Rian Johnson, Mark Hamill And More On Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Rian Johnson, Mark Hamill And More On Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

The Force Is Strong With Them

Vanity Fair just commissioned a huge photo shoot on Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi and here’s some of their huge article on the film itself…

I. “We’re Going Back?”

The first trip to Skellig Michael was wondrous: an hour-long boat ride to a craggy, green island off the coast of Ireland’s County Kerry, and then a hike up hundreds of stone steps to a scenic cliff where, a thousand years earlier, medieval Christian monks had paced and prayed. This is where Mark Hamill reprised his role as Luke Skywalker for the first time since 1983, standing opposite Daisy Ridley, whose character, Rey, was the protagonist of The Force Awakens, J. J. Abrams’s resumption of George Lucas’s Star Wars movie saga. The opening sentence of the film’s scrolling-text “crawl,” a hallmark of the series, was “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” Atop Skellig Michael, at the picture’s very end, after an arduous journey by Rey, came the big payoff: a cloaked, solitary figure unhooding himself to reveal an older, bearded Luke, who wordlessly, inscrutably regarded the tremulous Rey as she presented to him the lightsaber he had lost (along with his right hand) in a long-ago duel with Darth Vader, his father turned adversary. It was movie magic: a scene that, though filmed in 2014 and presented in theaters in 2015, is already etched in cinematic history.

The second trip to Skellig Michael? Maybe less of a thrill for an aging Jedi. Contrary to what one might have reasonably expected, that Abrams would have kept rolling in ’14, recording some dialogue between Luke and Rey in order to get a jump on the saga’s next installment—especially given that Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with access limited to the summer months, and only when the weather is cooperative—once Hamill and Ridley had nailed their epic staredown, that was a wrap. It fell to Abrams’s successor, Rian Johnson, the director of The Last Jedi, the eighth movie in the saga, which opens this December, to painstakingly re-stage the clifftop scene, with the two actors retaking their places more than a year later.

“When I read the script for Episode VIII, I went, ‘Oh my God, we’re going back?’ Because I said I was never going back,” Hamill told me when I sat down with him recently at his home in Malibu. He wondered, in vain, if they could drop him in by chopper this time, “which is so clueless of me, because there’s no landing pad, and it would mar the beauty of it all,” he said. Hamill is a youthful 65 but a sexagenarian nevertheless; whereas the fit young members of the crew were given 45 minutes to get up to the now iconic Rey-Luke meeting spot—carrying heavy equipment—Hamill was allotted an hour and a half, “and I had to stop every 10, 15 minutes to rest.”

“You just cut out all the things you love,” he said. “Something as basic as bread and butter, which I used to start every meal with. Sugar. No more candy bars. No more stops at In-N-Out. It’s really just a general awareness, because in the old days I’d go, ‘Well, I’m not that hungry, but oh, here’s a box of Wheat Thins,’ and you don’t put the Wheat Thins in the same category as Lay’s potato chips, and yet I would sort of idly, absentmindedly eat these things while watching Turner Classic Movies, and ‘Oh, I ate the whole box!’ ”

Hamill had been dieting and training for 50 weeks before he learned, via the Episode VII script he finally received from Abrams, that he would not appear in the movie until its last scene, and in a nonspeaking part at that. On this, too, he has a lot of thoughts. Though he grants that the delayed-gratification reveal of Luke was a narrative masterstroke, he’d have done things differently if he’d had his druthers. Han Solo’s death scene, for example. Why couldn’t Luke have made his first appearance around then? In the finished film, the witnesses to Han’s death, at the hands of his own son, the brooding dark-side convert Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), are his longtime Wookiee co-pilot, Chewbacca, and the upstart Resistance fighters Rey and Finn (John Boyega).

“Now, remember, one of the plots in the earlier films was the telepathic communication between my sister and me,” Hamill said. “So I thought, Carrie will sense that Han is in danger and try to contact me. And she won’t succeed, and, in frustration, she’ll go herself. Then we’re in the situation where all three of us are together, which is one of my favorite things in the original film, when we were on the Death Star. It’s just got a fun dynamic to it. So I thought it would have been more effective, and I still feel this way, though it’s just my opinion, that Leia would make it as far as she can, and, right when she is apprehended, maybe even facing death—Ba-boom! I come in and blow the guy away and the two of us go to where Han is facing off with his son, but we’re too late. The reason that’s important is that we witness his death, which carries enormous personal resonance into the next picture. As it is, Chewie’s there, and how much can you get out of [passable Chewbacca wail] ‘Nyaaarghhh!’ and two people who have known Han for, what, 20 minutes?”

Still, Hamill recognizes that the popular response to The Force Awakens—its stirring ending in particular—was overwhelmingly positive, his misgivings be damned. “As I said to J.J.,” he recalled, “I’ve never been more happy to be wrong.”

Besides, holding back Luke in VII means that Hamill gets a lot more screen time in VIII. And dialogue. This time, at last, Luke Skywalker talks.

II. A Long Way from Tosche Station

Rian Johnson, a sandy-haired, baby-faced 43-year-old Californian heretofore best known among cinéastes for his time-bending 2012 science-fiction film, Looper, is not only the director of Episode VIII but also its sole credited screenwriter. (Episode VII was written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt.) Earlier this spring, in a screening room in the Frank G. Wells Building at Walt Disney Studios, in Burbank, California, Johnson described to me the approach he took to writing The Last Jedi, the second film of the Rey-centered trilogy. “J.J. and Larry and Michael set everybody up in a really evocative way in VII and started them on a trajectory. I guess I saw it as the job of this middle chapter to challenge all of those characters—let’s see what happens if we knock the stool out from under them,” he said.

As it is, none of the main characters in The Force Awakens emerged from that picture in what can be described as a triumphal state. John Boyega’s Finn had been gravely wounded in a lightsaber duel with Kylo Ren. In a telephone interview from China, where he was filming Pacific Rim: Uprising, Boyega told me that, as teased in The Last Jedi’s first trailer, his character, Finn, begins the new movie in a “bacta suit,” a sort of regenerative immersion tank that, in the Star Wars galaxy, heals damaged tissue. Adam Driver, alluding both to Finn’s state and the scar seen on his own face in the trailer, told me, “I feel like almost everyone is in that rehabilitation state. You know, I don’t think that patricide is all that it’s cracked up to be. Maybe that’s where Kylo Ren is starting from. His external scar is probably as much an internal one.”

Johnson was surprised at how much leeway he was given to cook up the action.

But Johnson, in drawing up his screenplay, decided to raise the stakes further. “I started by writing the names of each of the characters,” he said, “and thinking, What’s the hardest thing they could be faced with?”

At the top of Johnson’s list: Luke Skywalker. When he was last glimpsed in Lucas’s original trilogy, at the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Luke was basking in victory and familial warmth, reveling with Princess Leia Organa, Han Solo, and their rebel compatriots at a celebratory Ewok dance party. Turning away for a moment from the festivities, he saw smiling apparitions of his two departed Jedi mentors, Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi, along with his late father, Anakin Skywalker, restored to his unscarred, un-Vadered form after redeeming himself in death, sacrificing his own life to save his son’s and slay the evil Emperor Palpatine.

You’d have expected Luke to have shortly thereafter found a nice girl and settled into a contented existence on a tidy planet with good schools and dual sunsets, no more than a couple of parsecs from the Organa-Solos and their little boy, Ben. But no. Leia and Han’s romance didn’t last, and something heavy went down with twin bro. The result: the cloak, the hood, and monastic isolation of the damaged, Leonard-Cohen-at-Mount-Baldy variety.

So what happened to Luke? What we know from The Force Awakens is that he had been running some sort of Jedi academy when “one boy, an apprentice, turned against him, destroyed it all.” These are the words that Han Solo, prior to his death scene, offers to Rey and Finn—the inference being that the boy was Han and Leia’s son, and Luke’s nephew, Ben, the future Kylo Ren. “People that knew him best,” Han says of Luke, “think he went looking for the first Jedi temple.”

That part of Luke’s legend, Johnson confirmed, is accurate. The site of Rey’s Force Awakens encounter with Luke is Ahch-To, the temple’s home planet, which bears a striking resemblance to southwestern coastal Ireland. Though their time on Skellig Michael was brief, the Last Jedi crew returned to the area for additional shooting on the Dingle Peninsula, a ragged spear of land that juts out into the North Atlantic. There, Johnson said, the set builders “duplicated the beehive-shaped huts where the monks lived on Skellig and made a kind of little Jedi village out of them.” Luke, it transpires, has been living in this village among an indigenous race of caretaker creatures whom Johnson is loath to describe in any more detail, except to say that they are “not Ewoks.”

That Luke is so changed a person presented Johnson with rich narrative opportunities. The Last Jedi is to a large extent about the relationship between Luke and Rey, but Johnson cautions against any “one-to-one correlation” between, say, Yoda’s tutelage of young Luke in The Empire Strikes Back and old Luke’s tutelage of Rey. “There’s a training element to it,” he said, “but it’s not exactly what you would expect.” This being the spoiler-averse world of Lucasfilm, the production company behind the Star Wars movies, that’s about as specific as the director is willing to get. (No, he won’t tell you if Luke is related to Rey, or, for that matter, what species the super-villain Supreme Leader Snoke happens to be, or which character the title The Last Jedi refers to.)

But Johnson was happy to talk about Hamill’s performance, which, he said, “shows a very different side of the Luke character.” In the original Star Wars trilogy, Luke was the de facto straight man, playing off Ford’s rascally Han and Fisher’s tart, poised Leia, not to mention the droid comedy tandem of C-3PO and R2-D2. Hamill? He was cast for his sincere mien and Bicentennial-era dreamboat looks—part Peter Cetera, part Osmond brother. He still catches grief, he noted, for one particularly clunky line reading in the first movie, when Luke responds to his Uncle Owen’s order to polish up their newly purchased droids by complaining, “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” Though his approach to the line was, he swears, deliberate—“I distinctly remember thinking, I’ve got to make this as whiny and juvenile as I can,” he said—Hamill admitted that his greenness as an actor left him with “somewhere to go later, where I wouldn’t make those kinds of choices.”

In his years out of the spotlight, Hamill has flourished as a voice actor, most notably playing the Joker in a series of animated Batman TV shows, films, and video games. He performs the part with a demented brio and an arsenal of evil laughs ranging from Richard Widmark manic to Vincent Price broad—a far cry from the gee-whiz wholesomeness for which he is best remembered.

Oscar Isaac, at 38 the senior member of the core cast’s “new kids” (Driver is 33, and Ridley and Boyega are in their mid-20s), is old enough to remember as a child revering Luke Skywalker. “So to be there, and to watch Mark revisit Luke, particularly in these scenes we were shooting towards the end of the film, was bizarre and jaw-dropping,” he told me. “It’s like when you see an old band re-unite and go on the road, and they don’t quite hit those high notes anymore—though in this situation it’s completely the opposite. It’s the fulfillment of where your imagination would take you when you imagine where Luke would go, or what he’s become.”

To read the whole article, please visit Vanity Fair here

Vanity Fair Star Wars The Last Jedi Feature

 

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