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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.