‘The Director and The Jedi’ reminds us of how easy it is to forget the extensive amount of work it takes to get a film onto the big screen. The exhausting 10-12 hour days that the crew toil, the inconvenience of unforgivable weather conditions on a tricky location shoot, the rejig of the schedule and budget that was planned months in advance when a principle cast member inopportunely comes down with the flu on shoot day. As Producer Ram Bergman describes in the documentary the process is delicate like a ‘house of cards’: one problem could topple the whole structure.
The Star Wars director, Rian Johnson, was inspired to hire a documentary crew on set due to a childhood memory of watching a BTS feature on ‘Return of The Jedi’, claiming it was the first time he realised films didn’t just appear on screen by magic, but are actually crafted by hundreds of contributors and skilled filmmakers. This was certainly true for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.
The production had a staggering number of 120 sets built from scratch; following the tradition of Star Wars, at the insistence of Johnson, to perform practical effects and creature design. Naturally the production lends itself to some wacky and stunning visuals, which are a treat to see come to life in the documentary.
Everyday of the production Johnson and Bergman, along with various cast and crew members, agreed to be mic’d up for documentary. Johnson confesses he would often forget the documentary crew was even there, leading to some very candid and comical moments: including a humorous montage of Johnson and Bergman napping in various areas of the set. Sleep deprivation aside, its clear that the atmosphere of excitement was universal for the cast and crew. Who could blame them? Those lucky nerfherders!
Having relatively little large studio film experience, Johnson was already an interesting choice to helm the biggest franchise of all time. He debuted with indies such as ‘Brick’ and ‘The Brothers Bloom’, his largest projects the well received sci-fi ‘Looper’ and a handful of episodes of the hit series ‘Breaking Bad’.
Aware of the bold choice for director, the documentary opens on the online reaction to Johnson’s announcement to write and direct Episode VIII, fans anxious or excited in anticipation for the change of direction that Johnson would undoubtedly bring for Star Wars. While Kathleen Kennedy – President of LucasFilm – showed unwavering confidence in Johnson claiming he was on her list from the very beginning.
Johnson seemed just as astonished to land the gig as the public were: tweeting a clip from ‘The Right Stuff’ – “Dear Lord, please don’t let me f*** up.”
It cannot go unsaid that the audience’s response to Star Wars: The Llast Jedi was certainly the most divisive film of the franchise yet. Raging twitter wars between George Lucas purists fanboys claiming Kennedy is ruining their childhood, and those eager to see the saga taken in new direction. This conflict of fans is ironically reflected in The Last Jedi with the notion of the old versus the new. ‘The Director and the Jedi’, as it’s very title would suggest, appears to follow on this theme, the very word ‘conflict’ discussed early on by Johnson during a cold read with the stars, Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill.
Surprisingly, the documentary reveals that Johnson’s biggest conflict for episode VIII was not with the studio heads of Lucas Film or Disney, Kennedy having given Johnson full creative control for story and direction. Even Johnson’s long term creative collaborator and cinematographer of The Last Jedi Steve Yedlin, claiming that despite the property of the franchise, “it was still a Rian movie”. However, the conflict lay in the lack of creative restrictions given to Johnson, who had very specific vision and unique style that did not always settle well with the heads of departments and lead cast. Johnson expresses with angst; “You have to lay down all your chips in front of a lot of really good poker players and say that this is the right decision based on nothing but this little tingle you get in your stomach… that’s terrifying”.
It is no secret Mark Hamill took issue with the direction Johnson took his character Luke Skywalker, going public during the development process about his grievances. But the documentary captures the relationship not with hostility but as a dialogue, Hamill coming to terms with Johnson’s perception of the character and how to let go the sense of ownership he felt over Skywalker.
Despite the new directions of TLJ, the documentary demonstrated that Johnson was indeed a fanatic of the franchise, stemming from a childhood obsession of the original trilogy and even later a defender of the less than popular prequels. Understanding in order for the saga to progress, he’d need to balance the nostalgia of the originals with the development of the new generation and audience entering the Star Wars universe. This is reflected in the documentary with the return of an old and beloved character – Yoda. Johnson eager to bring back the puppet Yoda as opposed to the CGI version created for the sequels. They managed to find the original mold from Empire Strikes Back and recreate Yoda, wrinkle for wrinkle, exactly how he was in 1980. Even Frank Oz returned to voice and puppeteer, causing a hilarious and emotional response from Hamill when rehearsing his scenes with Yoda.
It’s this level of attention and care for the film that makes this documentary a rather emotional piece. We see the dedication of whose working on it, setting aside ego and opinion to collaborate in attempt to make the best film they possibly can. If the narrative hook of ‘The Director and The Jedi’ is then the emotional gut-punch is the appearance of Carrie Fisher. Be it her giving blunt and witty thoughts on Johnson in a talking heads interview or hugging and laughing with the cast and crew, it’s touching to see her represented lively as ever on a set on what is tragically the last Star Wars film she will ever get to make.
‘The Director and The Jedi’ is much like the force suggests – a balance of conflict, comedy and emotion. For those intrigued in the industry this is a fascinating look into how production works, however this is not just a B-Roll or a Behind The Scenes featurette. This is the story of the battle of Star Wars, and if you’re fan of the franchise, it won’t disappoint.