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Directors Rian Johnson, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, accompanied by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, discussed the future of the “Star Wars” franchise at Star Wars Celebration Europe at the ExCel Centre. Alden Ehrenreich was also officially introduced as young Han Solo for the upcoming standalone movie.

“This is going to start right where the last one left off,” “Episode VIII” director Johnson said. “It was a break from tradition.”

He added, “The second film is where we zoom into the characters, getting to the heart of them and challenging them.”

In preparation to direct the highly anticipated sequel, Johnson screened gritty 1949 WWII drama “Twelve O’Clock High” (“It became extremely important”) and Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1959 survival adventure “Letter Never Sent” plus classics like “The Bridge On The River Kwai,” “The Dambusters,” “Sahara” and “Gunga Din.”

Johnson went to San Francisco and spent six weeks figuring out the story.

“We would watch dailies come in from ‘VII.’ It was probably really healthy creating the story based on our reactions to the footage rather than the cultural reactions. It was a unique experience.”

As a surprise for fans, stars John Boyega, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher made unscheduled appearances. “Rian is awesome,” said Boyega. “He is doing an indie movie within a studio franchise. It is so much fun…Rian has a new energy for a new story.”

Lord and Miller will direct the as yet untitled Han Solo picture as a standalone “Star Wars Story,” which features the iconic smuggler in his early 20s from a script written by Lawrence Kasdan and Jon Kasdan. According to Miller, the film will shoot “end of January or early February” in the U.K.

Lord said, “I sort of relate to him. He doesn’t want to do anything he is told. He is very sarcastic and at the end of the day he is unreasonably optimistic. He is a grouchy, cynical guy with the biggest heart in the galaxy.”

Miller added, “He’s a maverick, a scoundrel. He is clever but he’s not smart. He wants to present himself as this tough guy but he is lovable. He is one of the most iconic characters of all time.”

After months of speculation, Alden Ehrenreich (“Hail Caesar!”) was officially announced as young Han Solo. He was brought in front of the crowd of 4000 to a rapturous reception.

“We thought this was the hardest casting challenge of all time. They were the biggest boots to fill,” said Miller.

Casting Solo, Lord and Miller looked at over 3000 people, “but we cast the first person who walked through the door,” said Miller. “Sorry Kathy — we wasted your money.”

“I am going to take it out of your salary,” quipped Kennedy.

Ehrenreich said, “I read the sides and I loved them. I auditioned for six months. The coolest part was I went on the Falcon for a chemistry test with Chewbacca. It was unbelievable. It was more exciting than nerve-racking.”

Johnson is picking up the reins of the saga from director J.J. Abrams, whose “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” made $2.8 billion worldwide. Kennedy picked Johnson because of his “substance and sense of humor. Rian moves the camera as good as Steven Spielberg. I don’t say that about many people.”

“Episode VIII” sees the return of Hamill, Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie and Andy Serkis.

New cast members include Benicio Del Toro, Laura Dern and Kelly Marie Tran.

Following preliminary work in Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland, the film lensed in Pinewood Studios, England, Dubrovnik, Croatia and County Cork, Ireland. Production started recreating the closing moments of “Episode VII.”

“Star Wars: Episode VIII” will open on Dec. 15, 2017. The untitled Han Solo standalone movie will bow on May 25, 2018.

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