As a boy Rian Johnson would look out at the Colorado skyline like young Luke Skywalker gazing upon the twin suns of Tatooine and wonder what adventure awaited.
In “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” one of the more inclusive “Star Wars” films in the franchise’s 40-year history, the writer-director delivers to many underserved fans their own similar, and long overdue, moments of heroic inspiration.
For some it’s the steadfast, unwavering spirit of a Resistance mechanic named Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and the selflessness of her sister, a rebel gunner named Paige (Veronica Ngo) — the first female Asian characters to get significant screen time and heroine turns in the “Star Wars” films.
For others, it’s Vice Admiral Holdo, played by a lilac-haired Laura Dern, one of Gen. Leia Organa’s top officers orchestrating the Resistance’s military efforts against the First Order, who gets an unforgettably jaw-dropping moment of her own.
“It just feels right, especially now,” said Johnson, 44, of the diverse heroes — many of them women — who lead the charge in the eighth “episode” set in a galaxy far, far away. “It’s a sea change you feel happening. The fact that it is powerful for folks who haven’t seen themselves [reflected] on screen, as heroes and also villains, all types of characters… to see how much that matters to people, and how emotional that is, has been really impactful.”
The flag was planted in 2015’s “Episode VII — The Force Awakens” with director J.J. Abrams’ introduction of heroes like Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to a canonical universe historically dominated by white men. It continued in 2016’s “Rogue One,” in which a culturally diverse band of misfits led by Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso steal the plans to the Death Star.
With even more for audiences to cheer in “The Last Jedi,” the new “Star Wars” focus on inclusive storytelling has crystallized into one of the most refreshing and powerful raisons d'être of the franchise’s rebirth.
“I think it’s important people see themselves represented in film. I think it’s not a small thing,” Abrams said in 2015 when asked by a fan at Comic-Con if Asian actors would be featured in “The Force Awakens.” (A few were, in small roles.)
“There is every intention to carry on exactly what J.J. is talking about in all the ‘Star Wars’ movies that we intend to make,” promised Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy. A few months later, Boyega shut down online haters outraged over the reveal that he would be playing the first black Stormtrooper in the known galaxy: “Get used to it.” When the film hit theaters, he became one of the most popular faces of the new trilogy.
Two films later, Lucasfilm has yet to deliver on gender diversity behind the camera, and persistent calls to include LGBTQ characters in the “Star Wars” films have so far gone unanswered. But Kennedy’s promise to continue strides toward meaningful diversity in the franchise takes a leap forward in “The Last Jedi,” whose director agrees: Representation “really matters.”
Critically acclaimed but hardly a household name, Johnson had three modestly scaled films (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom,” “Looper”) and three pivotal episodes of TV’s “Breaking Bad” under his belt, but no plans to ever take a studio directing gig, when Lucasfilm came calling with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“When he got this and was clearly very excited about it, one of the things I said to him was, ‘The secret here is Kathy [Kennedy],’” said producer Ram Bergman, who has collaborated with Johnson on all of his films since “Brick,” a teen neo-noir shot for just $330,000. “She’s not just an executive. She’s been a producer for so many years, made so many great movies, and worked with filmmakers. And she really did create an environment where Rian and I could do what we wanted.”
Johnson seized the liberty both he and Bergman say Lucasfilm afforded them, writing “The Last Jedi” while Abrams filmed “The Force Awakens” and following the lead of the groundwork that installment laid down while looking for ways to push the canon forward in intriguing new directions. The strong female bent of “Last Jedi,” Johnson says, came from an iconic source of inspiration: Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher.
“I was very much taking a cue from Leia and Leia’s place in these movies going back to the original trilogy, and the impact she had on me as a kid — when she was literally the only female character,” Johnson said of Fisher’s famous role, which the actress reprised for “The Last Jedi” before she passed away last year during post-production.
“I remember the scene in the Death Star: ‘Into the garbage chute, flyboy.’ That had a huge impact on me. And carrying Carrie’s spirit into this movie felt really right.”
The story finds the current trilogy’s central heroes faced with intense personal challenges immediately following the events of “The Force Awakens,” as the Resistance finds itself trapped by the imposing armies of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his minions, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Gen. Hux (Domnhall Gleeson).
Cocksure X-wing pilot Poe clashes with his superiors over how to fight a losing battle. Ex-storm trooper Finn leads a mission back to his old stomping grounds to infiltrate enemy lines. Rey, who has tracked missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to a remote island hideaway, wrestles with her growing Force powers, her quest to find her parents, and late-night ForceTime calls with a certain darksider.
In a film that slyly subverts the traditional male-hero imperative, the best-laid plans and aggro methods of men on both sides of the Force give way to the valor of women. “The Last Jedi” also posits the radical notion that one doesn’t need Skywalker blood to inherit a powerful destiny, a populist concept that should ripple across the galaxy in future installments to come.
To wit, the heart of “The Last Jedi” beats within the eager chest of the most ordinary of Resistance rebels, one of the new characters Johnson dreamed up: Rose, a spaceship grease monkey who was never meant to be a hero, and an instant fan favorite Johnson wrote, in a way, to serve as a relatable audience surrogate.
There was something about Kelly that had that kind of genuine oddball nature and a real sweetness to her. She has the most open heart of anyone I’ve ever met.
“I wanted someone who 10-year-old me would truly be able to relate to, someone who was a genuine nerd, someone who it would be a little surprising that they were front and forward in a ‘Star Wars’ movie – because that’s how I would feel if I was stuck in the middle of a ‘Star Wars’ adventure,” Johnson laughed. “Like, ‘What am I doing here?’”
Finding his Rose, the most important new addition to the cast, was a laborious search for the best actress for the role. Once Johnson cast Vietnamese American San Diego native Tran as Rose, the search to cast the pivotal role of her sister Paige led him to Vietnamese actress and singer Ngo.
“I was not looking for a specific ethnicity,” said Johnson, who auditioned Caucasian actresses as well as women of color for the part. “We saw a lot of talented actresses of a very broad range — but honestly, it was more about finding Kelly. There was something about Kelly that had that kind of genuine oddball nature and a real sweetness to her. She has the most open heart of anyone I’ve ever met and I knew that was going to shine through onscreen. I knew that I was going to be rooting for her in the movie.”
Writing inclusively for a woman, and then casting the role for any ethnicity, thus led to the biggest leap forward for Asian representation Hollywood has ever dared to make on such a large scale.
Dern’s character, another of the film’s breakout new additions, was born out of Poe’s story line. For Johnson, Holdo represents everything that might directly challenge what Isaac’s confident fighter pilot brings to the films.
“[Poe] is a hotshot pilot, so you ground his X-wing and you face him with the question of bravado vs. true heroism, which is leadership,” explained Johnson. “I started watching World War II movies, because you see that type of relationship reflected a lot in films like ’Twelve O’Clock High’ or ‘The Dawn Patrol.’ The fact that it’s a woman, and not only that, but it’s a woman who isn’t in a general’s outfit but has a real feminine energy, seemed like the toughest thing that Poe could come up against.”
Holdo now features in one of Johnson’s favorite scenes, a two-hander between Dern and the late Fisher that gets audiences misty-eyed.
Fisher herself helped reshape an emotional goodbye she and Dern share in “The Last Jedi.” “I rewrote that scene with those two actors,” said Johnson. “Laura [Dern] really wanted to find a way to pay tribute to Carrie and what Leia meant to her growing up, and that’s where that moment came from. And the [response to Holdo attempting to say “May the force be with you”], ‘I’ve said it enough, you go ahead’ — that was Carrie’s line.”
It remains to be seen how Abrams’ “Star Wars: Episode IX,” which is expected to close out the trilogy in 2019, will address the loss of Fisher from the franchise, admits Johnson.
“She was obviously going to play a huge part in whatever the last chapter was going to be,” said the filmmaker, who has been tapped to helm a new untitled “Star Wars” trilogy that he and Bergman will begin work on in the new year (“completely new characters, a new part of the galaxy,” explained Bergman).
“I also think there’s the context of the audience; we all know she’s gone,” said Johnson. “We know what we’re dealing with coming into the next one.”