What can you learn at a press conference for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" when the media have yet to see the film, the creative team is still zealously guarding plot secrets, and the entire discussion is moderated by sitcom star?
Plenty, surprisingly, although not about the storyline, the characters or the signature dogfights and lightsaber duels. But as far as lively-behind-the-scenes details are concerned, moderator Mindy Kaling and a throng of journalists from around the globe discovered satisfying answers to a range of questions, ranging from the merely geeky to the sublime.
The first panel was composed of director and co-writer J.J. Abrams, veteran "Star Wars" screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, sharp-witted “Star Wars” legend Carrie Fisher and franchise newcomers Daisy Ridley (Ren), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Lupita Nyong'o (Maz Kanata), all of whom did their best to reveal what they could about “The Force Awakens.”
On why Abrams – whom Kaling pointed out was already rich – still had to make this film:
Abrams: Here’s the thing. This is a project that I felt incredibly lucky to be asked to be a part of. I think I speak for all of us, except for maybe Harrison [Ford], when I say this was not a job. I’m kidding, Harrison was unbelievable. The process of this movie, to a person on the crew, to a person on the cast, this was not a job. 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’ve expected. I do honestly feel honored to be part of this group.
Everyone was shockingly and eerily wonderful to work with. To get to work with people like Carrie and Harrison and Mark [Hamill] 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 [Boyega], it was so much fun to see them working together and to see how that alchemy came out. It was really a spectacular and fun thing every day.
On the essential elements of the original trilogy Abrams hoped to capture:
Abrams: When [Lucasfilm President] Kathy Kennedy and Larry 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 when they came to this movie?” That was really the beginning of the discussion. The answer was the kind of sense of discovery, exhilaration, surprise, the comedy that George Lucas put into “Star Wars” – which 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.
So for us at the very beginning, it was really about knowing why we were telling the 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 [Episodes] IV, V and VI, those are stories that continue. This is VII, so the history of VII 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.
On the ingredients that form Kylo Ren:
Driver: I think what J.J. and Larry did keeping all the vocabulary that everyone’s very familiar with as "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 it that I think people normally associate with the Dark Side – being organized and very in control and calm and in command.
Abrams: One of our thoughts was to try and do something that felt a little bit different.
Kasdan: That’s why we were so excited about Adam playing this part, because there’s never been a character like Kylo in the saga. No, he hasn’t got his shit all together. Adam acts it so beautifully because you expect, “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.
Driver: 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, when we were talking, originally seemed more dangerous and more unpredictable – someone who feels morally justified in doing whatever they need to, to publicly say that what they’re doing is right seemed more active to play than just being evil for the sake of it. That’s not really fun to play, I guess.
On bringing Maz Kanata to life through both performance and technology:
Nyong’o: Fortunately for me, J.J. had me be a part of principal photography, so my very first experience of motion capture was on the actual sets with the actual actors. So I’m 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. The art direction, and there’s so much detail even when you’re standing on that set, it’s mesmerizing. I think audiences are going to have a very immersive experience, much like we had filming it.
So it was good to have that, and the physicality is something that then carries on into the theater for sure. That was a thing that attracted me to the idea of playing motion capture, the idea of working with a character that wasn’t limited by my physical circumstances. I could work with my body in new ways, and I continued that onto the stage.
Abrams: If I can say one thing that Lupita would not, which is that she was remarkably tireless and willing to experiment with different versions of this character. It was kind of an amazing thing to discover over various iterations of Maz: what she sounded like, how she moved. It was really, I’ve never been through this before with an actor where we got to discover again and again and again how to better tell the story we were telling.
I always felt guilty every time we started up another session, or we needed some reshoots. Every single time, Lupita was willing and game and deeply committed and into finding Maz Kanata’s voice, and again, I’m just eternally grateful.
On "Star Wars: A New Hope's" groundbreaking introduction of a strong female lead, and evolving its female empowerment element for a new generation:
Fisher: I am the beginning of Girl Power – DEAL WITH IT! No, I did, I got to be the only girl on the all-boy set, which was really fun to put things in their drinks and stuff like that. We drank through the whole trilogy in the beginning. This was a sober set, so that’s what J.J. brought to this: the sobriety. Girl power, she’s more powerful in the good old days – "Yes, I'm louder than you" – so she takes on the physical powerful and then I scream at them until they pass out. That’s me. I make fun of them. That was 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 later this afternoon.
Ridley: Obviously, Princess Leia and Carrie are 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 the writing by J.J. and Larry, and the 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. I’m so not eloquent, sorry!
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 because 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. We’ve got Maz kicking ass, too, so it’s wonderful to be part of, obviously with Kathy [Kennedy] at the helm as well, a wonderful crew and cast of wonderful women.
On doling out provocative teases but still maintaining an air of mystery before the film is released:
Abrams: While we were working on the movie, I realized how engaged with the fans and forthcoming Lucasfilm had always been. My nature, which is to keep things quiet, was something that I was certain we were going to have fights about: my wanting to keep the audience surprised when they see the movie. But Disney, to my shock, was arguing to not ruin, not reveal, not show every story beat.
We’ve all seen trailers for films that literally show you the movie in “CliffsNotes” form. Then you go to see the film and you’re like, “Yeah, that was literally the movie. I saw it in a two-minute, 10-second piece.” So I was very grateful that Disney actually took the lead on trying to keep things quieter.
On the biggest trepidation they faced during production:
Fisher: Bad memory. Not remembering my lines. That was scary. Also, I’m the custodian of Princess Leia, so I never got out of character, and I wondered if that would be noticed. No, but I was very nervous. It’s been 40 years for other people. It’s been a long time, and I don’t like looking at myself at this age in a large way, so that was scary and remains so.
Nyong’o: For me, playing a motion-capture character, this was something completely new to me, and walking into a room, I had to do this thing where they had to take my picture from all directions at one time. I had to stand in the middle and do a 360, cameras all around me. That freaked me out.
Abrams: People have said to me, “I don’t understand, you cast someone so beautiful as Lupita and you had her be a motion-capture character.” I think, "Would it be OK if she were ugly?"
Driver: I guess I’m kind of terrified before most jobs. The prospect of this "Star Wars" and all the kind of iconography associated with it, I tried to not think about as much as possible. So maybe when I first started, then kind of suppressing that as much as possible and trying to break it up into moments in that way.
Ridley: My whole first day was pretty terrifying. I didn’t find a moment that was any less or more than the other. I think for me it’s being cast in a role – as everyone knows, I’ve not really done much before, so other people saw something in me that perhaps I didn’t see myself and I’m still not quite sure if it’s there. So the fear of not fulfilling that potential was terrifying.
Kasdan: You know, I don’t associate the process with fear. J.J. and I jumped into the thing under a lot of time pressure and we had fun. In fact, the first day that we started real work on it, we said, “You know, we must have fun with these every day.” It’s really a privilege and you have to be very lucky to get to write the next “Star Wars.”
So we didn’t really have fear. I think we had trepidation about fulfilling people’s expectations, that they be satisfied with what we came out with. But we didn’t want them to know what we were going to come up with and we wanted this moment that’s coming up next week would be a fresh moment for as many people in the world who are interested in it. The only pressure is can you do something that’s worth that much anticipation?
Abrams: The scariest day for me was when Harrison Ford was injured, which was just absolutely hideous. Every day felt like there were challenges, because I knew how important this was to so many people. That was never a presence that went away. Every decision, I knew, had this importance, and yet we had a day to make, we had a story to tell and it was always about trying to do the best work possible.
On the challenging costume designs:
Abrams: Michael Kaplan, the costume designer – I cannot wait for you to see what he’s done in this movie. There are so many cool costumes that are extraordinary. 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. …When we finally saw the mask and that design, it was really instantly clear that was the winner. I’m very grateful to Michael and his whole amazing team.
One of the great things about that was the costume for Captain Phasma was designed, which 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.
On concocting the various very "Star Wars"-ian character names:
Kasdan: I think the criteria was, did we like it? That was it. Really tough criteria. Did it sound good to say it? Did it feel good to type it?
Abrams: A lot of names came and went and some names stuck. I remember when we put down BB-8, it was a name that was the first and only name that droid had, but we called him BB-8 and we still do. Rey and Finn and Poe went through many iterations. Kylo Ren was Kylo Ren fairly early on, and there was a backstory, and Maz Kanata, I think, was always Maz Kanata. We changed Leia’s name. No, we didn’t.
Fisher: My name is the product of spell check.
On Kasdan's seminal cinematic influences when writing "Star Wars" films, then and now:
Kasdan: 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 , nd all of life is contained in each one of his films. "The Seven Samurai" may be the greatest film ever made: 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 was Howard Hawks and John Ford. "Flash Gordon." When George made "A New Hope," he was influenced very much by Kurosawa, and by "Flash Gordon," and by "The Wizard of Oz." I think that all those movies, you could feel them in "A New Hope". And everything that’s in "A New Hope" has come down through the movies to this day.
On whether Fisher's French bulldog and recently minted viral video sensation Gary Fisher will appear in the film:
Fisher: I wish! I begged J.J. Gary was willing to sleep with J.J. – and I mean "nap," but still.
Abrams: Yeah,that was the enticement.
Fisher: That’s why it didn’t go forward. He didn’t let Gary on the set.
Abrams: That’s not true!
Fisher: Oh, it is.
Abrams: No, it is not.
Fisher: I’m gonna go get Gary, and Gary wasn’t allowed. He was not allowed here today because of the whole tongue rule.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens Dec. 18 across North America.