Entertainment

The Force re-awakened: Rian Johnson talks evolution of 'The Last Jedi'

Writer-director worked on film for 4 years

Spoiler alert: This article highlights some key scenes in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."

If the success of writer-director Rian Johnson's worldwide blockbuster "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" proves anything, it shows that if you have the passion, a person who works hard enough can someday venture not only to the pinnacle of his craft, but in some instance, to a galaxy far, far away.

For Johnson, his work for four years on the eighth film in the Skywalker family saga was born of the wonder inspired by the first "Star Wars" trilogy when he was young. He recently shared that passion in an incredible gesture the night before the first "Last Jedi" panel at "Star Wars" Celebration in Orlando, Florida, in April. In an unprecedented move, Johnson made an unscheduled appearance where hundreds of fans were camping out overnight for a spot to see the panel and the first trailer for film, meeting with each fan there individually. As it turns out, those one-on-one meetings proved to be one of the pivotal moments of Johnson's entire "Star Wars" adventure.

"There were two parts to this whole experience. There was making the actual film and then there's putting the film out there to the world -- and that second part at Celebration was such a highlight and almost like a turning point for me," Johnson recalled in a phone conversation Tuesday from Los Angeles.

"Coming into Celebration I was a little nervous. I was scared to go up on stage and scared of judgment. I was scared about what people were going to say about this 'new guy' making this movie," Johnson said.  "So, going out that night and just meeting fans face-to-face made me realize, 'This is me. This is us. This what I've been since I was a kid. This isn't some big, scary mass of folks, this is just the same type of 'Star Wars' fan as I have been since a kid.' Everyone was so kind and so wonderful, that the next day when I got up on stage in front of all of them, I felt like I was standing in front of a huge group of friends."

Of course, there were big differences between Johnson and the "Star Wars" faithful: He had the gargantuan task of making a film that would fit within the framework of the sprawling story writer-director George Lucas created 40 years ago. That's not to say Johnson, 44, didn't have his share of surreal moments on the set, like bossing Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, around.

Well, maybe "bossing Mark Hamill around" isn't the right way to put it.

"To be fair, nobody ever bosses Mark Hamill around. Good luck with that," Johnson said, laughing. "But I formed a great working relationship with Mark and collaborated with him on this part. But yes, on any single day of the past four years of my life, I can stick my finger down on the calendar and say, 'On this day was a surreal experience.' For someone who grew up as a kid on 'Star Wars' and it being their world, everything from getting to work with Mark and Carrie Fisher to getting to film on the Millennium Falcon set … You name it, there were just so many instances that it was hard not to have flashes of, 'Oh, my God, this is really happening.'

"But then those flashes happen, and you get to work, and you get to start to tell a living, breathing story, which is ultimately the goal," Johnson added. "The purpose of the film is not to showcase all this stuff from your youth, but to tell a story that's alive right now with these characters and take each one of them seriously as characters."

In the first film in the new "Star Wars" trilogy, director J.J. Abrams' "The Force Awakens" dealt with the introduction of new characters and caught up with legacy characters like General Leia (Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford). The telling of Luke's story, for the most part, rested on Johnson's shoulders. Fans only briefly saw Luke in the last minute of "The Force Awakens." Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally locates the legendary Jedi master on an island on the remote planet of Ahch-To, where she presents to him his old lightsaber.

But in a genius spin to show just how Luke's story evolved in "The Last Jedi," the grizzled Luke flips the hilt over his shoulder in a move that no one could have possibly seen coming. It was the first of many unexpected moments in the film, even though Johnson says his flip move, so to speak, makes complete sense in the context of the character's overall storyline.

"For me, it doesn't start with wanting to do something unexpected or surprising. It's always a nice thing when you can get that, but for me, that moment with Luke was inevitable," Johnson said. "It's wonderful that it plays like a surprise, but given where he's at in 'The Force Awakens,' even though he's exiled on this island, even though he's taken himself out of the fight, you realize there must be a reason he's doing this. I started out by figuring out where the character had to be at in this movie, and it all added up to him being in a place where it would have made no sense at all if we had gotten exactly what we all wanted -- which was him firing up the lightsaber and saying, 'Let's go kill the bad guys.' So, the surprise for me is always best when it's a bi-product of really trying to honestly find he most interesting place to take these characters."

To date, "The Last Jedi" has made more than $1.2 billion in theaters worldwide and is quickly honing on a place in the top 10 highest-grossing films, globally, of all time. And while "The Last Jedi" is extremely popular, it hasn't stopped some fans from being vocal with their criticism of the film, including how Johnson dealt with Luke's fate.

Since Johnson is such a huge fan of "Star Wars," it does cause him moments of introspection, but ultimately, he said, the best course to take as a filmmaker is to stay true to his vision to see the story evolve -- especially since he'll be involved in the "Star Wars" universe again as the writer and director of the first film in a brand-new trilogy.

"Having been on the internet, I can say the vast majority of feedback I've gotten from fans has been ecstatic and on the same level of the critics," Johnson said. "There are fans who don't like it and there are fans who absolutely love it. That's because it's a 'Star Wars' movie. Having been a 'Star Wars' fan myself for the past 40 years, (the discussion about the film) is something I'm acutely aware of. If you make a 'Star Wars' movie and put some soul into it and give it some life, that means you're going to have to make choices that inevitably are going to please some fans and not please others."

Having grown up in the fan base, Johnson said, he knows that not being able to please everybody is always going to be the case.

"What you need to do as a filmmaker, and this is what Lucas did and all the filmmaker approaching these new movies need to do, is to tell a personal story," Johnson said. "You have to tell it the way it feels right to you (within the 'Star Wars' universe). You have to tap into what that is and you have to trust that. The moment you start second-guessing that, you're dead in the water, and you're going to make something that is guarded, dishonest and manipulative, and all the wrong things.

"So, I love hearing the discussion among the fans. I love hearing how the movie connected with people and it's interesting to hear people's complaints about it," Johnson added. "It all adds into the big soup that is the reaction fans have to any new piece of anything that is 'Star Wars.'"


ENTERTAINMENT HEADLINES

THIS WEEK'S CIRCULARS