Rian Johnson brought an independent filmmaking vision to the making of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. “It’s the biggest independent film ever made,” says Johnson of The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the Star Wars cinematic universe. “I was able to take an independent approach with this film, not in terms of the scope of the project, obviously, but in terms of the freedom I was given during the writing process. I wasn’t told what the story had to be when I was given this assignment. Instead, I was given the script for The Force Awakens, and then I was able to watch dailies from The Force Awakens before I started writing, which was very helpful since The Last Jedi directly follows The Force Awakens. I was given a lot of freedom.”
Johnson built his reputation in the world of independent cinema, earning strong critical reviews for the films Brick and The Brothers Bloom. Genre audiences know Johnson best for 2012’s Looper, a mind-bending science-fiction thriller that represented a breakthrough for Johnson in terms of the attention he received from Hollywood’s power brokers. One of those power brokers is Kathleen Kennedy, a longtime production associate of Steven Spielberg and the current president of Lucasfilm, who felt that Johnson’s sensibilities were well-suited to the Star Wars universe. “I really didn’t think I had a chance,” says Johnson. “During one of our meetings, she asked me if I would be interested in directing one of the new Star Wars films.”
DG: You were surprised when Kathleen Kennedy offered you the chance to direct and write The Last Jedi?
RJ: Yes. I was shocked. I didn’t think I was a serious contender. I had no idea that I was on their list. I’d had several meetings with Kathleen in recent years, and these meetings involved other projects, and on the day she offered me the job, I thought I was going to a meeting to talk to her about another project. I guess I knew something was up when I walked into her office and she shut the door. Then she asked me if I was interested in doing Star Wars, and I wasn’t prepared for that. Of course, I was calm enough to immediately say yes.
DG: What did you bring to The Last Jedi that’s unique from other directors who might have been given this assignment?
RJ: Even after Looper, I’ve been regarded as an independent filmmaker, and I’ve always brought an independent mentality to all of my projects, including The Last Jedi. I’ve always done my own films, worked independently, so I guess my biggest concern was that The Last Jedi would be a case of filmmaking-by-committee, which would have been understandable, given the production cost of a film like this but wouldn’t have been compatible with how I like to make films. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. My biggest concern was that I didn’t make a bad Star Wars film, because I grew up watching the original Star Wars films, and I didn’t want to be known as the director who made the bad Star Wars film.
DG: How much creative freedom did you have during the writing process?
RJ: The Force Awakens was filming when I signed on for The Last Jedi, and because The Last Jedi begins directly after the end of The Force Awakens, I had to look at the script for The Force Awakens carefully, and I was watching dailies of The Force Awakens. Once I understood The Force Awakens, I was given tremendous freedom in terms of figuring out how The Last Jedi would continue the story. I wasn’t given an outline and told that I had to exist within any perimeters. I moved to San Francisco so I could be near Lucasfilm, which I visited several times a week. When I met with the executives at Lucasfilm, I gave them my ideas for how I would continue the story from The Force Awakens, and then we would talk about my ideas. They were very encouraging and supportive, and they had lots of great ideas, because they know Star Wars better than anyone. This went on for about two months, and then I started writing the script, and after a few months, I had a first draft script.
DG: How did you approach the characters from The Force Awakens?
RJ: I wanted every character in this film to have their own moment, to go on their own unique journey. Luke and Rey embark on an incredible journey in this film, and Rey’s journey really provides the through-line for this film. Finn has a major journey in this film also, a major character arc.
DG: Then there’s Luke and Leia. How did Carrie Fisher’s untimely passing in December 2016 affect the finished film?
RJ: It didn’t affect the film at all, from a filmmaking standpoint that is. Obviously, Carrie’s passing will add a tremendous amount of emotional subtext to the film, which is something that I, and the rest of the cast and crew, experienced when we watched a cut of the film for the first time. Carrie’s performance in the film, which is touching and wonderful, was completed when she passed away, and we were in the editing process when we heard of her passing. We didn’t change anything about her performance.
DG: What was it like working with her on what turned out to be her final screen performance?
RJ: First, she was an incredible resource, not just because of her history with Leia, and the series, but also because Carrie was a great writer, a successful screenwriter, in her own right. We talked a lot about dialogue, and how her character would behave in this film, and there was improvisation, and all of the changes she made in the dialogue made those scenes better. Carrie and Mark [Hamill] had, prior to Carrie’s death, lived with these characters for approximately forty years, and they were very protective of these characters and very aware of the emotional attachment that audiences had for them. Carrie, for example, was very sensitive to how Leia should behave and what she represented to young women.
DG: Having been a Star Wars fan first, was it difficult to get beyond a sense of awe when you were making the film?
RJ: It was impossible for me not to consider the momentousness of what I was part of. There were times when I was talking to Mark, and I’d stop and think, ‘This is Luke Skywalker.’ But for the most part, it turned into the same creative process that’s existed with all of my previous films. I feel like we made the biggest independent film in the history of cinema, and when I say that, I’m referring to how intimate this experience felt for all of us.