By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—“Star Wars” fans discovered the backstory of Ben Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in “Episodes 4-6,” a sci-fi trilogy released 2005-09. Now, devotees of the long-running sci-fi space saga franchise are about to learn the origins of the ace pilot/smuggler-turned-hero Han Solo in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” a prequel set years before the original “Star Wars.” The visual effects-laden feature is directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”), who took over from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who were replaced during production by Lucasfilm over “creative differences.” The script is by “Empire Strikes Back, “Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens” co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan Kasdan.
Taking on the iconic role from Harrison Ford is youthful lookalike Alden Ehrenreich, best known for his roles in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” and the Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” He is joined in the action-packed space odyssey by Donald Glover (“Spiderman: Homecoming”), who plays young Lando (the space gambler originally played by Billy Dee Williams), along with Woody Harrelson (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Thandie Newton (“Crash,” “Mission Impossible: 2”), Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”), Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany (“Avengers” franchise) and Joonas Suotamo (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”).
Han narrowly escapes his home planet, which is occupied by brutal Empire forces and, when caught, escapes punishment by enlisting in its pilot program. Captured, he meets his future co-pilot, the wookiee Chewbacca (Suotamo) in prison and the two make their escape. Han is hopeful he will one day be able to return to his home planet and rescue his girlfriend Qi’ra (Clarke), whom he had to leave behind. He learns how to be a smuggler from a shady character named Tobias Beckett, and joins his crew, which includes his fearless co-pilot/wife Val (Newton) and a droid named L3-37 (Waller-Bridge). After a series of adventures, he winds up on the same planet with Qi’ra, who is now working for a mercurial crime lord named Dryden Voss (Bettany), and is forced to steal and transport some very combustible materials to another planet, at great risk to his surviving crew and craft (the Millennium Falcon, of course), in hopes of winning back the heart of Qi’ra.
The main cast and filmmakers spoke about making the long-awaited prequel, which “Star Wars” creator George Lucas had discussed with producer Kathleen Kennedy in his desire to make stand-alone stories from the 40-year-old franchise.
Q: Ron, what was it like making a “Star Wars” movie? How was it different from other films you’ve made over the years?
Howard: It’s its own thing. It’s the galaxy far, far away and the level of anticipation is really unlike anything I’ve done before—even some pretty big titles with a lot of interest. You fall into it and it’s amazing. I’m at a point in my life where I like experimenting and taking chances. I’m not too worried about the outcome. I wanted to have the creative experience. I sort of felt that way about jumping into a “Star Wars” movie. I could tell from the moment it was announced, people said, “Ron, don’t **** this up.” The fans care and they should care.
Q: “Star Wars” movies are known for incredible practical sets and for their visual effects. How did you feel about combining the two?
Howard: The great effects supervisors will tell you in-camera (a practical effect) is always what you want to go for first. So, with the Millennium Falcon and with (other) great sets, the approach here always was to try to get as much in-camera as we could, and then build from there. That’s what’s so magical and amazing about (visual effects house) ILM and what they can do. They made the experience as palpable and immersive as it could possibly be. The people around a movie like “Solo” are so dedicated, not only to what’s existed before, but what else they can do within that framework, within that universe, that galaxy. It’s unbelievably stimulating for a filmmaker. (Director of photography) Bradford Young did a great job. The look is a little different than the (“Star Wars”) movies have looked before. It has an esthetic I thought was incredibly exciting.
Q: Lawrence and Jonathan, when the two of you sat down together, did you write a story that had been bubbling in your heads for a while or did you create it fresh together?
Lawrence Kasdan: When I first saw Han Solo in the cantina (in “Star Wars”), I immediately sparked to him. He lifted up the whole movie instantly and I loved it. At that moment, I thought, “Oh, this movie’s just got me. This is the kind of character that I have loved always and it’s been so important in all the movies that I care about. This is a character who’s reckless, who’s cynical, who doesn’t trust anybody. It’s a little bit stupid.” I love that. He just does things he shouldn’t do. He gets in over his head instantly and you can see that in the brilliance of George Lucas’s cantina scene. It’s just a few minutes and you get everything about who this guy is.
Jonathan Kasdan: Larry wanted me to write it with him because I am all those things. He had decided to get involved in “Star Wars” based on Han. That was the movie he wanted to make first. He got pulled into “The Force Awakens,” and when he came out he said, “I need somebody to do this with me,” and I was sort of the obvious choice for the above reasons but also because I shared a deep love of this and I came at it from a totally different place than he did. I had grown up with “Star Wars.” I’d grown up playing with the toys. We thought that somehow between our two dynamics, between me as a fan and him as an older Jedi master, we could figure out some sort of dynamic where we could forge a story that felt both contemporary and true to the spirit of Solo.
Q: Alden, what did it feel like for you to step into that cockpit of the Millennium Falcon as Han Solo?
Ehrenreich: It’s really wild, really exciting. It’s kind of bigger than you can even wrap your head around. It’s wonderful and very much like being in the cockpit. It was two things. One, you get in and you can’t believe you’re in it and it’s so surreal. That’s what everybody you bring to set wants to see and they have that experience, too. And then, a couple months into shooting in it, you’re inside of it and you’re flying it. You know where the buttons are. You know how the chair feels. You know the yoke and you feel like, “Okay, this is kind of like my ship now,” and that is deeply gratifying.
Q: You had an unexpected reunion today with a certain legend. What can you say about that?
Ehrenreich: Right before we started shooting, I wanted to talk to Harrison, just to kind of pay respect and have him give us the blessing for the film, and so we had lunch. He was really encouraging and really supportive and then we went off and shot the film. That was about two years ago. Today, I was doing an interview and they asked me if there was anything else I wanted to ask him. I was like, “Well, I don’t know,” and they’re like, “Well, you’ll have your chance,” and he was standing behind me. He’s so effusive about the movie. It meant so much to me. I know for Ron, Kathy and everybody, it’s just such a huge deal to have him genuinely love it. It meant a lot to me that he took the time to come out here and do that.
Q: Donald, what was the experience of playing Lando like for you? Is that a character that you ever pictured yourself taking on?
Glover: Like every seven-year-old boy, you pretend to be him. I had a Darth Vader light saber and I bit it off and I gave it to Lando (action figure), but then my mom wouldn’t let me have the light saber anymore because she thought I’d choke on it. When I heard they were making these (prequels), I told my agent, if they’re making anything with Lando in it, I have to be Lando. He was like, “I hear you but I don’t like your odds.” It was the only role I wanted in the world. I’m just really happy to be part of this experience.
Q: Joonas, your character, Chewbacca, is such a popular character with the fans. Anytime you’re in the costume, it doesn’t matter who people are, they want a wookiee hug. It’s got to be amazing to play this incredibly beloved character.
Suotamo: When I found out that I was going to be playing this character, I really couldn’t sleep at night. I was so excited because this was a life-changer for me. I was borderline jobless when I got this role. My then girlfriend/now fiancee saw me go from living with my mom to becoming Chewbacca. That’s the span of our relationship right now. It’s funny because this character is so loved, and Peter Mayhew, who created this character along with George Lucas, has been so instrumental in giving me his blessing and giving me some tips in our week-long session together on how to be this character. I never could have understood what went on underneath the mask of Peter Mayhew. And now that I got to know that, it was so easy going into shooting this film, which is so much about Han and Chewie. It was so important to get it right for this film.
Q: Emilia, Qi’ra has such an air of mystery around her. What was it like playing her and what is her relationship with Han and the rest of the gang?
Clarke: Playing mysterious is quite a difficult note but it was really fun. It’s really difficult to talk about because she is a pretty mysterious character. You kind of need to keep tabs on her throughout the movie and so I’m promoting a movie that I can’t really speak too much about. You can’t quite figure out what it is that’s happened to her in the time that (she and Han became separated) and who it is that she is now. That’s a question that kind of keeps coming up throughout the movie.
Q: Tobias Beckett seems a lot like a western gunslinger. He abides by a code, but he’s not really going to tell you what that code is. Woody, can you describe what Beckett was like how you saw him?
Harrelson: It was a really easy character for me to play, because he’s a scoundrel and a thief—really well-written. It’s pretty cool to get to be in a “Star Wars” movie.
Q: Thandie, playing Val in Beckett’s crew, you’ve obviously been through a lot together. How did that compare to the vibe of the crew and everybody who played them on set?
Newton: We would have fun. They were in extreme situations sometimes—the battle sequences. This (convention center meeting) room is honestly a quarter of the size of the cavernous spaces (we shot in). The production design is so amazing. We would feel like we were in real sort of battle scenarios with explosions going off and debris (flying). We had mud in places you didn’t even know you had. The camaraderie between us was just humor, always was humor. There would be situations where the helmets would come off and got smeared and things would go wrong but that camaraderie was really felt. We were really going into battle together. I mean, obviously, it’s a sort of fantasy, fun battle, but we’re still going into battle.
Q: Phoebe, L3-37 is unlike any droid we have ever seen in a “Star Wars” movie. Can you tell us about what makes her an individual and what you tried to get across with her for the fans?
Waller-Bridge: L3 is a real inspiration to me, thanks to (the Kasdans). She’s a self-made droid, so she created herself out of parts of other droids. It sounds kind of frightening, actually, when I put it like that. It’s like, “Where did you get those bits?” But she creates herself out of astormech droids and (other) droids and she turns herself into a unique creature that’s kind of taller, stronger, more independent than she originally was. She’s got a great attitude and she’s very upbeat and really fun to be around. She’s fearless, uncensored, and she’s a revolutionary with an agenda, which is bigger than the sum of her parts. It’s something that’s really extraordinary. The character is great to play, with a message.
Q: Dryden is legitimately terrifying. Paul, how did you approach him, and what did you want to do with that character?
Bettany: He’s a lot of fun to play. It’s written really beautifully. I texted Ron and said, “Have you spent long winter evenings like I have wondering why you’re not in the ‘Star Wars’ franchise?” And, he said, “Give me a minute.” I came on set really quickly and he whispered, “Oligarch,” in my ear and I went, “Got it!”
It was just lovely to play somebody, having come from “Avengers” where (my superhero character) Vision is fundamentally good. To play somebody who’s just deliciously bad, I’m really okay with it. (Dryden has) no neurosis, no guilt. He’s just super-happy about being evil. He’s really good at hurting people, too.
Q: Ron, how was it coming on board as director when the project was already under way with the previous filmmakers?
Howard: There was a lot of work Phil and Chris had done and, unfortunately, (there were) creative differences. There was this circumstance where they were not going to carry on. There were a lot of things that were really strong and already worked and we wanted to keep in, and other things that hadn’t been done yet. I was given the opportunity to sort of experiment with and explore. I sat down with Larry and Jon (Kasdan) and we started talking about this, that and the other.
Q: Alden, did you study Harrison Ford’s tics and mannerisms, either from the previous “Star Wars” films or Harrison’s other films? Or did you try to avoid that and just to kind of make the character your own?
Ehrenreich: The way I went about it pretty much was to watch the original movies very early on and just kind of absorb as much as I could, mainly the character and how he is operating in the world, and Harrison and the whole “Star Wars” universe—which is so rich and there’s so much to it. I tried to take in as much of that as I could very early, because I had the role for quite a long time before we actually shot. Then I moved into working on the part and kind of putting all of that aside and forgetting about it and playing the guy where he is now in his life, because it’s most important that it feels like a real person. So, I kind of moved into working on this character in this moment in time.
Q: Was there a moment when you first stepped out in your costume, and were a little daunted by it?
Ehrenreich: Every day. You’re walking into a new set that these craftsmen and designers who work on these films are at the very height of their (profession). You walk into these incredible environments with 300 different creatures that are actually there, actually built, and then you do your scene.
Newton: These characters have a kind of magnetism that is unparalleled. I was seven when the first movie came out. I’ll never forget it. That scroll of white letters going into black, the John Williams music— that stuff imprints on your psyche. That is so far beyond even us as filmmakers. It’s just the stuff that dreams are made of.
Howard: I’m very excited about the character relationships because this is a little bit different than the other movies. This is one guy’s adventure story. In some ways, it’s kind of similar to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which Larry also wrote. It’s a single hero’s journey, and then there’s a lot of fun in that journey and there are a lot of twists and turns. All of the different relationships were very important to me because it was all about what impact these characters are going to have on this young Han Solo. What surprised me was how complicated, exciting and fun it was to stage the big action scenes, which is something that I hadn’t done in a long time. They were complicated and sometimes it was hard and sometimes it was physically difficult. We would change things and add and revise. It was really about testing Han Solo. It sort-of defines the way the action scenes would be cut, shot and roll out. It was challenging, but also really fun and exciting to work on. The big surprise for me is what a blast it was to do the action.
Q: How do you balance the new stuff with the nods to what longtime “Star Wars” fans are going to expect?
Howard: I’m a fan. I’ve always appreciated the movies, but I’m not encyclopedic about “Star Wars.” I haven’t seen everything. I haven’t read everything. I came into this situation working more off instinct than anything else. I really believed in this great screenplay and cast. I certainly wouldn’t have come onboard if I didn’t love the cast and was excited about working with them. I immediately said, “I’m going to treat this like it’s a true story.” I’ve done a lot of true stories. And I always have technical advisors around. I sort of go for the heart. I go for the drama, the excitement of the narrative, of the story and then I let the technical advisors tell me where else it could go or what I might be overlooking. So many people around it were those guides for me, but I was just operating off my own imagination and my own sense of what I’d like to see and where I think these characters could be going. Jon (Kasdan), in particular, who stayed throughout the production, was encyclopedic.
Lawrence Kasdan: It happens to be a “Star Wars” story, but first, we are trying to tell a story that will keep you interested. You meet these (characters) and you say, “Well, that’s a great person and now they’re meeting a great person, and they’re going to be in a lot of trouble together.” That is much more important to me than any particular “Star Wars.”
Jonathan Kasdan: We approached the movie as kind of genre movie, a crime movie, a western that we could fit Han Solo, a character that comes out of a great tradition of (Humphrey) Bogart and (Steve) McQueen characters. We asked ourselves, “How could we plug that guy into the kind of movie we love and the kind of story we want to see and in doing so, we’re able to have these moments that are familiar and that people connect with because they have personal relationships with these characters. It gives it an added level of pleasure, but at its base, it’s really trying to be its best version of us.