“This is just a cameo at the end. I’m good at that,” Hamill joked when he surprised fans onstage during Johnson’s chat at the Austin-based festival.
Three months after Star Wars: The Last Jedi hit theaters, director Rian Johnson turned up for a SXSW panel to discuss a new documentary, The Director and the Jedi, coming out about the making of the blockbuster film.
The doc, directed by Anthony Monke, offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at the making of Johnson’s Star Wars movie, and screened at the Austin, Texas festival earlier Monday morning. It sprung from a discussion the director had with his producing partner Ram Bergman about not wanting to have the typical B-roll cut with talking heads to promote the documentary. “We thought, let’s get a real doc filmmaker who is going to have a perspective,” said Johnson on stage in conversation with Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson. The pair gave Monke full access, and they even wore mics so that he could hear what they were saying all day. “It is amazing how quickly you forget that they’re there,” said Johnson, joking, “Amazing and scary.”
It wasn’t long before the conversation moved from Johnson’s past work on shows and movies including Looper, Breaking Bad and Terriers to talk of Star Wars. In addition to helming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy has also entrusted Johnson with a new Star Wars trilogy (“I’m still at the very, very beginning of the process but i can tell you I’m really excited,” is all he’d say.) When asked about how he gave direction on The Last Jedi to veteran actors like Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, who had spent several years in their roles, Johnson acknowledged that it required a lot of back-and-forth. “It’s a conversation — and in this case it’s a very intense conversation,” he laughed. “I couldn’t say, ‘Screw you, this is my story,’ You have to get into the conversation.”
For Fisher, that meant a lot of discussion about the specifics of scenes and the spirit of Leia. It also involved her pitching Johnson lots of one-liners for her character to deliver. “She loved one-liners, she loved jokes,” he said, remembering the late actress. In the case of Hamill, it was a much larger conversation about the shape of his character and where he was headed, as Hamill’s expectations coming into the film differed quite a bit from Johnson’s. Hamill wanted his part to be more similar to the Luke Skywalker who was the hero in the original trilogy. But Johnson was setting out to address the feelings of disillusionment and losing one’s sense of place in the world that come with being middle-aged and older.
“If you look at any classic hero’s myth that is actually worth its salt, at the beginning of the hero’s journey, like with King Arthur, he pulls the sword from the stone and he’s ascendant — he has setbacks but he unites all the kingdoms,” Johnson explained of his thought process. “But then if you keep reading, when it deals with the hero’s life as they get into middle-age and beyond, it always starts to get into darker places. And there’s a reason for that: It’s because myths are not made to sell action figures; myths are made to reflect the most difficult transitions we go through in life.”
Johnson also spent some time reflecting on Fisher, who he said never got a chance to see the final film before her passing. The most she saw were a few scenes at Pinewood Studios in London while recording some additional lines for ADR. “It was hard for her to watch herself onscreen,” remembered Johnson. Fisher had talked to him about being friends with actresses like Meryl Streep, who have been making movies constantly as they’ve gotten older and how she instead had large gaps between her roles. “I remember her telling me, ‘In my head, I’m still in my twenties,'” he said. “There’s always going to be that disconnect when you see yourself onscreen.”
Hamill surprised the audience when he crashed the panel near its conclusion, joking, “This is just a cameo at the end. I’m good at that.” Naturally, talk of Luke’s portrayal in the The Last Jedi arose and Hamill revealed that he regretted sharing his criticisms in a series of interviews. “I wish I hadn’t expressed my insecurities publicly,” he acknowledged. During filming, Johnson had told Hamill that “they can’t always give the audience what they expect and what they want” but that they “can give them something they don’t expect and what we want.” Hamill replied, “He’s always right.”
Also during the hour-long chat, Johnson looked back on how he got his start as a filmmaker, beginning with his family financing his first film, 2005 indie Brick. He’d wrote the script for the feature when he was only 22 years old but then spent the rest of his twenties trying to get it made, which he wasn’t able to do until he was 30 years old. “I remember feeling like there was this unbridgeable gulf between where I’m standing and where you actually have the money to make a movie,” said Johnson, adding that he’d find people who’d gotten movies made and ask them how they did it, to which they would give frustratingly vague answers like, “Just don’t give up!” Johnson’s response? “F— you, how do you make a movie? How do you do it?”
But now that Johnson’s firmly on the other side, he now sees that there’s no one way to do it. “Really the only advice that does matter is to have a piece of material that you know and you care about and just don’t stop until you make it by any means necessary,” he said, offering his best bit of advice to the audience members hoping to someday make it in the film industry: “If you literally have something to make and you don’t stop trying to make it until it gets made, it will get made.”
Star Wars: The Last Jedi