'Star Wars' roughs it up in new lightsaber fight

Brian Truitt

NEW YORK — Filming a lightsaber battle meant a great day at the office for John Boyega.

Finn (John Boyega) is ready for a fight in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens.'

The new star of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is obsessed with the laser swords of the sci-fi franchise; he has a half-dozen replicas in his collection. As former First Order Stormtrooper-turned-hero Finn, Boyega faces off with the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) — brandishing blue and red lightsabers, respectively — in a key scene during the seventh Star Wars film (in theaters Dec. 18).

The final frame of the last full trailer depicts Finn’s trepidation when confronted with a skulking, attacking Kylo, and “that’s something great to capture,” the British actor says. “If you see Adam Driver dressed in black coming toward you, just swinging that thing, it makes you go, ‘Oh, shhh…’ So, yeah, I was genuinely scared.”

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Like the inevitable gunfight in a Western, the lightsaber sequence is a hallmark of the six previous Star Wars movies going back to the 1977 original. The films in George Lucas’ initial trilogy were filled with battles that tended toward the emotional — for example, Imperial enforcer Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones, body of David Prowse) vs. his old mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) in the first Star Wars, and later Vader taking on his son Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the climax of 1983’s Return of the Jedi.

Liam Neeson (from left) as Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn, Ray Park as Darth Maul and Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi in a key lightsaber battle in 'The Phantom Menace.'

Lucas’ prequels, however, were artier affairs; smooth moves marked such scenes as Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) taking on Sith lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) in 1999’s The Phantom Menace.

“Somersaults and backflips — there’s so much finesse and pizzazz to those fights that it felt like, OK, I can’t really top that,” says Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams. “I can’t go there because (Lucas) outdid himself in those.”

Instead, he focused on lightsaber fights that felt less choreographed and more brutal. “I tried to go rougher and more primitive, more instinctual rather than highly trained.”

Adam Driver stars as the masked First Order villain Kylo Ren in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens.'

Given the characters involved, Abrams wanted the action between Finn and Kylo to be a dramatic conversation. Boyega found a rhythm in working with Driver, who had a distinct advantage in terms of physicality.

“Adam is way taller than me,” Boyega says. “I’m only 5-foot-9 and Adam is 6-foot-something, so my reach, my hold has to be pretty strong to take a blow from that dude when it comes to the sabers.”

Much of their match was mapped out, yet the most important thing was making sure audiences knew it was a savage and ferocious tête-à-tête between two guys who are trying to kill each other.

“The aim is not to play and have a little dance-off. I think it was Ewan McGregor who said, ‘Oh, we didn’t need hilts in the prequels.’ Well, we didn’t need dance steps,” Boyega says with a laugh. “Brutality and reality are the best way to go.”