“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has been in theaters for just eight days and it’s just $8 million shy of hitting $600 million worldwide. The juggernaut will easily cross that figure and then some by the time the holiday weekend is over. The Lucasfilm sequel to ‘The Force Awakens’ is obviously a smash. And that’s all due to filmmaker Rian Johnson (“Looper”) who wrote and directed the picture with plenty of autonomy and the freedom to make some big, bold, surprising choices.
**Spoilers ahead. Turn around if you haven’t seen ‘The Last Jedi’**
I spoke to Johnson as ‘The Last Jedi’ was just hitting theaters on the Friday it opened, before the bulk of audiences saw it in the evening, so any backlash that was forming — petitions and other nonsense — hadn’t emerged yet (and truthfully, I’m not sure I’m all that interested in giving attention to trolls). I spoke with Johnson and his longtime producing partner Ram Bergman, who will be working on the new “Star Wars” trilogy that Rian is developing, and has been by the director’s side nearly every step of the way, including on pictures like “Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom” and the aforementioned sci-fi time travel film “Looper.”
I’ve parsed up my bits of my interview already, about Yoda, Obi-Wan, Lando Calrissian and Leia, but there’s so much more that I wanted to present the full conversation with Johnson. We touched upon a lot of the writing process for ‘The Last Jedi,’ tapping into the spirit of what George Lucas did with his films in terms of expanding the universe, going back and forth on some of the big decisions and fates of the characters in the movie, and managing the expectations of Luke Skywalker himself. I’m a “Star Wars” geek so could have gone on for hours, but this is what I captured with Rian and Ram.
It’s one thing to write a “Star Wars” film from scratch, it’s another thing to jump into a middle chapter that’s filled with pre-written characters and big, inherited storylines. Did you have caveats when you were offered the film?
Yeah, but for me, I was coming at it as: the function of a middle chapter is the same as it is in the second act of a movie. You have these great characters that got set up and this is the chapter where you challenge them, you throw complications at them and depending on how they deal with them you learn more about the characters, hopefully leaving them in a place where you really care about them and care about where they end up in the third act.
So, that was really where my head was at coming into it and honestly, really thrilled to have the middle chapter, that feels like the fun part to me. And so I just kind of dug into it and thinking about each one of one of our main characters and thinking, “OK, what’s the hardest thing I can possibly throw at each one of these people?” That ended up leading to some interesting places.
How early in the process were you included?
Rian: I started writing just as J.J. [Abrams] was going into production [on ‘The Force Awakens’]. He was in prep when I was hired and then I started writing just as he was beginning to shoot the film. So I had read the script and watched dailies while I was writing.
That’s interesting, because there’s no film to watch yet, and you can still be in the imaginary stage of things to some degree.
Rian: Yeah, but also, I think it was a healthy thing that the film hadn’t been released yet, so I was writing from an entirely personal reaction to what I had read and what I’d seen of ‘The Force Awakens.’ It hadn’t been parsed by the world yet.
You guys have produced and worked on everything together, Ram. On a production level how different was this film?
Ram: Not really, to be honest. Of course, the scope of it is much bigger and there’s a lot more people, but at the end of the day Rian is writing and directing, it’s his movie. We predominantly have a lot of the same crew: cinematographer Steve Yedlin who is Rian’s best friend and Bob Ducsay who is the editor that worked with us on “Looper,” so it actually felt really similar to all the previous movies we’ve made. The process felt very intimate and we had a long time to prep which made it feel much easier to do. I know it sounds strange, but the process wasn’t significantly different from the other films.
Creatively, how does your relationship work? Are you guys bouncing ideas off each other?
Rian: Yeah, it’s a real partnership. Ram is the first person who reads the script and also during you’re making a thousand creative choices that overlap with the logistics of everything. Ram is the first person I’ll always use as a sounding board creatively. It’s a true partnership from start to finish.
Ram, you read several drafts along the way, I’m sure, but I’m curious as to what your reaction was when you read some of the bold, striking beats and surprises of the screenplay.
Ram: I love it. The thing I was most excited about was that it was clearly a “Star Wars” movie, but at the same time, it felt like a Rian Johnson movie. It felt like a very personal movie and to me felt very intimate. It took many unexpected turns when I was reading it and that was so exciting.
Did you guys have moments where you thought Kathleen Kennedy or the story group wouldn’t go for some of the bigger, shocking elements of the movie?
Rian: Oh, yeah. 100%. I actually moved up to San Francisco for a few months while I was breaking the story because I wanted to go in every two weeks so I could put everything in front of the story group out on the table. So, I was very collaborative with them throughout the entire process. I can’t imagine writing a script in a vacuum and then dropping it on their desks. Every single idea was hashed out with them and discussed and the truth is, it wasn’t so much that they were policing me or reining me in. If anything, I would be drawing it all out and it would lead me to a place where a big decision would happen and I would think, “Oh my god, is this OK? Can I do this?” And I would put it in front of them and most of the time they would say, “Yeah, that is a big crazy move, go for it.” It was more about protecting me from censoring and self-editing myself out of fear and getting permission from these folks to pursue and go in some of these directions that are unexpected.