“Complicated” is the word that filmmaker Rian Johnson, a lifelong “Star Wars” fan, uses to describe meeting his childhood hero, Mark Hamill.
It was roughly three years ago when Johnson was hired to write and direct “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the eighth episode in the franchise that arrives in theaters Friday. Once he’d drafted a script, Johnson met with Hamill to discuss the fate of Luke Skywalker, the iconic character Hamill originated in 1977, when the director was just a toddler. Neither man will reveal specifics, but both recall their meeting as more than a little impassioned.
“It was a big, complicated experience,” says Johnson. “And it ended up being a really intense and really healthy process of a director and an actor having it out.”
Says Hamill: “I liked what he did with every character in the movie — except for Luke.”
The new “Star Wars” trilogy is clearly pulling in a new generation of fans with a new crew of young characters: The warrior Rey (Daisy Ridley), the former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), the Resistance pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) and the enigmatic villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). While 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” centered on the return of Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling Han Solo, “The Last Jedi” will focus on Hamill’s heroic Luke Skywalker.
The previous film’s closing shot of Hamill, now 66, with gray in his beard and a touch of ash in his once-golden hair, had a deep emotional impact on fans, who haven’t seen much of him since he reinvented himself as a voice-actor in the 2000s. The question now, with plot details tightly under wraps, is what will happen to Skywalker — especially given the portentous line featured in the trailer, “It’s time for the Jedi to end”?
“That hit me like a ton of bricks,” Hamill says. “Jedis don’t give up! If something goes wrong, you make it right!” Nevertheless, Hammill had only so much say in Luke Skywalker’s fate. “I don’t own the character,” he says. “I’m sort of the host body they lease the character out to.”
That’s life in the “Star Wars” business, where actors sign up to play characters whose endings have yet to be written, and the filmmakers calling the shots may not be around for the next movie. Johnson, for instance, was reportedly writing the next and final “Star Wars” film, but he’s now handing the reins back to J.J. Abrams, who directed “The Force Awakens.” Johnson will go off to spearhead his own “Star Wars” spinoff trilogy.
“It’s a good working system,” says Boyega. “There’s enough time between ‘Star Wars’ movies. They have the spinoffs” — he’s referring to last year’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and the Han Solo prequel slated for a 2018 release — “and that takes some time, so we get to go on a break while they do their thing.” And so far, at least, each director has arrived prepared with a script and a clear vision. “So we can’t really complain at all.”
Johnson, 43, is an intriguing choice for a “Star Wars” director. Unlike Abrams, a well-established force in popular culture (television’s “Lost,” the rebooted “Star Trek” movies), Johnson is an art-house darling who has made a handful of inventive but decidedly odd movies. His 2005 breakout film, “Brick,” featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a hard-boiled high-school detective; “The Brothers Bloom” (2008), starring Adrian Brody and Rachel Weisz, might be described as a screwball tragicomedy; “Looper” (2012) again starred Gordon-Levitt, this time as a time-traveler trying to kill his future self (Bruce Willis).
As Hamill put it after watching Johnson’s movies: “I just can’t pigeonhole this guy.”
Johnson came to “Star Wars” armed with a lifelong love of George Lucas’ original movies and a number of new ideas. Among the creatures Johnson came up with are porgs, little puffin-type critters with cute eyes and nasty teeth, and a breed of space-horse called fathiers, which are reportedly ridden by Finn and Rose Tico (a new character played by Kelly Marie Tran) as they escape from a casino city called Canto Bight.
The riding scenes, Boyega says, took two weeks, which Johnson spent playing country versions of hip-hop songs to get the cast into the mood. “It was torture,” Boyega says, half-joking, “to get the fear in my eyes to come up.”
Johnson also brought back Captain Phasma, the chrome-plated Stormtrooper leader who became an instant fan favorite in “The Force Awakens.” “I didn’t expect people to be so captivated by the character,” says Gwendoline Christie, who returns in the role. “What you will see from Phasma in this film is something we’re traditionally not used to seeing in female characters, which is a deep malevolence — a violence that comes from within her.”
Adds Christie: “I loved doing that.”
As for Carrie Fisher, the beloved actress who died unexpectedly last December, she reportedly completed her filming as Princess Leia on “The Last Jedi,” and there have been rumors that the film ends the character’s story in a fitting way. “I was kind of instantly comfortable with Carrie, I think because Carrie’s a writer,” says Johnson. “It was the same as Mark — she had stuff that she felt good about, and stuff she didn’t. But that’s where the conversation starts, and that’s where the real work is.”
Whatever the fates of Luke, Leia and the rest of the “Star Wars” crew, they’re already committed to film and audiences will see the results for the first time this Friday.
“My only goal was to make a good ‘Star Wars’ movie,” says Johnson. “A movie that would make you go into the backyard and grab your toys and start running around with them. That was it.”