A long time ago, a grade-schooler got his hands on a spaceship. He followed the assembly instructions as best he could, snapping on the cannons, the landing gear, the tiny interstellar-chess table. Soon enough, Rian Johnson was holding his very own Millennium Falcon. “The first thing I did,” he recalls, “was throw it across the room, to see how it would look flying.” He grins. “And it broke.” Johnson grew up, went to film school, made some good stuff, including the entertainingly twisted 2012 sci-fi drama Looper. He’s nearly 44 now, though his cherub cheeks and gentle manner make it easy to picture the kid he was (too easy, maybe – he’s trying to grow back a goatee he shaved); even his neatly pressed short-sleeve button-down has a picture-day feel. In late October, he’s sitting in an office suite inside Disney’s Burbank studios that he’s called home for many months, where a whiteboard declares, “We’re working on Star Wars: The Last Jedi (in case you forgot).” Johnson is the film’s writer-director, which means he ended up with the world’s finest collection of replacement toys, including a life-size Falcon set that nearly brought him to tears when he stepped onto it. He treated it all with what sounds like an intriguing mix of reverence and mischief – cast members keep saying nothing was quite what they expected. “I shook up the box a little bit,” he says, with that same grin.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, everything is broken. In the months since the franchise stirred back to life in 2015’s The Force Awakens, it has felt rather like some incautious child grabbed civilization itself and threw it across the room – and, midflight, many of us realized we were the evil Empire all along, complete with a new ruler that even latter-day George Lucas at his most CGI-addled would reject as too grotesque and implausible a character. Weirdly, the saga saw it all coming – or maybe it’s not so weird when you consider the Vietnam War commentary embedded in Lucas’ original trilogy, or the warnings about democracy’s fragility in his prequels. In the J.J. Abrams-directed The Force Awakens, a revanchist movement calling itself the First Order assembles in Triumph of the Will-style marches, showing the shocking strength of an ideology that was supposed to have been thoroughly defeated long ago. What’s left of the government is collapsing and feckless, so the only hope in sight is a band of good guys known as the Resistance. Familiar, this all sounds.
“It’s somewhat a reflection of society,” acknowledges the saga’s new star, Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, and who has gone from unknown London actress to full-blown movie star nearly as fast as her character went from desert scavenger to budding Jedi. “But also it is escapism, because there are creatures and there are people running around with fucking lasers and shit. So, I think, a wonderful mix of both.” And the worse the world gets, the more we need that far-off galaxy, says Gwendoline Christie, who plays stormtrooper honcho Captain Phasma (as well as Game of Thrones‘ Brienne of Tarth): “During testing times, there’s nothing wrong with being transported by art. I think we all need it. Many of us are united in our love for this one thing.”
The Last Jedi, due December 15th, is the second episode of the current trilogy, and advance word has suggested that, as in the original middle film, The Empire Strikes Back, things get darker this time. But Johnson pushes back on that, though he does admit some influence from the morally ambiguous 2000s reboot of Battlestar Galactica (which is funny, because Lucas considered the Seventies TV show a rip-off and urged a lawsuit – long since settled – against it). “That’s one thing I hope people will be surprised about with the movie,” Johnson says. “I think it’s very funny. The trailers have been kind of dark – the movie has that, but I also made a real conscious effort for it to be a riot. I want it to have all the things tonally that I associate with Star Wars,which is not just the Wagner of it. It’s also the Flash Gordon.”
As of late October, almost no one has seen it yet, but Johnson seems eerily free of apprehension about its prospects. He exuded a similar calm on set, according to Adam Driver, who plays Han and Leia’s Darth Vader-worshipping prodigal son, Kylo Ren. “If I had that job, I would be stressed out,” he says. “To pick up where someone left off and carry it forward, but also introduce a vocabulary that hasn’t been seen in a Star Wars movie before, is a tall order and really hard to get right. He’s incredibly smart and doesn’t feel the need to let everyone know it.” (“It felt like we were playing the whole time,” says Kelly Marie Tran, cast as the biggest new character, Rose Tico.) A few weeks after we talk, Lucasfilm announces that Johnson signed on to make three more Star Wars films in the coming decade, the first that step outside of the prevailing Skywalker saga, indicating that Disney and Lucasfilm matriarch Kathleen Kennedy are more than delighted with Last Jedi. And Kennedy’s not easily delighted, having recently replaced the directors of a Han Solo spinoff midshoot and removed original Episode 9 director Colin Trevorrow in favor of Abrams’ return.
The Force Awakens’ biggest triumph was the introduction of new characters worth caring about, led by Rey and Kylo Ren, plus the likes of John Boyega’s stormtrooper-defector Finn, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron and more. Kylo Ren (born Ben Solo) lightsaber-shanked Harrison Ford’s Han, depriving Johnson of one coveted action figure – but the film left us with Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, now the general who leads the Resistance, and the climactic reveal of Mark Hamill’s now-grizzled Luke Skywalker.
The Last Jedi will be Fisher’s last Star Wars movie. In the waning days of the cruel year of 2016, she went into cardiac arrest on an airplane, dying four days later. Less than a month afterward, 500,000 or so people assembled in Washington, D.C., for that city’s Women’s March, and Leia was everywhere, in posters bearing her doughnut-haired image circa 1977, with accompanying slogans (“A Woman’s Place Is in the Resistance” was, perhaps, the best).
Johnson had grown close with Fisher, and no stranger to her psychedelically decorated Beverly Hills house where she once granted Rolling Stone a hilarious interview in bed a couple of years back. Afterward, she cheerily cracked jokes about drugs and mental illness in front of a visiting Disney publicist. “You got to experience a little bit of that magical sphere that she created,” says Johnson, who went over the script with her in that same bedroom. “I’m happy I got to poke my head into that, briefly, and know her even a little bit.” He left her part in the film untouched. “We didn’t end up changing a thing,” says Johnson. “Luckily, we had a totally complete performance from her.” So it is now Abrams who has to figure out how to grapple with Fisher and Leia’s sudden absence. (He is characteristically gnomic on the matter: “It’s a sad reality,” he says. “In terms of going forward … time will tell what ends up getting done.”)
Overall, Johnson enjoyed what seems like an almost unfathomable level of autonomy in shaping The Last Jedi‘s story. He says no one dictated a single plot point, that he simply decided what happens next. And he’s baffled by fans who are concerned by the idea that they’re “making it up as we go along”: “The truth is, stories are made up! Whether somebody made this whole thing up 10 years ago and put it on a whiteboard and we all have to stick to that, or whether we’re organically finding it as we move forward, it doesn’t mean that any less thought is being put into it.”
Mark Hamill’s single scene in The Force Awakens lasts all of one minute, and he doesn’t say a thing. But it’s an indelible piece of screen acting with real gravitas, from an underrated performer who had become better known for Broadway and voice-over work – he’s been the definitive animated Joker since the early Nineties. (“With voice-over,” Hamill says, “I thought, ‘This is great! I can let myself go to hell physically! I don’t have to memorize lines!'”) As Rey approaches him on the lonely mountaintop where’s he’s presumably spent years studying the Jedi equivalent of the Talmud, Luke Skywalker’s bearded face cycles through grief, terror and longing.
“I didn’t look at that as ‘Oh, this is going to be my big chance,'” says Hamill, who has just shown up at Johnson’s offices and plopped down next to him, carrying a large thermos of coffee in the right hand that Darth Vader once chopped off. He has a trimmed-down version of his elder-Jedi beard, which he’s grown to appreciate: “I shaved, and I thought, ‘You know what, the beard does cover up the jowl.'” Hamill is a charming, jittery chatterbox – turns out that even at his youngest and prettiest, he was a geek trapped in the body of a golden boy. He is excitable and wild-eyed enough to give the vague sense that, like Luke, he actually might have spent a few solitary years on a distant planet, and is still readjusting to Earth life, or at least movie stardom.
He admits to having had “frustrations over being over-associated” with Star Wars over the years – his Skywalking cost him a chance at even auditioning to reprise his stage role as Mozart in the film of Amadeus – “but nothing that caused me any deep anguish.” He still spent the decades since Return of the Jedi acting and raising a family with Marilou, his wife of 39 years. And as for his current return to the role of Luke? “It’s a culmination of my career,” he says. “If I focused on how enormous it really is, I don’t think I could function. I told Rian that. I said, as absurd as it sounds, ‘I’m going to have to pretend this is an art-house film that no one is going to see.’ “
“It’s somewhat a reflection of society. But also it is escapism, because there are creatures and there are people running around with fucking lasers and shit. So, I think, a wonderful mix of both.”
For his Force Awakens scene, he says, “I didn’t know – and I don’t think J.J. really knew – specifically what had happened in those 30 years. Honestly, what I did was try and give J.J. a range of options. Neutral, suspicion, doubt … taking advantage of the fact that it’s all thoughts. I love watching silent films. Think of how effective they could be without dialogue.”
Abrams had some trepidation over the idea of handing Hamill a script with such a tiny role. “The last thing I wanted to do was insult a childhood hero,” he says, “but I also knew it was potentially one of the great drumrolls of all time.” In fact, Hamill’s first reaction was, “What a rip-off, I don’t get to run around the Death Star bumping heads with Carrie and Harrison anymore!”
But he came to agree with Abrams, especially after he counted the number of times Luke was mentioned in the screenplay – he thinks it was more than 50: “I don’t want to say, ‘That’s the greatest entrance in cinematic history’ . . . but certainly the greatest entrance of my career.”
Johnson turns to Hamill. “Did I ever tell you that early on when I was trying to figure out the story for this,” he says, “I had a brief idea I was chasing where I was like, ‘What if Luke is blind? What if he’s, like, the blind samurai?’ But we didn’t do it. You’re welcome. Didn’t stick.” (He adds that this was before a blind Force-using character showed up in 2016’s side film Rogue One.)
Hamill laughs, briefly contemplating how tough that twist would’ve been: “Luke, not too close to the cliff!”
He had a hard enough time with the storyline Johnson actually created for Luke, who is now what the actor calls a “disillusioned” Jedi. “This is not a joyful story to tell,” Hamill says, “my portion of it.” Johnson confirms that Hamill flat-out told him at the start that he disagreed with the direction Luke’s character was taking. “We then started a conversation,” says Johnson. “We went back and forth, and after having to explain my version, I adjusted it. And I had to justify it to myself, and that ended up being incredibly useful. I felt very close to Mark by the end. Those early days of butting heads and then coming together, that process always brings you closer.”
Hamill pushed himself to imagine how Luke could’ve gotten to his place of alienation. A rock fan who’s buddies with the Kinks’ Dave Davies, Hamill started thinking about shattered hippie dreams as he watched a Beatles documentary. “I was hearing Ringo talk about ‘Well, in those days, it was peace and love.’ And how it was a movement that largely didn’t work. I thought about that. Back in the day, I thought, by the time we get into power, there will be no more wars. Pot will be legal.” He smiles at that part. “I believed all that. I had to use that feeling of failure to relate to it.” (We do already know that Luke was training a bunch of Jedi, and Kylo Ren turned on him.)
Hamill’s grief over the loss of Fisher is still fresh, especially since the two of them got to renew their bond, and their space-sibling squabbling, after fallow decades that had given them far fewer reasons to get together. “There was now a comfort level that she had with me,” he says, “that I wasn’t out to get anything or trying to hustle her in any way. I was the same person that I was when she knew me. … I was sort of the square, stick-in-the-mud brother, and she was the wild, madcap Auntie Mame.” Promoting the movie is bringing it all back for him. “I just can’t stand it,” he says. “She’s wonderful in the movie. But it adds a layer of melancholy we don’t deserve. I’d love the emotions to come from the story, not from real life.”
I mention how hard Luke seems to have had it: never meeting his mom; finding the burnt corpses of the aunt and uncle who raised him; those well-known daddy issues; the later years of isolation. “It’s the life of a hero, man,” says Johnson. “That’s what you’ve gotta do to be a hero. You’ve gotta watch people that you love burn to death!”
Hamill notes that reality is not so great either. “Sometimes,” he says, softer than usual, “you think, ‘I’d rather have Luke’s life than mine.'”