Behind The Recording Of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Forty years after ghostwriting the original Star Wars novelization, Alan Dean Foster wrote The Force Awakens, performed by veteran Star Wars narrator Marc Thompson. Here they talk to Audible's Reid Armbruster about their experiences.By Reid ArmbrusterMay 4, 2016 1:21 PM
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As Star Wars Day is being celebrated across the globe, we’re thrilled to bring you a double feature — namely, our recent conversations with the author and the narrator of the official novelization of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. So enjoy, and on behalf of Audible, “May the Fourth be with you.”
No stranger to hardcore Star Wars fans, voice actor Marc Thompson has brought a galaxy far, far away to life for audiobook listeners since 2007. In the process, he has given voice to some of the most celebrated characters in the history of science fiction. His latest effort is a tour de force (pun intended) performance of the novelization of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Audible: Congratulations on The Force Awakens. I really, really enjoyed it. It was awesome.
Marc Thompson: Oh, thank you so much.
A: As a narrator, this is far from your first foray into a galaxy far, far away.
MT: Yes, that is true.
A: How many Star Wars titles have you performed to date?
MT: By my count, I think I’m at 41.
MT: It’s pretty amazing.
A: What was the first Star Wars title that you narrated, do you remember?
“They locked the door behind me, and every time I had to go to the bathroom or anything like that, they shut the computer off, locked it with a password, locked the door.”
MT: Yes, the first one I did was Betrayal, and that was the beginning of the Legacy of The Force story arc. That was actually my first audiobook ever.
A: Tell us about that experience.
MT: I was so petrified because I’d never done this before. I was a huge Star Wars fan, and I really worked hard on the audition. I was so excited when I got it, but I didn’t fully understand what recording an audiobook involved. I thought for sure they were going to fire me. Luckily, Kevin Thompson, who’s an amazing director, was very patient with me. He saw that this was my first book ever, and he kind of coached me through and helped me understand what is involved in doing an audiobook. Now it’s 41 books later.
A: How were you able to connect so deeply with the material?
MT: I’m definitely a Star Wars fan. We’re talking lifelong — Star Wars bed sheets, action figures. Earliest memory is Empire movie in the theater as a kid. There’s a lot of reverence that I have, going into it. The authors do such an amazing job of painting that picture. Now, Alan Dean Foster, especially for this book, just did such an amazing job of setting the scene and making you feel like you were there and helping you to understand what the character’s thinking. It felt like true Star Wars.
A: Given that you’re a Star Wars fan, you know all the characters, how do you go about choosing the voices of the characters that — let’s call them legacy characters, or the characters that people know — and then the characters that are all new?
MT: For the legacy characters, I have them kind of in my DNA at this point, so a lot of it is that. Then for the newer characters, I rely heavily on what the author describes them as, and try to pull a lot of clues from the writing to figure out what type of voice they have. Are they super confident? Are they insecure? Are they adventurous, or whatever. How would that come across in a voice? The listener doesn’t get to see costumes, the listener doesn’t get to see the actor’s facial expressions. They only get to hear what voice I choose. Two days into the recording, I was still feeling nervous. I felt like, “What if the fans hate this?” because they’re going to compare this to the film. There’s just no way around it. If it doesn’t somehow live up to the film or is similar to the film, they’re going to feel like, “That’s not what they sound like. That’s not what that scene’s supposed to be like!” I was really getting anxious about it, and Kevin at one point said, “You know what? We’re over-analyzing this. We just need to have fun.”
“When I read that scene on the bridge with Kylo and Han… I couldn’t say anything to anyone.”
A: It’s obvious that you’ve received acting training as well as vocal training. Could you tell us a little bit about your background in that area?
MT: Sure. I went to NYU, and it was a BFA. We trained in acting and theater and things like that. We had a voice class. It was all about learning about different resonators in your body, like placing the voice in your chest, or placing the voice in your nasal mask, or placing the voice in your skull, and just how that changes the instrumentation of your voice. It actually has come in really handy. I’m really glad I had that class.
A: Are there things you do in particular to take care of your voice pre-, during, and post-sessions?
MT: I drink a lot of water. I have a — I’m looking at it right now — I have a 40-ounce water bottle that I take with me everywhere. It’s my silo. I drink a lot of water during the session, and that just kind of helps keep the vocal chords lubricated. I try to get a lot of sleep, especially on record days because after 10 a.m. to sometimes 6 p.m., your voice gets really strained, so I try to sleep and hydrate as much as I can.
A:What was the most challenging aspect of the production for you, what was the most surprising, and what was the most rewarding?
MT:I would say the most challenging was, what I was talking about a little bit earlier is, my paralysis of analysis, I guess. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to make this really good and I was feeling really anxious that it would not be able to compare to the movie. I knew it would be important to so many people and it was really important to me. I had to let go of the pressure of that and realize that the audiobook was going to be something different than the film, and that was okay, and that was actually a good thing. It’s supposed to be a different experience.
The most surprising, I guess, was just the plot. When we were recording it, usually I get the scripts sent to me and I prepare them on my own, but this time, because of the high level of security, I had to go to the offices at Random House. They put me in a room. The script was on a computer that was disconnected from the internet. There was a password every time I wanted to log in. They locked the door behind me, and every time I had to go to the bathroom or anything like that, they shut the computer off, locked it with a password, locked the door. I go out, go to the bathroom, unlock it, let me back in.
I was locked in a room all by myself, and when I read that scene on the bridge with Kylo and Han, and I’m reading that by myself. I couldn’t say anything to anyone. When the book finally came out, fans were very vocal about — I should say the audiobook — fans were very vocal about it towards me. I had one fan say that he was going to listen to the audiobook before he went to see the film. I was like, “What?” Just to get that little bit of validation into … As a Star Wars fan, it was such a big deal for me to get to do this project, to be a small part of that story. It just means so much to me and I’m going to be forever grateful that I got to be a part of this.
A: Who is your favorite character in The Force Awakens, and why?
MT:I loved Rey. I love how resourceful she is. I love the fact that she is so positive. I love the fact that even after being abandoned on Jakku, and she hasn’t seen her parents for more than a decade, she didn’t get bitter about it. She’s not like this angry, dejected, hopeless person. She still has hope. That’s such an amazing character trait, and I really love that about her and that she’s very similar to Luke. She wants to help, and she can’t help but want to help others.
A:What’s your favorite piece of Star Wars technology?
MT:Oh, lightsaber. It’s such a cool hybrid of sci-fi and fantasy. Just that weapon and that prop. I think it’s so cool. I have four of them at home.
A:If you could channel the Force and do anything with it, if you were a Jedi Master, what would you do?
MT:Levitation, all the way. There’s so many times where I’ve reached out to the remote just desperately wanting it to leap into my hands so I could change the channel, and I still, anytime I go through a toll where the gate is down, every single time, I make the gesture to make the gate move up and drive past. I want that power so bad.
A:Could you give us just a little Chewbacca?
MT:Sure. I hope we won’t scare anyone. (Does spot-on Chewbacca vocalizing.)
A:That’s unbelievable! Now I know this is easy for you. Just give us a little Yoda, telling us that we should listen to The Force Awakens.
MT:Okay. (As Yoda) Do or do not. There is no try. Listen to The Force Awakens, you must.
A:That was Marc Thompson, narrator of the official novelization of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, now available on Audible.
Narrator Marc Thompson (L) and author Alan Dean Foster (R)
Audible: Could you explain what exactly a novelization is and how that whole process works?
Alan Dean Foster:People say, “Well, what’s fun about doing a novelization?” because you’re under constraints as a writer and there’s certain things you can’t do, but I basically get to make my own director’s cut, and I get to put in more good stuff that I would like to see, just like the kids in the back of the theater. Basically, a writer is given a copy of an original screenplay and is asked to expand it and turn it into a readable novel. I’ve learned over the years that I generally need to get three pages of prose out of each page of screenplay. In a screenplay, roughly, you get one minute of screen time for each page of screenplay, so 120-page screenplay, depending on how much action is described, how well it’s described, and other variables, will generally give you one minute of film.
I know that if I have a two-hour film, 120-page screenplay, I need to extract three pages of prose from each page of screenplay.
A: What do you draw on when you’re expanding on that screenplay?
ADF:I grew up learning how to read from comic books, so I’ve always thought of myself as a very visual writer. What I’m actually doing when I’m reading the screenplay or reading a book or reading a short story is seeing a little tiny movie in my head. I just describe what I’m seeing. I’m certainly not the only one who grew up learning how to read from reading comic books, but I do think it makes certain aspects of my writing come alive more than for people who don’t write that way, for example. If the screenplay says something like, “Exterior: Vast rainforest, alien world. Sounds and movements not clearly defined in the background,” then we go to our main characters. But I can take that first two sentences and expand it into a couple of pages by describing the trees, the weather, the climate, little critters that you might see in the background; even the smells, which is obviously something you don’t get from a screenplay. In my mind’s eye, that’s what I’m seeing. I’m seeing all of that detail.
“In the case of The Force Awakens, everything was sent to me. They have a very secure software system which probably would take the NSA to break…”
A:A little birdie told me that you ghostwrote the novelization of the original Star Wars.
ADF:That’s true. It’s a big birdie now, but it was a secret for many years. I had to lie to people’s faces sometimes — people who recognized my style, such as it may be — and said, “Oh, I had nothing to do with that.” It was a relief when we finally got permission to just admit to it.
A:I’ve got to ask, when you got that screenplay and you started work on it, did you have any inkling of how special the material was that you were working with, or that this whole franchise would become a global phenomenon?
ADF:To answer the last part of the question, nobody did; nobody had any idea. As I was reading the screenplay, and I’m reading this and just based on what I was reading, I thought, “If they can get this up on screen the way it’s written, this will be terrific. But they can’t do it.” Of course, they did do it. I went to the very first mass public screening of the film at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It was a 10 a.m. showing and I sat in the back of the theater so I could watch the audience, as well as the film. I’d never seen people stand up in a theater and spontaneously cheer anything before.
A:A lot of these characters are really well known and beloved. What is it like to be entrusted with characters like that, and on the alternate side, how does it feel to be given the opportunity to help shape the all-new ones?
“The most challenging [aspect] was simply living up to the expectations of the readers.”
ADF:With TheForce Awakens, when you’re dealing with the major characters, for example, the book opens with Princess Leia, basically musing over what an unfortunate situation the galaxy’s gotten itself into, and how is she — as a major survivor and a general in the resistance — going to cope with it. I expanded upon that to show more of her inner thoughts and the personal conflicts she’s undergoing, and it’s all consistent with the character, who, of course, I know very well. Now, with the newer characters, it’s a little different. I did a great deal with Rey and with Finn in the book. I tried not to do anything that contradicted anything actually in the film. I’m allowed to do certain things, and certain things I’m not allowed to do, and a lot of it depends on which character or which situation I’m writing about, specifically.
A:Did they place you under house arrest after you got the screenplay?
ADF:That’s changed over the years. Originally, I just get the screenplay in the mail, but that’s pre-internet. Security has gotten much tighter for these things. It varies from studio to studio again, and project to project. In the case of The Force Awakens, everything was sent to me. They have a very secure software system which probably would take the NSA to break, if anybody was interested, if they could break it. I was able to get the screenplay emailed to me. I don’t even tell my family. I don’t tell anybody. I can tell them I think this is good, or I think this is interesting, but I don’t go into details with anybody, just because. You didn’t think I got these jobs just because I was a good writer.
A:In terms of writing this novelization, what was the most challenging aspect, the most surprising, and the most rewarding?
ADF:The most challenging one was simply living up to the expectations of the readers. I just wanted to turn out a book that was respectful of the original material, meaning the screenplay and what little visuals I’d seen; that would pass as a good read. It’s as simple as that. The most surprising thing about doing the novelization: How good the new characters were, and how much fun they were to work with. I had no idea before I started — nobody did — what the new characters would be like. We just knew there would be new characters. There had to be new characters. I was really pleased with what good characters they were: Rey and Finn and Poe.
“I also had a soft spot for Chewbacca, who finally gets to do more than just grunt and shoot things.”
The most rewarding thing about writing it was going back and revisiting the characters in a story that was true to the original spirit of Star Wars. People who knew that I was writing the novelization said, “If you could describe the story in one word, what would you say?” I said, “Fun. It’s fun.”
A: Who’s your favorite character in The Force Awakens and why?
ADF:My favorite character is Rey. She’s my favorite character because she’s plucky, and she’s tough, and she’s really good at adapting to alien circumstances. I also had a soft spot for Chewbacca, who finally gets to do more than just grunt and shoot things. He has no dialogue that I can really write, but maybe one of these days.
A:Yeah, more Chewbacca never hurts, in my opinion.
ADF:No. You can’t have too much Chewbacca. There’s a good slogan for Star Wars.
A:What’s your favorite piece of Star Wars technology?
ADF:Everybody likes lightsabers, I suppose. My favorite piece of technology now — and it’s gone — is because they let me elaborate, shall we say, upon the technology of the Starkiller Base weapon. In the book, that’s real physics. It’s theoretical physics, but it’s real physics. I did a bunch of research and came up with some stuff involving dark energy and the heat released by gravitons whose motion is arrested, stuff like that. I had to be real careful because I got so into it and had so much fun with it. I had to be real careful when writing the book not to put in there four pages of exposition involving very heavy theoretical physics and astrophysics, because people would have just stopped cold.
A:If you could do anything by using the Force, what would you choose to do?
ADF:Oh gosh, that’s not a 30-second contemplation question.
A:No, that’s a totally unfair question.
ADF:You’re basically saying if I had this superpower what could I … If you could be Superman, what would you do, kind of thing. I suppose it would depend on how much of the Force I could control. I would use it for good. There’s a good clichéd answer for you, but that’s true.
A:Alan, thank you so much.
ADF: My pleasure. Anything beats writing.
A: That was Alan Dean Foster, author of the official novelization of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, now available on Audible.