A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Matthew Myatt was leaning out the side of an Ikarus C42 single-engine microlight airplane and taking in the view when he noticed something strange below. Myatt and his colleagues at the Airbourne Aviation Flying Club had taken off one early September morning with three planes flying in tight formation. From their base at Popham Airfield, about 50 miles south of London, the group flew north toward a vast parkland called Greenham Common. Cruising at 1,000 feet, he couldn’t make out the objects below very clearly, but he took a few photos anyway. It wasn’t until four days later that Myatt downloaded his pictures and saw what really was on the ground: a piece of cinematic history.
Even after Myatt discovered that he inadvertently had photographed the Millennium Falcon, one of the most closely held secrets on the set of Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, he really had no clue what was about to hit him, he told me when I visited him recently at the airfield. That night, after feeding his cat, he uploaded his picture — the right half of Han Solo’s galactic cruiser parked next to a blue and black X-wing fighter — to Twitter. He was awakened the next morning by a call from The Sun, a British tabloid. Minutes later, The Guardian phoned. When Myatt fired up his iPad, he was stunned to see more than 1,000 retweets. No one in the public had known filming was happening in the park. When BBC Belfast interviewed Myatt, they toggled between a conversation about his photo and coverage of the verdict in Oscar Pistorius‘ murder trial in South Africa. A Japanese film crew knocked on his door, demanding a live interview with a host in Japan who spoke no English. When the local BBC radio station requested that he come in for an interview, he ended up spending the whole day in the studio, cycling through one outlet after another. “As the days went on, it got more and more crazy,” he says. “Star Wars almost wrecked my life for a couple of weeks. It was absolutely barmy.”
Myatt’s experience hardly was unique. During the more than six months Star Wars: Episode VII filmed at locations as diverse as the U.K.’s Pinewood Studios, Abu Dhabi and the Irish island Skellig Michael, such strange episodes came in rapid succession. Movie shoots were once considered sacred and off-limits to media. But before Episode VII wrapped Nov. 6 ahead of nearly a year of postproduction, citizens had launched drones to capture precious behind-the-scenes images (and found YouTube fame in the process); paparazzi had stalked a gimpy Harrison Ford after he broke his leg on set; and fans had climbed trees to snap photos of star Adam Driver. A cottage industry of tidbits and spoilers have fueled a 24-hour-a-day Star Wars news cycle unlike one preceding any other film in history. A poorly cropped Millennium Falcon picture could earn a civilian pilot thousands of dollars. (Myatt says he signed an agreement with a photo agency but hasn’t seen a dime and thus is, yep, preparing to sue.) Paparazzi and photo agencies say that a nice portfolio of shots from an ultrasecretive set like the one in Abu Dhabi could be worth tens of thousands of dollars. But the most valuable currency might be dispensed via social media, where a picture or plot spoiler could earn the person who shares it major social standing and relevance in the Star Wars geek universe.
Disney, besieged by the blanket media coverage of the shoot, essentially has thrown up its hands, choosing to ignore it all. “There’s so much out there, it’s easier to not correct false rumors because then people think the stuff we don’t correct is true,” says one insider. At the same time, an extraordinary security lockdown was put in place on set, according to sources. Producers even required that a sticker be applied over the lens of every cellphone that entered the perimeter of Pinewood Studios outside London and removed upon departure. Once taken off, the sticker could not be reused, so visitors couldn’t sneak a photo and reapply it.
Even as Hollywood has become used to intense social media-fueled scrutiny on high-profile productions, Episode VII has set a new standard for filming under a microscope. The combination of multigenerational fan fervor around the property (Star Wars has generated $4.2 billion at the box office, close to $4 billion on home video and nearly $20 billion more on video games, books, toys and other merchandise) coupled with creator George Lucas‘ $4 billion sale of his company to Disney, a high-profile director in J.J. Abrams and a master plan to dramatically expand the franchise under Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy (with a new Star Wars film every year beginning Dec. 16, 2015), has made Episode VII perhaps the most intensely watched — and tightly controlled — movie shoot in Hollywood history.
The timing of the Star Wars reboot couldn’t be in a galaxy further away from the previous incarnations. No social media, no Internet and barely any paparazzi existed when the series launched in 1977, and the most recent film, 2006’s Revenge of the Sith, hit theatres before YouTube and Twitter really took off. Now, on a set potentially infiltrated by drones, where outlets will pay thousands of dollars for illicit photos and potential plot spoilers, Disney has pushed the boundaries of nondisclosure agreements and even tried to purchase anti-drone technology. And while much of Lucas’ previous Star Wars trilogy was created in postproduction with visual effects, Abrams has insisted on filming practical scenes, which could expose details about the cast of newcomers, as well as returning stars Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher and new creatures like the large piglike alien spotted in Abu Dhabi.
Such is the mood that when an executive from Hasbro, which makes Star Wars toys, tweeted that he was at Pinewood — where much of the shooting took place — his Twitter account disappeared. “The nondisclosure agreements these people have to sign have created a culture of terror,” says Chris Taylor, author of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. “[His account] just vanished. It was completely Orwellian. It has that level of secrecy.” And when Stephen Fry, a British comic with nearly 8 million Twitter followers, quit the platform this year, it immediately was assumed that he had been on or near a Star Wars shoot (the truth is still not known).
Not surprisingly, the intense pressure also has led to speculation about how Abrams, who rebooted the less popular Star Trek franchise in 2009, is handling the frenzy. In October, he decorated the set with a poster showing a Storm Trooper being choked by Darth Vader’s famous gloved hand, with the words, “Loose Lips Sink Starships.” Producer Frank Marshall, married to Kennedy, tweeted it while making his only visit to Pinewood. Says Marshall, who thought it was funny: “When I twitpic’ed that poster, I had 25,000 views within three days. The most I’ve ever had was 8,000. So it’s very well watched — three times any picture I’ve ever had.”
Director Kevin Smith, a dedicated Star Wars superfan, was invited by Abrams to visit the Pinewood set in June, and afterward he expressed his enthusiasm in language that didn’t violate the nondisclosure agreement he had signed. “So we go to the set and they’re actually shooting, and they’re shooting — and this is what I can’t tell you what they were shooting — but what I saw I absolutely loved,” Smith said during a July appearance at the Neuchatel International Fantastic Film Festival. “I saw them shooting an actual sequence in a set that is real — I walked across the set, there were explosions — and it looked like a shot right out of a f—ing Star Wars movie.”
The excitement is so high that now even the most obscure potential plot spoiler can take on a life of its own. Brian Cameron, a co-editor and frequent contributor to the site Jedi News, recently went to one Star Wars location in England called Puzzlewood, a wooded plot near the Forest of Dean, about a month after shooting there ended. The site already was renowned for being where J.R.R. Tolkien got inspiration for The Lord of the Rings. Cameron obviously was there too late to see movie stars — he was simply trying to absorb and anticipate how the movie and the real-world lands would dovetail. “It’s a quite haunting mystical wood and very dense, and it creates an intimidating and magical atmosphere,” he says. “I got the impression that it’s more of a hostile environment. There were rumors that it was being used for some kind of battle, but I’m not sure.” When he posted his photos — which showed precisely nothing of any news value — to Twitter, he was inundated with calls from fans who wanted to replicate his visit. “The Germans especially,” he says. “They’re hard-core.”
One day recently I traveled to England, where much of Episode VII was filmed, to get a sense of the frenzy. I arrived at Greenham Common, where Myatt captured the Millennium Falcon, on a blustery morning. The Common is now a vast, public park, but it once was the site of an American military base that housed Gryphon Ground Launched Cruise Missiles loaded with nuclear warheads. Nearly immediately after Myatt’s picture hit the web, Greenham Common was swarming with fans, including at least one fully costumed Storm Trooper meandering along the grass. The day after Myatt’s photograph went viral, on Sept. 10, the British Civil Aviation authorities established a no-fly zone over Greenham Common. “It amazed me how much power the mouse has,” says Myatt. “Mickey Mouse — that they can call up the British government and shut down the airspace. There’s something wrong with that.” (Disney declined comment.)
But in a kind of uber-meta life-imitates-art moment, the fans came with — OK, not droids — but drones, which were not restricted in the no-fly zone. Pretty soon, shaky and not-so-shaky HD videos of the Greenham Common set, including the Millennium Falcon, an X-wing fighter and the clear outlines of an elaborately constructed planet were making their way around the web. Disney tried to stop those, too. Back in June, records reveal that Star Wars producers applied for a “Drone Shield” from an Arlington, Va., company of the same name. The company says its clients include “executives concerned about paparazzi,” corporations worried about intellectual property loss and “U.S. military and homeland security departments.” A drone shield doesn’t shoot down drones but instead uses an early warning system to alert the owner to the presence of the unwanted intruders. It wasn’t Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense program of the 1980s, but it wasn’t too far off, either. In any event, by September, the export license had yet to be granted, and so shooting had to proceed without the protection of the drone shield.
The day after Myatt tweeted his photograph, Rick Lawrence spotted it on his Facebook feed. Lawrence had grown up close to Greenham Common and played there as a boy and still lived only five minutes away. Lawrence’s son Oscar had stayed home from school that day, a Wednesday, but when the two spotted the Millennium Falcon, they decided to go out and have a look. At the Common, Lawrence and Oscar climbed into a tree and peered over some hedgerows onto the set. Nothing. The next day, Oscar was still home, but Lawrence had to work, so he took his son with him. On the way, the pair stopped off at the Common again. This time, when Oscar peered over, he spotted movement. “Crikey,” he told his dad, “there’s loads of stuff here today.” Lawrence climbed halfway up a tree, fell out when a branch cracked and then climbed back up, right to the top, his head poking through the uppermost branches. He took several pictures with a point-and-shoot camera. He wasn’t sure what he was seeing, but it turned out to be Adam Driver wearing an X-wing fighter suit. Lawrence posted the pictures on Facebook that night. The next day, Friday, Oscar was at school, and Lawrence returned to the tree for a third time. Within 30 minutes, five men were staring up at him from the ground: a Star Wars production manager, an assistant with a camera and three policemen. Lawrence stayed in the tree while the guards tried to talk him down. He didn’t climb down until three hours had passed.
When he got home that night, there were several messages informing him that he had violated the Star Wars copyright. Lawrence had captured what turned out to be a potential plot spoiler: Driver was meant to be playing a bad guy. But if he was wearing an X-wing suit, he must be a good guy at some point, too. Or must he? Within a day, Lawrence had become the latest celebrity in the Star Wars universe. “I got loads of Facebook requests from people that I clearly had not a clue who they were from all over the world,” he says. On the Internet, the video went viral. He called his mother and said, “I think I’m in trouble; I’m going to get a stay in her majesty’s hotel.” Ultimately, the police stopped harassing him, and the Star Wars people left him alone. “But it was manic there for a couple of weeks,” he says.
After the furor about his picture ebbed, Myatt returned to his life. Lucasfilm tried to call him three times, but he avoided each one. He did have one request, though. Harrison Ford is known to be a big advocate for aviation clubs and amateur pilots and is a pilot himself. Myatt hoped that Ford might pay a visit to the Popham Airfield to join him for a spin in an Ikarus C42. It’s not the Millennium Falcon, but then again, what is?