Seated in a circle with Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and others, John Swartz tried not to lose his composure as the cast and crew of Star Wars: The Force Awakens read the script for the first time.
“It’s hard to keep a straight face when you’re at the same table as Han Solo — when you’re surrounded by people from the films that really inspired you to do what you’re doing with your life,” said the Upper Arlington native, 31.
The star-struck feeling proved short-lived, though, because of the amount of work that Swartz — a co-producer of the film — had to do.
As a child who rode his bike to the nearby public library to borrow Return of the Jedi — and, later, an Ohio University telecommunication student who made commercials for Athens businesses — Swartz could scarcely have imagined that his first big-screen producing credit would be attached to such a highly anticipated movie.
His second credit will accompany Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a stand-alone film — set for release later this year — in the franchise.
"Star Wars is such a part of the fabric of modern pop culture,” said Swartz, who works in production and development for Lucasfilm; and lives in London, England.
“It’s such an event — which, in the past few weeks, I’ve been completely reminded of.”
Since the Dec. 18 release of The Force Awakens, friends have texted him and posted congratulatory messages on his Facebook page.
His college professors expressed pride in his accomplishment — but weren’t exactly surprised by it.
“His work output was off the charts while he was here,” said Roger Cooper, a faculty member in the OU School of Media Arts & Studies.
“It’s really difficult not to pay attention to someone who was clearly going to be successful. It was a big thrill to see his name in a very prominent credit.”
Cooper, who regularly invites Swartz to address film students in the OU programs in Athens and Los Angeles, called him “a great example in how to navigate what is a very tough, competitive business.”
His time at OU, said Swartz, a 2002 graduate of Bishop Watterson High School, provided a springboard to his success, affording him opportunities to try many aspects of the film industry.
While in Athens, he started a production company with friends to make movies (using the money from the commercials).
After his graduation (in three years) in 2005, he spent the summer as an intern for MTV Films in Los Angeles before returning to OU to obtain a master’s degree.
“A week after graduation (in 2006), I packed up the car without a place to live, without a job, and moved to Los Angeles,” he said.
Upon graduateon, MTV Films hired him to read and summarize scripts, among other duties.
Then, two years later, he became an assistant to Kathleen Kennedy, one of the top-grossing producers in history (Schindler’s List, the Indiana Jones movies and the Jurassic Park series).
He worked with her on the animated feature The Adventures of Tintin, followed by War Horse (filmed in London) and Lincoln (in Richmond, Va.).
During his time with Kennedy, Swartz accumulated noteworthy memories — such as taking script notes for Steven Spielberg at the director’s house and receiving texts from an excited Daniel Day-Lewis ahead of the Lincoln filming.
“The talent you get to be around and sponge off when it comes to their creativity and their process,” he said — “it’s the best film school you could ever ask for.”
Yet he eagerly and diligently did anything asked of him, from editing scripts all night and pursuing research to listing the talents of the horses used in War Horse.
His willingness to help — even to fetch coffee — made Swartz stand out, said Jason McGatlin, who worked as a co-producer on Tintin. (McGatlin, an executive producer of the new Star Wars film, serves as senior vice president of physical production at Lucasfilm.)
“He was the do-everything, solve-everything guy,” said McGatlin, noting that Swartz remains the same despite his increasing responsibilities.
“Nothing was beneath him.”
Swartz, McGatlin said, was tapped to move on to Lucasfilm when Kennedy took over the production company at the request of Star Wars creator George Lucas.
Which allowed Swartz — who spouts Star Wars quotes on command, McGatlin said — to be involved from the start in helping Lucas, Kennedy and eventually director J.J. Abrams to brainstorm ideas for the Force Awakens script.
“There were meetings about what Star Wars is, what it could be and what would we expect out of a new movie,” Swartz said.
Shooting didn’t begin until May 2014 — first in the United Arab Emirates and then at Pinewood Studios in England, where “a lot of spaceships” were shot.
Swartz, on the set daily, regularly communicated with Lucasfilm colleagues stationed throughout the world, he said.
Although he declined to divulge too many behind-the-scenes details, he described memorable moments — including the first time Han Solo (Ford) and his hairy sidekick, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), were filmed on the Millennium Falcon.
“A huge portion of the crew was crammed in this tiny space in front of a producer’s monitor to watch Han and Chewie deliver the first set of dialogue,” Swartz said. “You’re surrounded by so many people excited to be a part of this.
“You realize you’re making something really special.”
Swartz didn’t do much with the Force Awakens postproduction, as he began work in late 2014 on Rogue One with his wife, Kristen.
He did take an evening off from Rogue One to see the London premiere of The Force Awakens.
With each scene, he said, he recalled the work involved in it — maybe even where he stood at the time.
Two days later, he tried to enjoy the film as a Star Wars fan: He persuaded theater employees to let him watch a midnight showing already in progress with an ordinary audience.
“They (the moviegoers) were just so excited for what was coming, and they didn’t know what was coming,” he said. “It was very encouraging.”
Swartz entered the business, after all, to produce entertainment that people truly enjoy.
“I don’t take working on Star Wars for granted,” he said. “It’s such a fabric of pop culture that everyone feels they have some ownership of it. We work hard every day to respect that, and it makes me feel like we’re on the right track.”
Original article by Allison Ward for The Columbus Dispatch