Empire (Australasia) - - Contents - WORDS JAMES DYER

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.


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.


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.

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