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The New Force Behind Star Wars

The following script is from "The New Force Behind Star Wars" which aired on Dec. 13, 2015. Bill Whitaker is the correspondent. Marc Lieberman, producer.

This week, the curtain goes up on the most anticipated movie of the year -- "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." It's the first new Star Wars in a decade and the first to be made without creator George Lucas. Three years ago, Lucas sold his empire to The Walt Disney Company for $4 billion. Enter J.J. Abrams, the director handpicked to reignite the fan fervor -- and who is under tremendous pressure to make sure Disney's big bet pays off. He's been called the Steven Spielberg of his generation and we learned Spielberg helped get him the job. When Abrams took us behind the scenes, we found a 49-year-old man fueled by a childlike enthusiasm for the magic of movies and a movie that's going to hit some classic Star Wars notes.

Six weeks before the premiere, we dropped in on a Hollywood scoring session for "The Force Awakens."

Composer John Williams, who won an Academy Award for the first Star Wars film, was back -- along with the iconic refrain he wrote 38 years ago.

Take a look behind Williams. That's not some awestruck groupie. That's the movie's director, J.J. Abrams.

Bill Whitaker: I saw you up here with your -- with your -- video camera -- taking --

J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams: Oh. Well, this is -- this is like momentous you know John Williams conducting his Star Wars music. I mean, as a fan, I can't even believe I get to be here.

Abrams saw Star Wars when he was 11 and never outgrew his passion for the film. On this day, when he wasn't in the middle of the orchestra, filming on his phone, he was racing around the sound stage -- here the fan...

John Williams: Do you think it could work?

J.J. Abrams: Let me just think. Yeah. It's incredible.

...there the director.

J.J. Abrams, left, John Williams

J.J. Abrams: We may need to make the bum ba da ba da...repeat those bars just because it might it might be a little bit longer before we get into the interior of the transport.

Bill Whitaker: I see you running around. I mean, you're very --

J.J. Abrams: Really? I've -- I've felt so calm today.

Bill Whitaker: Yeah -- this is you calm?

J.J. Abrams: Really, this is me, "Oh, God" --

Bill Whitaker: This is you calm?

J.J. Abrams: Yeah.

Bill Whitaker: Is it intimidating in any way?

J.J. Abrams: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It's -- there are moments of just abject terror, as to what we're all taking on.

"It's not a movie. It's bigger than all of us. It's almost a religion for people."

What he's taking on is this: "The Force Awakens." Disney is counting on Abrams to expand the universe of Star Wars fans, while staying true to George Lucas' original vision. And the die-hard fans: their expectations are out of this world.

[Trailer: The Force. It's calling to you. ]

When the official trailer was posted online, it was viewed 112 million times in just 24 hours.

[Kylo Ren: Nothing will stand in our way.]

Bill Whitaker: Talk about the Force. The fans are a force to be reckoned with? And -- it's intense?

J.J. Abrams: It is.

Bill Whitaker: It's not just the fans here; this is global.

J.J. Abrams: It's not a movie. It's bigger than all of us. It's almost a religion for people.

Bill Whitaker: What grabbed you about Star Wars?

J.J. Abrams: The experience of it was so profound and so moving and so funny and so sweet that for me, as a kid -- it -- it blew my mind. And it was just -- it said, "Anything is possible."

Abrams has been working on "The Force Awakens" non-stop for three years. He's managed to keep a tight lid on it. This is one of the few clips Disney has released. He told us his movie is set about 30 years after "Return of the Jedi," the final film in the first trilogy. At the end of that movie, the good guys had vanquished the empire and subdued the dark side...or so it seemed.

Bill Whitaker: What has been going on in that galaxy?

J.J. Abrams: "Return of the Jedi" seemed to end pretty happily. But the walk off to the sunset is -- is always -- a misleading thing, because, "Well, then what?" And so one of the things that I think you see in this movie is that things didn't just end happily, and that the idea of the force, both the dark and the light side -- are at a classic Star Wars -- place, which is -- in a desperate moment.

A moment which forces a new generation to step up.

[Finn: We can't outrun them.

Rey: We might. In that quad jumper.]

Stepping into a lead role: 23-year-old newcomer, Daisy Ridley. Her character is Rey, a desert scavenger. John Boyega is another new face. He plays Finn, a disillusioned storm trooper.

John Boyega, left, J.J. Abrams

[Finn: I've got nothing to fight for.]

Bill Whitaker: Your universe seems to be a -- more diverse place? By gender? By race?

J.J. Abrams: Uh-huh.

Bill Whitaker: What do you think the impact of that is going to be?

J.J. Abrams: When we started casting the movie, it felt incredibly important to me that the movie look like the world in which this movie is being released.

Abrams didn't just direct the movie, he wrote it with Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote two of the original Star Wars with Lucas. Abrams knew from the start he would tell a story that blended the new with the old. Taking his cue from the first trilogy, he made authenticity paramount, shooting in far flung locales, like this desert in Abu Dhabi; the sets were built from scratch ... the explosions were real.

Bill Whitaker: Were there times when you stepped back from being the director and you were just the fan on the set?

J.J. Abrams directs Harrison Ford as Han Solo 01:15

J.J. Abrams: It was very hard to be in the 125-degree heat in Abu Dhabi with actual Stormtroopers running through this village that we had built, and not have moments constantly of, "Holy -- what the -- you know, I can't believe I'm here." It was constantly happening, and I had to suppress that and say, "Yep, okay, let's do it," and like put that away, because the job was not to be a wide-eyed fan boy. The job was to be the director of the movie.

[Abrams: Energy and action!]

As the director, he managed a cast and crew of almost a thousand. He set limits on computer generated imagery. Most of Abrams' creatures, like the new droid BB-8, were crafted by hand, including his own.

J.J. Abrams: We knew he had to have a hero droid that was not -- a familiar one.

Bill Whitaker: And you came up with a concept, like, by sketching it out?

J.J. Abrams: I drew -- the dumbest little thing. I just, I -- I drew something like -- like this.

He gave his sketch to the creature department, a group of about 100 artists and designers. They made a puppet.

J.J. Abrams: And the puppeteer, came out with BB-8. And he was moving around. And it was, like "Oh my god, it lives."

[Rey: Where do you come from?]

We watched as Abrams worked on one scene where the droid meets Rey for the first time.

J.J. Abrams: Maybe we could connect them so it's not so separate.

Sound Editor: Um-hm.

J.J. Abrams: Duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh.

Bill Whitaker: So he's going to fit the pantheon R2-D2, C-3PO now --

J.J. Abrams: From your mouth, Sir.

Bill Whitaker: -- BB8.

J.J. Abrams: From your mouth, Sir. I don't - I - I -- I hope so.

BB8 Droid

Only a handful of people have seen the finished film. One of them is Abrams' wife of 19 years, Katie McGrath. They have three children, a charitable foundation she oversees, and a "Harry met Sally" rapport.

Katie McGrath: I love the movie. I really love the movie. And I'm sort of picky. And I'm a little -- you know --

J.J. Abrams: Brutally -- brutally honest.

Katie McGrath: I'm -- I'm honest. And at the end of the day, it's a movie. You know, this is not curing cancer. This is not eradicating poverty. This is -- this is making a movie. Right? Right? That's what you believe, right?

J.J. Abrams: I'm sorry. She lost me after, "This is just a movie." I was like --

Jeffrey Jacob Abrams' grew up in Hollywood's backyard, not far from the big studios. But when he took a tour of a movie backlot at age 8, he knew he'd found his calling.

Bill Whitaker: What in particular drew you to it?

J.J. Abrams: I think the thing that was so cool is the whole thing felt like a magic trick, that it was -- it was every aspect of illusion, of creating something that seemed like it was actual -- actually happening and real.

He picked up the family's home movie camera and tried his own sleight of hand.

[The Attic: Now we seek revenge!]

He admits his earliest works weren't that good. But he got better. He won a teen film festival and got written up in the Los Angeles Times. That's him in the middle. The article caught the eye of Steven Spielberg. He reached out to the young filmmaker, who reminded him of himself. Today Spielberg is Abrams' friend, collaborator and a big fan.

Bill Whitaker: What first struck you about him?

Steven Spielberg: He just reminded me of a cartoon character that was so full of magnetic energy and ideas coming out of him, sometimes just like sparks flying in all directions. He was just absolutely, deliriously, madly in love with the film business and with making movies.

J.J. Abrams' fiercest critics 00:32

The kid in Abrams is on display at Bad Robot, his Santa Monica production company. He says this quirky place is a grown up version of his childhood bedroom -- with toys, an art area, and a place for special effects. Here, about 90 employees churn out a constant stream of movies, TV shows, video games and apps. Abrams stage manages it all.

Bill Whitaker: He's kind of, like, all over the place. Is it difficult?

Katie McGrath: I don't even try. It can give you a bit of a complex if -- that you don't have enough hobbies in your life. But he --

Bill Whitaker: You're -- you're not doing enough.

Katie McGrath: No, no. And I'm doing plenty, by the way. But this is a whole other ballgame. He's, you know, he --

J.J. Abrams: I'm right here, guys--

Katie McGrath: I know. This is so weird.

J.J. Abrams: Bill, it's like "Sixth Sense." Bill, Katie.

Bill Whitaker: But it's good energy.

Katie McGrath: No, it's great energy, actually.

He sold his first screenplay in college. He went on to write or co-write five more movies including the blockbuster "Armageddon." He made several TV shows. The cult hit "Lost," about plane crash survivors on a mysterious island, won him two Emmys.

[Lost: You're going to be OK, do you understand me?

J.J. Abrams: Cut. That was awesome!]

After that, his rousing remakes of flagging franchises "Mission: Impossible" and "Star Trek" grossed more than one billion dollars worldwide and earned Abrams the reputation as the remake king. He found himself in a financially lucrative, but creative rut. He decided to move on from sequels. Then fate -- in the form of a conversation between Steven Spielberg and Star Wars producer Kathy Kennedy -- changed his destiny.

How Steven Spielberg pitched "Star Wars" to Abrams 01:31

Steven Spielberg: And I just said, "Kathy there's only one director that really should undertake this daunting epic task, and that's J.J. Abrams."

His daunting task: to justify Disney's $4 billion investment, plus the estimated $200 million it cost to make the movie. Wall Street will be disappointed if it doesn't bring in more than $1.5 billion.

Bill Whitaker: What's going on in his head right now?

Steven Spielberg: Oh -- J.J. is terrified. There's a lot of pressure on J.J. -- to start paying Disney back for-- you know, the franchise they bought from -- from George Lucas.

J.J. Abrams: You just know that there will be people, no matter what you do, that will have issues with some aspect. You just know there is some number that is being thrown out there that will not be hit. You just know.

Fans have snapped up more than $50 million in advance tickets. In Hollywood, they started lining up outside the theater a week ago. The force seems to be with Abrams.

Katie McGrath: He's got a long way to go, still, for what he's potentially able to do, in my opinion.

Fans lining up outside theater for "The Force Awakens"

J.J. Abrams: Thank you.

Bill Whitaker: You think he's got another gear in his filmmaking?

Keith McGrath: I hope so. You better. We're running out of sequels. Right, babe? Come on. Isn't -- that's enough! What do you do after Star Wars?

Whether "The Force Awakens" soars or disappoints, J.J. Abrams is ready for this all-consuming, three-year rocket ride to be over.

J.J. Abrams: I said to someone recently it's like I've had the greatest, in this movie, I've had the - the -- the greatest roommate ever for too long. Like, it's just time for him to move out. He just -- he needs to get his own place. And I just need to figure out, you know, what's next.

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