Fans screamed for Harrison Ford at the Star Wars: The Force Awakens Comic-Con panel in San Diego on Friday evening, but the scene in the crowd was bedlam after director JJ Abrams asked the audience, “Who wants to go see a live Star Wars concert right now?
“We only have room for all of you”, he told the 7,000-fan-strong room. “The City of San Diego for some reason agreed to this.”
The panel itself was one of the most highly anticipated at the convention, with queues standing for days to be let in. The panelists accordingly milked the crowd’s expectations for all they were worth. “Is Harrison OK?” Hardwick asked before he brought out the recently injured actor. “Well, why don’t we see for ourselves?” Comic-Con gave the actor a rare standing ovation as the entire stadium-sized convention hall broke the gathering’s strict no-standing rule in unison.
The legendarily taciturn Ford, when asked how he was, simply said, “I’m fine”, and then, perhaps sensing that was not enough, thanked Hardwick for asking. But he became more voluble on the subject of returning to the film. Had he thought about what had happened to Han after Return of the Jedi?
“No, because I never thought that it would come back to bless me rather than haunt me,” Ford said. “I was very gratified when I read the [new] script. I read something that I thought was really remarkable, really well-written, with some very intriguing developments and I was very happy to be a part of the story.”
Hardwick asked Carrie Fisher what it had been like to return to the franchise, about which she’s been ambivalent in the past. “It was like a flashback, kind of,” Fisher said. “I thought, ‘They were right about the acid flashbacks’. I didn’t think that it was going to happen again. I had to check and see if it was just me. It was a little bit like before,” she said of returning to the set with Ford, Hamill, and Peter Mayhew, “only we looked melted this time. But in a good way – kind of Force-melted.”
Mark Hamill said promotion had changed radically since the first film. “We only had photographs,” he recalled. There was no footage. We had R2D2 as a prop and we had C3PO, but we didn’t have Anthony Daniels inside it. With only 25 photographs, it wasn’t very easy to describe what it was.”
Veteran Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the script, was in attendance alongside the rest of the prinicpal cast. Gwendoline Christie, who plays villain Phasma, barely had an hour between the Game of Thrones panel and her appearance for Star Wars, where her character is also tall, armored and menacing.
“I’ve found it exciting, not only that there was a female stormtrooper, but [for] the opportunity to explore a female character that is totally not about the way she looks in flesh,” Christie said. “That armor is exterior and it’s more about the outside feeding in, and I was very excited that inside that armor was a woman.”
Domhnall Gleeson, who plays villain General Hux, began answering a question about his character with, “He was on Starkiller Base, which … whoops. Can I talk about that?” Kasdan sighed and gave his blessing: “The base he’s on, in honor of the original last name of Luke Skywalker, is Starkiller Base, spoiled by Domnhall Gleeson,” he said with a laugh.
Another guest at the panel was less conventional: Baba Joe, a donkey-sized, automated alien created by visual effects professional Neil Scanlan, which lumbered back and forth across the stage and interacted with the human moviemakers with the help of a five-person crew of pilots (presumably all offstage).
There was no new footage from the film, just a behind-the-scenes reel (which was warmly received) emphasizing the non-computerized nature of many of the movie’s special effects and locations.
The shoot’s emphasis on practical effects was not always easy on the actors. “I’d just like to thank JJ Abrams for filming in Abu Dhabi, in the desert, and putting me in a Stormtrooper uniform”, said actor John Boyega, who plays Finn in the film.
Of course, not everything was ultra-realistic, as Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe in the film, had explained to him by Ford. “I wanted to talk to Harrison about piloting, and are there any special things that I should do and how do you work with the controls.
“And he said, ‘It’s fake. And also it’s in space’.”
The movie, said Abrams, is being tinkered with, which he said was a privilege. “We’re editing”, he told the audience. “We have a cut of the movie. We’re in this extraordinary moment where we’re doing fine-tuning. I say extraordinary because we’re in a moment where there are release dates before there are scripts, and Disney has given us the time to make the movie what it wants to be.”
Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy fielded a question about diversity from a young woman who pointed out that there were no Asian characters in the film. “I’m not in charge of casting for the next two films, but if I was, I would make all the characters Asian,” Abrams joked. He and Kennedy said more seriously that they wanted a diverse cast for the Star Wars films as they continued.
“We didn’t write the character of Finn to be any color”, Abrams said. “We didn’t write the character of Rey to be any color. We want our film to look the way the world looks.”
When the panel closed, it was up to moderator Chris Hardwick to shepherd the fans to the embarcadero behind the convention center – not an easy task, and one that took more than an hour. “You are going to follow these stormtroopers in an orderly fashion,” said moderator Chris Hardwick. “There is room for everyone. No murdering allowed.”
“I feel sorry for Kevin Smith, who has the next panel,” Hardwick said reflectively.
There was reason for some pity: Comic-Con’s vast Hall H fills up early and stays full, because the convention does not empty it between panels. “I heard from [my sister] that one person can hold five spots at a time after this lineup, because we had one person holding forty spots, which is ridiculous,” said Tyler Leivo, who attended the panel with his sister Amber after having waited for the panel since noon the previous day (even so, the pair were nowhere near the front of line).
The couple happily joined the line for the concert.
This article was written by Sam Thielman in San Diego, for theguardian.com on Saturday 11th July 2015 05.49 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010