An epic behind-the-scenes Star Wars story . . .
Background: The Post That Launched A Thousand Geeks.
When my oldest daughter, Katie, was in the first grade, she picked out a Star Wars water bottle and a Star Wars backpack to bring to school. An ordinary decision, the same one made by a crop of first graders every fall. When the boys at school repeatedly taunted her for being a female Star Wars fan, she cried. I wrote about the Star Wars bullying on my blog.
It was the post that launched a thousand geeks. People of all ages and walks of life wrote to Star Wars Katie about how they had been bullied for their geeky and nerdy interests. The comments came in so fast that they crashed the ChicagoNow server. For months, the comments and stories and gifts kept coming. The 501st Legion even decided to issue Katie her own custom-made Stormtrooper armor. The boys at school stopped taunting Katie and instead invited her to play.
The Fall of Our Fall
Throughout most of elementary school, Katie belonged to a core group of girlfriends, and she never lacked for company. Sleepovers, playdates, birthday parties – all were common and regular occurrences.
But things changed overnight as she started fifth grade. Fifth grade girls are a tough crowd. We watched other kids walk to school in groups and in pairs, but Katie was always alone. Her little sisters, ages four and seven, were her constant companions. Thank God for her little sisters, always her champions. The weeks passed, and there were no playdates, no birthday party invitations, and no sleepovers. The isolation was crushing.
As our girl grew unhappier, so did our family. Tears replaced our smiles. The days dragged and the nights were long.
And Then LucasFilm Called
My cell phone rang. It was LucasFilm. There was a room full of people who wanted to tell me something. Four-year-old Cleo was balanced on my hip, yelping about wanting to watch a movie. I tried to listen to the phone as I shushed her.
“We have some exciting news. We would like to invite Katie to come see the filming of Episode 7 on the set in London. ”
“There is another boy whose family is coming as part of a Make A Wish trip, and we thought it would be great to invite your family, too. But you aren’t allowed to tell anyone you are coming, and you can’t write about it or take any pictures.”
I sent my husband a text that said You MUST call me. We scrambled to make plans to fly to London. This is crazy, we kept telling each other.
The Day Katie Flew The Millennium Falcon
From my journal:
Today is October 16, 2014. It was one of the most remarkable days of our lives. Little Cleo will probably never remember it, but I’m certain that the rest of us will. A silver Mercedes minivan picked us up at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington at 9:30 am. The driver took us to Pinewood Studios. We were met by LucasFilm employees Morgan and Suzie and cameraman Dave.
A few minutes after we arrived, the family that came through Make-A-Wish, joined us. The parents, Chuck and Lori, have three children --10-yr-old Andrew (who was there for his Wish), 7-year-old Sarah, and 4-year-old Johnathan. Their kids are almost the same exact ages as our kids. Katie is 11; Annie Rose is 7; Cleo is 4.
Our two families hit it off instantly. Katie and Andrew began chatting about Star Wars within two seconds of meeting. Lori felt like an old friend, and we learned that we both were Northwestern graduates.
Our set visit started in Theatre 7, the John Barry Theater, where Pinewood shows dailies of whatever is being filmed. First, we watched a 12-minute promo piece about Pinewood Studios, followed by a second piece about George Lucas and Star Wars.
We asked endless questions of the cast and crew. Morgan told us that they had recently been filming in Abu Dhabi, and on the first day of filming alone, they consumed over 30,000 bottles of water. There were 800 people on the Force Awakens team, and each person needed three bottles of water an hour to stay hydrated in the 115-degree heat.
Two months before the filming began in Abu Dhabi, all of the costumes, creatures, cameras, set materials and equipment had been loaded onto a massive ship and sent over by sea. After filming the desert scenes, everything had been shipped back to Pinewood.
Dave, who was following us around with a camera, told us how strict security was at Pinewood. Only people with certain ID tags were even allowed to carry cameras around the set. And at the end of each day, they were required to turn their cameras in. Nobody was allowed to remove a camera or any film from the set. The only phones allowed on set were issued by Pinewood, and even those phones were collected at the end of the day.
As we chatted, the crew handed us mud-coverings to pull over our shoes. Although the sun was shining, it had been raining on the outside set the previous week, and everything was thick with gooey mud. We clomped onto the set, where they were filming a big battle scene between Stormtroopers and Chewie and Han Solo. Finn (John Boyega) was also on set.
J.J. Abrams, the Director of Star Wars Episode 7, came over to meet each of us. My husband Andrew told him, “I’m a huge fan of your work.” J.J. talked with us about the set and hung out and chatted with each kid.
The cast and crew paused filming to greet us. Chewbacca came over to play with the six kids – the three from our family and the three from Lori and Chuck’s family.
As we chatted, Chewbacca picked up baby Cleo, who looked like a tiny dot in his arms. He lifted her high in the air and swung her back and forth. She hugged him and giggled. Chewie rooted around in his bandolier and found some lollipops to give to Katie and Andrew.
My husband Andrew heard a voice behind him say, “He’s being really nice to them. He ate the last three that were here.” Andrew turned to respond. It was Harrison Ford standing beside him, watching Chewie play with our kids. Flabbergasted, Andrew managed to stick out his hand and say, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Harrison Ford smiled and chatted with us and hung around until it was time to start filming again.
They were in the middle of filming a battle scene, and J.J. explained that there were going to be several big explosions. They moved us all to a safe spot near a massive temple where we could watch. We would be clear from falling debris, but close enough to see perfectly. We watched them rehearse the scene five or six times.
The explosions guy said into his loudspeaker, “Cut. Okay, now we are going to put a lot of shit up in the air. Oops, sorry, kids.” The kids giggled and hooted at the use of the word “shit.”
It took about twenty minutes to get the scene ready for the explosions. A man walked around setting strategic fires and another man had a machine that produced smoke. Some people were busy cleaning off dirty Stormtrooper costumes, spraying them with bottles of water and wiping them clean of the thick mud that was on the ground as a result of heavy rain on the outside set the day before.
J.J. Abrams called over his loudspeaker for another rehearsal of the scene, and we watched Harrison Ford and Chewie run forward and begin shooting. Then they spent about fifteen minutes piling Stormtroopers on a rock, splayed out to look as if they were dead. Annie Rose was amazed at how still they held their awkward poses for such a long time. “Those guys are doing a really good job!” she exclaimed.
In between takes, Harrison Ford looked over at us and made funny faces at the kids, causing them to laugh appreciatively. One time he danced a little jig. Chewie waved to all the kids. Young Andrew’s parents were watching him as he laughed. “He’s been through so much,” his mom told me. More than most people can ever imagine.
It was time to film the live action. Lori and I noticed a Stormtrooper who had been eating an apple hastily stash the apple behind a rock and pull on his helmet. “When I watch the movie,” Lori told me, “I’m going to remember that there was an apple hidden behind the rock in this battle scene.”
It was time for the two big explosions. They were announced as Boom 1 and, seconds later, Boom 2. Before setting them off, J.J. Abrams came over to us to let the kids know there would be loud noises, so that they could cover their ears and not be afraid. Annie Rose was dancing around the set chanting, “Blow it up! Blow it up!” and we all had to shush her so they could do the take.
During the day, we learned amazing facts and details about the filming. All the scenes were all shot with old-fashioned film, not digital, with 1970s lenses to replicate the feeling of the original trilogy. For security reasons, the scripts for each day’s filming are printed out – paper copies only – and at the end of each day, the paper scripts were collected and shredded. We had to sign extensive NDAs before going on set. We couldn’t bring cameras or phones.
After the filming of the scene was completed, we made our way off the pretend mounds of rubble and followed Suzie and Morgan off the live set. The actors waved goodbye to us.
The next place they brought us was to the Millennium Falcon. A team was doing some live filming with BB-8 inside the Falcon, and the kids hunkered down quietly among the crew, watching. After the scene was filmed, the 2nd unit Director let young Andrew work one of the cameras; then each of the other children took a turn. This was really happening.
Katie and Andrew noticed the Dejarik table and shouted and pointed. The kids all piled in and sat at the Dejarik table. “This is unbelievable,” Andrew and I kept saying to each other. Young Andrew’s parents had equally huge grins as they watched their three children romp around the inside of the Millennium Falcon. The six kids discovered the sick bay, and they each took a turn resting in it.
One of the film crew explained to us that this was the largest contiguous Millennium Falcon ever built for filming internal scenes. The external Millennium Falcon had already been taken down, as filming of external shots had been completed a few days prior.
Then the kids found the cockpit.
Katie jumped into the pilot's seat in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, madly flipping switches back and forth. She turned and grinned widely at us. In that moment, she was free. It didn’t matter what was happening back at school; it didn’t matter that she was struggling with the complexities of being adopted. Our daughter was flying the Millennium Falcon. There was only room for pure joy. Her new friend Andrew was flying beside her, pushing buttons and flipping switches, his face reflecting his pure joy, and in that moment, he was free of the pain and suffering of his illness.
I heard Cleo and Annie Rose arguing over whose turn it was to pilot the Falcon next. They started pushing and shoving each other and grasping for the controls. “Girls! Do NOT break the Millennium Falcon!” I ordered. Lori and I giggled at the image of two little girls coming to blows over who gets to fly the Millennium Falcon.
As we were exiting the Falcon, one of the crew told us that a Lego is hidden in the ramp. It was painted to look just like a part of the ship. We scanned the wall until we found it. “Will it ever show up in any filmed parts?” Andrew asked. “Probably not,” Dave told us, “but we all know it’s there.”
The next set we visited was a look-but-don’t-touch set. “This is a hot set,” the children were warned, “which means everything is exactly as it needs to be for filming. You must not touch anything or move anything around, okay?” The kids promised not to touch, but just to be safe, Andrew and I decided to play man-to-man defense on our younger daughters, tailing them as they wandered around the surprisingly large room.
After leaving the hot set EXACTLY as we found it, we visited a set that is a hallway where something important happens (Morgan and Dave wouldn’t say what!). It has blast doors that are closed, and there is blast dust on the floor. Morgan explained how every tiny detail is attended to in creating every single scene. For example, J.J. likes darker grey dust for some scenes, so there were artists who took the time to paint darker bits of gray dust and lay it out on the floor. The crew spent time debating which dust was the right dust.
Dave and Morgan and Suzie took us outside so that we could make our way to the next set. As we were walking along the road, a golf cart came tearing around the corner. We jumped out of the way. Harrison Ford was driving, and there were several passengers, and he slowed down and waved and called hello. We all waved and called out greetings. Chuck laughed and said, “Can’t you see the headlines? Make-A-Wish family plowed down on set of Star Wars by Han Solo!” Apparently, Harrison Ford likes to drive his own cart around the set. We saw him driving around several more times.
Our final visit at Pinewood Studios was to the Creature Room. The guys working in the room let the kids try on masks, including an old Darth Vader mask that was half the size of Cleo’s whole body. It was fantastic.
Just as we entered the room, there was a large table covered with blasters and guns. The new blasters are black and white, and when you pull the trigger, a puff of pressurized air is released that helps the gun have the feeling of real kickback. The kids were allowed to practice shooting them. There were loud popping noises as they tried different guns. I reminded my girls that these were pretend guns for the sole purpose of entertainment in a fictional movie. “You may not point one of these guns at another person, especially at your sister.”
My husband Andrew talked extensively with the man in charge of the creature room, who explained that there are 66 new creatures for this movie. The man in charge of the room told him, “When we have a visit like this, all the dads want to talk to me, and all the kids want to play with the stuff.” The visit is as exciting for the parents as the kids!
He explained that there is very little CGI involved in Episode 7. J.J. really wanted to go back to the feel of the original three movies. Many of the creatures and robots and droids in Episode 7 are achieved with masks, actors and animatronics.
There were masks in every corner of the room. Jars of paint, finely-tipped brushes, and art supplies lined the shelves and tables. Drawings and print-outs of creatures were taped to the walls. The head of an enormous creature took up a large portion of the room. “We call her Susie,” the man in charge of the room explained, “although that’s not what she is called in the movie. This is just her head, and it takes two people to operate it from inside. Her body is too big to keep in here. Wait till you see it in the movie. We have actual people inside it making it move.”
At the end of our visit to Pinewood Studios, young Andrew and Katie each received a gift. Katie’s was a lightsaber and Andrew’s was a large action figure. All the kids received Bad Robot baseball caps. We exchanged information with Chuck and Lori and returned our security badges. Only Katie and Andrew were allowed to keep their badges as souvenirs. Katie’s has VIP written on it, along with her photo, her name, and underneath, it says “Princess Leia.” Andrew’s is the same except that under his photo, it says “Jedi Knight.”
And then it was over, and we piled into the town car and drove away. It was a dream. But it was real. Some dreams really do come true. Just when our family needed it most, we received the gift of happiness from Star Wars.
I am so grateful for the opportunity, for the closeness it provided our family, for the life-changing memories that we created. This trip was the happiest I’ve seen Katie in a long time. She felt celebrated and special; I saw an ease and a self-confidence that we used to see frequently but that has been absent as she has dealt with the stresses of being a tween. All day today during our visit to the set, I had this feeling of awe and amazement. I will never forget any of this.
Reflections a Year Later
The visit to London remains one of the highlights of our family’s existence. Throughout fifth grade, Katie struggled. We supported her in every way possible. The Star Wars trip was a bright spot in the darkness.
To our delight and relief, sixth grade has been a much better year so far. Katie is back into the fold with a good group of girlfriends. She walks with kids to school; she has sleepovers; she is giggly and chatty and social. She gave her permission for me to write about her loneliness last year. She said, “People should know that these things happen. Everyone has trouble finding a friend sometimes. This year has been a million times better.”
We keep in touch with young Andrew’s family. The fantastic news is that Andrew is doing better than he was a year ago and has even completed treatment; his family is celebrating the release of Episode 7 by renting a small theater and having a party.
Episode 7: The Force Awakens
Today I saw an early screening of The Force Awakens. As I watched the movie’s opening scenes, my heart raced with anxiety. For so many months, our experience at the set of The Force Awakens has been this big wonderful secret. I couldn’t talk about it or write about it. I harbored a fear -- what if the movie itself wasn’t what I built it up to be?
So as the amazing scenes unfolded in front of me, I felt relief and delight. I wanted to shout out, “I was there! I remember that part being filmed!” The interactions between characters were rich and nuanced. I didn’t expect to laugh as much I did. John Boyega was really funny. Humor is used at just the right moments to break tension, and the filming looks authentic.
As a mother of three daughters, I am always looking for strong female characters to show to my girls. Episode 7 does not disappoint. Rey is more than fearless. She is resilient and resourceful. Rey has the heart of a true hero and comes to help those in need. General Leia is empathetic but focused, and she isn’t afraid to reflect on her past decisions. In this film, the women are not supporting characters. They are the backbone of the film.
The practical attire worn by both General Leia and Rey is a welcome departure from the highly sexualized costumes we see on most female heroines and superheroes. The unremarkable clothing of the female leads allows the viewer to judge the characters by their acting and their stories instead of by their appearance. And isn’t this what we all deserve?
I can honestly say that the entire experience of The Force Awakens has changed my life. May it do the same for you, and May The Force Be With You.
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