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Rian Johnson on his favorite Last Jedi creation and how his new trilogy came to be

Contributed by
Dec 12, 2017

Rian Johnson spent several years in his own personal galaxy crafting a Star Wars movie. He got to create his own space fantasy (within pre-established rules, of course), inventing new worlds and creatures. Now, with Star Wars: The Last Jedi on the verge of its opening weekend, Johnson is explaining all those choices, providing context to excited moviegoers who are certain to want information about every little detail.

During the Last Jedi press day, Johnson sat down with SYFY WIRE to dig a little deeper into his specific choices, focusing on crafting new characters and answering why certain legacy characters are not part of the narrative. 

As a life-long Star Wars fan, we're sure you spent a lot of time thinking about stories you might create in the Star Wars universe. Did you go back to any story ideas you had as a kid to inspire anything that you wrote for The Last Jedi?

Rian Johnson: No, but the thing that was an invaluable resource was just having that sense from all those years of being a kid, and being a fan, and playing with the toys. That kind of internal compass of what feels like Star Wars.

Writing this film also meant you got to create new creatures that are now canon to the universe. What was the first new thing that was fully realized in your head?

The Fathiers, which are the horse-like creatures. I knew their place in the story. I knew they needed to be alien, horse-like creatures. I knew they needed to capture the true beauty of a horse and yet have a wisdom to them and that sense of gentleness a horse has, still have the muscular strength of a horse, yet be an alien creature. The thing is, though, while that's a pretty well-defined starting point, it's just a starting point. The designers, like Neal Scanlan, are the ones who make it so then it becomes a collaboration.

What was the process?

I'm shown drawings. And maybe I'd say like, "No, wait. Those eyes make it look too much like an owl." It's a very intense design process in which I don't have the tools to do it. It's all them.

But you get to see the iterations come across your desk.

I get to see it all come through. It's insane.

Was there one of your written creations that made you the most excited because seeing it turn into something real gave you goosebumps?

Oh yeah. For instance, with the Fathier, I showed up on set for the very first time they worked the animatronic face. I mean, I had seen animatronic creatures they'd created before but I'd never seen anything that came to life the way that that did. To experience the vertigo of this having gone from just an imaginative thing into this living creature that's like making faces at me.

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Were any of the new castings in The Last Jedi fulfilling a personal wish-list, or finally affording you an opportunity to cast someone specific?

Yeah, Benicio Del Toro and Laura Dern. Both of them. Benicio is one of my favorite actors on the planet and I've always, always, always wanted to work with him. Especially since he's tight with Emily Blunt [from Looper] and she would just tell me stories about how wonderful he was. And of course Laura Dern, growing up as a David Lynch fan.

She was terrific in the Twin Peaks revival this year.

She's incredible! She was so good and the new Twin Peaks is like my favorite movie of this year basically. She's amazing. She's such an amazing person. But the truth is, the cast J.J. [Abrams] put together, if I could have assembled a young cast, I don't think I would've done as well as J.J. Adam Driver is one of my favorite young actors. Oscar [Isaac] is too and John [Boyega] is a movie star. Gosh, every single day I showed up on set and was just blown away. It was amazing.

As a fan of the universe, you certainly had at your disposal a large pool of characters from the prior films to place in your story. Was there a character that you really wanted to create a story for?

Well, the tough thing was that we already had a very full plate. We had all our main characters. You can see on the poster, or you could see at our press conference when everyone was on the couch. So we already had a lot of people to serve in this movie. The couple new characters we do introduce are introduced in order to serve those existing characters in some function or another. So they were custom crafted to support different storylines in ways they needed, which wouldn't work just bringing in a legacy character. Someone like Lando, for example, who I would've loved to have worked with as Billy Dee Williams would be lovely to get back in there. There just wasn't room for anything like that.

You're now tasked with coming up with your own original trilogy in the Star Wars universe. Did you pitch that idea to Kathleen Kennedy at some point during the making of The Last Jedi?

We were coming to the end of this movie and I knew I wasn't going to be doing the next one. I'd liken it to like last week of senior year and we're all cleaning out our lockers and getting kind of sad. Not just with the crew and cast but with Kathy and also with the folks at Disney like Bob Iger, Alan Horn, and Ram Bergman. We've had just a great experience with all of them. We were like, "How do we keep working together? How do we stay together?"

I threw out there... it wasn't an idea, rather the idea was just how amazing would it be to do a new trilogy where it's one story told over three movies and on that big canvas in the Star Wars world? We could go some place new; the sky's the limit with new characters. They really responded to that idea. There's nothing I can imagine, storytelling wise, that's more exciting to me than that prospect.

You told me before as an indie filmmaker that making The Last Jedi still felt like making any of your other films. Was that knowledge a big part of why you wanted to undertake a new trilogy?

Yeah, and also experiencing the other big unknown for me. Stepping into this and working with a machine this size, in terms of production, my question was how that was going to affect the process. Having been through it, and I had a wonderful time doing it, it felt like, "Okay, I really feel comfortable using this machine as a tool to get to the small stuff that matters." That fear abated a little bit. All those things added up to me just feeling like, "Wow. We can really maybe do something special with this."

Have you already started sketching ideas?

Yeah. I've just got the tingles going but after New Year's is when I'll really sit down and start getting into it.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens on December 15.