Star Wars Celebration Europe (SWCE, July 14-17, 2016) ended with a much-anticipated panel featuring the upcoming Star Wars films, Star Wars Episode VIII and Han Solo.

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Pablo Hidalgo hosted a panel featuring Kathleen Kennedy (Lucasfilm President) and Kiri Hart (Head of Story, LFL). First up: writer-director Rian Johnson discussed the filming of Episode VIII (code named: Space Bear).

A New Look from Lucasfilm: Star Wars Episode VIII delves deeper into character

Kathleen Kennedy is very happy with their choice of director. “Rian moves the camera as well as Steven Spielberg.” And she doesn’t say that lightly.

Rian Johnson’s goal was to “tell a story that feels alive right now.” Writing for Episode VIII corresponded with principle photography for Episode VII. Johnson spent six weeks working on Story at Lucasfilm, watching ‘dailies’ of Episode VII with Kennedy and Hart to ensure continuity of story details.

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Pablo Hidalgo’s hint: to impress leaders at Lucasfilm, bring homemade ice cream (Rian Johnson did).

Johnson was influenced deeply by classic Hollywood films such as Bridge on the River Kwai, Twelve O’Clock High, Letter Never Sent, Three Outlaw Samurai, and Sahara (Humphrey Bogart version). He had the Episode VIII story team (Kathleen, Kiri, and Pablo) watch these films together ‘like a film camp’ for inspiration developing Story on VIII.

“We are gonna end up breaking kind of a longstanding Star Wars tradition, and for the first time, this movie is going to start right where the last one left off,” says Rian. “That last moment of VII, I want to see what happens next.”

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Episode VIII will open with Luke Skywalker and Rey standing on the cliff at Skellig Michael, Ireland. This was the first scene filmed – over 2 days – for VIII, months before principal photography. “There is something very mystical and magical about the island,” says Rian.

“Mark and Daisy standing up on Christ’s saddle, on Skellig Michael… It was an appropriately surreal beginning to the whole experience.” Other filming locations included the west and southwest coast of Ireland.

Johnson grew up with Star Wars. The films, the toys, the stories – telling his ‘own stories in that universe with the toys’ – they all shaped his childhood. He described his first time walking on the Millennium Falcon set and “really getting choked up” as he flashed back to creating stories with his Star Wars toys.

There was an “intense emotional reaction” he had to overcome. He had to focus on the responsibility and work of filmmaking, of telling the new story. Rian described getting to know the actors individually and learning how to develop the story with each of them.

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Episode VIII will feature more of Rey, Luke, Finn, Poe and Kylo, “zooming in on the characters… getting to the heart of them. Challenging them, and pushing them deeper.”

Modern filmmaking is a balance between CG and shooting real-life props and sets. “The amount of sets that we built for this movie has been absolutely outrageous…a tremendous amount of practical sets” for Episode VIII. Johnson credits the set building teams for amazing work.

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“Space Bear” was the production name of Episode VIII, with the logo as a panda wearing a helmet. “I’m really looking forward to showing you guys more and more of what we’ve got,” says Johnson.

The panel confirmed that VIII has completed principal photography, and is projected to release December 15, 2017.

A New Generation of Filmmakers at Lucasfilm

Today’s Star Wars filmmakers are a new generation. Growing up as Star Wars fans, remembering how the films shaped their lives and childhoods – and adulthoods – never dreaming that they would be entrusted to creating the next Star Wars film.

J.J. Abrams (Episode VII: The Force Awakens), Gareth Edwards (Rogue One), Rian Johnson (Episode VIII), Chris Miller and Phil Lord (untitled Han Solo movie)… Being huge fans themselves, these filmmakers understand the duty they have in telling the next Star Wars story. And wow, does it look good so far.

“Campus-like feel for Lucasfilm.”

There are so many active projects currently at Lucasfilm. It is a “cooperative effort.” Collaborations between the films, and even animation, are encouraged.

Dave Filoni, “the man in the cowboy hat,” (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels) dropped by the set of Episode VIII several times during filming. “You just immediately feel calm and at peace when Dave Filoni is standing back behind you.”

Pablo Hidalgo praises Lucasfilm leadership. “Kathy and Kiri make it so accessible that any part of Lucasfilm that would benefit from being on the set, and anyone that you would benefit from having on the set… that communication, and flying from one side of the world to the other, to come and help each other out… That is the reality of making Star Wars movies now.”

Rian could walk down the hall and speak with Gareth Edwards working on Rogue One, and Dave Filoni working on Rebels. These stories now all intertwine within the Star Wars timeline. Interactions between different filmmakers become essential.

Cameos

With collaborations come cameos of the directors between the films. Dave Filoni visited the VIII set. Rogue One Director Gareth Edwards has a cameo in Episode VIII. Rian Johnson chose to play a key Death Star gunner in Rogue One so he ‘wouldn’t get cut.’

Chris Miller and Phil Lord were dressed as extras for Rogue One, but had to leave before filming because of a school admission interview for Miller’s child.

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The Han Solo film

Chris Miller and Phil Lord (The Lego Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), have been named co-directors of the Han Solo stand-alone film. They joined the panel on stage. This will be the second stand-alone Star Wars film after Rogue One (distinctive from the saga trilogies of Episode IV-VI, I-III).

Han Solo is in capable hands with screenwriters Larry Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens) and son, Jon Kasdan (In the Land of Women).

Miller and Lord describe Han Solo as “one of the most iconic characters of all time.” This still-unnamed film will explore how Han came to be the “stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder” that we all love.

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Han Solo is just starting production at London’s Pinewood studios, with a projected release date in May 2018. Chris Miller and Phil Lord had just moved to London two days before appearing at SWCE.

Rian Johnson reflected on his experiences, now that his principal photography is done for Episode VIII, just as Chris Miller and Phil Lord are about to begin their journey on Han Solo. Says Rian: “I’m kind of envious, being at the end of this…I kind of wish that we could just keep filming. It’s just like the best people in the business. I’m really excited for the experience you are going to have.”

The directors describe Han Solo: he “doesn’t want to do anything he’s told.” He’s “sarcastic…[but] at the end of the day, he’s unreasonably optimistic.” True to Princess Leia’s “half-witted” description, Han is “clever but he’s not smart.”

This film explores the backstory of how Han came to earn his reputation as a “maverick” and a “scoundrel.” Not that this is the first time that Lord and Miller have worked with Han Solo (they directed Han and Chewie in The Lego Movie).

Lucasfilm officially confirmed one of Hollywood’s worst-kept secrets. The role of Han Solo will be played by Alden Ehrenreich (Blue Jasmine, Beautiful Creatures, Supernatural). He joins the panel on stage.

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After auditioning over 3,000 actors, they ended up casting Alden (who was actually the first person to audition). “Sorry!” said Lord and Miller to Kathleen Kennedy. ‘We really wanted to make sure.’

Alden described screen testing on the Falcon set with Chewbacca as “amazing.” How does he feel being cast as Han Solo? “As a kid, you play make believe and you imagine… what it will be like. It’s pretty incredible, so I’m very, very excited.”

Finn’s role in Episode VIII

John Boyega (FN-2187 “Finn.” The Force Awakens) joins the panel on stage. A London local, they ask if he gets recognized. Boyega replies, ‘sometimes.’ He was just at the local Tesco (convenience store) the other day.

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The big question for John Boyega: ‘Is Finn OK?’ Episode VII left Finn in a coma, with a tearful Rey saying good-bye before her quest to find Luke Skywalker. Rian Johnson teases that they could have cut to scenes of Finn, still comatose, throughout Episode VIII. Boyega says that acting would have been easier. They confirm: ‘Finn’s OK.’

Finn looks over at Alden Ehrenreich: “You’ve got that charm stuff down…Enjoy the ride.” “He’s smiling just like Han.” “Take care of him,” he whispers to Miller and Lord.

Group Photo Finale

The panel is joined by Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker, Episode VIII), Carrie Fisher (General Leia, Episode VIII), and their dogs Millie Hamill and Gary Fisher. One big Star Wars family photo.

If this panel was any indication, the future of Star Wars shines brighter than the two suns of Tatooine. With the collaboration within Lucasfilm, and talented filmmaker-fans creating these new stories, the love of the Star Wars universe will grow for generations to come. What a way to ring in the 40th Anniversary of Star Wars.

May The Force Be With You.