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‘The Last Jedi’ Director Rian Johnson Interview: How He Made a Great Movie By Taking Huge Risks

Let the trolls complain. Writer-director Johnson took chances on "Star Wars" and that paid off so well he's creating a standalone trilogy.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

With its dense, careening, seemingly unstructured 2-hour, 32-minute running time, “The Last Jedi — Episode VIII” is well worth a second viewing. From Han Solo’s cockpit dangling dice to Chewbacca preparing a roasted Porg for his supper, every detail pays off. We asked writer-director Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman (his producing partner since “Brick” in 2005) how they combined spectacle with scale and scope with intimate human dynamics, a raft of new characters and creatures, and the inevitable battle between light and dark.

And whatever is really going on with Internet trolls complaining about “The Last Jedi,” Johnson’s follow-up to J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens”  is a bonafide critical success and certainly plays like a blockbuster with theater audiences. The space epic scored $574 million worldwide to date, and will only keep racking up the numbers over the holidays.

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Disney

Echoing the male backlash against Paul Feig’s all-female “Ghostbusters,” Johnson’s”The Last Jedi” faces internet wailing for not only carefully balancing the dark and light sides of The Force, but also the story’s gender dynamics. Every male engages with a female counterpart: Solo scion Kylo vs. scrapper Rey, siblings Luke vs. Leia, survivor Finn vs. believer Rose, macho Poe vs. femme authority Holdo. (Although, once again, lanky “Game of Thrones” star Gwendoline Christie is sadly wasted.) While Johnson doesn’t want to parse it all out, “I was gender conscious while writing,” he admitted.

Altering the canon

Lucasfilm laid down the mandate that the “Star Wars’ universe needed to reflect real-world diversity, but what’s extraordinary about Johnson’s accomplishment is he dreamed up so much new stuff to extend an already crowded, immersive world — one in which vested fans carry strong views. How else to keep a 40-year-old franchise fresh?

Johnson wrote the first draft in 15 months. While he labored over many more iterations, he says 90 percent of his ideas made it into the final movie. He started with the main characters from “The Force Awakens,” and asked: “Where do they go next?”

Spoilers follow. 

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Disney

Johnson took risks by toying with audience expectations of the movie’s romantic entanglements. For one thing, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) are separated for most of the movie, as are Kylo (Adam Driver) and Rey — he’s tangling with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), while she’s training on remote island Ahch-To with cranky Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

“I realized that Finn and Rey were separated from the start,” Johnson said. “They’re logistically in different parts of the galaxy. Everyone was really nervous because their chemistry drove that first film. Finn is doing his own thing on his two feet. Rey has to deal with Luke and Kylo.” So he created a new buddy, Rose, to be by Finn’s side. Johnson debated whether to keep Finn’s kissing Rose. “It was something that felt right to me that I stuck to, to make my heart lift.”

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

When that moment played to cheers at the “Last Jedi” LA premiere, it made Johnson “so happy,” he said. “It was the first time to see it with a crowd, literally, so I was nervous and tensed up. Truth is, I had no doubt about Kelly from the spark she had on screen the very first moment the editor started putting scenes together. To hear an audience get on board with her, it felt so good.”

The major departure from the “Star Wars” canon was the whole notion of the Force connections between Kylo and Rey. It all started because Johnson wanted to get the two characters to talk without a physical confrontation. “I struggled with how to do that for a while,” he said, “especially as Rey hates Kylo so much. If you are going to put them in the same room they will start fighting! So it was searching for a way to force them to speak to each other. I didn’t want it be a big swirling effects sequence, but something as intimate as sitting face to face across from someone, which was the most difficult thing for Rey to have to do. That’s where the concept of these very simple Force connections came from.”

No, there’s no precedent for this in previous “Star Wars” movies. Johnson took the idea to the 11-member Story Group at Lucasfilm that Kennedy created in 2012 to oversee the “Star Wars” canon and asked them: “What about this? Can we do it?” Their response: “That’s new and exciting, let’s try it!”

The idea to have Leia fly came from “The Return of the Jedi,” when Luke tells Leia she has powers, too: “You will come to use them as I have,” he says. When Johnson brought it up to Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy, she was “intrigued,” he said. “It was a moment of survival instinct for her. She doesn’t want to give up. To finally see that potential planted in her mind finally realized is powerful to see.”

And so he dove in.

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Disney

New faces and places

Johnson created two new planets as well as several cool creatures like the icy Star Base Crait’s sparkling crystal fox, the Vulptex. Finn (John Boyega) and the woman he eventually falls for, resistance fighter Rose (discovery Kelly Marie Tran), explore the Casino planet Canto Bight. “The purpose of the sequence is that Finn’s journey is going to be a pivot point for Finn seeing an extra layer of moral complexity to the whole fight by seeing it through Rose’s eyes,” said Johnson. “The key is the Favier-horse creatures. They are the thing worth saving.”

Fathier in THE LAST JEDI.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.

Written into the script, Johnson described new creatures who were “beautiful and sympathetic, who feel wise so you can emotionally connect with them, who look like space alien horses.” He then threw his contribution to the design team; it took star ILM designer Aaron McBride a while to crack.

Following in the mold of the original “Star Wars” creature designer Ralph McQuarrie, they tried to draw from the natural world and take familiar animals “and put them together and combine them in ways that made them alien and yet make them feel like something unto themselves,” said Johnson. “It’s a tricky balance: if it goes wrong you get a koala head on top of the wrong body. It was like cupping our hands around a flame. They showed me one with last-minute tweaks that suddenly worked: It came to life, a new creature distinct, wise and beautiful. ‘Freeze that in amber!’ It’s a magical process, doing the work of millions of years evolution in a few months.”

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Disney

Directing a movie of scale

Clearly, with “The Last Jedi” Johnson and Bergman took on a much bigger scale—the estimated $200 million budget was exponentially larger than Johnson’s last movie, the 2012 $30-million sci-fi adventure “Looper,” which made $170 million worldwide and showed Kennedy what Johnson could do.

So she let him and Bergman take the reins. On “The Last Jedi,” Bergman said, “nothing gets shot that Rian doesn’t direct. We had lot of time to prepare and prep. That’s why the process was so smooth, with no issues and no dramas production-wise.”

Kennedy seems so grateful for the harmonious experience of working with Johnson and Bergman  partly because other “Star Wars” installments have not gone so well–several other directors, including the “Solo: A Star Wars Story” team Phil Lord and Chris Miller, have come and gone (they were replaced by veteran team player Ron Howard). And Johnson directed the whole thing himself, with no second units. “His hands were on everything, he was involved in everything,” said Bergman. “Every unit, splinter units, nothing gets shot that Rian doesn’t direct.”

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Of course, the steepest learning curve was figuring how to mount the big effects battles. First they had to master the pre-visualization process of creating crude digital versions of each sequence. “It’s like an Xbox game,” said Johnson. “You see how it plays. It felt like it was a huge challenge, different from starting with storyboards like I always do, but it was just chicken-scratch storyboards that told the story shot by shot. We sat down and talked through pre-vis on every single shot, adjusted how it played straight through, put together the footage we shot with the actors. And if it doesn’t work, we panic and then shape a sequence so it works!”

Among a raft of film references in “The Last Jedi,” Johnson pays homage to Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai” with the stunning multiple mirror sequence, which turned out to also be one of the most difficult to execute. “It was a very early image I had before I started writing the script,” he said. “I walked on the beach with J.J. Abrams’ production designer Rick Carter, the secret Yoda of these new movies. He’s a very spiritual person. In fact, the first conversations I had with him were not about set pieces or ships. We talked about family and spirituality and what this stuff means to us: Rey searching for identity. I had this image of never-ending arrays of Reys. It’s about the possibilities of self, and playing cinematically, following down the line, with which one is the real her.”

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

After he found a place for the sequence in the story, Johnson faced serious technical challenges. “It involved the capture of Daisy from multiple angles at once,” he said, “not shooting one and then repeating back. Each one is from a different perspective on each Rey. It was a complicated process executed by smarter people than I at ILM and One of Us, who did work on ‘Under the Skin.'”

Not an intended homage to Guillermo del Toro’s bloody white snow in “Crimson Peak” was the stunning Star Base Crait battle sequence when the white salt flats turn red. “I wrote it before I saw ‘Crimson Peak,'” said Johnson. “I saw it and called Guillermo. We were already in prep: ‘Shit, man, I saw your movie, I loved it, I have this thing that’s red and white in the new ‘Stars Wars,’ it’s not intentional.’ Pause. ‘Well, you’re fucked, man, I copyrighted the color red, so I’m going to sue Disney’s ass.’ He was really sweet. I prefer to think I was ripping off the woodchopper scene in ‘Fargo.'”

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

As Johnson got toward the end of Episode VIII, knowing that he had to hand it off to the next filmmaker, he realized what he was going to miss. “I had such a good time with Kathy,” he said. “We kept saying it felt like the last week of senior year as we were cleaning our lockers. I was getting sad, wondering how we could keep working together.”

So he proposed to Kennedy that he go with a new trilogy: “three movies, one story, create new people, new story over the canvas of a trilogy. She was very excited. That was the idea. It wasn’t a story pitch.”

That means that Johnson is just starting to come up with what it is. “I want to tap into what makes it ‘Star Wars,’ which is an exciting, intriguing question,” he said. “I’m just starting to dive into it now.”

Won’t this limit his output of original films? “We still have to figure out the schedule,” he said. “I have other ideas. It’s important to keep figuring out ways to do those. I’m not just doing ‘Star Wars’ solid over the next decade. Intellectually, I can see how someone might see that I’m stuck in a box, but I don’t feel that at all. I’m incredibly turned on and dedicated to the idea of doing this and the notion of telling a story on this canvas in this world is everything I wanted to make movies for. It feels like big blue skies are open in front of me and I can start flying.”

Now J.J. Abrams has the task of following — and trying to top — this fresh blast of energy in the “Star Wars” universe with the ninth installment. It’s a tall order.

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