When Rian Johnson was offered the opportunity to write and direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi, he chose to make the story and characters a priority.
Having successfully relaunched the Star Wars saga in 2015 with The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams has passed the lightsaber to director Rian Johnson for the middle chapter in the new trilogy, The Last Jedi.
Best known for his indie drama Brick (2005) and the time-travel thriller Looper (2012), Johnson is certainly an interesting choice to helm Episode VIII, and it was his unique and specific vision as a filmmaker – as well a sense of humour and talent for writing fierce and independent female characters – that so impressed Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy.
When offered the gig of a lifetime, Johnson admits he took his time pondering what he could add to the Star Wars universe.
“On one hand it was something that I felt was a dream offer. On the other hand, it was a big, life-changing deal. I wanted to make sure it was something that was going to be a good experience, and it really has been.
“I had the time of my life making this movie. In many ways it felt the closest I’ve ever gotten to a professional equivalent of being a kid and running around the room with action figures.”
Johnson decided that the best way to approach a project of such magnitude and importance was to simply jump in and start doing it.
“I looked at where The Force Awakens left off, and I wrote down the names of each of the characters, and I started writing and asking myself what I knew about each of these characters. What do I think they want? Where can I see them going? And once I got to a place where I had something for each one of them that made sense, I started drawing it out into a story.”
Johnson let the epic nature of the film take care of itself, and focused on the characters. “Because it’s the middle chapter of a trilogy, this is the one where we have to slow down a little and dig into everybody a bit more. That’s really where I put most of the focus.”
The relationship between Rey and Luke Skywalker was a key element he had to get right. “But the first thing I had to really figure out was what Luke’s deal is. Why is he on that island? Because I know he’s not a coward and I know he’s not hiding. I know if he’s there, he’s taken himself out of the fight, and he must have a reason for doing that. What is that reason?”
Johnson also reveals that Kylo Ren was the character he was most excited to write for.
“In the first Star Wars films, Darth Vader was a great villain, but he was never someone that you identified with. You identified with Luke’s relationship to him. So Vader was the monster. He was the scary father, and then he was the father you had to reconcile with. Whereas with Kylo, it’s almost like Rey and Kylo are two halves of the protagonist. Rey is the light, and Kylo is the dark. And with Kylo, again, this is all about the transition from adolescence into adulthood. Kylo is that anger of adolescence, and wanting to reject your parents, and wanting to break away, which, to some extent, all of us can identify with as much as we can identify with the hopeful Rey looking up at the stars from her planet.”
The Force Awakens possessed an instant familiarity – there was no doubt whatsoever that we were back in that galaxy far, far away. According to Johnson, numerous early conversations were held regarding the look of The Last Jedi, and what specifically contributes to the feel of a Star Wars film.
“After going around a bit, we decided to just hop in and start designing some stuff and see if it feels right,” says the director. “There were designers on the team who homed in on the Star Wars feel of it all instantly, so we tended to gravitate towards those artists. Kevin Jenkins, who is the lead designer with ILM, and James Klein were two of the guys who were hugely instrumental in delivering the Star Wars elements in the design. It’s an interesting balance to try and strike, designing new things and having them feel like they could be on a box from a toy in 1977.”
Johnson concludes that the experience of adding to the Star Wars mythology was something that definitely took time to properly sink in.
“The cultural enormity of Star Wars is so vast, it’s impossible to really hold it in a real way in your mind, which is a very good thing. There are brief moments where you intellectually realise the reach that this story you’re telling is going to have, but grasping that in any meaningful way is impossible. So at the end of the day you’re really left with your experience of making it, and what the story means to you personally.”