By Anna Menta
A long time ago, before they entered a galaxy far, far way, The Last Jedi writer/director Rian Johnson and producer Ram Bergman began their own epic journey as filmmaking partners. It started with Brick, the 2005 teen noir starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Though now regarded as a cult classic, that film made just $2 million at the box office. Johnson and Bergman went on to make two more feature films—the quirky indie romance The Brothers Bloom in 2008 and 2012’s Looper —before they were handed the keys to the Star Wars kingdom. Now, Johnson, 44, and Bergman, 47, are celebrating a $220 million opening weekend for The Last Jedi. The duo spoke to Newsweek about, among other things, finding their way in the mega-franchise.
Star Wars is a huge franchise—very different from other films you’ve made together. What were the key differences?
Rian Johnson: The most bizarre thing about this whole process was how it didn’t feel very different from the process on our other films. Once I delivered a script that everyone was excited about, we were all on the same page about the movie we were making. Disney and [Lucasfilm president] Kathleen Kennedy stepped back and let us make it, which was extraordinary given the size of this movie.
Ram Bergman: Rian delivered the first draft so far in advance, which doesn’t ever happen—like 13 or 14 months before we started filming, so we were able to prep. Rian knew exactly what he wanted, so they trusted him.
Did any of that trust come from your experience with Looper, which was a pretty ambitious sci-fi film?
Bergman: 100 percent.
Johnson: I wouldn’t want to speak for Kathy, but I have a feeling Looper was the thing that sent her our way. And it gave me a little [confidence]—if she likes what we did there, then maybe we can step in and find what’s personally interesting to us.
And what was personally interesting to you about the Star Wars franchise?
Johnson: My connection to it goes back to when I was a kid, so the thing as a whole. But I had to find the story and each of the individual characters—something that I could emotionally engage in. I think Kathy and Disney recognized that the reason the original movies had such a beating heart is because they were personal to [George] Lucas. They were his story.
As a young Star Wars fan, were you playing with the action figures and making up your own stories?
Johnson: Most of the stories I made up as a kid were probably terrible. [Laughs.] They probably would have ruined Star Wars. There would have been G.I. Joe crossovers involved. It would not have come out well.
Who was your favorite character in the original films?
Johnson: Luke Skywalker was always my guy. The way Lucas built the hero’s journey into the original movie… The hero’s journey is really just about growing up. It’s about finding your place in the world. As a kid, seeing Luke go from this very small world into a very big adventure, and feeling like you’re on the cusp of that—it’s scary! These movies give you a roadmap: It’s going to be scary, but it’s going to be OK. That was my entry point.
I read that you and Mark Hamill had different interpretations of Luke. Who was Luke to you, as a character for The Last Jedi specifically, and where was Mark coming from?
Johnson: I had to go from The Force Awakens, where the one big thing we know about Luke is that his friends are fighting the good fight and he’s isolated himself on an island. He’s taken himself out of the fight. So I had to figure out why, and it had to be consistent with Luke as I knew him. He was a hero. That meant he has to believe he’s doing the right thing by removing the Jedi from the equation.
And Mark—this character’s been part of his life for the past 40 years. He’s had a lot of time to think about what Luke would be if he came back. There’s no way that what I came up with was going to line up with what he had in his head. So we got into it, we talked about it, we argued, we went back and forth. I had to justify the choices I made to him. It’s not like there was ever a point where he said, “OK, that all makes sense to me.” But he got to a point where he said, “I can understand why you’re doing these things. I’m going to choose to trust you and go on this journey with you.” Which was incredibly generous of him creatively.
His first scene with Rey [Daisy Ridley] takes an unexpected direction. He throws away the lightsaber she is offering him. It’s a funny moment. What was the thinking there?
Johnson: I thought that’s what Luke would do. He’s made a purposeful choice to walk away from everything, and he’s made a Herculean effort to do so. He’s taken himself to, as he says, this unfindable place. And then this kid shows up, a symbol of everything he’s left behind. She holds [the lightsaber] out to him as if to say, “Here you go, here’s what you’ve been waiting for.” And he tosses it and walks off. I knew it would be a moment that might be unexpected, but I wrote it because it felt like—honestly, what else would happen?
There’s a lot of humor in The Last Jedi. Do you have a favorite comedic moment?
Johnson: There’s a moment between Kylo and Hux [actor Domhnall Gleeson], when they’re in the shuttle at the very end. Kylo gives an order, and then Hux very loudly repeats it as if everyone in the room can’t hear him. Adam just gives him this look. We came up with that on the day. It’s a little moment, but I love it. I like finding situational humor in unexpected places.
Humor has always been a big part of these movies to me, and especially for this one because I knew we were going to some darker places. I also knew we were going to be sitting on an island discussing religion for a big chunk of time.
Is there a character in The Last Jedi that you particularly identify with?
Johnson: One of the more interesting for me was Kylo Ren, especially his notion of moving forward cutting off his past. That’s something that all of us can relate to. As you get older you realize that behavior might feel appealing and cathartic, but if you think that’s progressing—by throwing away what came before—you’re probably fooling yourself. The past is there, and it’s always going to be there. That’s the lesson.
And Adam [Driver] is such an incredible actor! That’s part of the reason I wanted to get the mask off him so early—to be able to see those eyes, to use everything that was there.
How much did fan theories influence you when you were writing?
Johnson: I started writing this while they were filming The Force Awakens, so the movie wasn’t out there yet. It was really nice because I didn’t have to deal with how the world reacted to that film.
Bergman: You can’t get deep into the fans and all that stuff. Clearly, you read here and there, but at some point, you really don’t pay attention.
Have you seen the reactions on Twitter?
Johnson: Star Wars fans are a passionate bunch, and whether it’s positive or negative, they’re gonna react really passionately. Weirdly, I feel able to personally disconnect and see it as all part of how much people care about these films. They care about the specific things they want from them, and whether they get them or not.
Can you give us any hints about your new Star Wars trilogy?
Johnson: One word would be “possibilities.” That’s the only word I have right now! Honestly, we’re starting with a blank slate. That was our pitch to Disney and to Kathy: Blue sky. New story, new characters, new places, and right now I’m just at the beginning of what it’s going to be. The potential is what seems so exciting.