When Rian Johnson finished his third directorial effort, 2012’s thrilling, brainy sci-fi Looper, he posted a typically self-effacing tweet. ‘[This] will complete what I’m calling my 'I made three movies' trilogy,’ he joked, as if his career has just peaked. Not quite. Five years on, nattily dressed in a button-down shirt and looking every inch your cool uni professor, he’s about to share the single biggest movie of the year with the world.
So how did this amiable Maryland-born filmmaker land Star Wars: The Last Jedi – or Episode VIII, for those keeping track – and have superfans hailing him as the new George Lucas? The movie remains under wraps when we sit down with him in LA, but Johnson’s future is mapped out: he has the keys to the galaxy for three more Star Wars instalments. In the meantime, he promises, The Last Jedi will be ‘going to some intense places…’
You’re the perfect age for a raging Star Wars obsession. How big a fan were you as a kid?
That’s the whole reason I’m here. When I was four years old, I remember my dad putting me in the car to go see it. And if you were a kid in the ’70s, it’s not like you got to see the movies much. [But] more than the movies, it was really the toys. My first 'creative play' was with those toys and in that world.
So were you the kid with the Star Wars bed sheets?
Oh, yeah: the Underoos, everything. I got a lump in my throat walking on the Millennium Falcon set for the first time [as director]. I wasn’t thinking about the movies – I was thinking about my Kenner toys and being a kid and projecting myself inside them.
Was it always the plan for The Last Jedi to take the trilogy to a darker place?
Well, a little bit. The job of any middle chapter, or even the second act of a movie, is to put the characters through hell. That’s where everything goes wrong. They have to go through the valley and see how they handle it. That’s where character comes from. So by necessity, we knew we were going to go to some more intense places.
Rian, you’re scaring me.
At the same time, I wanted it to be a Star Wars movie. For me, that means it’s fun, it’s funny, it’s a ride. And it’s all going to be okay. JJ Abrams really got that with Force Awakens. I got the juicy middle part.
To be honest, I have no clue. That’s not modesty. I don’t know what made them think: Let’s get the guy who did Looper, Brick and The Brothers Bloom. Clerical error, maybe? I’m very happy they called me. I’m proud of the movie – it feels personal to me, as much as any of my other movies do.
How did you find the script-writing process?
I got the script for The Force Awakens, and then they said, 'Okay, what happens next?' There was no big outline. It was really a baton handoff. I loved The Force Awakens and I wanted to carry that story forward, as if it were flowing organically. But beyond that, I really had the freedom to find the story I wanted to tell. The original movies were personal for George [Lucas] and that’s what gave them a beating heart. So forget them trying to steer me one way or another – they were actively pushing me to find something personal.
Were you worried about losing your ‘indieness’?
I guess I don’t think of it as indieness. I definitely wasn’t worried that could I plug into this. This stuff has deep roots for me.
And you’ve just signed on to do three more films in the Star Wars universe. They must really love The Last Jedi.
I hope they do. We all got along. I told them that what would be most interesting to me would be to tell a new story over three movies – to have that big canvas with all new characters, but in this world.
Talk to me about Porgs. You introduced the world to them with the trailer and the global reaction was porgasmic. Where do they come from?
I was looking for any opportunity to get lighter elements onto the island with Luke and Rey. And when we scouted Skellig Michael, the island off the coast of Ireland where we shot, it’s a bird sanctuary and it was covered in puffins. Literally, you had to watch your step so you didn’t crush these little adorable creatures. They’re waddling around, pathetically trying to fly. So I said: 'This is it. Let’s come up with the Star Wars version of this. This is a part of the environment.'
George Lucas never did that.
You think? Star Wars has to do with reflecting the world as it is. These movies are always applicable to what’s going on now. When they told me I was going to have a female protagonist, I leaned forward in my chair. That was exciting. After 40 years watching dudes be the heroes, it felt like scratching a place you haven’t been able to scratch for a while. [And] you can apply Darth Vader to whoever you don’t like in politics now. It’s the stuff under the stuff.
-by Joshua Rothkopf
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is on general release in China from Friday January 5.