July 10, 2018
now on netflix

Rian Johnson of ‘The Last Jedi’ Shares ‘The Only Advice That Matters’ for Aspiring Directors

The last jedi
Having gone from a $500K feature to 'Star Wars', Rian Johnson knows a thing or two about the hero’s journey.

No matter what you think of Rian Johnson’s take on the Star Wars franchise, most filmmakers can likely agree that his filmmaking path is an enviable one. With only three features under his belt, he was brought on to helm one of the highest budget films in one of the most beloved film sagas of all time, Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi.

But the filmmaker's journey had hardly been effortless; His first feature Brick was almost ten years in the making before it went on to win a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2005 for Originality of Vision. So it’s no wonder that, once he made the major coup of signing on to direct The Last Jedi, Johnson wanted to make sure the process was thoroughly documented.

Thus, the making of the film and just how broad it was in scope is memorialized in a film of its own: The Director and the Jedi, which comes packaged with The Last Jedi’s Blu-ray. In a nod to classic director’s commentary and special features, Johnson and longtime collaborator, producer Ram Bergman, hired Emmy and triple BAFTA-winning director Anthony Wonke to helm the process.

“Myths are not made to sell action figures. They are made to reflect the most difficult transitions we go through in life.”

Johnson explains, “We wanted to get a documentary filmmaker who would actually have a point of view and dig into the process. We gave him full access.” And it wasn’t just after the fact. Johnson and Bergman were mic’d up every single day on set. The resulting film goes deep into the wildly impressive production, from the sweeping scope of the largely real sets and practical effects to the detailed care with which each feather is hand-placed onto plumed alien creatures. 

The intimacy of the shoots once the camera was rolling also plays out in the doc. As Mark Hamill remarked in answering an audience question about a focus on Luke Skywalker’s hands on screen, “With the scope of a movie like this, you’re always trying to create intimacy. There’s always that tempting big huge scene but it’s more satisfying to capture the intimacy.” The documentary also doesn’t shy away from the challenges of the shoot, including the one from which it got its title—a notorious set of creative disagreements between Johnson and Hamill himself.

In this writer’s view, the documentary captures the emotions and true magic of the large-scale movie-making process without diminishing its power. As Johnson acknowledges, “Documentaries have always been magic to me because I am baffled by how they can get such intimate moments with a camera sitting there.”

The Last Jedi hit Netflix last week, but to celebrate the release of the documentary The Director and the Jedi, Rian Johnson spoke with Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson at SXSW 2018. Here are some of the nuggets of filmmaking wisdom from their conversation, including what Johnson called “the only advice that matters.”

1. The ‘lamest’ advice actually rings true

Johnson wrote Brick when he was 22 and fresh out of college. “I basically spent my 20's trying to get it made,” he recalled. “I didn't actually make it until I was turning 30. It was an eight-year process of trying failing through a lot of different methods.”

He admits that one of his greatest frustrations in the process was feeling like “ there's this un-bridgeable gulf between where I'm standing and where I actually have the money to make a movie.” Yet, when he asked other people how they did it, “They would always give an infuriatingly vague answer like, just don't give up. Just stay at it. Just stick-to-it-ism,” to which he responded (in his mind) with a brazen expletive.

“If you literally have something you want to make and you don't stop trying to make it until it gets made, it will get made."

Despite his acknowledgment of how frustrating this kind of answer can be, now that he’s on the other side, he can admit, “The god's honest truth is that, there’s no way to do it. It is an impossible thing to do. Really the only advice that does matter is to have a piece of material that you know and you care about. Then don't stop until we make it, by any means necessary.”

Johnson adds, “Now I'm giving the lame general advice, but it's genuinely true. I really do believe it.” He says that, though the film industry “is kind of a tank of sharks,” there are reasons to be hopeful about your project. One of them is this: “If you literally have something you want to make and you don't stop trying to make it until it gets made, it will get made. One way or another. At some point or another, you will get that thing made.”

Brick
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Rian Johnson's 'Brick'

2. Focus more on making stuff than on getting an agent

While you are working toward your dream project, it’s important to keep making other work, as Johnson did with short films during Brick’s development process (Even his second feature, Looper, was originally written as a short during this period).

He notes that many aspiring filmmakers ask him about finding an agent, getting financing, and other transactional aspects of the business, but he believes that they are “kind of putting the cart before the horse.” He advises, “Just focus on making your stuff. Even if it's making tiny things that no one’s gonna see, you're developing your voice and you're getting better and better at what you do.”

“The vibranium in the movie industry is somebody who makes cool stuff that you haven't seen before.”

In true geek fashion, he references vibranium, the magic metal from the Black Panther comics. “I really do genuinely believe that the vibranium in the movie industry is somebody who makes cool stuff that you haven't seen before. If you can develop your talent to the point that you can do that, it'll happen.”

His distilled advice is straightforward: “Work on your voice. Don't get discouraged. Just keep doing it. Keep getting better at what you do. Keep watching movies. Keep making movies. Keep putting it out there.”

Bruce Willis Looper
Bruce Willis in Rian Johnson's 'Looper'

3. Find collaborators who are good at what you’re not good at

No matter how close to the letter you follow Johnsons’s advice above, eventually the business creeps in, and if that’s not your bag, you must work with someone for whom it is. That’s true in any part of the filmmaking process, but may be especially true in terms of seeking out the right producer or producers, as getting your projects made can come down to their ability to manage the details.

In Johnson’s case, that producer has been Ram Bergman. The two have worked together on every one of Johnson’s films, and the director acknowledges his good fortune. “There's no way I could have gotten to make the movie's I've made, if I hadn't met Ram,” he assures. “I don't have the part of my brain that can navigate—not just the budgetary stuff of how do you put a movie together—but also the industry stuff. How do you position yourself in a place where you can do what you want to do?”

Johnson recalls that he and Ram found each other “at the right time” when they were both early on in their careers and hungry to get projects made. You don’t necessarily need to find a mega-producer who already has a big reputation (though it likely couldn’t hurt!). What you do need is someone/s who is savvy, hard-working, believes in your projects, and whose strengths complement yours. “If you find that,” Johnson says, “Don't let it go. Hold onto that person.”

The last jedi
(L-R) 'The Last Jedi' Director Anthony Wonke, Writer/Director Rian Johnson, actor Mark Hamill, producer Ram Bergman and producer Tylie Cox in a Q&A at the film's SXSW premiere.

4. The principles are the same no matter how big or small the film

Another important quality for your collaborators is flexibility—especially the ability to scale and grow with you as your career grows. When an audience member asks about moving from indie filmmaking to something as high-budget as Star Wars, Ram Bergman gives the answer.

Bergman insists, “It's pretty much the same process whether we make Brick or we make Star Wars.” Of course, when there’s large amounts of money on the line, it could be said that there is more at stake, but it certainly comes with benefits. Bergman elaborates, “The money allows you to hire the best people in the business...but at the end of the day the work is the same work.” So it goes back to Johnson’s earlier advice: keep making stuff to get the experience necessary to do the job right no matter what the scale of the project is.

5. Know when to stick to your guns

Another one of Johnson’s treasured collaborators is DP Steve Yedlin, who has not only shot all of the director’s films, but has been his best friend since they were 18 years old. This friendship provides the basis for an extremely collaborative working relationship. Johnson admits, “I couldn't tell you where to put a light to save my life. I couldn't light a scene. I could describe what I want it to feel like. I could describe the emotional intent of the scene. Steve can listen to all that and then translate it into technically what to do on set.”

“‘I read the whole thing. I said, ‘That's amazing. I can't believe you did that. We're shooting film.’” 

No matter how much you trust your collaborators, however, there are times when your vision as director needs to be paramount. In the case of The Last Jedi, Johnson was insistent on shooting with film stock. He recalls that “Steve is very much now of the digital world. He's very excited about it.” So when Johnson suggested film, his friend “wrote a 30-page dissertation on why we should shoot digital and presented it to me” Upon presentation, Yedlin told Johnson, “Just for my conscience to be clear, I want you to read this entire thing." 

So, Johnson recalls, “‘I read the whole thing. I said, ‘That's amazing. I can't believe you did that. We're shooting film.’” Ultimately, The Last Jedi ended up being shot with a mix between what Johnson estimates as 70% film and 30% digital.

Mark Hamill
Mark Hamill in Rian Johnson's 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

6. Be an "actor’s director"

Joanna Robinson points out that Johnson is known as an “actor's director.” The director attributes this in part to the deceptively simple skill of having a conversation. He shares, “In the case of Carrie [Fisher], it involved lots of conversations about the specifics of scenes and the spirit of Leia and her pitching me lots of one-liners. She loved one-liners. She loved jokes.”

But what about Mark Hamill, whose contentions with the shape of his beloved character, Luke Skywalker, were well documented in the press and are revisited in The Director and The Jedi documentary? Well, says Johnson, “It was a much bigger conversation. It was about his expectations coming into it. His expectation was that this film would stick much closer to the Luke’s hero's journey from the original trilogy.”

That is not, however, what happens. Instead, in the 30 years since the young Luke Skywalker saved the Rebel Alliance, he has grown into a complicated and at times hard-to-love older man. Johnson launches into an elaborate description of hero’s journeys, starting all the way back with King Arthur and Beowulf, to argue that any classic hero’s myth worth its salt encounters darkness before redemption.

He puts it plainly: “Myths are not made to sell action figures. Myths are made to reflect the most difficult transitions we go through in life...I feel like it would be a betrayal of them and of Luke Skywalker as a character not to take it seriously and not to reflect that.”

Clearly having given his position a lot of thought, he credits Hamill for pushing him. “It was because Mark challenged me on it,” he reflects, “because I had to then articulate this stuff. I had to think it through. This felt right to me, but why did it feel right? I couldn't just say, ‘Screw you because this is my story.’ You have to get into the conversation.”

Actor’s director, indeed.      

Your Comment

28 Comments

A year ago, it seemed impossible to kill the Star Wars franchise. And yet, against all odds, that has actually happened. How do you destroy a multi-billion dollar franchise? Have a terrible, terrible script. And think it's good. And then keep trying to tell people it's good. Defending it.
The Last Jedi was absolutely indefensible from a storytelling and character point of view. You won't find a worse script produced in the last 4 decades. And people are listening to his advice? No no no. Rian Johnson should be listening to the advice of people here. Not the other way around.

July 10, 2018 at 1:18PM

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*Hears "Star wa-"*

You: That's my queue to pound my little fists and let everyone know that some young hitler did something new to MY fandom.

July 10, 2018 at 2:18PM

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bp
411

Yes, The Last Jedi was much worse than Batman & Robin, Pooty Tang, and The Room.

July 10, 2018 at 2:21PM

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So, I've only seen "Batman & Robin" from your list, but - yes they were probably based on better scripts than The Last Jedi. Why do I say this? The characters probably (again, haven't seen them) have a point in the story. Rian Johnson, for some reason, included several characters that literally have no point at all. Perhaps he simply had some checkboxes he needed to fill to make Disney happy. But other than that, the characters were a pointless tangent. I'd bet even The Room had characters that did things to advance the story. Not so for this film. It's writing 101. Not sure why that's so controversial. Especially on a site like this where storytelling is part of the job for many of us.

July 11, 2018 at 10:34AM, Edited July 11, 10:36AM

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I loved The Last Jedi, and I've never even really cared much for Star Wars before. Rian johnson is the man.

July 10, 2018 at 3:26PM

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David West
Filmmaker
940

Oh toxic fandom, where opinions go to die. There are numerous screenwriting podcasts, Q&A's, and screenwriting books that delve into the issue of Toxic fandom written and spoken by actual professional screenwriters who have years of experience.

July 10, 2018 at 4:54PM

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Seth Burke
Director/Editor
130

Toxic fandom are the jackass racists and sexists and people who harass the cast/crew on twitter. Saying a movie sucks because it has a bad script isn't 'toxic fandom' - its valid criticism, whether you agree with it or not. Idiots who try and discredit valid creative criticisms by calling them 'toxic' because they dont agree them are a bigger problem.

July 11, 2018 at 1:59AM

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Using words like, "Killed the franchise", or "Worst script produced in 4 years" is not valid criticism; it's just someone who holds a very huge grudge because it doesn't fit within their fantasy of what THEY wanted Star Wars to be. <--That's toxic Fandom. Not saying I absolutely LOVE Last Jedi, I believe there are some valid issues with the film, is it perfect? No, is the worst thing in the world that will ultimately destroy the franchise? No. We, as a society need to learn how to differentiate between these two things. Also, stating that Rian Johnson should just shut up and listen to commenters on No Film School is outright laughable. Whether you disagree with his vision or not shouldn’t stop you from wanting to LEARN. But, hey, I’m not going to tell you or anybody what to do or how to think, these are just suggestions I hope people take in consideration before screeching in the comment section.

July 12, 2018 at 8:12PM

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Seth Burke
Director/Editor
130

No Rian sucks no one should listen to anything he says. He’s garbage, his skills are garbage and so is his attitude. He couldn’t direct himself out of google maps. First and foremost you work for your audience, it’s as simple as that. They deem if your movie is a success or not. Just because you made it and you think it’s good doesn’t make it good. This is a service industry.

July 10, 2018 at 2:56PM

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HIS attitude is garbage? You tell 'em!

July 10, 2018 at 3:21PM

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bp
411

Someone's jealous.

July 10, 2018 at 7:43PM

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Jwalker
215

Rian Johnson is awesome. I've been a fan since before Looper came out. I love hearing his advice.

July 10, 2018 at 3:26PM

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David West
Filmmaker
940

Nm

July 12, 2018 at 5:35AM, Edited July 12, 6:02AM

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K W
440

"This is a service industry." Wasn't the main issue with the Force Awakens was that is just FAN SERVICE?

July 10, 2018 at 4:52PM

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Nicholas Ortiz
Director/Writer/Stuntman
327

Force Awakens wasn't great but it wasn't terrible. It at least set up the potential from something. TLJ just pissed all over that and gave a big middle finger to the fans, the legacy of the old characters, and left us with nothing.

Lets break it down. The movie was pointless. The characters in the film had almost no development. Instead of building a major villain they just crapped all over him. Kylo as a villain can't carry an old lady's groceries to her car and much less carry the sequel. His side kick general sucks, I mean hucks at the end is even worst then him. The two movies so far to even F-en connect. Whats even more absurd is at the end of them movie the entire rebel force can apparently fit in the millennium falcon. And doesn't seem like the first order is much bigger either. Johnson was selfish and gave no care to the sequel or the Star Wars fans that want to watch the movies.

July 11, 2018 at 12:12AM

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Personally, as part of the target audience, I felt the film was an astounding success; easily the best Star Wars movie made during my lifetime (I was born in 1982).

Prior to TLJ, I was worried that Star Wars was in danger of becoming rote and boring. Johnson broke the mold in such a big way that it's made me eat my words. If you're looking for a blockbuster that is there to placate your fan expectations, Marvel has put out 20 movies just for you. I'll gladly welcome Star Wars becoming an innovative, director driven franchise that can be diverse and challenging.

July 11, 2018 at 12:09PM

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James Couche
Independent Filmmaker
98

The nipple scene was enough to ruin the movie, not to mention everything else terrible about it. Rian should have known better than to keep a useless scene showing an old guy doing completely boring things that don't matter at all to the story...besides goofy space cow nipples...that's funny. A good director would have said, "WTF is that...and why is it in my film?"

Audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is all one needs to know.

July 10, 2018 at 5:35PM

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Josh.R
Motion Designer/Predator
1002

I can't help but be mad over the abomination of TLJ, and therefore can't help but not like Rian Johnson. So much of that film was just not put together. I get that you want to go outside the box and surprise people or make a statement, but what came out of that movie? A lack of character development, long winded wasteful VFX scenes, and hardly smirk worthy punch lines.

All prejudice aside I'm sure he's okay to work with, but he was clearly not the right person for this job. He seems like the dude who just wants to flip tables and then tell everyone that it needed to be flipped, even though it was your family dinner table with a home cooked meal on top.

July 10, 2018 at 7:26PM, Edited July 10, 7:26PM

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I think that's exactly what's wrong with this fandom, people like you thinking that Star Wars is anything like "your family dinner table with a home cooked meal on top."

July 10, 2018 at 7:50PM

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bp
411

Okay so defend TLJ as legitimate good film, go...

July 10, 2018 at 10:42PM

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Heheheh. Notice that when their bluff is called, no "fan" of The Last Jedi can explain specifically why they like the movie. Because if attempted, that road inevitably leads to unintentional comedy.
We're waiting, bp. Heheheh.

July 11, 2018 at 10:45AM

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Way to take an analogy too seriously.

July 11, 2018 at 2:01AM

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This article is one of the many many many more that Disney is pushing to try to rescue Rian Johnson's reputation and The Last Jedi's one, as all the forced interviews with Hamill and the cast saying that this is a great movie, even if they publicly said many times that it was a crap. So, beside the fact that any suggestion is good to be heard, and the fact that probably few people are interested in Rian's advices, I still wonder why if quite everyone is saying that TLJ is a crap movie for poor storytelling, bad script and nonsense character development, it's all about crazy fandom. Isn't it just possible that a movie is simply bad? From my point of view, the original trilogy was good enough to be protected. The new trilogy by Uncle George was not that good. Visually and by character it brought me there again, in the magic. But scripts were not that good and direction was not confident enough in the first, a little better in the second, something better in the third (it was evident that George was not used to direct since he last did it in the 80's). Don't know why he turned the religious/philosophical concept of the force to the biological ground. But that's it. Then JJ made a useless movie that says nothing and gets to nowhere... And then Rian made this horrible movie that destroys the true nature of the characters, has huge plot holes and some ridiculous scenes (leia-poppins above all) and some disney's scene a la "that darn cat" style (the kid holding the broom... please, poor us...). So for me they could stop at TROTJ and everyone would be happier and the myth could live forever. But if they want to touch the myth (at the end they are only movies) they should take them with respect. And, to me, Rogue One shows that it is possibile to do a rock solid Star Wars brand new movie that has good structure, wonderful visuals, strong characters and a rock solid and interesting plot. It's not by chance that it was written from the passionate John Knoll... kept for years and then shyly revealed to the company's executives... it was not a commissioned story. it was not conceived to sell puppies or merchandising at first (for sure then he did it, but deserved I say). So why pretending a good story is to be a blind fandom hater? They have all the money they can spend, all the time and the power to find the right people... no excuses.

July 11, 2018 at 6:34AM, Edited July 11, 6:34AM

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ginuz
89

May be the problem is not the Director but to extend to infinity a story that has been told already. The script was boring and repetitive villain vs heroes reborn. Rogue One had an interesting take into expanding secondary characters. It looked like a classic western with loosers. Less divine and more common people. It worked much better!

July 11, 2018 at 10:15AM

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Javier Diez
Director/Writer
173

Why should I listen to the advice of that guy who killed Luke Skywalker and star wars glory

July 11, 2018 at 1:23PM

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Arthur
127

*** SPOILERS AHEAD for Stars Wars episodes 7 & 8*** Here's my issue with Rian Johnson. He wrote "The Last Jedi" will very little regard to anything "The Force Awakens" sets up storywise. Instead of continuing the story build-up Abrams started with "The Force Awakens", he went ahead and cashed out instead. Here's what I mean: Abrams sets up a really cool mysterious villain named Snoke. He is controlling the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia. How does Johnson build the mythology of Snoke?? He revealsthe actual character as being fairly gangly. He is almost immediately killed in a pretty idiotic way. To me this (and everything other problem I have with Johnson) reeks of ego. Johnson wanted to have the climax in HIS movie instead of setting it up for the 3rd movie, who was originally going to be directed by another director. This trend continues with:

The main guy from the original Star Wars being killed.

The duel between Phasma and Finn.

All of these events should be the climax of the 3rd movie in my opinion. If I were a writer on this movie I'd suggest having Luke pass the torch to Rey in the 3rd movie. I'd have Finn almost killed by Phasma and I'd have Snoke reveal he's 2 steps ahead of Rey, not 5 steps behind in The Last Jedi.

Then there was other things Johnson did that were just bone-headed: the disappearance of the Knights of Ren and Finn's love interest switching from Rey to the Asian girl. There's other things that I could go into but I hope you get my point.

July 12, 2018 at 5:59AM, Edited July 12, 6:19AM

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K W
440

Hot take: Rian Johnson is a hack.
Looper was overrated trash.
The Brothers Bloom was just plain trash.
Brick was interesting, but it was a gimmick.
I don't know why the critics like the stuff he produces. He is a misanthrope who despises his male characters and condescends to his female characters. He must give great interviews because his actual work lacks any sense of human empathy.

July 12, 2018 at 9:47PM, Edited July 12, 9:47PM

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Casey Preston
Videographer
59

Another hot take:

No.

July 13, 2018 at 2:04AM

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Jwalker
215