This past weekend, a press junket for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was held in Los Angeles.
The location was kept secret by the studio, Disney, until just two days before the junket, and journalists were asked not to divulge where it was and were even asked to turn off geotagging on their devices (although you could still post on Twitter as long as you didn't reveal where you were). In an even more unprecedented move, the studio did not screen the movie for the press prior to the junket -- so every single interview conducted and question asked was done with next to no knowledge of the movie's plot or its characters' fates.
I tell you this for two reasons: first, so that you understand that the highlights from the press conferences do not contain spoilers of any kind (although there are a few hints dropped here and there about characters' backstories and so on) and second, because it underscores what a singular experience the release of this movie is turning out to be. Most of the press would not consent to doing interviews without seeing the movie first (and other studios shouldn't get any ideas -- you don't have Star Wars, guys), but everyone was all too happy to do this one. The junket was staged almost like a little mini-con, with art and costume displays, video game demonstrations, merch and souvenirs, and photo ops with C-3PO, R2-D2 and BB-8 -- all of which kept us entertained if still largely uninformed.
Sunday's press conferences -- with director J.J. Abrams, producer/Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and cast members Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (General Leia), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma) and Lupita Nyong'o (Maz Kanata) -- were entertaining and occasionally frustrating. We've compiled the best or most interesting remarks from the participants below (video of both press conferences is posted at the bottom).
Moderator Mindy Kaling (a self-professed Star Wars fan) kicked things off by asking J.J. Abrams why he took the gig in the first place: "Aren't you rich?" A good-natured Abrams laughed along before getting serious about the question: "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 us could have expected, and so I do honestly feel honored to be part of this group."
Here's Abrams on what the mission was in making a new Star Wars film: “When Kathy Kennedy and Larry [Kasdan] and I started talking about what this was, at the very beginning, the fundamental question was, what do we want to feel, and what do we want people to feel? That was really the beginning of the discussion. The answer was the sense of discovery, exhilaration, surprise and comedy that George Lucas put into Star Wars. That, for me, was the thing that made me love the movie. When you look at all the things that he got right, it’s impossible and stunning. So, for us, at the very beginning, it was really about knowing why we were telling the story, which 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. It’s not a nostalgia trip. We had to go backwards, in order to go forwards."
Here's Lawrence Kasdan on whether he and Abrams utilized any elements of the expanded Star Wars canon when writing the script: "We were aware and respectful of the canon, but we really wanted to tell a story that interested us and delighted us. We didn’t really want any rules and parameters. We 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?’ That was the guiding principle, more than the canon or anything that had come before."
Carrie Fisher -- a bit of a loose cannon who described her costume in the movie as looking like a "classy gas station attendant" -- was asked what it was like to bring "girl power" to the original Star Wars 38 years ago: "I got to be the only girl on the all-boy set, and it was really fun to put things in their drinks, and stuff like that. We drank through the whole trilogy in the beginning -- this [one] was a sober set. That's what J.J. brought to this was sobriety. [Leia is] more powerful in the ‘Yes, I’m louder than you,’ way. ... What was really fun about doing anything girl power-esque 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.”
Daisy Ridley was also asked about bringing "girl power" to The Force Awakens: “Princess Leia and Carrie [Fisher] have been a source of inspiration for girls for the past 30 years. I’m definitely not quite there yet, but I hope Rey will be something of a girl power figure. And I think with writing like J.J. and Larry's, and a story of which she is woven into richly and holds an important role, 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. For me, she’s not important because she’s a woman. She’s just important, and it just so happens that she’s a woman. 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."
Harrison Ford was asked by Kaling why he decided to play Han again: "It's what I do. It's what I like to do. Its what's fun for me. 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'd long admired and known about. It seemed like a good idea at the time."
Ford called working on the movie a "great experience" and was asked how it felt to slip into the character of Han again: "“It feels familiar. It feels good. It’s good to be home, as Han says in the teaser 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, generationally, through families and that there's still an audience for those of us that were in the original films. It’s a bit of a mystery but it's very gratifying to be part of that.”
Adam Driver spoke a bit about his character, Darth Vader acolyte and First Order villain Kylo Ren: "He's very unpolished and unfinished, and I think what JJ and Larry did, keeping all the vocabulary that everyone's very familiar with in Star Wars, and the Dark Side, and keeping all of that very much intact but also adding a kind of recklessness that's kind of un-neat about it...I think people normally associate with the Dark Side being organized and very in control and calm and in command."
Here's Driver with more on Kylo: "I remember, early on, not thinking of him being bad or evil or a villain, and trying to make something that was more three-dimensional. That, to me, seemed more dangerous and more unpredictable. He’s someone who feels morally justified, in doing whatever he needs to do. That seemed more active to play than just being evil for the sake of it. That’s not really fun to play."
Abrams revealed which costume was the hardest to come up with, while also letting it slip that the character of Captain Phasma was originally male: "The most difficult one was Kylo Ren and we went through I don’t know how many hundreds and probably thousands of iterations and different versions. One of the great things about that was over the course of that, the costume for Captain Phasma was designed, that was actually pitched as a Kylo Ren costume originally. For story reasons, it didn’t make sense and didn’t work but we suddenly realized oh my God, this is one of the greatest looking costumes I’ve ever seen. He, then she, became one of my favorite characters in the movie. But the design of Kylo Ren was the most difficult one. When we finally saw the mask and that design, it was really instantly clear that was the winner.”
Gwendoline Christie (who plays Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones) expressed that she felt "incredibly privileged" at landing the role of Phasma: "I was very surprised at heartened at the overwhelming response to the character...J.J. has been open about the fact that he wanted it to respect the origins of the films and celebrate them, but to bring them into the modern day. And confirmation of that seemed to be, to me, in this amazing character of Captain Phasma who is Star Wars’ first on-screen female villain. More than that, this is a character who, so far, we have related to due to her choices and due to her character, and not due to the way she has been made in flesh. Conventionally, that is how we have related to female characters, so this, to me, felt very progressive. The response from the audience and the fans has been so celebratory that it makes me think that this is the kind of thing that people want to see.”
Asked about the "cultural impact" that a new Star Wars movie could have, John Boyega kept it simple: "This is a movie about human beings and Wookiees and spaceships and TIE fighters. It has a message and an undertone of courage and friendship and loyalty, and I think that's something that's 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 inspirational to me."
Boyega also revealed that he doesn't even know Finn's full back story -- yet: “I didn’t know much going in because of the spoilers, but I do remember having (script pages) that were loosely based on who Finn and Rey were. And I remember during my time screen testing, I said to Daisy, ‘There’s no way that our stories are so simple.’ And we still don’t know. I’ve got some conspiracy theories, as a fan, as to where Finn comes from, but I’m still trying to figure that out. I like that it’s a mystery.”
The ultimate keeper of that mystery may be Kathleen Kennedy, who as head of Lucasfilm is not just getting Star Wars: The Force Awakens out the door but is overseeing Episodes VIII and IX and the spin-off films like Rogue One. After reassuring the audience that neither Jar Jar Binks nor the Ewoks are anywhere to be found in this movie ("That was in my contract," growled Ford next to her), Kennedy also said that the entire new trilogy is still a work in progress: “We haven’t mapped out every single detail yet, but obviously, everybody’s talking to one another and working together. That collaboration is what is going to guarantee that everybody’s got a say in how we move forward with this, and so far, it’s going great. J.J. and Rian (Johnson, Episode VIII writer/director) have already talked at length because Rian’s about to start shooting Episode VIII, and (the actors) are getting ready to head over in January. And then, Colin (Trevorrow, Episode IX director) will start working with Rian and spend a lot of time on set with us.”
Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in less than two weeks on December 18, 2015.