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- “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” writer-director Rian Johnson addresses the fan backlash that his movie isn’t like the original trilogy.
- He explains how the fan theories of where the story would go after “The Force Awakens” didn’t affect writing the script.
- He hopes a female director will make one of the “Star Wars” movies — soon or in the new “Star Wars” trilogy he’s creating.
WARNING: Spoilers below if you haven’t seen “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
It’s getting into the evening hours in Los Angeles on the first full day “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is in theaters. Rian Johnson, director of the biggest movie of the year, has not stopped moving for a week.
First L.A. for the press junket. Then Japan. Back to L.A. for the flashy world premiere. Followed by a jump to London. Now back again to L.A. for a final round of press — for now.
When Johnson, 43, gets on the phone, he sounds weary from jetting around the globe. But he perks up when it’s time to talk about “The Last Jedi.” It’s not just a movie he spent the last four years of his life writing and then directing. It’s more than that. Johnson has been a lifelong fan of the franchise, and even chose to go to film school at the University of Southern California because “Star Wars” creator George Lucas went there. In many ways his entire career has been leading up to this point.
You can see many traces of Johnson’s filmography in “The Last Jedi” — taking risks (“Brick”), lighthearted moments (“The Brothers Bloom”), and world building (“Looper”). But it’s his love of the “Star Wars” franchise and drive to tell a story that builds on “The Force Awakens” with something new and challenging that really shines through.
It’s that newness that’s divided “Star Wars” fans about “The Last Jedi.” Though many appreciated a movie that didn’t just feed off the hallmarks of the original trilogy, others have voiced their disappointment with Johnson for breaking fresh ground.
That’s where we began our wide-ranging conversation with Johnson. The director also touched on not being distracted by fan expectations, the challenge of bringing Luke Skywalker back into the saga, why Captain Phasma isn’t more prominently featured in the movie, and what he hopes to accomplish with the new “Star Wars” trilogy he’s creating.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Jason Guerrasio: Like making any “Star Wars” movie, the director can’t win. People complained that “The Force Awakens” was too much like the original trilogy. With your movie, the knock is it’s nothing like the original trilogy. What are your thoughts when you hear that take?
Rian Johnson: Having been a “Star Wars” fan my whole life and having spent most of my life on the other side of the curb and in that fandom, it softens the blow a little bit. I’m aware through my own experience that, first of all, the fans are so passionate, they care so deeply, sometimes they care very violently at me on Twitter. But it’s because they care about these things and it hurts when you’re expecting something specific and you don’t get it from something that you love. It always hurts so I don’t take it personally if a fan reacts negatively and lashes out on me on Twitter. That’s fine. It’s my job to be there for that. Like you said, every fan has a list of stuff they want a “Star Wars” movie to be and they don’t want a “Star Wars” movie to be. You’re going to find very few fans out there whose lists line up.
And I also know the same way the original movies were personal for [George] Lucas. Lucas never made a “Star Wars” movie by sitting down and thinking, “What do the fans want to see?” And I knew if I wrote wondering what the fans would want, as tempting as that is, it wouldn’t work because people would still be shouting at me, “F— you, you ruined ‘Star Wars,'” and I would make a bad movie. And ultimately that’s the one thing nobody wants. And let me just add that 80%-90% of the reaction I’ve gotten from Twitter has been really lovely. There’s been a lot of joy and love from fans. When I talk about the negative stuff, that’s not the full picture of the fans at all.
Guerrasio: Even though the movie is the second part of a trilogy, it really feels like a standalone. Was that a goal of yours?
Johnson: Well, I wanted it to be a full meal. I wanted it to be a satisfying experience unto itself. Because when you go into a theater that’s what you always want. I did want to pick it up where the last one left off, I did want to do service to these characters in a way that felt consistent. And I wanted to leave it in a place where you felt you were excited for the potential of what could come next and you’re invested maybe a little more deeply in these characters and where they end up. In that way it is a middle chapter, it has to function like that. But, you know, it’s also a movie and I wanted to give people a full “Star Wars” experience. I wanted to give them something where they come out of the theater and feel totally satisfied.
Business Insider, Samantha Lee
Guerrasio: Speaking for myself, the satisfaction is that you move the trilogy someplace beyond the hot takes fans had since “The Force Awakens.” And you did that by making some very shocking choices on who we will no longer see beyond this movie, theoretically. Has it been fun waiting for this movie to come out knowing “The Last Jedi” is a very different movie than what fans expected? Or was it panic that maybe your take could miss the mark?
Johnson: [Laughs.] It’s been a combination of both of those things. When I was writing the movie I was doing it while they were shooting “The Force Awakens.” So it wasn’t like I was reading all these theories online and being at my typewriter and going “Ha! Ha! Gotcha!” It was me coming up with a story. I was writing purely from a personal reaction to the script of “The Force Awakens” and what they were shooting. Snoke, for example, I probably would have done the same thing regardless.
Guerrasio: Oh, yeah?
Johnson: Yeah. Snoke’s fate came entirely out of Kylo’s arc and realizing that in this movie the most interesting thing to me was for Kylo to be ascendant. To start by knocking the shaky foundation out from Kylo’s feet and then building him back up into a complicated but credible villain by the end of it. And one that Rey now has a more complex relationship with than just, “I hate you, I want to kill you.” And once I kind of landed on that it quickly became evident that, okay, what is Snoke’s place in this? If I build Kylo up to that point the most interesting thing to carry into the next movie is Kylo running things. Not any echo of the Emperor/pupil relationship. And you realize the dramatic potential of that and it just makes a lot of sense from the story point of view.
Guerrasio: Was coming up with how Luke Skywalker would come out of his self-imposed exile a challenge to write?
Johnson: Yeah. It’s something that early in the process the first thing I had to crack in the movie is why Luke is on that island. I had to figure out something that made sense and you don’t know much about where’s Luke’s head is at coming out of “The Force Awakens.” But what you do know is his friends are out fighting the good fight and he’s taken himself out of the equation. So for me growing up, I know Luke as a hero, I know that he must think he’s doing the right thing by taking himself out of the equation, and that means he thinks the best thing for the galaxy is that he’s not a part of this. And by extension that the Jedi are not a part of this. So that leads you down a certain path.
Guerrasio: And how did you come to the realization that this would be the end of Skywalker?
Johnson: As I worked out that his arc was going to be coming to a place where he does this big heroic act that is going to be spread throughout the galaxy — basically taking back the mantel of Luke Skywalker, a Jedi master, a legend — it just slowly became clear to me that it would be this big grand act. It would be an act of mythmaking. And if there was ever going to be a place in this entire trilogy to give him this emotional moment of a goodbye, this was probably going to be the most emotionally potent place to do it.
Guerrasio: In many ways this is Luke’s coda.
Johnson: Yes, exactly. But I also have to say, I’m not writing the next one and I’m not sure what J.J. [Abrams] and [screenwriter] Chris Terrio are going to do in the next one with Luke. But setting up possibilities for the next one, honestly, it seems much like Obi-Wan going where he did after “New Hope.” The possibilities seemed even more exciting in terms of what Luke’s place could be in the next chapter with him entering into this other realm as opposed to him having a lightsaber and being with our heroes. It opened more possibilities as opposed to fewer. I was holding my breath when I did it and I realized all these things. Though I also thought: “s—.”
Guerrasio: And how did Mark Hamill react to all of this?
Johnson: It wasn’t the thing he wanted to necessarily hear. [Laughs.] Understandably so. Mark had all these years to think what Luke’s triumphant return would be. Luke the hero coming back into this story, and the fact that this character and this movie could not be that. This character in this movie was by necessity what he had to be, and also in relation to Rey, that brought its own necessity. If he comes in as just an optimistic fighter for the good guys that gives Rey nothing to bounce up against, that’s just an older version of Rey. So it’s not what Mark had in his head initially and that’s why he’s spoken very openly about his being caught off guard by the script and where the character ends up. But I knew this is where it had to be. We got into the conversations, and we got into the work, and we talked, and we argued, and we discussed, and that process ended up being very good for the character and also for our working relationship. It was a very good one.
Guerrasio: Like most movies, this one was crafted in post, you guys shot a lot.
Guerrasio: Is the lack of Captain Phasma in the movie just simply that most of her scenes were left on the cutting room floor?
Johnson: There wasn’t a ton of Phasma that we shot for this. The God’s honest truth is, if you take a look at the movie, it’s so full already. There are so many characters to serve already and it’s tough because Phasma really enters the movie when she needs to and she does exactly what she needs to do in it. She’s someone at the tail end of Finn’s journey that represents his past for him to have this cathartic moment of being on the side of good and fighting her. The notion of having a side plot of Phasma throughout the course of the film, look, I love Gwen [Christie], I love Phasma, it would have been fun, but it just wasn’t the story we were telling. There just wasn’t a place for it. We already had quite a full plate to deal with in terms of all the other characters.
Guerrasio: So what you’re saying is you’ve basically helped build the next Boba Fett-level fan obsessed character for the “Star Wars” saga.
Business Insider, Samantha Lee
Johnson: [Laughs.] Look, I’m bummed about it too. Absolutely. I wish we could have more Phasma. Just the truth of it is there wasn’t room for her in this movie. She’s so badass, I wish it was her story but it isn’t, maybe there will be one eventually at some point.
Guerrasio: I like that tease.
Guerrasio: In regards to you taking on a new “Star Wars” trilogy, do you have a notebook filled of just ideas that would be cool to plug into this universe or are you really going into this with a blank page?
Johnson: What’s exciting to me right now is the open blue sky of it and the potential of it. I wish I had a file cabinet full of “Star Wars” ideas just in case, but also it’s great because I can start from the beginning and work forward. As opposed to having stuff I think would be cool, the thing that I think is cool is to figure out what the story will be and what character we’re going to follow and build it from there. It’s easy to come up with cool “Star Wars” stuff. It’s just like grabbing your toys and starting to play. The real question is what the story will be. How are we going to create something that’s really going to be a new and inspiring “Star Wars” story.
Guerrasio: It sounds like you will direct the first movie of this trilogy and then go on and produce the other two.
Johnson: We’ll see. I’m not sure yet.
Guerrasio: But if that holds, would you push to have a female director do at least one of those movies? Is that important to you?
Johnson: Hell yeah. I think that would be fantastic. Again, I don’t know how it’s going to go. I’m going to write and direct the first one and tell the story for the rest of them. But yeah, there are so many talented female directors that I would love to see do one of these movies. Look, I hope it happens in a “Star Wars” movie even before that! Going forward that’s something I would absolutely love to see.
Guerrasio: Give me the one scene/shot in “The Last Jedi” that regardless how many times you’ve seen it you are pretty impressed that you pulled it off.
Johnson: [Laughs.] It was an early image that I had, I really love that slow-motion shot of Kylo and Rey back-to-back with the guards coming from all the sides in Snoke’s chambers. And look, there were a lot of people whose work went into it to design the space and the guards, the stunt work, but that was a moment that I had just always held dear to me and it’s one of those very rare things where the realization of it on screen I just feel like, “Ah, we got it!” It makes me happy.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is currently playing in theaters.
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