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“You Have To Take The Toys Out Of The Box.” Rian Johnson Talks Creative Risks In “The Last Jedi”

We talked to Episode VIII’s writer-director about planting a flag in the most scrutinized franchise in the galaxy.

“You Have To Take The Toys Out Of The Box.” Rian Johnson Talks Creative Risks In “The Last Jedi”
Rian Johnson [Photo: Randy Holmes/Getty Images]

Auteurs are in short supply in a galaxy far, far away. So far, there have only been two people left to their own devices to write and direct Star Wars films alone. One is franchise originator George Lucas. The other is Rian Johnson, who has just unveiled a bold new entry in the decades-unfolding, unfathomably popular series.

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It was not an undertaking he approached lightly.

“The fact that I grew up in this Star Wars fan world and was acutely aware of how deeply fans care about these movies and how opinionated they are and how every single fan has a different set of things they want from these movies—it let me know that part of my job was gonna be to inevitably disappoint part of the fanbase that doesn’t get just the thing it wants,” Johnson says during a recent interview with Fast Company.

Mark Hamill, Rian Johnson, Prince Harry, Prince William, John Boyega, Ram Bergman, Joonas Suotamo (in Chewbacca costume), Daisy Ridley, and Kathleen Kennedy [Photo: Adrian Dennis-WPA Pool/Getty Images]
In addition to raking in $220 million in North America during its opening weekend, The Last Jedi has proven to be a critical darling. (It’s earned the same 93% on Rotten Tomatoes as the JJ Abrams-helmed The Force Awakens.) The fanboy contingent may be riven apart over certain spoiler-y decisions, but one thing almost everyone agrees on is that Episode VIII feels like a Star Wars movie. Han may be gone, and we’re still getting to know the younger generation of new characters, but The Last Jedi has that special texture of adventure, danger, and fun with space creatures that feels in step with the world Lucas created 40 years ago.

Credit goes to Johnson’s meticulous, painstaking efforts to stay true to the original saga and filter it through his own unique vision.

“The one thing absolutely everyone wants from one of these movies is a good movie,” Johnson says. “And the way for me to make a good Star Wars movie is just to make the Star Wars movie I want to see and not second-guess every creative decision based on trying to please everybody, which is impossible to do anyway.”

Here’s what else Johnson focused on to make some unknown corners of the Star Wars universe feel familiar. [WARNING: mild spoilers follow.]

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Mark Hamill [Photo: courtesy of Lucasfilm/Disney]

Don’t Forget the Funny

The Last Jedi is the middle chapter of a three-part story, which means it’s basically the second act of a movie—the chapter where characters meet challenges and roadblocks, and life is generally as hard as it gets. (You may recall Luke Skywalker losing a hand and Han Solo getting frozen in carbonite in The Empire Strikes Back.) But that doesn’t mean it has to be a drag.

“It was very important to me that this movie . . . still feels fun,” Johnson says. “People seem to remember Empire as very adult, dour, and serious, but if you go back and rewatch, that’s not the case. The banter between Han, Leia, and C-3PO could be out of a ’30s comedy. So I knew we’d be following Luke and Rey around that island [Ahch-To] for a while and having long conversations about religion, essentially, and I knew it was gonna get darker in terms of what we were talking about. So I was also conscious of trying to find any outlet for lighter imagery or moments. That’s how we get porgs and their whole thing with Chewbacca. That’s how we get Luke drinking green milk from [a dinosaur-like creature]. All of that was so we could keep that flavor of fun in the stew.”

Adam Driver [Photo: courtesy of Lucasfilm/Disney]

It’s Story-Building, Not World-building

World-building is an important aspect of sci-fi literature and cinema. But according to Johnson, world-building as an exercise unto itself is just window dressing.

“I consider it story-building, with the world around it built to best support the story, in every single aspect,” Johnson says. “For instance, on Crait, the crystal foxes on the one hand are very well integrated into the world in that they feel like something that would be indigenous to the area. The reason they’re there at the end of the day is because I needed something that made noise when it moved. It was a story point that brought them about. The notion of just starting with a broad blank canvas of world building—I feel like I would get lost in the fog very quickly if I approached it that way.”

Mark Hamill [Photo: courtesy of Lucasfilm/Disney]

Dramatic Purpose Dictates Creature Design

The Last Jedi offers a sumptuous buffet of briefly glimpsed creatures practically begging for a Blu-ray rewind. According to Johnson, the design of these fuzzy friends (and occasionally fiends) has to stem from whatever the dramatic point of each scene is.

“Take [the casino city] Canto Bight,” he says. “What I’m thinking with that scene is, ‘Who is there?’ in terms of what the world’s purpose is dramatically–which is that it looks seductive to Finn [John Boyega] at first but then he learns the truth behind it, and it reveals a new layer to the whole moral landscape of this war and brings him more in empathy with Rose [Kelly Marie Tran] and gives DJ [Benicio del Toro] something to play off of. And so, okay, this place is filled with the universe’s one-percenters, and they have to be both beautiful and vile in terms of creature design. There has to be some element of beauty that once you see it through the lens of this is all built from blood money, it suddenly becomes ugly.”

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Daisy Ridley [Photo: courtesy of Lucasfilm/Disney]

Take The Toys Out Of The Box And Play With Them

This is a bold Star Wars movie that takes a lot of risks. One that has certain elements of the fan community up in arms is that Luke and Leia have new Force powers. But any purists angry about the changes are somehow overlooking a key component of the saga’s history.

Adam Driver [Photo: courtesy of Lucasfilm/Disney]
“Every single one of the previous movies that George made introduced elements of the Force that we hadn’t previously seen before, so this notion that it’s locked in amber and if you add anything it’s sacrilege—it’s a little off in terms of its perspective,” Johnson says. “Force-grabbing didn’t come about until Empire and neither did force-ghosts. As the story required it, new things were added. But you can’t just be tossing things in willy-nilly.”

It helps that Lucasfilm has an entire division dedicated to protecting the Star Wars canon. “I leaned very much on my interactions with the Lucas Story Group and [Lucasfilm executive] Pablo Hildago specifically, in terms of us doing a gut check,” Johnson says. “What are the parameters of this thing? And does it still feel like something that would be within the realm of possibility for capabilities of the Force?

“Pablo has this entire base of knowledge, but he’s never precious and he’s always open-minded,” Johnson continues. “He’s not protecting a toy he keeps sealed in its original packaging. He recognizes that if you’re making a movie and you want to tell a good story, you have to take the toys out of the box. You gotta play with them. You gotta keep pushing and doing new stuff. And every single new thing we did, we talked through at length. It’s there because the story needed it to be there and because it didn’t feel like it broke anything for us.”