out for Woolivan (a pig-faced rascal played by Warwick Davis), the Hassk Triplets (werewolf-esque ruffians) and the Dengue Sisters (bug-critters huddled around a gambling table). "On-set we called them 'Squitos'," says Scanlan of the latter. "They'll invite you to play a game but you'll never win. We would come up with all these ideas and present them to J.J., like an X-Factor for aliens. We made about 110 creatures, and what you see is just a splashing of flavour."
10. Jon Stewart nearly has a cameo
Unlike Stephen Colbert, his old mucker on The Daily Show, who played a Laketown spy in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, Jon Stewart rejected the chance of a big blockbuster cameo. He wanted to play a good guy. Unfortunately, there were only stormtroopers on offer so it was left to Daniel Craig, Michael Giacchino, American comedian Ben Schwarz and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to fill the First Order's celebrity cameo berths.
Pick up the new issue of Empire, onsale on March 31, for the full Star Wars: The Force Awakens viewing guide.