SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman — the writer-director and producer team behind Looper, The Brothers Bloom and Brick — are exhausted. I meet them at the end of the London stop on their world press tour for their latest, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, after they’ve spent a week on the road talking up the picture. But this is manna for them, because it’s the first time since Johnson was announced as the director of Star Wars‘ eighth chapter in June 2014 that they’ve been able to talk about what the movie actually contains.
And there’s a lot to talk about. The Last Jedi extends the story started by J.J. Abrams in 2015’s The Force Awakens, introduces a whole new set of characters, and runs a meaty 152 minutes. But what’s most remarkable: It’s all Johnson; he and Bergman say Lucasfilm took a hands-off approach to letting them craft the Star Wars movie that was in Johnson’s mind, even if they stopped short of painting the Millennium Falcon purple…
What worries me about today’s franchise-led cinema is that the mark of a director can get lost to the needs of the franchise. That doesn’t seem to have happened here; this feels like a Rian Johnson movie. How hard-fought was that?
Rian Johnson: It’s going to sound like I’m saying a company line or something. I wouldn’t believe me if I was outside the process and heard this, but there was no fight at all to be had. It was crazy. From the very start, Kathy [Kennedy] at Lucasfilm, but also Bob Iger, Alan Horn, Alan Bergman, the folks at Disney that we dealt with, they not only allowed to make the movie I wanted to make, I was actively encouraged to find what was personal in it and to go after that. From the word go.
I wish I could tell war stories about fighting tooth and nail to get what I wanted in the movie. And granted, what I wanted was a great Star Wars movie; that was where my sights were set. I didn’t come into it saying, “All right. Let’s shake this up.” I came into it wanting to make a great Star Wars movie. Because it’s me telling it, it’s going to feel a certain way. But then everybody was on board from the beginning. It’s boring but it’s true.
Ram, did you ever imagine your journey with this man would lead to an opportunity to produce a Star Wars movie?
Ram Bergman: I think I had a vision, especially after Brick premiered, that big things were going to happen. Not necessarily Star Wars, but I remember specifically having lunch with Rian here in London and I said, “You’re an auteur. The goal would be to go make your movies and build relationships with different distributors around the world. Build relationships with fans around the world, so you can just go make your movies for many, many years.”
I think there was a perception of Rian that Rian is this quirky filmmaker. He’s only going to make movies that are just for the art house. I always thought, No, he’s clearly a unique filmmaker, but actually his ideas do fit the mainstream world. It’s exciting because he comes to it from a different place. I always thought, He can totally get there. I didn’t necessarily think about Star Wars, I just was thinking that he’s going to get to make his original stories that play on a big canvas.
But how do both of you not completely lose your minds when this becomes a reality and the whole task of mounting this massive movie lies ahead of you?
RJ: I don’t know. The time when you lose your mind a little bit, I think, is when it’s still in the abstract. Which was like when we were first offered it, or first took the job, but before we started working. And now, too, where we’re on this press tour and it’s on every billboard you pass. It’s Star Wars with a capital SW.
But the truth is, during the actual process, when you actually have your hands in the dirt and you’re making the movie, there’s no time to lose your mind. The process is very similar and familiar to other processes. It did not feel that different, in a very strange way, from making any of the other films we made. It’s just telling a story and trying to tell it as well as possible. The production actually felt weirdly pressure-free in that regard. There are the pressures of production, of trying to make a good movie, but there wasn’t the big Star Wars pressure hanging over our heads.
So what are the train tracks when you set out to write? Presumably, you can’t kill off half the cast, or have them all form a jazz ensemble and leave this life of adventuring behind.
RJ: Maybe not the jazz thing [laughs]. But you can kill off whoever you want. I don’t know. I’ll give the caveat that I was coming into it wanting to make something that felt like Star Wars. It’s not like I was approaching it like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if we painted the Millennium Falcon purple?” That having been said, we do go places in this movie that felt like we were taking some risks. We were following the characters in the way that seemed natural to me, but it led us to some surprising places.
Again, there was never a feeling of us being policed back into a lane. If anything, the danger was in me self-policing out of fear of, Am I allowed to do this? When I would check in with the story group at Lucasfilm, really what I found is that they would be the ones encouraging me to go for it. They would say, “Oh that’s really weird; oh my god, you have to try that.” If anything, they were protecting me against self-editing or holding back out of fear.
Is there an overarching plot for where the trilogy goes? You obviously have The Force Awakens as a jumping off point, but is there a place you need to get to, in order to set up J.J. Abrams’ Episode IX?
RJ: Not really. That’s what’s been really cool about the storytelling process. There is definitely the idea that we know it is a three-movie arc. We know the first film is an introduction, then the middle act is training, meaning challenging the characters. The third is where they all come together and you have to resolve everything.
But I was truly able to write this script without bases to tag, and without a big outline on the wall. That meant I could react to what I felt from The Force Awakens, and what I wanted to see. I could make this movie personal. I could also just take these characters where it felt right and most interesting to take them. I think part of the reason the movie feels like it goes to some unexpected places with the characters is that we had that freedom. If it had all just been planned out and written down beforehand, it might have felt a little more calculated, I suppose.
You’re versed in the same cinematic references as George Lucas was; was there a sense of going back to what had inspired him originally?
RJ: I guess so, but I was also going back to what inspired me about what Lucas did. I was tapping back into when I was a kid watching Star Wars, and what I responded to, because I think that’s the well that the water is in. If I was trying to intellectually study the sources Lucas drew from, and do what I think he would do, that’s a dry well. You’ve got to tap into what you care about. But it’s connected to that because what he did is what made me feel the way I did.
What I was drawing from had to be personal. That doesn’t mean it had to have a direct analog to my relationship with my father, but I have to find my own way into it. It has to mean something deeply to me. That’s why that original trilogy, or the prequels, work. They meant something deeply to Lucas. They were incredibly personal.
And as a little side note, I think that while George Lucas was the driving creative force on the original trilogy, each one of them has their own personality. Each one has their own style and feel. If anything, they’re celebrated for their differences as much as their similarities. It’s returning to these characters, but putting them in a new context.
Ram, what are the production challenges of mounting a project of this scale?
RB: This really wasn’t a hard movie to physically do. The main reason is that we had a long time to prep, because Rian delivered his first draft probably 14 months before we started filming. Rian basically knew what he wanted very early on.
We started working with some of the best people in the world. We had Rick Heinrichs as production designer. We had Ben Morris, visual effects supervisor. Neal Scanlan did the creatures, Steve Yedlin was the DP. We had such a long time to prep with them all — significantly longer than usual — because early on we had a script we could work from.
So it was pretty smooth, despite the scale. It wasn’t as challenging as people might expect from movies of this size and scope. It was just about how to do it and execute it in the best way.
There’s a lot of movie here, though. It runs 152 minutes and moves around a lot.
RB: There’s a lot of movie. Even more in the deleted scenes. There’s plenty more.
RJ: We shot a lot, man. Just like any other film, it came together in the edit. The editing is the completion of the writing process. We were not at all precious about this film. We tore it apart. We ripped stuff out. There’s going to be a lot of great deleted scenes. I’m not trying to sell Blu-rays here, there are just going to be a lot of deleted scenes.
And it’s not just shots of characters walking down hallways, either. There are entire sequences that got lifted out of it, which taken on their own are some of my favorite sequences in the movie. But for the good of the whole, they had to come out. We rearranged stuff. We were constantly messing with the intercutting between the plot lines. There are very few of the intercuts that are in there as written in the script. We ended up re-engineering a lot of it during the course of editing because that’s what the edit is for. All bets are off, and you just have to make the thing work.
Were there any uncomfortable calls to actors? “You know it was your dream since you were a kid to be in a Star Wars movie…”
RJ: None that we’re going to talk about [laughs].
RB: Not really, though.
RJ: Yeah, it was alright.
If my understanding of blockbuster filmmaking is correct, you had to selectively breed all the creatures you created specifically for the movie. So where can I get one of those crystal fox things?
RJ: We did breed them, over 20 years. It took a long while, believe me. I was going to make a dirty joke then, but I won’t.
It’s a Disney movie.
RJ: Yeah, exactly. Your headline becomes, “Rian Johnson Loses Next Trilogy For Blue Fox Joke” [laughs].
I had a blast with the creatures, man. I can’t even remember how young I was, but there was a behind-the-scenes featurette about Return of the Jedi that aired on TV a bunch, and it showed all the creature work in Jabba’s palace, and how they did it. It showed the guy inside Jabba smoking a cigar and blowing smoke into a pipe, saying, “If I had a martini, I’d have the perfect job.”
I remember watching that over and over as a kid, and the creature creation element of it. Or there was a behind-the-scenes for The Dark Crystal. And that stuff always seemed like so much fun. To get to dive into that with Neal Scanlan and his team… Oh, we had such a blast. It was a joy. And to get to use essentially the same technology today that they were using back then was pretty extraordinary.
For all the visuals, what impresses most is your grasp on themes like hope, or the inequality on the casino planet, and making a point about that. How central were those ideas to your writing process?
RJ: The starting point was basically I looked at the three characters: Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac). What was their throughline and what did they need? It starts to build itself from there.
Each one has a little triangle; Rey has Luke (Mark Hamill) and Kylo (Adam Driver) on each of her shoulders. Finn has DJ (Benicio Del Toro) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Poe has Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Holdo (Laura Dern). A structure starts to emerge and, as you’re working through them, it’s interesting how themes start to form and attach themselves. You see ways to echo them throughout all three of the stories. It all just starts happening at once and it starts rolling. First, you build your spine, and then everything starts growing on top of that.
Grumpy Luke Skywalker must have been a joy to write.
RJ: I had so much fun writing grumpy Luke. But at the same time, it was also nerve-wracking because it’s a long way from the Luke that we know. Honestly, that came out of what I felt was a necessity, because it came from where he was at the end of Episode VII, The Force Awakens. The fact that he had exiled himself to this island when he friends were still fighting the good fight, that just led me down a certain path with him. I couldn’t really see any other alternative.
It brings so much humor to the movie. Which starts off with a statement of intent in the scene with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) delivering a “you’re all doomed” speech to Poe on comms, who then pretends that he’s not receiving it. You could see that playing out in another Star Wars movie without the humor undercutting it.
RJ: That was because I knew the rest of the movie was going to get a little darker and a little more intense. I really wanted to build humor into it. I wanted it to be fun and I wanted it to be funny. That scene coming where it does, at the very beginning, I kind of took a breath and was like, “Yeah, I should lean into this.” It’s a really good thing to let the audience know, up front, especially with their expectations of a darker middle chapter, that we were still going to have fun. It’s going to be OK to laugh with this movie. It’s like my little mission statement at the beginning. “Yes, we’re going to have the intensity. We’re going to have some big, amazing moments in this. We’re also going to open up with a Monty Python skit. Let’s go.”
When I spoke to Mark Hamill some 10 years ago he bemoaned never getting to play a quirkier character in these movies, but he understood why Luke had to be bland so that the craziness around him felt grounded. When you’re dealing with life-and-death themes like this, you need the humor to puncture it, or it becomes dour and depressing.
RJ: Oh my God, of course. It gets self-inflated. It just becomes heavy-osity, which I think is the one thing Star Wars never is. With all the films; anytime the balloon gets inflated, it pokes it with something. That’s what Han Solo’s function was in the originals. It runs through the whole thing.
There are wackier characters than others in this, but the one thing I really enjoyed trying to play with is having humor come from all the characters at various points. Even the serious ones. There was a little moment that happened between Hux and Kylo in the shuttle at the end, that’s just a joke that came about naturally on set. I was so excited because anything where there can be one of our main bad guys and we can find a moment of genuine situational humor that fits, that, to me, is gold.
Your fun with this universe continues with the recently announced trilogy that you’re planning. I know you can’t tell me anything.
RJ: The truth is, it’s not that we don’t want to say anything, it’s that I’m at the very beginning of the process of figuring it out. Mostly what’s exciting to me right now is the possibility of it. It’s the notion of a blank canvas of that scale to work on in this world, aiming for something that’s going to be a story that makes me feel the way I did watching the original Star Wars as a kid. That’s the target to aim for. If it does that by telling a completely different story, that’s really exciting.
Was it an idea you pitched or one Kathy Kennedy brought to you?
RJ: Basically, we were getting towards the end of working on this movie and we were all just looking at each other and saying, “How do we keep working together?” I basically said to Kathy, “You know, the most interesting thing for me would be this: a new trilogy, go new places, meet new people, whole new blank slate.” That was the entirety of the pitch, and she was really excited about it. It’s crazy.