'The Last Jedi' director Rian Johnson on Carrie Fisher, his spoiler 'no-fly list,' and fear of a porg backlash (exclusive)

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Chewbacca gets some Millennium Falcon-flying tips from director Rian Johnson. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

“I will say this: It’s a hell of a trailer.” That’s the extent to which writer-director Rian Johnson, speaking to Yahoo Entertainment on Friday, would reveal the contents of the Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer that premiered Monday night. Sure enough, the long-awaited trailer was one for the ages, showing how Rey’s journey toward self-discovery will take her perilously close to the dark side. The aging Luke Skywalker (who finally speaks onscreen!) is alarmed at Rey’s ability to harness the Force and seems concerned that she’ll go the way of Kylo Ren — a possibility that Supreme Bad Guy Snoke seems eager to exploit. Should fans be concerned that Rey is the next Anakin?

“What [Star Wars] is really about is the transition from adolescence into adulthood,” Johnson tells Yahoo Entertainment. “And a big part of that is navigating the relationship with your family, with your parents, with the people closest to you, with the people you most love, the people you’re most afraid of… For me, it’s about being a kid and going into the next phase of your life.”

Of course, all the characters surrounding Rey have their own demons to confront in The Last Jedi (Episode VIII in the series). Finn goes head-to-head with Captain Phasma, literally confronting his First Order past. Poe must fight a perilous space battle. And Kylo seems like he’s fighting through some inner conflict, probably related to how he killed his dad in The Force Awakens. (Just a wild guess.) On a lighter note, there’s a cameo appearance by a porg, one of those adorable birdlike aliens that Disney is heavily marketing for Christmas.

Chewie’s porg pal is an adorable anxiety ball. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

“Are you sick of them yet?” Johnson asks with a laugh. The porgs, he explains, were inspired by the actual puffins that inhabit Skellig Michael, the island off the coast of Ireland that served as the location for Luke’s hermitage. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is part of the island; we need to find the Star Wars version of this,” the director explains. “And then just story-wise — not that they play a big part in the story — but I knew I wanted to find any source of comic relief I could on the island. And so they were very useful in terms of that.”

Cute creatures in the Star Wars universe, the Ewoks in particular, have often received a mixed reaction from fans. Is Johnson concerned about a potential porg backlash? “It wasn’t until we got the actual puppets on set and the whole crew reacted with ‘Oh my God, they’re adorable!’ and also then a few people in the crew were giving them that suspicious side-eye of ‘These are cute, but are they too cute?’” Johnson recalls with a laugh. “But the overwhelming reaction on set was everybody loved the porgs. And I love ’em, so you know what? I get it if people are a little wary of cuteness in the Star Wars universe, but I personally love them, and I think they have their place in the movie.”

The trailer also gives viewers a fleeting but emotional moment with General Leia, who looks as if she may be in the literal crosshairs of her vengeful son Kylo Ren. The Last Jedi marks the final performance of actress Carrie Fisher, who passed away before shooting could commence on Episode IX. According to Johnson, who considered fellow screenwriter Fisher “one of my heroes,” the actress went to great lengths to make sure that Leia’s every moment was true to the character she had created in A New Hope.

Rian Johnson and Carrie Fisher run through a scene in The Last Jedi. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

“She was so conscious of the place that Leia had, not just broadly in the culture, but very specifically in terms of girls who grew up watching Star Wars when Leia was the only female hero on the screen,” Johnson says. “She really wanted to do right by that, drawing the character forward. That was something that she would always be pulling us back to. And for me it was fantastic, because besides all the other benefits of having a fantastic writer like Carrie there by my side while we’re making this movie, just having a voice that was like a compass needle that would always pull it back in the right direction of, This is what this character means and this is what we always have to make sure that she’s serving, with her strength and also with her weaknesses — showing a fully realized character who is going to be inspiring to the folks who grew up with Leia.”

As for any further details about the film’s characters or story, Johnson is careful to give nothing away. In response to a question about the mysterious object in a tree that’s been rumored to be the Journal of the Whills, he jokingly admonishes, “Don’t believe the internet, Gwynne! What are you doing?” When asked which sequences were shot with an Imax camera, he answers, “I can’t tell you specific scenes, because that would be describing the scenes by telling. And that would be telling!” But the director doesn’t mind keeping Lucasfilm’s code of secrecy for The Last Jedi, because he actually helped come up with it.

“A year ago, maybe even more than that, my producer Ram [Bergman] and I sat down with the folks at Lucasfilm and said, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to reveal here and there, and this stuff we’re never going to reveal until the movie comes out.’ We came up with a ‘no-fly list’ of, under no circumstances is this shown or that shown,” says Johnson. “It is a fascinating process. It’s something that for me, just having been a fan my whole life, suddenly being behind the curtain and seeing how it works and seeing how deliberate it is, has been really fascinating.”

Imax camera on Skellig Michael during filming of The Last Jedi. (Photo: Lucasfilm/Imax)

He will say that the gigantic Imax camera (“It looks like a shipping container”) was used for some of the footage taken on location at Skellig Michael. Because the camera is both unwieldy and too noisy to capture dialogue, Johnson explains, he and the crew “tended to pick our battles with it and look at the stuff that was going to have the biggest visual impact. So we brought them out to Ireland and used them in a few scenes, when we could really take in the scenic scope of everything.”

Rian Johnson gets in on the Finn and Poe bromance. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

Now that the film has wrapped, Johnson can start thinking about other projects — perhaps a musical? “Oh my God, I would love to someday,” says Johnson (whose Twitter header is not Star Wars-related, but a photo from the 1960 Judy Holliday musical Bells Are Ringing). “I was a musical theater kid in high school. And so I looooove musicals. Someday, hopefully. Maybe a Star Wars musical!”

For now, Johnson is still in Star Wars withdrawal. “I’m just randomly wandering around the Walt Disney studios making pew-pew sounds, trying to direct people and nobody listens to me anymore,” he jokes. “I’m turning into a Force ghost. It’s a strange feeling.”

Star Wars: The Last Jedi arrives in theaters on Dec. 15. 

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