The fate of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in his hands - an interview with director Rian Johnson

Rian Johnson, director and writer of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California, on Aug 1, 2017.
Rian Johnson, director and writer of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California, on Aug 1, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LOS ANGELES (NYTimes) - Skywalker Ranch, the 5,000-acre spread that George Lucas established here in Marin County, is hardly a shrine to the Star Wars movies; the quiet campus has no giant Yoda statue or Death Star murals. If you weren't looking carefully, you might have missed Rian Johnson, director and writer of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, having breakfast in a guesthouse on a recent August morning.

Johnson has established his genre bona fides as the writer-director of the time-traveling neo-noir Looper, and as a director of TV shows like Breaking Bad. Now, he is picking up the baton from J.J. Abrams, who reinvigorated the Star Wars universe with The Force Awakens. That wildly successful 2015 film - the seventh chapter of the galactic saga - began a new adventure for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess (now General) Leia (Carrie Fisher) and introduced the enigmatic Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her sullen nemesis, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Star Wars is a gargantuan franchise, and Johnson, 43, is a soft-spoken, unassuming man. But right now its destiny lies in his hands, and he said he was free to make the movie he wanted. No requirements were imposed by Abrams or Kathleen Kennedy, the Lucasfilm president, who did not hesitate to call for significant changes on the stand-alone Rogue One, the coming Han Solo film and Star Wars: Episode IX. On a break from finishing the sound edit for the movie, Johnson spoke about the making of The Last Jedi, Star Wars characters new and old, and Fisher's death in December. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

How important were the original Star Wars films for you?

Star Wars was everything for me. As a little kid, you get to see the movies only once or twice, but playing with the toys in your backyard, that's where you're first telling stories in your head. It was so emotional to step onto the Millennium Falcon set, because that was the play set we all had when we were kids. Suddenly, you were standing in the real thing. There's this rush of unreality about it.

How did you learn you were being considered to write and direct a new Star Wars film?

It was really, really out of the blue. I had a few general meetings with Kathy Kennedy when she took over Lucasfilm. I never thought I was actually in the running, because I assumed every director on the planet would want to be doing a "Star Wars" movie. And then it was sprung on me. It was like a bomb dropped. I suddenly realized, Oh, this meeting is about em this /em . I didn't try to hide the fact that I was freaking out. But I also said, "Can I think about it?"

Why the hesitation?

After Looper, I had been approached with other franchise stuff and gotten used to saying no. And I knew this would mean so much to me - the worst thing I can imagine is having a bad experience making a Star Wars movie.

Do you think Kennedy was surprised you didn't accept immediately?

She was slightly confused, I think. The next few days, I couldn't sleep. I thought I was going to do a pros-and-cons list, but the truth is, it was more a decision from the heart. There was no way I could not do this.

How much of the story of The Last Jedi was dictated to you, either by events in "The Force Awakens" or by Lucasfilm?

I had figured there would be a big map on the wall with the whole story laid out, and it was not that at all. I was basically given the script for Episode VII; I got to watch dailies of what J.J. was doing. And it was like, where do we go from here? That was awesome.

What inspiration did you draw from the raw footage of The Force Awakens?

Rey and Kylo are almost two halves of our protagonist. It's not like Kylo is our Vader. In the original trilogy, Vader is the father - he's the one you're afraid of and who you want the approval of. Whereas Kylo represents anger and rebellion, the sometimes healthy - and sometimes not - desire to disconnect from the parents. It's my favorite kind of quote-unquote bad guy, because you can genuinely see what their weakness is.

Since you grew up a Star Wars fan, were you intimidated to work with longtime franchise stars like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher?

It took a while before I could sit across the table with Mark and not, every three seconds, think, I'm talking to Luke Skywalker. With Carrie, I felt we connected as writers very quickly. She spoke her mind, man. They both did. Anyone whose life is that weirdly tied to a character like this, where you drop a script in their lap and say, "Now it's this," there's no way it's not a discussion. But they were both so engaged in the process, and trusting. The fact that both of them at some point said, "OK, even if this isn't what I was expecting, I'm going to trust you" - that was really touching.

Fisher died shortly after she finished filming. How did you absorb this tragedy? Did you feel as if you had to alter the movie?

When she passed away, we were pretty deep into postproduction. When we came back to the edit room after New Year's, it was so hard. We went through all her scenes. I felt very strongly that we don't try to change her performance. We don't adjust what happens to her in this movie. Emotionally, you can't help recontextualize it, now that she's gone. It's almost eerie how there are scenes that have an emotional resonance and a meaning, especially now. She gives a beautiful and complete performance in this film.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in Singapore cinemas on Dec 14.