The window into The Force Awakens is opening just a little bit wider on Thursday as director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy launch the Star Wars Celebration event in Anaheim with new revelations about the Dec. 18 film.
While an arena of 7,500 die-hards watches the presentation in person, a global audience is tuning in via live-stream to revisit that galaxy from far, far away and discover a little bit about what happened three decades after the events of Return of the Jedi, the death of Darth Vader, and the apparent collapse of the Empire.
Just like the reveal of the first teaser trailer in November, the Celebration gathering is expected to trigger a social media explosion as big as any detonating Death Star. To encourage viewers to join the discussion, Lucasfilm created three character emojis that would appear if users tweeted the hashtags #stormtrooper, #C3PO, or #BB8.
Click below to watch the live-stream and for more updates:
If Abrams weren’t onstage talking about the film he made, he might well be in the audience. The director of Super 8 and the Star Trek reboots has attended past Star Wars Celebration events as a fan and grew up, like many from his generation, as part of the original trilogy’s cult fandom.
Once upon a time, he even trick-or-treated as a certain character.
“I did dress up one year as a Jawa,” Abrams says. (For the uninitiated, those are the tiny scrap-dealers from 1977’s original Star Wars, shrouded in brown cloaks that reveal only their glowing orange eyes.)
Kennedy, the Oscar-nominated producer of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Sixth Sense, Seabiscuit, and Lincoln, also talks about her own connection to the Star Wars universe and the first time George Lucas approached her to take over the empire he created.
As they talk, the giant screen behind them shows images of Abrams and Kennedy sitting in the cockpit of the life-sized Millennium Falcon set built for the film, as well as shots of Abrams offering direction to stormtroopers and coaching Chewbacca through a scene. “It’s been fun flying to work,” Kennedy says.
WELCOME TO JAKKU
Production on The Force Awakens began last spring in the remote deserts of Abu Dhabi, and the opening image from November’s teaser trailer was a cluster of sand dunes against a clear blue sky. Many assumed that The Force Awakens might be returning to Luke Skywalker’s moisture-farming homeworld of Tatooine, but it turns out there’s more than one desert planet in the Star Wars galaxy.
Abrams announces that the world we see inhabited by Daisy Ridley’s scrappy desert-rat Rey and John Boyega’s panicking stormtrooper Finn is a new world known as Jakku.
This part of the presentation is accompanied by snapshots of Abrams, his cinematographer, production designer, and location scout walking across the ridge of a massive dune. Instead of Lawrence of Arabia, it’s Abrams of Jakku.
“People thought it was Tattoine,” says Abrams. “It’s Jakku.”
FORCE FOR CHANGE
Some of the earliest reveals of the new Star Wars film come in the form of videos Abrams created to promote the film’s Force For Change charity initiative, which raised money for UNICEF programs. “On the first day of shooting, we engaged fans and offered an opportunity to be in the movie by donating $10 to UNICEF,” says Abrams. “To this day we’ve raised over $6 million for UNICEF in the name of Force for Change.”
THE DROID MECHANICS
Talk now turns to the remote controlled actors in the film. Kennedy recalls attending the previous Star Wars Celebration in Essen, Germany, in 2013. The Force Awakens was still in pre-production, and she encountered a pair of fans who built life-sized R2-D2 robots as a hobby. Their work was so impressive, she hired them as droid builders for the new movie—which is how Lee Towersey and Oliver Steeples went from fans to contributors to the Star Wars saga.
The two men come out onstage with a familiar face, one of the R2 units they designed for the film. They were also responsible for another part of production: adding domed robotic heads to the tops of the X-Wing fighters, which utilize astromech droids as co-pilots.
But R2 has some competition this time, and the Celebration stage becomes an All About Eve showdown between him and a high-rolling newcomer: the ball droid known as BB-8, which maneuvered onstage for the robot version of a bow.
Although it resembled a volleyball with a cereal bowl for a head in last fall’s teaser, those proportions were deceptive. The droid’s base is actually about the size of a beach ball, and its head, which seamlessly glides across the top using magnets, is closer to the volume of a large mixing bowl. This droid was an original idea of Abrams, brought to life by animatronics expert Neal Scanlan (Little Shop of Horrors, Babe) and his team of builders.
“Could you guys keep it down?” Abrams says to the two nattering droids onstage. “We talked about how having a CGI BB-8 would be easier. But we thought it would be better for the actors and the performances to have the real thing.”
Kennedy notes that Disney head honcho Bob Iger is seated in the audience. “He’s the one who found the company to found the technology of what you’re seeing right now,” Kennedy notes. “We now have BB-8 operating on his own thanks to Bob.”
THE BIG THREE
One piece of news Abrams drops on the Celebration crowd is that the film essentially follows three lead characters: Ridley’s Rey, Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron. But instead of diving into just who these characters are, he decides to let them do the talking themselves—after months of strictly imposed silence.
Rey is among the many scavengers on Jakku, subsisting on the remains of demolished starships while trying to stay out of trouble. Then fate throws a stranger into her life—an apparently AWOL stormtrooper named Finn, played by Boyega, who is in fight-or-flight mode after a dangerous situation goes haywire.
“We discover Rey on the desert planet Jakku,” Ridley says. “She is a scavenger in a ship graveyard… very solitary. Until she meets another character and an adventure begins.”
But most Star Wars fans know of stormtroopers as… evil. So is Boyega a good guy, or a bad guy who’s learning to be better? After exchanging a few pained faces with Abrams, Boyega says: “My memory’s gone!”
“Whe find Finn, he’s in incredible danger,” Boyega says. “The way he decides to react changes his life and launches him into the Star Wars universe in a unique way.”
Who is Isaac’s Dameron character? “He’s the best fricking pilot in the galaxy, that’s who he is,” Isaac exclaims. “He’s been sent on a mission by a certain princess. He comes across Mr. John Boyega’s character and their fates are forever intertwined.”
Stormtroopers and X-Wing pilots working together? Madness.
Isaac and Boyega went on to share their memories of the casting process. “I was scared to tell my parents I got the part of Finn in Star Wars in case they didn’t believe me,” Boyega says. “So I waited until the cast photo was released to show them…I just told him I was filming 24!”
Isaac, for his part, stared down a moment of performance anxiety, staying in a hotel room in an unspecified city. “When I finally got call that I was officially going to play Poe Dameron, I was so nervous, I blasted the Star Wars theme as loud as I could, I grabbed my shampoo bottle like a lightsaber. And I thought, ‘I can do this!’”
Kennedy acknowledges that there are many new actors in the movies whose roles are not yet being discussed, among them Andy Serkis, Game of Thrones actress Gwendolyn Christie, Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, Adam Driver (believed to be playing the villain Kylo Ren, seen in the teaser wielding an flame-like crossguard lightsaber) and The Exorcist star Max Von Sydow.
“I promise we’re going to have a lot of fun revealing over the coming months,” says Abrams. “How lucky are we to have these three?”
GALACTIC GIRL POWER
In the original Star Wars saga, there was pretty much only one female: Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. Yes, there was a brief appearance by Rebel leader Mon Mothma in Return of the Jedi, and Jabba had his ill-fated Rancor-snack dancers. But other than that, XX chromosomes were in short supply.
“I liked being the only one when I was 19,” Fisher says. “But now I need some backup.”
More pressingly, will Leia’s hair buns be back for Episode VII?
“The buns are tired now,” Fisher says. “So [the character is] probably not going to have the futuristic buns. But we have any alternate thing I think you’ll be into—that is not the metal bikini!”
As the presentation reaches its end, the new members of the Star Wars world make way for a brief appearance by some of the veteran performers who brought the original trilogy to life and will be reprising their roles in the new film: Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Fisher, and Mark Hamill.
Daniels arrives as the only cast member to appear in all seven Star Wars installments. “It is quite amazing,” the British actor says. “It’s 40 years since I first met George Lucas and quickly became part of a team that made this crazy little film none of us thought any of you would come to see.”
“I knew you guys were coming!” injects Fisher, speaking to the fans in the audience.
“No, you didn’t!” Daniels responds, before continuing: “You kept coming. And you stayed with us from the beginning. It is quite extraordinary. Now there’s even more of you, three generations, who love this story. And of course, 3PO and myself have survived six films. The future? Who knows?”
Adds Hamill: “I remember George calling the first film ‘The most expensive low-budget movie ever made.’ I said, ‘No, I think we’re going to outgross Planet of the Apes.’ The Charleton Heston version. I have a simple message: a simple thank you. If it weren’t for all the UPFs—Ultra Passionate Fans—we wouldn’t be here. It never ceases to amaze me.”
After a big group photo, including R2-D2, BB-8, and a phalanx of the Version 7.0 stormtroppers (featuring the latest updates to their familiar black and white armor), Abrams and Kennedy had one last treat for fans: a new trailer. “The energy you’re throwing our way is evidence of the Force,” Abrams says.