Last year, before Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened in theaters, it was widely reported that director J.J. Abrams arranged for one dying man to see the movie before this unabashed fan passed away. Now it has been revealed that a number of terminally ill patients actually got to see the movie in advance of its December 18 release date. The movie arrives this week on Blu-ray and DVD, where even more fans suffering from conditions that keep them away from the multiplex will finally get to see the sequel. But apparently J.J. Abrams tried his hardest to get it in front of the eyes that mattered most, first.
In the months leading up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens grand red carpet debut in Los Angeles, where most of Hollywood saw the movie for the first time, Daniel Fleetwood was treated to a special cut of the sequel at his home. The 32-year-old Texas man was dying from connective tissue cancer called spindle cell sarcoma. Thanks to his wife, word quickly spread on social media that Daniel's final wish was to see the movie, as he knew he wouldn't last long, and would perish before its home video release date. The hashtag #ForceForDaniel quickly spread across social media. While the studio and the filmmakers behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens didn't publicly announce they were showing Daniel Fleetwood the movie, word spread quick after he watched it. Shortly thereafter, the man passed away.
With the movie out now on the home market, J.J. Abrams feels he's ready to talk about this and other incidences that the public haven't yet heard about. Asked to reflect on his favorite fan experience, he shared an unexpectedly emotional response with EW. It was here that he revealed many terminally ill people had gotten to see the movie early. He says this.
"You know, there are a lot of examples of passionate and excitable people but the most, I think, profound experience was that in the time before the movie came out - about a month before - we had a couple people go around to those fans who were not going to survive because of terminal illness until the movie came out. The movie was screened probably two dozen or so times to various people who, tragically, were struck with illness that would prevent them from seeing the movie otherwise."
Though J.J. Abrams was locked away in his editing room, putting the finishing touches on the movie in the weeks leading up to its release, he didn't let the film go out in the wild alone. LucasFilm and Bad Robot representatives were on hand to deliver the film to various homes. But the director himself always made sure to call in advance of hitting play so that he could properly introduce the movie to these sick fans. He says this.
"I would speak with these people before and after. Sometimes they were adults and other times they were children and it was always... it was the most profound thing to be reminded in such a clear and wonderful and heartbreaking way how important this world was that George Lucas created, what it meant to these people. It was a reminder to all of us how what we were doing was really important to so many people. It was also a reminder about what was important in life with all the pressure and everyone always asking, 'Oh, how do you deal with the pressure?' Then you talk to someone who's going through something like this, or a family member who's going through something like this, and you very quickly realize that this pressure [of making the movie] is nothing. This pressure is a luxury. And that was probably the most impactful type of experience with a Star Wars fan."
J.J. Abrams doesn't like to publicly address the charity work he often does. And this kind of thing is not new in any respect. Back in 2013, he fulfilled a similar wish for a dying Star Trek fan, showing off the reboot to the man early. This fan died just a few days after screening the unfinished movie. Sources close to the filmmaker say that there are quite a few stories just like this one, but you'll probably never hear J.J. Abrams publicly speak about it, as he likes to keep these moments private.
While Fleetwood's request to see the movie was spread wide over social media, most of these types of request happen quietly. The fans and their families have remained unknown for the most part. About this, the director explained the following.
"We didn't want it to turn into a publicity stunt.This was a quiet thing we were doing for people who will remain anonymous but it was you know... the exchanges and the conversations that we all had with these families and these people were really moving."
The just released Star Wars: The Force Awakens Blu-ray combo pack includes a featurette that focuses on the Force For Change charity campaign, which has raised over $10 million for UNICEF thanks to Star Wars fans. The campaign will continue as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story makes its way into theaters this December, and Star Wars: Episode VIII continues production in London. The current campaign just began this past week, with donating fans getting a chance to win a trip to Skellig Michael, the island in Ireland where Luke Skywalker's secret Jedi temple resides. You can learn more about this new contest at the official ForceForChange website.