Rian Johnson explains how he crafted The Last Jedi's character arcs

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Dec 4, 2017

When it was announced on March 12, 2015 that Brick and Looper writer-director Rian Johnson would be writing and directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi (back then known only as Star Wars: Episode VIII), no one was more surprised about the turn of events than Rian Johnson. Granted, Johnson had some time to process his appointment before the public announcement, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he never expected that he would ever helm anything taking place in a galaxy far, far away.

"I didn't think I would have ever thought I'd ever be in the running for something like this," Johnson admits in a recent call with SYFY WIRE. "It's not like I was on a list, or was going out for it, or anything. It was a big surprise actually."

So then how did he get the coveted follow-up sequel to J.J. Abrams' global blockbuster, Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Johnson tells us the details about his own Star Wars origin story, the lack of drama transitioning from indie creator to the man crafting the next chapter of the beloved universe and the challenges of landing a middle film in a trilogy.

Let's start with how you became Kathleen Kennedy's choice.

Well, over the years, I had a few general meetings with Kathy Kennedy. I liked her, and had been a big fan of hers growing up. She called me in for what I thought was going to be another general meeting. She shut the door and asked if this was something that I could be interested in. It was just that, really. Quite strange.

What was your immediate concern, if you had one?

I've always just done my own films. I've always worked independently, and because I loved Star Wars so much I knew the one thing I wouldn't want to do would be to have a bad experience messing up a Star Wars movie. So I was hesitant at first. But I also just really loved Star Wars.

Since you have always written and directed your films, were you worried that writing for the Star Wars universe would not gel with your creative process?

The first thing that made me think this could be a great experience was that it wouldn't be written by committee. It's also not like there's a white board with the whole story arc laid out. Much to my surprise, it was, "Here's a script for Episode VII, and you can watch some dailies, because they were shooting Episode VII at the time, and let's talk about where this is going next."

It was very open. It ended up feeling in some strange way, very similar as to when I had written my other films in that there was a lot of space and freedom. We were always carrying the characters forward from the first movie, and we're starting off from the events of the first movie, and there's a trajectory to it so it made sense they would go in this direction next. But in that context, it felt like I was able to find the movie that I cared about. It was a really nice writing experience.

You admit that you are a writer who needs time. When you said yes, did the process become more breakneck than expected?

I'm a very slow writer so for me this was a very fast process. It was a couple of months of figuring out story. I actually moved up to San Francisco so I could meet a couple times a week with the folks at Lucasfilm. They call it their Story Group, with [SVP of Development] Kiri Hart and a bunch of folks. I would go in and throw everything I was thinking of up on the whiteboard and we would talk about it. That took away so much of the fear, I think? I'm not feeling alone in the process.

They are also so smart and know this world so well, so when they give you the permission of, "Oh, that sounds really interesting" to try some weird stuff, that was incredibly valuable. So it was a couple months of breaking the story and a few months of writing the script. Overall, I think it was about six months in the writing process.

Was it daunting to write characters who informed your creative life?

One of the things I found was that, obviously, you're working as an adult and you're working as a screenwriter trying to make the story work and the characters work, but at the end of the day, I found the most important resource I had was the past 40 years of loving these movies and loving this world. It's been such a big part of my life from the time when I was a kid. So that was almost like a well I would go back to, and not even necessarily for specific ideas, but for confidence, I think.

Also, Star Wars isn't so much futurism, it's not sci-fi. It's more like a period piece in another existence. Our main font of knowledge is what Star Wars felt like to us as a kid, at least to me. Being able to check back into that was a really great practical resource when I was writing.

When it comes to cinematic trilogies, middle movies can be problematic. Their function means they are often not a complete story so how did you approach that quandary?

You're right. Particularly, I love a good ending in a movie. But I think that a middle chapter can have a great ending and still push it forward to the last film in the trilogy. I actually found it to be really enjoyable. The fact that I didn't have to set everybody up.

First acts are always the most difficult things. What J.J. accomplished with The Force Awakens, with introducing these new characters and having them instantly be people you feel like you've always known and always belonged in this world, is incredible. Already so much of the work was out of the way when I came to the table, so I was able to get right to the most challenging thing for each of these characters.

What's the next thing they can be challenged with? I wanted this movie to be a middle chapter, and obviously hand off to the real completion in the next chapter, but I want it to be a satisfying experience on its own. I don't want it to be an ellipses in the middle of the sentence, but a full meal in itself. I tried to strike a balance of feeling that there were things completed in this movie, and things handed forward. Emotionally I want the audience to feel satisfied when they leave, and feel they were really on a journey by the end of it.

From a character standpoint, what was your goal?

I started by writing down all the names of all the main characters: Rey, Finn, Kylo, Poe, Luke. I wanted to figure out what are they going to go through? Hopefully, the movie serves them all in some way. I really wanted to give everyone their due in this movie.

Finn (John Boyega), obviously, has a big journey in this movie. He has a huge arc of his own. Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke (Mark Hamill) have a big journey, and you could argue make the argument that hers is the through-line of the film. Poe (Oscar Isaac) has so much charisma and you instantly love him in the first movie but he doesn't go through much character-wise in The Force Awakens, so I wanted to figure out something to do with him in this one.

What about the new characters played by Laura Dern or Kelly Marie Tran. Do they have their own arcs?

All of the new characters, I hope are interesting in their own right but they were all conceived in order to serve the main characters in some way, and that will make more sense when you see the movie.

Talk about what it was like for you collaborating with Carrie Fisher?

She's a brilliant writer and it's the very first thing we connected over - the words. I have so many great memories of sitting with her going through the scenes. She was in true form, going off on these almost freeform jazz sessions that were improvising lines of dialogue. She'd grab a word from one of the lines and make puns off that word. At the end of the day, she'd change a few lines and really made it better. Mostly, we just had a really great time.

Did Mark or Carrie push back on anything you wrote for their characters or their arcs?

Both have been, for better and worse, defined in some way by these characters for the past 40 years. That's a wonderful resource because they know these characters well. It's also just going to be a process when you put a script in their lap and say, "And now it's this..." There's no world where that lines up with exactly with what they were thinking it was going to be. At the end of the day, I had a great process with both of them with a lot of back and forth. There was collaboration but at the end of the day they trusted me in where we were going to take things.

Considering what these characters mean to them, that meant a lot to me. They're both such generous spirits, and they're both excited about serving these characters well. They are protective because for the past 40 years they've seen how much people care about them. Carrie was very conscious of what Leia meant to people, and specifically what Leia meant to girls, especially when she was the only girl hero in Star Wars for many years. Carrie really knew that and carried that. So many of our conversations were in that context of we have to do right by this character because she knew first-hand what she meant to people.

So as a huge Star Wars fan what was it like for you standing there on any given day during production?

It was strange. On the one hand, it was impossible to not occasionally lean back and get a sense of vertigo at what we're actually doing. Or having a conversation with Mark and zoom back and think, "Oh my God, I'm talking to Luke Skywalker!" It was impossible to not occasionally have those terrifying moments. But 98% of it was a really wonderful, creative process of community that felt very similar to the previous movies we've made.

We'd very often turn to each other on set and say, "This feels like the biggest independent movie at all time," which means the process of it felt very intimate. It didn't feel like something different; it felt like what we do. But then once or twice a day, you'd look around and say, "And we're filming Luke and Leia in the Millennium Falcon" or we'd say, "That's C-3PO in the shot!" So, 98% was a wonderful, familiar process and 2% terrifying, "We're making Star Wars!" which was a good balance

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens on December 15.