Sunday December 6th was an all Disney’s Star Wars (still strange to put those together) day for me. I spent the morning at Disneyland checking out Hyperspace Mountain, the new Force Awakens location scene in Star Tours and the new Star Wars Launch Bay. Then I drove to LA to participate in what Disney called the Global Star Wars The Force Awakens press conference. I will say right up front that I don’t know anything more about what actually happens in the movie than I did before the press conference and so there are no spoilers to worry about- other than the already widely reported revelation that there is no Jar Jar Binks and there are no Ewoks in Force Awakens. What we did get was a chance to hear more about what went into making the movie and the experience of being part of the cast. Any of you that have been to a fan convention panel session would have felt at home at this press conference and there was an equal amount of general silliness, dumb questions, and joking answers that are part of the “you had to be there” experience. What I can share are the interesting tidbits and insights that I, as a major geek Star Wars fan, got out of the event.
The press corps was invited to arrive about an hour before the start of the press conference for lunch and to participate in some very nice experiences that Disney set up for us. Those included displays of most of the leading character’s costumes, a chance to see in one place much of the merchandise associated with the movie, photo ops with the droid stars (R2-D2, C-3PO and BB-8), a green screen photo op that put you into the movie, a chance to play with the new Force Awakens characters in Disney Infinity and a demonstration of Google VR technology built around the movie.
The actual press conference was split in two halves to keep from having too many folks on stage at once. The first group included JJ Abrams (director/producer/writer), Carrie Fisher (Leia), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Lupita Nyong’o (Maz Kanata), and Lawrence Kasdan (writer) and the second group was Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Bovega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma), and Kathleen Kennedy (producer).
First, a couple general impressions based on the overall event:
– Star Wars is in good hands – these are people who clearly care and view this as a sacred trust to get it right
– The “new kids” seem to be having more fun than the “legacy” actors. Part of that is age (maybe more correctly “maturity”), part is that Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford have already been through all of this before.
JJ Abrams was asked “why do this when you don’t need the work?” His answer was “This is a project that I felt incredibly lucky to be asked to be a part of, and I think I speak for all of us, except for maybe Harrison, when I say, this was not a job. I’m kidding, Harrison, you know, was unbelievable. But the process of this movie, to a person on the crew, to a person on the cast, this was not a job, and it was nothing that I think any one of us took on because it was a gig that was available. It was something that felt like a true passion and something that every single person brought much more than any of could have expected, and so I do honestly feel honored to be part of this group.” Harrison Ford was asked the same question and answered that “It’s because it’s what I do. It’s what I like to do. It’s what’s fun for me. And I had a chance to work with people that I really admire, doing something that I thought was going to be fun, and which actually turned out to be fun, and to work with J.J., whose work I had really admired and long known about. And it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
J.J. Abrams was asked “who was the most difficult actor to work with?” His answer was “Everyone was shockingly and eerily wonderful to work with, and to get to work with people like Carrie and Harrison and Mark and people who I was a fan of since I was 11 years old, and also actors like Lupita and Daisy and Adam and John, it was so much fun to see them work together and to see how that alchemy came out, and it was really a spectacular and fun thing every day on set.”
Harrison Ford was asked how hard it was to come back to the role of Han Solo after being away for so long. He answered that it “It seemed easy to come back to the character. Clothes make the man. I had walked more than a mile in those boots. I was interested in the described path of the character. I thought there was an interesting bit of business for the character to do. And I had been – I’d been having a real good time with J.J. Abrams, talking about it, and getting ready for the adventure of filming. So I was – it was easy.” Harrison was asked to talk about what it means to be one of the bridges between the original series and this new generation. His response was “It’s gratifying to be asked to be part of this. There was a interesting story to tell for the – through the character. It’s always nice to anticipate working in something that you know people will have an appetite for. This is not a crap shoot. This is – this is a big casino. And it’s fun to play with these toys again. It’s been a great experience.” Harrison was also asked the difference on set between the original movie and the new one and he said “It’s hard to say what the difference is. I can tell you how it feels. It feels familiar. It feels good. It’s good to be home, as Hans says in the trailer. I’m aware of the value that’s placed on these films by the audience, and I’m gratified that they’ve been passed on, the first three have been passed on generationally through family, and that there’s still an audience for those of us that were in the original film. There’s still some value to them in interpreting life somehow. And it’s a – and it’s a bit of a mystery, but it’s very gratifying to be part of that.”
Adam Driver was asked “what Kylo Ren is like?” His answer is “I think he’s very unpolished and unfinished and I think what J.J. and Larry did, keeping all the vocabulary that everyone’s very familiar with of Star Wars and the dark side and keeping that very much intact, but also adding a kind of recklessness or something that’s kind of un-neat about that. I think people normally associate with the dark side being organized and very in control and calm and in command.” Lawrence Kasdan then piled on by saying “That’s why were so excited about Adam playing this part because there’s never been a character like Kylo in the saga. And no, he hasn’t got his shit all together, I would say. And Adam acts it so beautifully because what you’re looking at is, you know, you expect that oh, this is some evil genius, but what you’re getting is all the contradictions and the conflict that people feel, any one of us can feel at any moment. That’s what’s so amazing about it and I think that’s what’s unique about what Adam has done.”
Lupita Wyong’o who plays the caracter “Maz Kanata” via motion capture was asked if it was very solitary? She said “J.J. had me be a part of principle photography so my very first experience of motion capture was on the actual sets with the actual actors. So I am eternally grateful to him for giving me that, because it was a great way to get into this wonderful, crazy thing called motion capture. I got to be on those sets and see those things and feel them and the art direction in this, there’s so much detail, even when you’re standing on that set, that it’s mesmerizing, and I think audiences are going to be – they’re going to have a very immersive experience, much like we had filming it.”
One of the questions that I wish more of the cast had answered was “If you were a baseball player, what would walk up song be?” The only one that admitted to having such a piece of music was Daisy Ridley who said that she played “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Mulon in her trailer before she went on set.
When JJ Abrams was asked “What was the most important thing to bring to The Force Awakens from the original trilogy, to you?” he provided this long and insightful answer – “When Kathy Kennedy and Larry and I started talking about what this was at the very beginning, the fundamental question was what did we want to feel, and what did we want people to feel when they came to this movie. And that was really the beginning of the discussion, and the answer was the kind of sense of discovery, exhilaration, surprise. The comedy that George Lucas put into Star Wars kind of was, for me, the thing that made me love the movie. But when you look at all the things that he got right, it’s impossible, and stunning. And so for us, at the very beginning, it was really about knowing why we were telling this story and it was to give people that sense of possibility and magic that we all felt when we first saw the original Star Wars. But I will just say that this is all to tell a new story. Meaning, it’s not a nostalgia trip. We had to go backwards in order to go forwards. And if you look at 4, 5, and 6 those are stories that continue. This is 7, so the history of 7 will be what we’ve seen before. So the fabric needed to be that that we are familiar with, in order to tell a brand new story.” JJ also said that he is working with folks developing the other Star Wars movies and that collaboration is going great. He also noted that Episode VIII starts principle photography in January.
Carrie Fisher and Daisy Ridley were asked to address the topic of “girl power.” Carrie was at first reluctant to give a straight answer but eventually got egged on to admit that “I am the beginning of girl power – I was the only girl on all boy set…what was really fun about doing anything that is girl poweresque, is bossing men around. I know a lot of you women out there haven’t done that yet, and I encourage you to do so later this afternoon.” Daisy said that “Well, obviously Princess Leia and Carrie is a source of inspiration for girls … and I’m definitely not quite there yet, I hope Rey will be something of a girl power figure, and I think with writing like J.J. and Larry’s, and with a story of which she is woven into richly and holds an important role, I guess there’s no other way except to say that she will have some impact in a girl power-y way. She’s brave and she’s vulnerable and she’s so nuanced. That’s what’s so exciting playing a role like this. She doesn’t have to be one thing to embody a woman in a film and for me, she’s not important ‘cause she’s a woman, she’s just important. It just so happens that she’s a woman. Like, she transcends gender. She’s going to speak to men and women. But obviously we started with Leia, and Leia’s still there kicking ass.”
JJ was asked why he has worked so hard to keep most of the plot details of the movie a secret. He said that he is secretive by nature and he really hates it when you go to see a movie and realize that you already know the entire plot based on the trailer. Given how much Lucasfilm shared of the previous movies before their release he thought this would be point of conflict with Disney, but Disney readily agreed not to reveal movie in trailers. JJ then encouraged all the press in attendance to publish their reviews of the movie without giving away the plot.
Kasdan and JJ were asked how much the huge extended Star Wars cannon influence this movie. Kasdan’s answer was “I think it had more to do with Jedi and the continuation of 4, 5, and 6. This is 7. I think we were aware, we’re respectful of the canon, but we really wanted to tell a story that interested us and delighted us and we didn’t really want any rules and parameters particularly. We just said, we can do anything we want with this story. What would be the most fun thing to do on this page, and the next page, and the page after that? And that was sort of the guiding principle, I think, more than the canon or anything that had come before.” That is consistent with Disney’s previous announcement that nothing outside of the original six movies, the Star Wars Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels cartoon series and the new comics and books will be considered canonical going forward.
John Bovega was asked about playing Finn and about the whole “black storm trooper controversy”. His answer was “For me, I – I’m going to be honest. I really don’t care about the black storm trooper stuff. I couldn’t care less. This is a movie about human beings, about Wookies, spaceships, and Ty fighters, and it has an undertone and a message of courage, and a message of friendship, and loyalty. And I think that’s something that is ultimately important. I watched the movie with Kathy just last week, and I really relate to Rey more than any of the characters. And to be in a circumstance where you have to find something bigger than who you are within yourself, is something that’s an inspiration to me. And I think that people take that away – in terms of the kids, all they’re going to be concentrating on is BB-8.”
Kasdan was asked if there any movie that he looked to or thought about when he were writing this one. His answer was “Oh, yeah. All the movies of Akira Kurosawa have influenced me throughout my career. That’s because he was sort of the Shakespeare of cinema, he did comedies, he did action films, he did Shakespearean drama, and all of life is contained in each one of his films. Seven Samurai may be the greatest film ever made, is, you know, it’s a personal drama, it’s an action picture. So when J.J. and I were working, we kept referring to that, and then we would talk about the great American movies that we loved and things that had influenced the first Star Wars which is Howard Hawks and John Ford, and you know, all the – Flash Gordon. Because when George made A New Hope, he was influenced very much by Kurosawa, and by Flash Gordon, and by the Wizard of Oz. And I think that all those movies, you can feel them in A New Hope, and everything that’s in A New Hope has come down through the movies, to this day, I think.”
To wrap up, here are some of the shortest answers which were also some of the best, or at least the funniest:
- JJ Abrams when asked if there was any influence from 30 years of new science discoveries on movie? “No”
- Carrie Fisher when asked if she thinks that Leia has a sense of humor – “Yes, just look at her hair”
- JJ Abrams when asked if there are Ewoks in this movie? – “Living?”
- Kaiden’s response when asked a rambling question about how much thought went into picking character names – “Just went with what sounded good to them”
- JJ when asked if there is an “Easter egg” in the end credits = “No”
- What is the dumbest rumor you’ve heard about the movie – “Jar Jar is Kylo Ren”
- Carrie Fisher when asked about her costume described it as “classy gas station attendant look”