It might be Easter and Passover week for many people throughout the world, but for a multitude of fanboys, it’s Star Wars Celebration in Orlando, Florida. The golden ticket for everyone at this event is watching any Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Han Solo Anthology footage for the pics that are bowing, respectively, on Dec. 15, 2017, and May 25, 2018.
Today’s panel “40 Years of Star Wars” was without spoilers, taking a look back at the franchise with Lucasfilm’s current chief Kathleen Kennedy, Star Wars maestro George Lucas and live cast appearances by Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Warwick Davis, Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams, Hayden Christensen, Anthony Daniels and Ian McDiarmid. The biggest highlight of the panel: A remembrance reel of Carrie Fisher, complete with vintage footage on the set of The Empire Strikes Back from what looks to be an electronic press kit (still a great interview). Watch the tribute above.
“We can’t celebrate without our beloved princess,” said Davis, who hosted today’s panel. Lucas shared his memories of Fisher (“She was good at pointing out which dialogue didn’t work”), and the actress’ daughter Billie Lourd told fans, “My mom used to always say she didn’t know where Princess Leia ended, and where Carrie Fisher began.” An emotional clip of Fisher is shown. She remembered all her lines, to all the movies, and showed that off on the set of Force Awakens.
“She wasn’t just an actress with guys’ clothes on and she becomes a hero. She was a princess, a senator, and she played a part that was very smart, and she had to hold her own against two big lugs, two big goofballs,” said Lucas.
“She was the boss, it was her war,” said the filmmaker about the princess.
“I wanted someone young to play the part. When Carrie was the character, she was very smart, very bold, very thoughtful. There really wasn’t much of a question. There aren’t that many people like her. There’s one in a billion.”
After Fisher’s reel played, the lights went up to reveal John Williams with the Orlando Philharmonic orchestra, which promptly went into a 20-minute performance of “Leia’s Theme” from Star Wars followed by the main title theme and “The Imperial March.”
The panel began this morning with Lucas making a surprise appearance. He was a no-show at the Star Wars: A Rogue One Story premiere back in December, but here he was front and center at Star Wars Celebration, still a champion of the franchise which he sold, along with his company Lucasfilm and Indiana Jones, to Disney for $4.06 billion.
He regaled the crowd with the Hollywood rant we’ve all heard before: His uphill climb with American Graffiti and the ramp up to Star Wars in 1977. It’s a story he has told often, including at the Tribeca Film Festival two years ago.
The filmmaker said that United Artists originally wanted to do Star Wars but balked after American Graffiti. Ironically, that movie would go on to become one of the most profitable independent films of all time, grossing $115M off a $777K budget. “One thing you have to learn about studios is that if you get your break — I got a script, but we want to own you — well, that’s fantastic until you get to the next level. And you realize you signed away your life. … If you have two films that aren’t successful, than they don’t want to know who you are.”
Everything changed for Lucas when 20th Century Fox chief Alan Ladd, Jr. saw American Graffiti, and was so passionate about the young filmmaker that he committed to making Star Wars, despite the studio board’s protests. “He fought for it,” said Lucas.
Talking about the resonance of his brand, Lucas said, “I shouldn’t be saying this now, and I shouldn’t have said it then, but it’s a film for 12-year olds…It was designed to be a film with a mythology: This is what we stand for, you’re about to enter the real world, you’re probably scared, here’s what you should pay attention to…living on the light side, avoiding the dark side. Those are the things that it was meant to do.”
Lucas remembered when he was in Spain shooting at Padme’s place for the millennial trilogy: “There were kids reaching through the fence…it was like being at the White House.”
Ford was a big surprise here today, considering Han Solo was killed off in Force Awakens. Both actor and filmmaker had fuzzy memories about how they initially worked together, Ford recalling that after America Graffiti he returned to carpentry work. Said Lucas, “In American Graffiti, I could see he was a real talent, but he didn’t have a big part.” He said that the casting director had the actor fix a door at Zoetrope to make an impression. “I was actually there working,” Ford joked. “I wouldn’t sit out in front and wait for you, George…I was working, making a living. And happily still am. Thank you very much.”
“He got the part because in the end I asked him, this is about spaceships and flying and stuff like that. I said ‘Do you know how to fly?'” said Lucas.
“I said, fly, yeah. Land?” said Ford to great cheers.
Recalling casting Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Lucas said that were at least three actors in contention for each of Luke, Han and Leia. He would mix and match ensembles in an effort to get an “old friends” sensibility. Hamill ultimately clicked. “He was shorter than me,” said Lucas about the actor’s appeal.
Lucas told the crowd that he cast Daniels for his mime abilities, that it was key for the droid to have a neutral face so that Daniel’s movement and the acting came through. Daniels’ favorite moment? When Lucas acted like R2-D2, squatting near him, beeping away during a Death Valley shoot in front of Jabba’s Palace in Return of the Jedi.
With regard to Lucas’ inspiration for Chewie: No surprise to fans, but the character was inspired by his Alaskan huskie dog Indiana who would ride shotgun in his car. “He was bigger than I was,” said Lucas about the dog’s presence in the car. “I love that image,” added Lucas about the set-up of pilot and co-pilot.
Emperor and young Vader — Ian McDiarmid and Hayden Christensen– also made an appearance, but gave no hints whether they’d have any cameos in future Disney Star Wars films. McDiarmid revealed that his favorite scene to shoot was in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith where his character tells Anakin about the Dark Side. In it, Anakin Skywalker and the Emperor bond while dissing the Jedis, and talking about Darth Plagueis the wise, the Sith Lord who could create life.
Some actors appeared via video during the panel. Samuel L. Jackson beamed in to remind fans that Mace Windu isn’t dead, that in Star Wars characters come back from death with appendages. Liam Neeson aka Qui-Gonn Jinn from 1999’s Phantom Menace beamed in with a special “May the Force be With You” message to fans: “I’m in the Canadian Rockies. We’re shooting a movie about Jar Jar Binks. Spoiler alert: He goes to the dark side.”
Also making an appearance today was Star Wars Rebels EP Dave Filoni who spoke with Lucas about bringing the sci-fi franchise to the small screen.