Interview: The Last Jedi’s director and producer on fan theories and defying “wish fulfillment”

 In U.S.

When Rian Johnson took on the job of directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, he knew what he was getting into — which is why he brought along his longtime producing partner, Ram Bergman, on his first directorial foray into a galaxy far, far away.

Bergman and Johnson have been working together since Johnson’s first film, Brick, a 2005 low-budget indie noir starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. There’s a huge gap between Brick and The Last Jedi, including the budget and star power involved, and the amount of anticipation leading up to the film’s release. But both still manage to feel distinctly like a Johnson film — which is to say, they both feel like a Johnson-Bergman film.

Unlike Brick’s slow-burn appreciation among indie-film lovers, however, The Last Jedi blew away box office expectations on opening weekend, raking in the second-biggest opening of all time (behind The Force Awakens) and, despite outrage from some corners of the fan base, a coveted “A” Cinemascore from audiences. So it’s no surprise that Johnson will be overseeing a new Star Wars trilogy and writing and directing the first of that series — or that Bergman will be joining him as producer.

On the day of The Last Jedi’s release, Johnson and Bergman talked to Vox about their partnership, the way they approached The Last Jedi, and their plans for the new trilogy — and how making a Star Wars movie is both like and totally unlike playing with Star Wars toys as a kid.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

How did you guys start working together?

Ram Bergman

I got a script for Brick from a friend of mine. I read it, and then was blown away, because I’ve never read anything like that. I asked to meet Rian, and we did lunch, at Mel’s Diner. At that point Rian had been trying to make the movie for about six or seven years. I thought he was going about it the wrong way. I pitched him the idea that this movie should be made for a few hundred thousand dollars, and this way he would be able to control the process of making the movie and control the destiny of the movie.

He asked me if I thought we could do it, and I said yes. He raised money from friends and family. We made the movie for $330,000. And then the rest is kind of history. Here we are. I think this is the best time of my life, and I hope we’re going to do this for many, many, many more years.

Rian Johnson

[knocking sound] That was me knocking on wood.

Alissa Wilkinson

How does your professional relationship manifest itself? Do you talk a lot? Do you throw things at each other? How does that work?

Rian Johnson

It’s a true partnership. Ram is the first person that reads any draft of a script. During production, obviously, there are a million creative decisions that are being made that overlap with the logistical ones. We really are making the movie together.

And there’s nobody I trust as much as Ram. It’s always been that way with our films, and with The Last Jedi, especially so.

Ram Bergman

Rian, he’s writing. He’s directing. It’s his movies. I’m just there to help him figure out how to make those movies and make sure they get made. We want to make sure we’re making the best movie, and that’s it.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s been quite a journey from a $330,000 movie to The Last Jedi. What was making the other films like?

Rian Johnson

Well, I know for me each of our films has been a step up in some way, in a way that made me kind of frightened coming into it. Like, “Can I deal with this?” From Brick to Brothers Bloom, our second movie, was a jump from a $330,000 movie to like a $16 million one, with bigger stars in it, and filming out in international locations. That felt like a bigger jump. And then to Looper, getting an even slightly bigger budget, and working with all these special effects.

I think obviously the scale of the jump from Looper to Last Jedi is exponential. But still, you always have insecurities coming into any new project, and if you don’t, you’re probably doing the wrong project.

Alissa Wilkinson

So do you often disagree, and someone has to win out?

Ram Bergman

That happens all the time.

Rian Johnson

Yeah. Multiple times a day.

Ram Bergman

But again, it’s not about ego or anything. It’s just about making the best movie. I think that’s why our partnership is great, because Rian knows that if I’m going to disagree, it’s not about ego. I just think about what might be the best thing for the movie.

We always talk, and sometimes — most of the time — it goes Rian’s way. Sometimes it goes my way. But we just want to make the best movie possible. That’s what the goal is, and how to get whatever Rian wants to execute in the best way or the most efficient way. We adjust to what he has in his head.


'Looper'- Opening Night Gala Premiere - Red Carpet - 2012 Toronto International Film Festival

Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman at the opening night gala for Looper in 2012.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

So what was your philosophy approaching The Last Jedi, starting from when you found out you were going to be doing it?

Rian Johnson

Kathleen [Kennedy] asked me if I’d be interested in directing the movie very much out of the blue, from my perspective at least. I went in for a meeting with her that I thought was just another general meeting. We had had a couple meetings already, and she shut the door and kind of sprung this on me. I asked her if I could think about it, and I took a little bit of time and had a lot of conversations with Ram.

I just decided there’s nothing that would make me happier than taking a swing at this, so we jumped in. From the very start we had, and we continue to have, a really good relationship with Kathy and with [Disney CEO] Bob Iger, [Disney chair] Alan Horn, and [Disney president] Alan Bergman. I think that we started off on the right foot with everybody, having a very collaborative, open partnership with them that mirrors what Ram and I have, where everyone feels they can be open. It’s never about ego. It’s always about just making the best movie.

We got off on the right foot. I worked with the story group, and then I delivered a script, and they were very excited about the script. We all agreed at the start on what the movie was that we were trying to make. If you have the right kind of beginning, then it makes it much easier to have a good journey.

Alissa Wilkinson

What goes into those decisions when you’re making a Star Wars movie, where so much of the universe is already set up going in?

Rian Johnson

Well, it is, but it isn’t. We were working off of The Force Awakens, but it’s not like there was a blueprint for what happens after The Force Awakens. There wasn’t at all. It was literally just me reading the script, and then thinking, what happens next?

I moved to San Francisco when I was breaking the story so I could come in twice a week and just run all my ideas by the folks at Lucasfilm. They have a group of really cool folks that they call the “story group,” kind of a creative development group of folks.

But their role was not really to police me or to guide me into anything. They were a sounding board. If I had come to something that I thought was kind of out there, or the question was, “Can I do this in Star Wars?” I would put those doubts in front of them, and nine times out of 10 their response would be, “Wow, that is really different and weird. Go for it. Do that.” They were there to protect me from self-editing more than to edit me.

Alissa Wilkinson

There has to be a lot of expectations you come in with when you’re a fan yourself.

Rian Johnson

Yeah, absolutely. Especially when your job is to make a good movie, and making a good movie means drama, and drama means throwing roadblocks in the way of the easy answers and the expectations. That means in some ways you’re going to be butting up against your own instincts as to what you as a fan want. You have to defy wish fulfillment in order to tell a good story — especially to tell a good second act of a story, which is what the middle chapter basically is. It was absolutely something we had to keep in mind.

Alissa Wilkinson

Did anything from your past movies help you as you approached this one?

Rian Johnson

I’m sure there were things — probably nothing really specific. I guess the three movies I’ve done have all been personal riffs on genres. Taking a genre and figuring out a way to use it towards a very personal end. This was no different; it’s just that the genre was a Star Wars movie.

Just like with the other movies, it’s a genre I love and it’s a genre I want to do right. I want to fulfill certain expectations of that genre. But the idea is to do that and also go into the weeds of the drama that you’re creating. You end up subverting other expectations through that. It was similar in those ways.


Star Wars: The Last Jedi Premiere

The cast and crew of The Last Jedi at the film’s premiere.
Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney

Alissa Wilkinson

Did you find yourself delving into fan theories?

Rian Johnson

Well, I find I was kind of lucky: I wrote the script while J.J. [Abrams] was shooting The Force Awakens. I wrote it before the movie was out there. I didn’t really have any fan theories in my head while writing it, which I think was ultimately a healthy thing.

Alissa Wilkinson

I can imagine you might be tempted to change things if you were reading them.

Rian Johnson

Yeah. Who knows.

Alissa Wilkinson

Especially if you’re active on Twitter, which you are!

Rian Johnson

Which I am. It’s been tough the past few days to stay as active on it! It’s kind of crazy right now. But I’m still on there.

Alissa Wilkinson

In approaching the new trilogy, then, what did you take away from your experience with The Last Jedi that you’re bringing with you?

Rian Johnson

It was an incredible learning experience. I learned so much. Obviously, when you make any movie, you always have that feeling of just give me one more chance, and I can get it right next time. You always have that feeling. I’m very proud of The Last Jedi. I made something that feels like a Star Wars movie to me. But that’s what drives you to jump into the next thing — the feeling that you can do better. You always have to have that feeling.

Alissa Wilkinson

Are you finding yourself dreaming outside the box? Do you have anything that you wish or hope you might be able to do?

Rian Johnson

Yes. The entire pitch [for the trilogy] to Kathy and to Disney was “new story.” Let’s tell a new Star Wars story! Let’s go to new places and meet new people. And that was the entirety of the pitch: the possibility of the blank canvas of a new story told over three movies, and what the power of that could be. I want it to feel like a great Star Wars movie. But the real tantalizing excitement of it for me is the wide-open possibilities of what it can be.

Alissa Wilkinson

One of the things that a lot of people connect with, or have connected with, when it comes to Star Wars over the years is having toys from the movie and being able to go make their own Star Wars stories in the backyard as kids.

Rian Johnson

Yeah. I know that’s what I did, absolutely.

Alissa Wilkinson

Are any of those going to make it in?

Rian Johnson

I think the stories you come up with as a kid — they’re all pretty bad. Sorry, kid. They’re fun, they’re awesome, but then also there are G.I. Joe crossovers, and Tonka trucks make entrances, and you get into big legal issues trying to cross over into those worlds.

But what you do try and tap into is the feeling of what inspired you as a kid, what got you excited to pick up those toys and tell those stories — that feeling. And that’s that lightning in a bottle that you’re trying to capture with these movies.

Alissa Wilkinson

Speaking of playing: Were there places in the film where the actors improvised dialogue that you especially liked?

Rian Johnson

Oh, sure. Once I actually start rehearsing with the actors, it’s like the version of me that wrote the script becomes a different person. You disconnect. I love being really free and open in the rehearsals. We’ll edit and we’ll cut lines and we’ll change lines and we’ll play with lines. It’s all about just making the scene feel like it plays and works in the best way possible.

There were a million examples. Carrie [Fisher] came up some really fun things. Her line in one of the pivotal scenes is: “I changed my hair.” That was her line.

Also, when she’s talking to Holdo and she says, “You go. I’ve said it enough” — that was Carrie. But if you work with Carrie Fisher and she doesn’t get a couple zingers in the script, you know you’ve done it wrong.

Alissa Wilkinson

We all walked out wondering if she wrote the “get your head out of your cockpit” line.

Rian Johnson

No, that was me! Sorry, Carrie. I feel her glaring down at me. She loved that line, though. I felt really, really good because when I was looking through the script with her, I saw that line was circled in her script, and I was like, oh yes. I got the Carrie nod of approval.

Alissa Wilkinson

Is there something distinctive about what both of you brought to the Star Wars universe? Something that wasn’t there before?

Rian Johnson

Well — I don’t know. You don’t come in thinking, “How do I put my personal style on this? How do I get my scent on this?” or something like that. You’re coming in just desperately trying to make the best version of the movie that you can. In this case it was trying to make the best Star Wars movie that Ram and I could.

It’s almost like you speak in a regional accent that you don’t really have control over. I think just because it’s you telling the story in your own voice it ends up having certain unique characteristics. I think, like my own speaking voice, I’m probably uniquely unqualified to judge what’s unique about it.

Ram Bergman

Like I said, every movie Rian makes is very personal to him. I think when you watch the movie, and you watch his other movies, you can feel it: This is his movie.

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