After four decades and eight blockbuster movies, the Skywalker Saga officially ends on Dec. 20 with the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. At that point, the far, far away galaxy that George Lucas first captured onscreen forty-two years ago will to head into truly uncharted territory: a future free of any and all Skywalkers, be it Anakin and Luke or Ben and Leia. That future will also likely be overseen by a new generation of writers, directors and fans eager for new characters and new adventures. And it’s to those Padawans that Rian Johnson was speaking with in the penultimate Skywalker Saga installment, The Last Jedi.
Sitting down with Yahoo Entertainment recently for a career-spanning Director’s Reel interview, the writer/director behind such hits as Looper and Knives Out got personal about how he brought his own Star Wars history to bear in making one of the most successful — and divisive — films in the franchise’s history. “A lot of it has to do with Luke’s journey about taking on the mantle of myth and taking on the mantle of what Luke was for me growing up,” Johnson says. “Recognizing at some point that our job is to inspire the next generation.” (Watch our Director’s Reel above.)
Like so many kids of his generation, the 45-year-old filmmaker remembers watching and re-watching the original Star Wars trilogy countless times between the ages of 5 and 10 while growing up in Denver, Colo. “It was the perfect age, because you’re on the cusp of adolescence,” he explains. “You’re in your little home with your family and your world is kind of small, and the real adventure is transitioning into adolescence and adulthood. That’s the thing you’re gazing out at, the notion of ‘How do I go out there?’”
Where Luke’s journey took him to such worlds as Yavin 4 and Dagobah, Johnson’s eventually brought him to California, where he broke into the film business with the micro-budget indie film, Brick. Despite being on terra firma as opposed to out there among the stars, the director learned some of the same lessons as his fictional counterpart. “Along that journey, you’re going to have mentors, you’re going to have adversaries, you’re going to have adversaries that turn into mentors and vice versa. It’s going to be a complicated journey, and that’s what Star Wars is for me.”
The Last Jedi certainly holds a complicated place in Star Wars fandom. Released in December 2017, the film is — for now at least — the second highest-grossing Star Wars movie of all time. But it’s also a regular flash point for heated debate between those that love how Johnson boldly departs from franchise traditions and those who feel he veered too far away from the Holocron. It’s a debate that has flared up again during The Rise of Skywalker press tour, with the two fandom camps seizing on various comments made by the cast and crew to renew arguments for and against The Last Jedi. For his part, Skywalker director, J.J. Abrams — who also helmed The Force Awakens — recently told Yahoo Entertainment that he was “nothing but grateful” for Johnson’s contributions to the franchise. “I don't think this movie would've been nearly what it is without the choices that Rian made,” he added.
Johnson himself is clearly at peace with The Last Jedi, secure in the knowledge that he told the story he set out to tell and hopeful that the movie does serve as inspiration to the next generation of Star Wars storytellers. (For the record, he’s not necessarily done with the franchise. Before the release of The Last Jedi in 2017, Lucasfilm announced that Johnson would be making a new Star Wars trilogy, and those movies are still reportedly in the works, even as other planned trilogies have fallen by the wayside.) More than anything, he’s still pinching himself that he can consider the real Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill, a friend. “I spend a lot of time with Mark before we started shooting. We get along well, and we’re still friends. But a day didn’t go by where there wasn’t a moment where I zoomed back in my head and was looking at Luke.”
Read on for Johnson’s memories and insights into some of the other movies — and TV episodes — he’s directed over the course of his still-young career.
Armed with only $450,000 and a dream, Johnson called “Action” on his first movie in 2004. The following January, Brick debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and Johnson joined the ranks of Park City success stories alongside Allison Anders, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. “Everything started at Sundance,” the director says now. “That’s the reason I’m still making movies today.” During the festival, buzz quickly spread about Johnson’s inventive and stylize high school noir, and the film was eventually snapped up by Focus Features. Released in 2005, Brick grossed almost $4 million and achieved cult status on DVD. More importantly, it created a lifelong bond between Johnson and his leading man, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. “Joseph and I clicked really, really quickly. It was a really intense and deeply-formed relationship. We had to work like that to make this complicated, strange thing as quickly as we did.”
The Brothers Bloom (2008)
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that every director suffers from “second movie syndrome.” That condition is particularly acute when you’re following up a debut feature that’s almost universally acclaimed. “The first move is usually this tightly polished little gem, and the second movie is like this confetti gun exploding,” Johnson says, laughing. The Brothers Bloom is certainly a party: a globetrotting con man story with some big stars (including Mark Ruffalo and Rachel Weisz), beautiful locations and lots of big artistic swings. “I tried to get literally everything I love into one movie,” Johnson admits. He also unapologetically used the film as an excuse to see the world beyond Hollywood. “I had been broke throughout my 20s and had never really travelled. So I wrote all these different locations in [the script]. I was like ‘If I only get to make two movies in my life, I can get out to Europe for one of them!’”
Johnson’s third film is built on an ingenious conceit: What if an older hit man had the opportunity to meet his younger self? But when he shopped the script around the major studios, he soon discovered that he wasn’t the only writer with that idea. Another screenplay called Gemini Man had been making the rounds for years before Looper, and every executive he met with made sure to point that out. “Anytime I would pitch [Looper], they would say, ‘You know about Gemini Man, right?,’” Johnson remembers. “We felt like we were racing against the clock. I was constantly nervous that a production announcement would happen about Gemini Man.” In the end, Johnson beat his competition to the punch by seven years and a couple hundred million at the worldwide box office. After a lengthy development and production process, Gemini Man finally arrived in theaters last November directed by Ang Lee and starring Will Smith… where it quickly sank without a trace.
Breaking Bad: “Ozymandias” (2013)
During the multi-year process of shepherding Looper to the screen, Johnson was invited to direct an episode of an acclaimed, but low-rated AMC series called Breaking Bad. That episode, “Fly,” so impressed critics and showrunner Vince Gilligan that he was invited back to direct two more installments, including the series penultimate hour. In between “Fly” and “Ozymandias,” though, Breaking Bad had become one of the biggest shows on television, and Johnson knew that his job was to help the show finish strong. He succeeded: “Ozymandias” is considered by many — including Gilligan himself — to be Breaking Bad’s all-time greatest episode, depicting the final collapse of Walt’s meth-making operation and filled with such memorable moments as Walt climbing into that red van and Hank’s brutal death in the desert. “Working with Dean [Norris] on that moment, he took me aside and said, ‘I want him to have a moment before he goes.’ So I set up another camera on the ground... that was just for him. We shot it and he took that moment. You can see he’s ready, and then he goes up to say that last line and it happens.”
Knives Out (2019)
We wouldn’t dream of giving away the “who does it” ending of Johnson’s hit whodunit, which has been delighting audiences since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. But we can tell you that the writer/director only ever had one culprit in mind. That sets Knives Out apart from another murder mystery comedy, the 1985 film version of Clue, which memorably featured multiple endings with multiple murderers. “The movie, Clue, I love. But when we were starting this out, I had to be really clear with everybody: Clue is a parody of murder mysteries. [Knives Out] is a murder mystery that’s about something. It’ll be really fun and have a cheeky sense of self-awareness, but we’re never going to tip into a parody.”
Knives Out is playing in theaters now; Star Wars: The Last Jedi is currently streaming on Netflix; get tickets for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on Fandango.
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