‘The Last Jedi’ Director on a Key Spot He Avoided Green Screen
Director Rian Johnson and producer Ram Bergman recently sat down to talk about the movie as part of Ireland Week on culture, art and commerce at L.A.’s Regal Theaters through Oct. 21. A significant portion of The Last Jedi was shot at Ireland’s UNESCO world heritage site Skellig Michael, which fans remember from the final frames of The Force Awakens, Luke’s emerald tower hideaway high above a roiling sea.
“That very last image of The Force Awakens with Rey holding the light saber out to Luke, that was so evocative. In every other case Star Wars movies jumped forward in leaps of time. I knew I was supposed to do that but the last image was intriguing. I knew I wanted to know were we were going next,” Johnson told the audience about the Dec. 15 release.
Johnson said the best Star Wars movies tread a fine line between bubblegum and opera, but had little to say about The Last Jedi, noting only that his favorite ship is the A-wing, of which the new film will have plenty.
After the discussion, he sat down for an interview with The Hollywood Reporter to talk fan speculation about that new poster, how the film will re-contextualize other Star Wars movies, and walking up 600 steps just to get to work.
The Jedi village set looks like a monastery. Did you design with the island’s existing 6th century monastery in mind?
It’s a direct translation of it. Those domes, that beehive kind of design of the huts is exactly what’s on Skellig. And we moved the geography of them around a little bit to what we needed. But the design was taken straight from Skellig. We wanted to fit in with what was on the islands.
The domed roofs of the village suggest the desert home Luke was raised in back on Tatooine?
It’s incredible, the connection with them. There is virtually no design happening on our part. It’s coincidental. It’s funny how things rhyme.
You had no second thoughts when you were scouting Skellig Michael and then took a look at those 600 stairs up the mountainside?
It had been built up so much before we got there, saying, “You have to be careful on the steps. Take breaks. This is going to be so hard.” The first time I climbed the steps, I got to the top and I thought we were at the halfway point. I guess it had been built up to me so much it actually wasn’t as bad as I thought.
Wouldn’t green screen have been easier and more economical?
I’m sure it would have been more economical, but it was so worth it to do it the way we did it. We got a feel, we got a vibe, we got a grounded kind of look that we never could have gotten on the green screen. I guess I should add that I was just trolloping up the stairs without a pack on my back. All of our great Irish crew, who acted as sherpas carting our equipment up the stairs, it was much more difficult for them. I don’t want to be cavalier about the stairs.
What do you think of the speculation surrounding the latest poster and has Luke gone over to the dark side?
Having been a Star Wars fan myself for the past 40 years, having spent most of my life on the other side of the curtain, I know the anticipation and the guesswork and theorizing is all part of the fun and game of it. So I love it. I love seeing what people are thinking, seeing what they’re guessing, seeing what they’re anticipating.
Part of it is re-contextualizing past movies. How does yours do that?
Each new film hopefully re-contextualizes what came before it. That’s part of the game. Yes, it’s a continuation of not only The Force Awakens but also of the legacy leading up to it.
And of course the third movie will be referencing your movie. Have there been any discussions?
J.J. Abrams is doing a third movie. I’m not involved in it. They’ll be writing their own story but continuing on with what we did.
She produced million-dollar blockbusters with Spielberg; now she’s pulling in billions for Star Wars as president of Lucasfilm. But don’t let the dollar signs fool you: This powerhouse is one of the greatest storytellers in Hollywood
—Seth Plattner (Elle US, Nov 2017)
As with every Jedi in the Star Wars universe, the ascension to Master doesn’t come without some prequel. For Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy—who, in 2012, became one of the most powerful executives in Hollywood when George Lucas handpicked her to succeed him as head of the biggest, most profitable, most rabidly fan-consumed movie franchise ever—the same holds true.
The daughter of a theater actress and a judge, Kennedy grew up in Redding, California, a small town “where I didn’t actually see a lot of movies.” Nevertheless, she began honing her producing skills by managing her high school’s talent shows. As a telecommunications and film major at San Diego State University, she immersed herself in various media jobs: camera operator at a local station; news desk assistant; morning talk show producer. “At the time, they simply interested me,” she says. “They were the jobs you do when you’re just starting out. And they all kind of coalesced into what I wanted to do with my life once I met Steven.”
Spielberg, that is. Inspired after seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Kennedy moved to L.A. in 1978 and began working as the secretary to Spielberg’s friend, screenwriter John Milius. In short order, Spielberg poached her to be his own assistant, and a few years later, he was so impressed by her ideas and willingness to voice them that he gave Kennedy, then 29, her first producer credit—on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. “I spent a lot of that time blinded by terror,” she says with a laugh. “But fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s always a good place to start.”
From there, Spielberg, Kennedy, and her future husband, Frank Marshall, formed Amblin Entertainment in 1982; a decade later, Kennedy and Marshall—who now have two daughters—started their own company, The Kennedy/Marshall Company, which continued to work closely with Spielberg and which Marshall runs solo today.
Through those years, Kennedy oversaw one record-breaking blockbuster after another— Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—as well as Oscar-crushing dramas—The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Lincoln. In total, she’s produced 70 films, which have racked up 125 Academy Award nominations (eight of which have her name on them) and grossed more than $11 billion worldwide.
Since taking over as president at Lucasfilm, Kennedy has shepherded 2015’s The Force Awakens to a more than $2 billion global box-office gross and made stars of the film’s newcomers, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega. Rogue One, the first stand-alone spin-off in the franchise, hauled in $1.1 billion the following year, and industry insiders speculate that next month’s The Last Jedi, the eighth “episode” in the now 40-year-old saga, could pull in even bigger numbers. But it’s not all about money: “Kathy told me, ‘Rian, it’s just more zeros,’ ” says Rian Johnson, whom Kennedy boldly hired to direct The Last Jedi (despite rumblings that he was too green to take on a project of Star Wars proportions). “ ‘It’s making a movie, telling a story, just with more people and sets.’ There’s an easygoing confidence with Kathy. Her whole thing is having close relationships with and supporting filmmakers. She gives you a safe space to work and play in.”
In line with her commitment to spot and foster fresh onscreen talent with diverse perspectives, Kennedy cast Ridley, a virtual unknown, as The Force Awakens’ Rey, the first female lead in Star Wars history. “I have and still do feel supported through all parts of my life,” Ridley says. “I was recently struggling in a job, and she sent some wonderful emails reassuring me it would turn out well. That’s what makes her so special.”