THE LAST JEDI
ONCE THE GOLDEN BOY OF THE REBELLION, LUKE SKYWALKER IS NOW A HERMIT ON A FAR-FAR-AWAY PLANET. CAN PLUCKY PADAWAN REY PERSUADE HIM TO RETURN TO THE FRAY? DIRECTOR RIAN JOHNSON AND STAR MARK HAMILL SET THE SCENE FOR STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
After The Force Awakens, we had Luke Skywalker questions: why did he go to that island? How did he eat? Is he the last Jedi? Mark Hamill and Rian Johnson answer some of those.
SAN QUENTIN PRISON, STANDIN Groom-only venue for Johnny Cash and the former residence of both Charles Manson and Danny Trejo, is the most famous landmark in Marin County, California. The second is built around a striking cream and grey house with candy-striped blue awnings on the aptly named Lucas Valley Road. If there’s a bright centre to the Star Wars universe, then this property, with its view across Lake Ewok, is most definitely it.
Skywalker Ranch has been the spiritual home of Star Wars since George Lucas bought it in 1978. Home to Lucas’ offices, Skywalker Sound and a small vineyard producing a surprisingly cheeky Pinot Noir, the ranch has nurtured almost every Star Wars project since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s rumoured to have cost Lucas $100 million, but the ranch’s true value is found in a nondescript barn, tucked behind the stables.
Within that building resides the Lucasfilm archives, home to almost every prop, costume and artefact that has gone into the Star Wars saga over the course of 40 years. Upon its endless shelves, model X-wings lie scattered like children’s toys, jumbled among alien maquettes and several prototypes for the Millennium
Falcon that resemble an android’s sex toys. Near an arsenal of blasters, lightsabers and abandoned gaffi sticks gleams Raiders’ Ark Of The
Covenant and, tucked behind it, the gurning likeness of Harrison Ford, still frozen in grey carbonite. Search and you’ll even find Vader’s final helmet, drooping and crispy from the Endor pyre — a scene shot right here at the ranch during last-minute pick-ups in 1983.
If you were searching for inspiration on how to continue the Star Wars saga, there can be few more potent places in the galaxy than this.
“I spent days there,” marvels Rian Johnson, with a wistful smile. “Just being alone in the archives among all these models and props and soaking it all in. It was incredible! The perception of these films is that they’re all planned out on a secret sheet of paper in advance, but that’s just not the case. I wasn’t given an outline of where it goes or even a list of things to hit. It really was just, ‘Okay, what’s next?’”
Unlike Luke Skywalker, The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams left no cryptic trail to the story’s next location, no map hidden in the memory of a catatonic droid. Having introduced a new Force user in Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Abrams’ tale ended on the archipelagian water planet of Ahch-to, with a time-worn Jedi Master staring into the eyes of this young woman as she held
out an artefact long thought lost. That was it. One helicopter shot, a John Williams fanfare and 10 minutes of credits. Not so much as a hint as to what might happen next.
So, with Abrams’ Ahch-tosian cliffhanger as a starting point, Johnson forced himself to look at Star Wars’ reluctant hero in a new light.
“Who is Luke Skywalker? But more than that, who’s Luke Skywalker now? I grew up with an idea of who Luke was, so the real question was why is Luke on that island? Luke’s no coward, he’s not hiding from a fight, so there must be some reason he’s there that makes sense to him. That was the first nut to crack. The seed for the whole story was inside that shell. I just had to get to it.”
More than three decades after turning his back on the galaxy, Luke Skywalker leads a very different existence. Grizzled and world-weary, he is a man apart, divested of the life he knew and wrestling with the demons of his past. Until, that is, unheralded and unexpected, a would-be apprentice tracks him down. At the end of a long pilgrimage, they climb the endless, weatherbeaten steps to his Malibu home and find the Jedi Master alone in his reverie. Skywalker, confronted by this petitioner, sets a very specific task.
“He made me watch Sgt. Bilko,” says Johnson. “I’d gone out to Mark’s house to meet him and he couldn’t believe I’d never seen it. So he took me into his man-cave and we hung out and watched old TV together.”
The episode in question — in which Zippy the chimp is accidentally inducted into the army and subsequently court-martialled — is, one might argue, not the most obvious place to begin a crash course in Star Wars Episode-writing. But as the pair kicked back to watch Phil Silvers’ uniformed blowhard in action, Hamill began to talk. He told stories of Peter Cushing and Sir Alec Guinness — younger then than Hamill is now. Of long days at Elstree Studios and wild nights in London town. From Tunisian sand to Dagobah slime and that final reckoning in the skies over Endor, Hamill recalled the saga from Luke’s perspective. Johnson listened and, as he did, a story began to coalesce.
“I had a couple of keystone ideas, then I just started freeform writing with each of the characters,” he says. “What do I know about them? Where do I want to see them go? What would be the toughest thing each of them could be faced with? I started this big document that ended up growing and growing and eventually a through-line started to become clear.”
If Luke had found the first Jedi temple amid the rocks and heather of Ahch-to, what could that mean? What lay within? More importantly, why did he need it? Betrayed by his pupil — his nephew, Ben Solo — and his fledgling Jedi all corrupted or killed, might Luke, like Obi-wan before him, have sought solace in exile? And what might happen when that isolation ended?
“I was terrified coming into this that I was gonna be like Barton Fink and have a script that was due six months ago and I’m still on page three writing about fishmongers,” Johnson laughs. “But it’s the most fun I’ve ever had writing something. The whole experience was incredible: just tapping into my 10-year-old self. Even though it’s Star Wars, the whole thing
has felt bizarrely similar to my experience making Looper or Brick or The Brothers Bloom.”
The 43-year-old director, known for that trio of offbeat indies and directing the best episode of Breaking Bad, pieced The Last Jedi together moment by moment. He had a title (“That came very early on, it just seemed obvious”), a story and Luke Skywalker: a central character at once familiar and, he teases, completely unexpected.
“OH BABY, WOULD I LOVE TO PLAY my own evil twin!” Mark Hamill declares, bouncing with delight at the prospect. “It’d be great because you could maybe not reveal it’s Evil Luke until the real Luke shows up. We could watch this guy undermining the good guys secretly, maybe even killing a supporting character out of everyone’s sight so they all go, ‘What’s going on? He’s crazy!’ And then, of course, the good Luke shows up.”
This, it should be emphasised, is not the plot for The Last Jedi, nor Johnson’s answer to the Skywalker mystery. It is, rather, Hamill’s own take on where the Rebellion’s storied hero should have ended up — one he’s still sore was given short-shrift.
“When I suggested that storyline, they said, ‘Well, it’s been done.’” He looks genuinely crestfallen, then dismisses the objection with a wave. “Apparently, in one of the Star Wars novels they clone an evil Luke from the hand that got cut off. Over the years there have been so many permutations of these characters that there’s not much left. It’s really limiting!”
Hamill is, by his own admission, a “fountain of really terrible ideas”, from lobbying George Lucas to make Boba Fett Luke’s mother in disguise (“She’s working as a double agent, see?”) to a far more hands-on climax for The Force Awakens (“Leia contacts me telepathically,
I enter, deal with the danger and rush to Solo’s side!”). But while he’s hardly surprised that his wild imaginings were set aside, he had expected J.J. Abrams would give him a little more to do.
After nearly a year of intensive training and a diet that would put most Olympic sprinters to shame (“I haven’t seen a French fry since the summer of 2012”), Hamill was handed a role that consisted of one scene, two shots and no dialogue.
“J.J. is a sadist,” he grumbles. “If he had confided in me that the whole movie is them searching for me then that would have been fine. Instead he said, ‘I’m sending the script over.
Read it from page one and imagine it just like a movie.’ I’ll tell you this: when I got the script for Episode VIII, I turned to the last page and started reading it backwards!”
The Force Awakens might have been a film about Luke Skywalker, but The Last Jedi is Luke Skywalker’s film. Missing for decades, his trusty X-wing rusting and barnacled beneath the waves, Luke finds redemption in the form of Rey: a scavenger from the arid wastes of Jakku; a wouldbe Padawan, already strong in the Force. Selftaught and coursing with a Jedi’s power, she looks to Skywalker for guidance and he, however reluctantly, agrees to teach her. It is not, Hamill tells us, the kind of training we are used to (“Rey doesn’t run around with me in her backpack”), nor is Skywalker the teacher Rey was hoping for.
“He’s changed a lot,” says Hamill. “It was as shocking for me to read what Rian had written as I’m sure it will be for the audience. I was surprised by the way he saw Luke — to hear him say something like, ‘It’s time for the Jedi to end’ — and I wasn’t even sure I agreed with it. Being the caretaker of the character I have a possessive attitude towards him, but even though it’s not the way I would have gone, the more I got into the work, the more I realised I was wrong.”
THE FORCE AWAKENS, WITH ITS stolen plans, plucky orphan and structurally flawed doomsday weapon, was an unapologetic homage to the original Star Wars: a love letter from J.J. Abrams to the film that shaped his childhood. Rather than try to reinvent Lucas’ space opera, Abrams chose to revitalise it, updating the Empire with the First Order and continuing Vader’s legacy through the volatile Kylo Ren. Stormtroopers were streamlined, X-wings upgraded and, with Rey and John Boyega’s Finn, a new generation of heroes strode forth to delight a new generation of fans.
For the old guard, the film’s emotional punch was a haymaker: old friends returned and were abruptly taken away, leaving us stunned as Han Solo’s lifeless body tumbled into the abyss. And Luke, the boy we met four decades ago as he gazed hopefully out at those twin suns, returned an old hermit, silent and glaring on a windswept promontory. Excitement? Adventure? A Jedi craves not these things, but for audiences drinking in Episode VII, it was everything they’d dreamed Star Wars’ return would be.
And now Rian Johnson has to follow it. Because if The Force Awakens was Abrams’
Star Wars, then The Last Jedi needs to be Johnson’s The Empire Strikes Back.
“This is the second movie in the trilogy, so it’s easy to draw parallels to Empire in terms of a darker feel,” says Johnson. “And we do dig into the characters: we’re going to challenge them and things
are gonna get tough for everybody. But I didn’t want this to go too dark. One of the things I drew from J.J.’S film was that sense of fun and playfulness — that’s as much Star Wars as, ‘I am your father.’”
Johnson’s primary addition to Star Wars cartography involves a riot of bright lights and a skyline that pulses like the Las Vegas Strip. In fact, if the Bellagio expanded to cover half the Mojave desert, replacing every highway and byway with glittering game halls and bug-eyed high-rollers, it might come close to the decadent opulence of Canto Bight. This sprawling casino city, where the galaxy’s elite come to flaunt their frippery and squander credits on games of chance, hosts one of The Last Jedi’s showpieces.
“I wanted a new environment that was like dunking your head in a cool bath of water, right in the middle of movie,” Johnson explains.
“Apart from the prequels, all the touchstones that make something feel like Star Wars involve griminess and dirt. I wanted something completely different. I thought, ‘What would the Monte Carlo of the Star Wars universe look like?’”
Inside one of its many gambling dens, a dog-faced alien throws many-faced dice across a red-felted table, while a yak-faced creature wearing piebald jodhpurs lays out a winning hand of sabacc. With a menagerie of patrons born from Neal Scanlan’s creature shop rather than the servers at ILM, Canto Bight was as vibrant offscreen as on, its creatures working tables and playing games as Johnson walked the floor between takes, drinking in the ambiance.
“It’s like Mos Eisley but they’re all rich jerks, as opposed to slimy, underworld guys,” he notes. “They’re actually worse: they’re slimy underworld guys wearing tuxedos and driving yachts.”
Less slimy but equally shady is Benicio Del Toro’s D.J., a glowering addition to the film’s roster with a dangerous mien and high-collared trench coat like a Deckard hand-me-down. Also introduced is Vice-admiral Amilyn Holdo, a violet-haired Resistance officer played by Laura Dern, plucky grease-monkey Rose Tico, (Kelly Marie Tran) and her sister Paige (Veronica Ngo). Johnson talks animatedly
about expanding the Star Wars ranks, developing the film’s young heroes and peeling back the layers of Hamill’s weathered Jedi. But through it all, talk of one character in particular brings the director bubbling to life. Quicker, easier, more seductive: everybody loves the dark side.
“Writing Kylo Ren is just so much fun,” he says, unable to suppress a toothy grin. “Star Wars boils down to the transition from adolescence into adulthood. That’s the heart of these films and Rey is most obviously the one that hangs on. But it’s also Kylo. In the originals you project entirely onto Luke, while Vader is the scary other — he’s the minotaur. The fascinating thing about Kylo and Rey is that they’re two sides of something. We can all relate to Kylo: to that anger of being in the turmoil of adolescence and figuring out who he’s going to be as a man; dealing with anger and wanting to separate from his family. He’s not Vader — at least, he’s not Vader yet — and that’s something I really wanted to get into.”
Scarred both outside and in after his ill-fated forest duel with Rey, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren begins The Last Jedi recalled by his master for new orders and, we can assume, a fairly stern talking to. As for the First Order’s Supreme Leader, seen thus far only through a gargantuan hologram, Episode VIII will finally reveal Andy Serkis’ Snoke in the flesh (see sidebar). But don’t expect to see the character’s inner self laid bare. Johnson is of the opinion that, as far as big bads are concerned, less is decidedly more: Snoke works most effectively from the shadows.
“We got the whole story of Palpatine’s rise to power in the prequels, but in the original films he’s exactly what he needs to be, which is just ‘the Emperor’. He’s a dark force: the scary thing behind the thing. That was entirely how I approached Snoke. I wasn’t interested in explaining where he came from or telling his history, except where it serves this story.”
What we will discover is what happens to Finn after his near-fatal ’saber wound, if the New Republic survives the destruction of its capital on Hosnian Prime, and how the First Order overcomes the loss of its super-weapon. We’ll see echoes of Episode V as Rey begins her training and Assault Walkers battle Resistance skimmers on the salt flats of Crait. We’ll also return to Ahch-to, to finally get an answer to the Skywalker question that kick-started this whole endeavour.
“IT WAS ONE THING TO DO
Episode VII, where I don’t really do any heavy lifting,” reflects Hamill. “If it all crashed and burned, it’s not my fault. But the pressure here is just enormous. I love performing off Broadway, or the anonymity of animation. There’s a comfort level there. With Star Wars, Jesus!
It’s just too much and it never goes away. It’s terrifying and sometimes I don’t want to deal with that anymore. It was fun when I was in my twenties, but now…”
With box-office receipts totalling more than $2 billion, The Force Awakens casts a very large shadow and, as he now steps to the fore, it’s easy to see why Hamill is anxious about the immediate future. He, like Skywalker himself, has been in exile a very long time. Yet when
conversation turns to the past, he visibly relaxes, any hint of trepidation dissolving in fond remembrance. Listening to Hamill reel off anecdotes about making the original trilogy must surely rank among life’s great pleasures; it’s easy to see how he stoked Johnson’s enthusiasm all those months ago.
“Remember when Han Solo turns to me in the Millennium Falcon’s turret and says ‘Great, kid. Don’t get cocky!’? That was completely ad-libbed by Harrison. Every time I wanted to change a line in Star Wars I’d ask George first and he’d go, ‘No, let’s just do it like it’s written.’ But Harrison said, ‘Don’t ask him, just do it!
A lot of the time he doesn’t even fucking notice.’ So that’s what we did. That bit on the Death Star when I say, ‘I can’t see a thing out of this helmet.’ That was just something I said in rehearsals!”
Forty years on, the stakes have been raised significantly. Fans cling like mynocks to the scantest sliver of plot, from a glimpse of Finn and Rose in First Order uniforms (Do they infiltrate Snoke’s base? Where? How?) to a brief look at Ahch-to’s indigenous space-puffins, the Porgs. Expectation is huge but Johnson, unlike Hamill, appears entirely unfazed, letting it all wash over him with casual insouciance. It’s either the breezy calm of a man in denial or the unshakeable faith of someone who knows he’s just made a damned good film.
“I’m zen,” he says, cool as you like. “I’m just looking forward to seeing how people bounce off this movie. With Star Wars fandom, which I’ve been a part of for 40 years, it’s always a complicated reaction. But it’s one I’m looking forward to — both the good and the bad.”
In four months, Johnson’s Episode will be among us, his vision of the last Jedi laid out for all to see. Who is Luke Skywalker? Jedi master? Absolutely. Hero of the Rebellion? Sure. Whinging farm boy in need of some power converters? That too. But who is he really? What happens to an Outer Rim bumpkin when he becomes the last guardian of truth and justice in the galaxy? When he de-thrones the Emperor and dis-arms the Dark Lord Of The Sith? Where does he go? What does he become?
“That’s the question I started with and the most interesting way to answer it was to make this movie,” he stonewalls. “It’s what I want people to go in asking and what I want them to discover during the course of the movie.”
And then Johnson will be on his way, leaving it to another director (Colin Trevorrow exited after this story was written) to finish the saga.
“They didn’t direct me and I haven’t handed Colin an outline of where I think it goes next. He’s gonna react to what he feels is emotionally resonant and figure out where it makes sense to go from here.”
No words of wisdom? No parting advice? Might Johnson become Trevorrow’s Jedi Master, as Hamill has been for him?
“I don’t know about that, man. We’ll see,” he laughs. “I just hope I’m not his Greedo.”
At least in this case we know for certain who shot first.
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI IS IN CINEMAS FROM 14 DECEMBER
Shiny evil people: Gwendoline Christie’s towering Captain Phasma, clearly none the worse for a stint in the Starkiller Base trash compactor.
Left: Daisy Ridley’s Rey in the wilds of Ahch-to. Top right: Rian Johnson with John Boyega (Finn) and Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron). Bottom right: Johnson gives Chewie some pan-galactic parking tips.