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For 'Last Jedi' Director, The Journey To 'Star Wars' Began With Action Figures

Dec 15, 2017
Originally published on December 15, 2017 4:52 pm

The Last Jedi — the newest chapter in the Star Wars saga — marks the return of actors Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and the late Carrie Fisher to their Force Awakens characters. The space opera was written and directed by Rian Johnson, who's also set to work on the next Star Wars trilogy.

Johnson has been a Star Wars fan since he was a little boy in Denver, playing with his action figures.

"My mom surprised me and got me a Jawa," he recalls. "I wanted a Jawa, and she got it for me. But then you always end up losing the main characters, and you're left with like Hammerhead and like the walrus man; with the weird droid whose name you don't know, who's missing a leg. Those were the first movies I was making in my head."

The 43-year-old filmmaker says his favorite character was Luke Skywalker.

"Han Solo was cool, but I was not cool growing up," Johnson says. "So I identified with this kid who feels like he's in the middle of nowhere and disconnected from everything. It gets back to that thing of what these movies really appeal to: the idea of there's this big adventure that's out there that you can jump into, and it's scary, but it's going to be OK and it's fun."

For Johnson, that meant everything from making home movies, to singing "Weird Al" Yankovic's parody "Yoda" during the 2012 Fantastic Fest, to goofing around with actors on location for The Last Jedi.

Fans say Johnson has captured the spirit of the original Star Wars movies. During Disney's D23 Expo last summer, actor Mark Hamill told the audience that Johnson's script was refreshing.

"There were so many unexpected elements, which is great in a Star Wars film," Hamill said. "Cause it's harder and harder to bring new things to the table. And this is a real game changer."

The film is also a tribute to Carrie Fisher, who died suddenly last year after shooting her scenes as Princess Leia Organa Solo, now a general of the resistance. Johnson says he bonded with Fisher as a fellow writer.

"She loved words, and she gave a beautiful performance," he says. "Now that she's gone, sadly, there's a whole other context to the performance."

Johnson says it was strange not having her and her therapy dog, Gary Fisher, with him during the promotional tour of this movie. "This is where she would just be a raging wildfire," he says. "You know, this is where she would just be chewing 'em up and spitting 'em out in press interviews."

In an official behind-the scenes video, Fisher was less feisty and more pensive when describing The Last Jedi. "It's about family," she said. "And that's what's so powerful about it."

The newest member of that family is actress Kelly Marie Tran, who plays Rose Tico, a maintenance worker turned rebel hero. On the red carpet at the L.A. premiere, Tran was ecstatic about how Johnson plucked her from obscurity to be in the film.

"He was so welcoming and collaborative and open and hilarious," she said, adding that she and Johnson would often sing from the Hamilton soundtrack between takes. "He has this sort of child-like wonder that not many people have. Anybody who gets to work with him is just the luckiest. "

On that same red carpet, Adam Driver, who plays Ben Solo (aka the dark warrior Kylo Ren), praised Johnson's storytelling. "There's so many things he has to pick up from The Force Awakens," Driver told NPR. "But at the heart of it, it's a character-driven movie, and he doesn't sacrifice spectacle for story."

Johnson grew up making Super 8 and video movies with his younger brothers, sisters and cousins. He also sang in a folk duo called The Preserves with one of those cousins, Nathan Johnson, who's composed the music for most of Rian Johnson's movies.

As a film student at the University of Southern California in the 1990s, Johnson began collaborating with cinematographer Steve Yedlin. Together, they made films like The Psychology of Dream Analysis and Evil Demon Golfball from Hell!!!

After film school, Johnson worked as an assistant editor and post production runner, and he produced promos for the Disney Channel. For a decade, he also worked on his first feature, Brick, a high school detective movie. It starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt, was shot by Steve Yedlin and was produced by Ram Bergman.

Bergman says they shot Brick for around $350,000, and filmed it at Johnson's old high school in San Clemente, Calif. "I'm there from the first day that [Johnson] starts thinking about it, all the way until we deliver the movie," he recalls. "I'm there to support him. We're partners."

Johnson says Brick was "a weird little detective movie. And Ram was the reason I felt comfortable taking money from family and loved ones in order to make it. I thought, 'Well, if Ram is running things, we'll actually have a movie when we come out the other end of it all.' "

Bergman went on to produce all of Johnson's features: Looper, The Brothers Bloom and now Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Johnson has also used the same cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, and editor, Bob Ducsay, for most of his films.

That loyalty extends to his actors: Gordon-Levitt and Noah Segan have acted in all of Johnson's features — they even have bit parts in The Last Jedi. Segan and Johnson are also best friends. The actor says Johnson has a through-line in all of his movies. "He has a tendency to be unafraid to allow his heroes to be vulnerable in heroic moments, and it started in Brick."

You can see that vulnerability in the three episodes Johnson directed for the AMC series Breaking Bad. Bryan Cranston earned an Emmy for his performance in one of those episodes, "Ozymandias," which some critics have called the greatest hour of television.

Cranston says, "Rian has that ability to be able to find the core, and then put veneer over it, so that an audience senses something's deeper about that character or the plot, and then you slowly reveal it to show the audience what they inherently thought it was going to be — or surprise them with a justifiable twist and catches them off guard. That's beautiful narrative when you can do that."

Cranston says it makes sense that Johnson was chosen to write and direct Star Wars, because of his ability to create both intimate, almost theater-like scenes and cinematic, galactic battles.

"For a storyteller, playing with the action figures was a precursor to blocking," Cranston says. "He may not have even realized that himself, but that's exactly what he was working on when he was a little nerd boy in middle school."

Johnson still laments that his original Star Wars figures were lost or destroyed long, long ago. "The toy I always wanted was the AT-AT, the walker."

Then, a week before The Last Jedi opened, fans from The Star Wars Show made little Rian Johnson's dream come true.

"They found me a vintage walker toy and they gave it to me," he says, adding that it now sits in his office on top of an old video game computer monitor. "I got it home and I tore it out of the box and set it up, and it's so cool. It took 30 years and making a Star Wars movie to do it, but I finally got my walker — nerrrrd."

After handing the baton back to director J.J. Abrams for the final episode in this trilogy, Johnson will soon begin plotting new Star Wars stories for the next.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF "STAR WARS" SOUND EFFECTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Three.

(SOUNDBITE OF "STAR WARS" SOUND EFFECTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Two.

(SOUNDBITE OF "STAR WARS" SOUND EFFECTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One.

(SOUNDBITE OF "STAR WARS" SOUND EFFECTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Action.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yes, the newest chapter of "Star Wars" is in theaters today. Some of us were so excited we went last night. But that's beside the point. "The Last Jedi" marks the return of actors - Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and, of course, the late Carrie Fisher. The space opera was written and directed by Rian Johnson, who is also going to be working on the next "Star Wars" trilogy. NPR's Mandalit del Barco tells us more about the man tasked with creating nostalgia for generations to come.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Rian Johnson has been a "Star Wars" fan since he was a little boy in Denver playing with his action figures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RIAN JOHNSON: My mom surprised me and got me a Jawa. I wanted a Jawa, and she got it for me. But then it's always - you always end up losing the main characters. And you're left with, like, hammer head and, like, walrus man with the weird droid whose name you don't know, who's missing a leg. Those were the first movies I was making in my head.

DEL BARCO: The filmmaker, who turns 44 on Sunday, says his favorite character was Luke Skywalker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: Han Solo was cool, but I was not cool growing up. So I identified with this kid who's - feels like he's in the middle of nowhere and disconnected from everything, who, I guess - back to that thing of what these movies really appeal to, you know - the idea of there is this big adventure that's out there that you can jump into. And it's scary, but it's going to be OK. And it's fun.

DEL BARCO: For Johnson, that meant everything from making home movies to goofing around with Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill on location for "The Last Jedi."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: (Humming).

MARK HAMILL: (Humming).

DEL BARCO: Fans say "The Last Jedi" captures the spirit of the original "Star Wars" movies. During Disney's D23 Expo, actor Mark Hamill told them Johnson's script was refreshing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMILL: There were so many unexpected elements, which is great in a "Star Wars" film because it's getting harder and harder to bring new things to the table. And this is a real game changer.

DEL BARCO: It's also a tribute to Carrie Fisher, who died suddenly last year after shooting her scenes. Johnson says he gets choked up watching Fisher as Princess Leia Organa Solo, now a general of the Resistance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: Honestly, it's really weird just being on the press tour right now and not having her around because this is where she would just be a raging wildfire, you know? This is where she would just be chewing them up and spitting them out in press interviews.

DEL BARCO: Here's a less feisty Carrie Fisher in a behind-the-scenes video shown at Disney's D23 Expo last summer talking about "The Last Jedi."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARRIE FISHER: It's about family, and that's what's so powerful about it.

DEL BARCO: The newest member of that family is actress Kelly Marie Tran. On the red carpet at the premiere, Tran was ecstatic about how Johnson plucked her from obscurity to be in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLY MARIE TRAN: He was so welcoming and collaborative and open and hilarious. And he has this sort of childlike wonder that not many people have. Anybody who gets to work with him is just the luckiest.

DEL BARCO: Johnson grew up making Super 8 and video movies with his younger brothers and sisters and cousins. He also sang in a folk duo called "The Preserves" with one of those cousins, Nathan Johnson, who's composed the music for most of Rian's movies. As a film student at USC in the 1990s, Johnson began collaborating with cinematographer Steve Yedlin. They made such films as "Evil Demon Golfball From Hell!!!"

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVIL DEMON GOLF BALL FROM HELL!!!")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, screaming).

DEL BARCO: After USC, Johnson was an assistant editor, a post-production runner, and he produced promos for the Disney channel. For a decade, he also worked on his first feature, "Brick," a high school detective movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRICK")

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (As Brendan Frye) It's too hot. You got a discipline issue with me? Write me up or suspend me.

DEL BARCO: The movie starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt and was shot by Steve Yedlin and produced by Ram Bergman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAM BERGMAN: It is from A to Z. I'm there from the first day that he starts thinking about it all the way until we deliver the movie. And I'm there to support him. We're partners.

DEL BARCO: Bergman says they shot "Brick" for around $350,000. And they filmed it at Johnson's old high school in San Clemente, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: It was a weird little detective movie. And Ram was the reason I felt comfortable taking money from family and loved ones in order to make it because I thought, well, if Ram is running things, then we'll actually have a movie when we come out the other end of it all.

DEL BARCO: Ram Bergman went on to produce all of Rian Johnson's movies - "Looper," "The Brothers Bloom" and now "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Johnson has also used his same cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, and editor, Bob Ducsay. His loyalty extends to his actors as well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Noah Segan have acted in them all. They even have bit parts in "The Last Jedi." Segan says his best friend, Rian Johnson, has a through line in all of his movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NOAH SEGAN: He has a tendency to be unafraid to allow his heroes to be vulnerable in heroic moments, and it started in "Brick."

DEL BARCO: You can see that vulnerability in the three episodes Johnson directed for the AMC series "Breaking Bad."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her, but I didn't.

DEL BARCO: Bryan Cranston earned an Emmy for his performance in the episode "Ozymandias," which some critics have called the greatest hour of television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRANSTON: Rian has that ability to be able to find the core and then put veneer over it so that an audience senses something's deeper about that character or the plot. And then you slowly reveal it to show the audience what they inherently thought it was going to be or surprise them with a justifiable twist and catches them off guard. That's beautiful narrative when you can do that.

DEL BARCO: Cranston says it makes sense that Johnson was chosen to write and direct "Star Wars" with his ability to create both intimate, almost theater-like scenes to cinematic galactic battles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRANSTON: For a storyteller, playing with the action figures was a precursor to blocking. He may not have even realized that himself, but that's exactly what he was working on when he was a little nerd boy in middle school (laughter).

DEL BARCO: Johnson still laments that his original "Star Wars" figures were lost or destroyed long, long ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: The toy I always wanted was the AT-AT, the Walker.

DEL BARCO: Last week, fans from "The Star Wars Show" made little Rian Johnson's dream come true.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: They found me a vintage Walker toy, and they gave it to me. So now I have in my office - I got it home, and I tore it out of the box. And I set it up, and it's so cool. It took - (laughter) it took 30 years and making a "Star Wars" movie to do it, but I finally got my Walker - nerd (laughter).

DEL BARCO: Now that "The Last Jedi" is out, Rian Johnson will soon begin plotting new "Star Wars" stories. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story incorrectly states that Bob Ducsay edited The Brothers Bloom. In fact, he edited Looper and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but not The Brothers Bloom.]

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S "MAIN TITLE/ REBEL BLOCKADE RUNNER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.