LONDON — It’s one of the most hotly anticipated films of 2016: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” hits the silver screen in December. CNN joined fans, who traveled from far and wide, at London’s official Lucasfilm festival over the weekend celebrating all things “Star Wars.”
The lucky few who managed to get into the panel sessions were captivated as the film’s director, Gareth Edwards, Kathleen Kennedy (Lucasfilm president and “Rogue One” producer) joined the franchise’s newest stars to find out what to expect from the latest foray into the “Star Wars” universe.
CNN: How did you take the film in the direction you wanted while bearing in mind the legacy of “Star Wars?”
Gareth Edwards: “It’s a fine line and what we found really quickly is that if you go just a hair’s breadth over here, it’s not ‘Star Wars’ — it’s a sci-fi movie that’s not ‘Star Wars’ — and you go slightly over here you’re just copying what George did. So trying to find something new, that is different but is still ‘Star Wars’ is a real experiment. It’s a journey that you refine as you go. And it’s the same with all the designs and the costumes and the style of the filmmaking: how to make it feel different but familiar and accepted as part of ‘Star Wars’ was probably the hardest task we had.”
CNN: Where does this sit in the pantheon of “Star Wars” films?
Kathleen Kennedy: “What I think is exciting about this is that we’re able to branch out and move in a slightly different direction cinematically and with stories which don’t necessarily relate to the saga films, even though they’re within the ‘Star Wars’ universe. I think that’s what’s exciting to all of us inside Lucasfilm — the ability to be able to tell stories with new characters, new places and new genres.”
Felicity Jones: “I play Jyn Erso, who is a phenomenal character to play. She is a woman who knows her own mind. She is fiercely independent. She has great courage but at the same time is tough on the world when she needs to be. I think Daisy did such a fantastic job with ‘The Force Awakens’ and she really set the tone for some great female characters. It’s an absolute privilege to be able to play a complex, nuanced character like Jyn Erso.”
Forest Whitaker: “Saw Gerrera is a freedom fighter. A rebel who’s been fighting for years against the Empire. And now he’s on (the planet) Jeddah with his fighters to stop the destruction which he knows is gonna come to the universe. I think it’s exciting George Lucas had the idea to have all these rebel forces and then bring the rebel forces together for a rebel alliance. He created me and I’m part of the rebel alliance but at one point my tactics are so extreme with my group that I’m pushed away by the other rebels. There is a scene for us which is quite intense, of how I deal with prisoners and things like that.”
Ben Mendelsohn (plays Director Krennic): “Oh, I’m a nut fan. I’m a day one nut for ‘Star Wars.’ I love it. .. I love all of them. The ones that I saw when I was a little fella had an enormous impact on me. Every single one of them I’ve been there in the cinema and I hope I see every single one of them to come.”
Donnie Yen (plays Chirrut Imwe): “I play a blind warrior who lives on the planet Jeddah. And Jeddah is a very important planet because that’s where they found the elements to build the lightsaber. I’m a strong believer in the spirit in the Force. May the Force be with you. Let’s just say that if you give him a lightsaber he’s the closest thing to being a Jedi.”
CNN: But not quite a Jedi?
Yen: “There’s no Jedi in this film unfortunately. Hopefully in the next one.”
CNN: Tell us a bit more about Darth Vader being reintroduced and what it means to the film.
Kennedy: “Well obviously, Darth Vader is very significant in ‘New Hope,’ so the story that we’re telling and the stealing of the plans for the Death Star, I think many fans will probably put together the fact that Darth Vader plays a fairly significant role in that — but he’s in the movie only a small amount.”
CNN: George Lucas on set; talk us through that experience.
Edwards: “George is really funny. He’s not what you think. I was worried he’d have really strong opinions and tell us off and instead he was just very supportive. I thought that he was just going to hate everything and he was just really nice about it all. I had been so nervous going into it but as he left and I saw him disappear, I just realized that’s probably going to be the highlight of my life — that memory. I mean, who else gets to make ‘Star Wars’ and then go and show George Lucas. It was a real privilege and, in my opinion, he’s a god and I got to meet the god of ‘Star Wars’ that day.”
Why fans love ‘Star Wars’
On my way to the “Stars Wars” Celebration at London’s ExCel Centre I had wondered what I would encounter. Who are these people? Nerds? Perennial children refusing to grow up? Or just a global collective of like-minded fans, devoted to a story that captured their imagination and is yet to release it.
The early signs are good. The first two fans I meet are waiting to hear from Mark Hamill (aka Luke Skywalker himself). Ben and Peter are both from the English town of Reading and they’re both 43. Ben went to see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” four times. But any claims he may harbor to being a superfan are rendered paltry by Peter’s confession — and it felt more like a confession than a proud boast — that he’s a veteran of no less than nine cinematic sittings for Episode VII.
“I was a bit like rent-a-friend in the end,” he told me. “I took my father-in-law but made him watch the first six films first as he hadn’t seen a single ‘Star Wars’ movie!”
But what drives them to return repeatedly to this sci-fi story?
“It’s the battle of good versus evil, taking place off this planet” suggests Ben. “It’s disconnected from reality and the films are timeless — well, apart from the special effects!”
On stage Hamill proved himself to be a genial host, retelling old tales and adding some insights.
During a warmup act, the audience scoffed at the theory that Episode VII was originally intended to begin with an image of Luke Skywalker’s severed hand drifting through space, still clutching his lightsaber. Totally true, says Hamill. He talks about the secrecy of scripts containing no names, only numbers, so you often don’t know who you’re working with until you meet them at a scene.
“Oh yes, number 22, I love her work!” he jokes. “She’s twice as good as number 11.”
He elicits more laughter talking about the rigorous training regime he followed for Episode VII, only to discover he was on screen for just 30 seconds at the film’s finale. He wasn’t required to speak but simply had to turn toward actress Daisy Ridley on the edge of a cliff and remove his hood.
“A real cliffhanger!” he suggests.
During the Q&A that followed, a German fan revealed he had queued for 40 hours to attend the Skywalker session. An emotional 12-year-old boy described the chance to ask a question to his hero as “the greatest moment of my entire life.” His earnestness is met with cheers but no laughter or scorn, and rightly so. There are no cynics here. The boy is a member of the “Star Wars” family and the family embrace him.
The cavernous halls of the “Star Wars” Celebration are filled with characters in costume, models both miniature and colossal, T-shirts, “Star Wars” luggage, droids and drones, helmets, weapons and queues; long, long lines of people waiting to see the costumes and props from “Rogue One.” Among a crowd holding camera phones aloft, I get a glimpse of gold and am aware that another “Star Wars” celebrity is among us in the form of C-3PO. No sign of his sidekick R2-D2, though.
I make my way to what at first glance appears to be a first aid recovery area for fainted fans but turns out to be a tattoo parlor with one common theme. I meet Filippe Bosi, a 29-year-old Italian from the Tuscan capital Grosseto, who has adopted a prone position. He’s getting inked for the first time.
“I am getting this in tribute to my mother,” he tells me. “We watched Episode VII together. She passed on soon after. It was the last film she ever saw.”
Filippe’s unusual dedication is being applied to his left calf in the form of the likeable droid BB-8. Before, I might have considered such an act preposterous. But along with everyone I’ve met here today, I like Filippe. I like “Star Wars” fans. To me they seem more friendly and fun than freakish.
I suppose there’s an exception to every rule. After almost tripping over a scuttling R2-D2 (ah that’s where he’s got to!), I reach the exit in time to see the impressive figure of Chewbacca, standing 2.28 meters (7feet) tall in front of me.
He’s posing for photos but when the next guy in line steps forward, the Wookiee rips off his head and grumpily declares, “Not now mate, I’m on my break,” before ducking into an elevator with his head under his arm and disappearing — presumably to get as far, far away from the crowds as possible.
Claire Corkery contributed to this piece for CNN.