For a saga as beloved – and tightly controlled – as Star Wars, Rian Johnson was an unusual choice as director. Since graduating from USC’s prestigious film school, he has always pursued projects that speak to a unique point of view: from the film-noir-in-high-school story Brick to the quirky The Brothers Bloom to the underrated time-travel masterpiece Looper. But Lucasfilm handed him the keys to the kingdom by allowing him to direct Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and by all accounts he has responded with one of the best Star Wars movies ever produced. (Spoiler Alert: he has.) He spoke to the press about the extraordinary experience of helming the film at a recent junket.
Question: What differentiates The Last Jedi from The Force Awakens, but also the Empire Strikes Back as a second chapter in a trilogy?
Rian Johnson: It’s a second movie in the trilogy and I think we’ve been kind of trained to expect that it’ll be a little darker. For me, though, I loved the tone of the original films and also what J.J. [Abrams] captured in The Force Awakens. This is a Star Wars movie, and first and foremost we were trying to make it feel like a Star Wars movie: the intensity and the opera and the grand battle of good and evil. But it also means that you need to come out of the theater wanting to run in your backyard, grab your spaceship toys and make them fly around. It has to be fun. So we’re going to go to some intense places in the movie, but I hope also that it’s fun and funny.
Q: What about the visual cues from The Empire Strikes Back really spoke to you?
RJ: I think the cinematography in Empire is the most gorgeous of the whole series… and it’s a gorgeous series in general. I’ve been best friends with Steve Yedlin, my cinematographer, since we were in film school. Steve and I looked at the lighting of Empire, and specifically the darkness. The literal darkness. It’s pretty daring in terms of how dark they were willing to go with some of it, and how gorgeous they went with some of the choices they made with the shaping of the lighting.
In terms of an actual visual aesthetic I made a choice very early on. I could either try to copy my idea of what the original movies did, which was a much more formal type visual aesthetic but had fairly limited camera movements, or I could take visual cues lighting-wise and design-wise from the previous movies, but shoot it the way I would shoot any other movie. That’s what I went with, because at the end of the day, if I’m not engaged with it and I’m not trying to tell the story the way that really makes me excited, then it’s not going to be up there on the screen. So in terms of the cameras and the shot movement, I kind of cut myself loose from trying to imitate the past and just try to tell the story as excitingly as I could up on the screen.
Q: George Lucas made the original trilogy very much from the eyes of R2-D2 and C-3PO. Do we continue to see the story through the eyes of the droids or are they just passengers on this adventure?
RJ: It’s different, and it was different in The Force Awakens too. We don’t quite have so much the Hidden Fortress, worm’s-eye-view of the story that we started with in those movies. I loved that choice in the original trilogy, and George and Tony [Daniels] and Kenny Baker made those characters so special. But this is a different story with different needs, and so while the droids are definitely present, we are much more with our leads the whole time.
Q: At what moment as a filmmaker, whether it was in the screenwriting process or shooting something, did you feel your transition from a Star Wars fan to felt ownership as a filmmaker of the Star Wars movie that you were making?
RJ: I keep waiting for that moment to happen. Even now, I’m asking if I belong here. There’s no Eureka moment where it’s “okay now, I’m doing it.” You’re always riding that line between feeling like you’re a fan who snuck in the back gate and is getting away with something, which I think is probably a good thing.