As I sat down in the reserved section in vast Hall H, I sat next to “Lego Movie” director Chris Miller, who with his partner Phil Lord has just signed on for a “Star Wars’ standalone. There are several, as the Disney Studio, which acquired Lucasfilm for $4.6 billion three years ago, is announcing the dates for one new “Star Wars” installment after another, from Gareth Edwards’ “Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One” which starts filming in three weeks to Saga Episodes VIII and IX.
J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens,” known as Episode VII because it follows 30 years after the original Episodes IV, V and VI, is set to open December 18. Can it possibly top box-office juggernaut “Jurassic World”? If anything can–assuming “The Force Awakens” delivers–this is it.
By far the most anticipated panel of Comic-Con 2015, Disney brought “The Force Awakens” to San Diego because the fan hordes live and breathe this stuff. (The Starbucks at the Bayfront Hilton was running the original “Star Wars.”) The rest of their slate, from Marvel to Pixar, will be showcased at Disney’s own fan convention, D23, in August.
The house was amped up, as well they should have been, most of them having lined up for one to two days to get in–one young woman’s parents staked out their position in line at 4 am Thursday; the trio were let into the hall at 8:30 AM Friday–and stayed there until the 5:30 PM Lucasfilm panel began. (Abrams bought doughnuts for the line.) Moderator Chris Hardwick expertly managed the panel and the fan hordes–“We are in this! This is happening right now!” This is the ‘Star Wars: Force Awakens’ panel!” ROAR.
However, some of the more serious new actors were too cool for the room: Adam Driver (who plays villain Kylo Ren) and Domnhall Gleason (as the Dark Side’s General Hux), didn’t seem to understand how to play the PR game. Abrams had to order Driver to answer a question, and Gleason leaked the name of the “Star Killer Base” that he commands, as his director admonished him for letting loose a spoiler. Their fellow member of the Dark Side, lanky Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma), is an old pro at this point; she knows that her “Game of Thrones” fans eat up good feminist rhetoric. She was excited to play a storm trooper, she said, but “it was the opportunity to explore a female character who is not about the way she looks in the flesh. Underneath that armor is a woman.” Her co-stars will learn.
During the behind-the-scenes footage narrated by Hamill, you could hear the audience react to the original stars Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill, and the same was true at the panel. The older players drove the crowd wild. “It was like a flashback, they were right about the acid flashbacks,” quipped Fisher. “I didn’t think it was going to happen again. It was a little bit like before, only we looked more melted again, in a good way. We left off a while ago, a long leave-off and we’re back. We’re the legacy players, known as the legacy people, like a tap dancing troop. It was great having new people because they do it faster.”
It was fun to see the old comaraderie among Fisher and Hamill and Ford, who were on-screen rivals for Princess Leia’s affection until Luke finds out she’s his sister. “That must have been quite the traumatic experience,” Hamill said.
“How many times can I say I’m sorry?” said Ford, putting his arm around the disconsolate Hamill.
Harrison Ford liked the natural rounding and evolution of the characters in the new installment, he said: “I never expected it would be back to bless me rather than to torment me. I never thought we’d do another. I was gratified when I read the script. It’s remarkably well-written, with some intriguing developments.” Clearly, Ford not only enjoyed making the movie more than he expected, but hanging with his old cast mates. And he has finally learned how to commune with the fans–this was a more relaxed and happy Ford than the man who came in 2010 to uncomfortably promote “Cowboys & Aliens.”
The panel stayed on focus, fanning the passion for “Star Wars,” which Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy reminded, “helped to usher in the Comic-Con age. A lot of people know ‘Star Wars’ is 100% dependent on the fans in this room, since 1976,” she said. “When the movie was ready to come out, fans built momentum around the release of ‘New Hope.’ We’re right back coming full circle.”
Hamill recalled pitching the movie with 25 photos at a 1976 fan convention with marketer Charlie Lippincott, before the movie opened. “We only had photographs and R2d2 as a prop, and C3po without Anthony Daniels…It wasn’t easy to describe what it was.”
Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote George Lucas’s “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi,” wrote the new script with Abrams, and stayed available on set. Over the last 30 years, he said, “the movies never went out of my consciousness, so when I come back and meet these characters again 30 years later, there’s no disjunction in my life.”
He and Abrams spent a year walking and talking the script through. They treated the first three films as canon. “We were writing fast and writing hard, walking around Santa Monica, sitting in the bay of a Star Destroyer with storm troopers drilling in front of us,” said Kasdan. “JJ wanted to tell a story that would make us feel like the continuum of the story George started.”
While the panelists were keeping as much secret as they could, they did tease out some details. After all, the movie won’t hit theaters until December 18.
Abrams is an admitted fan. But that has nothing to do with what you have to do to make a good movie. “We do what feels right, what delights us. It has to be compelling,” Abrams said. “Although we love it and care about it, our job is not to be blinded by it, I can’t be a fan. When directing a scene on the Millennium Falcon, it doesn’t make it good. It’s bitching…but it doesn’t make the scene automatically good. What do the characters want? Who are they? What’s unexpected? It has to be fun and scary. The power of what came before is so deep we have to harness it but can’t be blinded by it. What does it mean? Why are we doing this? We worked as hard as we possibly could.”
He’s now in the editing room. “We have a cut of the movie,” he said, grateful that he has enough time to fine-tune it to get it where it needs to go.
During the panel, multiple production stills were shown, but not a trailer–Disney is holding off on that until fall–along with a behind-the-scenes video (see below) which showed the filmmakers on location in Abu Dabi. Abrams and Kennedy made a point of how many of the creatures in the movies are animatronic, shot live the way they were on the first film, using more sophisticated robotic technology with puppets and people. Because they are live, actors are interacting with actors, and the lights are bouncing off something real. The fans loved it when Babajo–created by the film’s creature maker Neal Scanlon and commandeered by five actors– lumbered on stage, mugging for the cameras. (Watch video here.)
This is a dramatic departure from the Lucas philosophy of creating everything possible with CG. He was always an early digital evangelist. One reason to do “Episode VII” this way was to create continuity with the way the first three films were made, Abrams said. Chewbacca is even played by the same actor, Peter Mayhew, who took a bow from the floor.
“There’s a ton of VFX, Abrams said, “you can’t avoid it, but you can make it authentic and tell a story that allows actors on set with as much tangible real sets as possible, it helped the entire process to look and feel as if it was real, and it was.”
New “Star Wars” recruit John Boyega (“Attack the Block”) also plays a storm trooper; he complained about having to run in costume through the 120-degree heat, along with fellow Brit newcomer Daisy Ridley as Rey. He worked the “Force Awakens” stand on the exhibition floor disguised in a storm trooper helmet. During production Boyega took Harrison Ford to a Nigerian restaurant in East London, he said. When one customer asked, “Are you Harrison Ford?,” the star replied, “I used to be.”
At panel’s end, Abrams invited every single person in Hall H to pick up a badge on their way out and walk to Petco Stadium (the cast went too) for a free live “Star Wars” concert they would always remember. And that they did. So will popular Kevin Smith, whose panel followed. With Hall H empty, he drove around the block, pulled himself together, and went back in. A few thousand people had come in.