Warning: The Director and The Jedi is a film about the making of The Last Jedi, therefore this review contains potential spoilers for the most recent Star Wars film.
AUSTIN, Texas—It may come with resources you can’t find anywhere else, but helming a Star Wars film is no walk in the park. To start, it involves sky-high expectations, continent-spanning production schedules, and perhaps unrivaled levels of fan obsession (including possible Russian social accounts lobbying for General Hux to live, seriously). The House of Mouse now also looms over everything, inevitably demanding a certain box office bottom line.
That’s a daunting task for even the most established of Hollywood creators—but it’s especially herculean for a relatively unknown filmmaker. And that evidently made Rian Johnson’s intergalactic debut with The Last Jedi the perfect opportunity for a full-length behind-the-scenes documentary, The Director and the Jedi.
"I’m the newbie—every department head has done a movie of this size before," Johnson says as he sets the stakes early in the film. "[Producer] Ram [Bergman] and I are the outsiders who have infiltrated. With every decision, I’m laying down my chips in front of these great poker players and trusting just a little tingle in my stomach. It’s terrifying."
Johnson, Bergman, Mark Hamill, and documentarian Anthony Wonkie came to the South by Southwest conference to present the world premiere of this unprecedented look at the Lucasfilm methods. And during the post-screening Q&A, Johnson told the crowd he was inspired to agree to it due to his own childhood fandoms. "There was an amazing [Return of the] Jedi thing about the creature work on Jabba’s palace, and that had a great impact on me," he said. "And the doc on Magnolia, the Paul Thomas Anderson film… I love docs that really get you into the process rather than promoting the end result."
The Director and The Jedi probably won’t be technically meaty enough to similarly inspire the next generation of blockbuster filmmakers—it runs for roughly one hour and 45 minutes, but the film jumps between many topics. And though we get glimpses of life with the costuming, stunt, production design, VFX, and creature departments, this new documentary has other stories in mind.
Among them: the scope of a production like this must be seen to believe—120 sets, 100-plus days of filming, but budgets that can't quite fit every single desired drone and UNESCO heritage site set location ("Take Rogue One and The Force Awakens, put ‘em together, this is double in size," says creature supervisor Neal Scanlan). Newcomers like Johnson and Bergman or Kelly Marie Tran (Rose) have entered into this hallowed and established universe with unorthodox ideas (a casino in Star Wars?!) for the franchise's traditionalists. And as the title may imply, the dynamic between the new creator and the old star has its own heroes' journey to progress through before opening night.
The documentary might have been better served by selecting the most compelling of those subplots, editing down closer to the hour mark, and maintaining a narrower but deeper focus. Ultimately it does the opposite. Still, this new documentary does have merit beyond opening up new marketing and revenue opportunities for Lucasfilm. In particular, somehow this film about the new era of Star Wars feels like a fitting send-off for the series’ pioneers.
An older production years, years away
There aren’t many franchises around where the central characters (and the actors behind them) still participate beyond mere cameos some 40 years after debut. But it’s yet another unique aspect that makes a Star Wars film a big ask of any director. Take Hamill as evidence. "When I called, I said, ‘I’ll do it [the new trilogy], and I have two requests," the actor recalled during the Q&A. "I don’t want a cameo, and I want a real trilogy role."
Even though Harrison Ford is obviously not involved, The Director and The Jedi acts as a nice postscript farewell to many of the original Star Wars icons. The film reveals that more than 100 individuals auditioned for the voice of C3PO in the new trilogy, for instance, but none felt right and thus Anthony Daniels came out of retirement. And while many of the VFX folks anticipated Yoda would be done via CGI this go-round, the emotion necessary in that character’s Last Jedi reunion with Luke Skywalker meant coaxing Frank Oz back to set. The puppet itself may have been new, but the ILM team even created this version by first acquiring the original wooden model molds and building from there.
Kathleen Kennedy appears on screen a handful of times, too. And though we never see him, George Lucas’ presence is certainly felt. Early on, we see the beginning stages of script trials as Johnson invites Hamill and Daisy Ridley to read in a living room at Pinewood Studios. Later in that very sequence, someone breaks into the room with a message for the new director.
"Well, George Lucas…"
"Heard of him," Johnson interjects.
"He’d like to talk tonight. No pressure. I’ll tell him 8:30."
Some of the best parts of The Director and The Jedi come from Johnson exploring the old Star Wars world as if he were merely a kid in a candyst… err, as if he’s a kid on the set of a freakin’ Star Wars shoot. When he meets Oz, Johnson asks to try on the Yoda puppet and lets out what we learn is his signature giggle of joy. When he sees the new creatures Neal Scanlan and team bring to life, Johnson can’t hide his enthusiasm, either. Given that he grew up with some of these films, it’s no wonder the director came prepared with as defined opinions on sea cow bellies as he does Kylo Ren’s scar makeup.
"When you’re a little kid, the Jedi, and the myth of the Clone Wars, and the mysticism of Yoda—that connects to something within you," Johnson told the SXSW audience. "That makes it scary coming into this, but I can’t imagine [making a film] without that—if you don’t take the Force, the Jedi, and Luke Skywalker seriously, then what’s the next step in this?"
Perhaps Johnson’s reverence for the franchise comes across best in this documentary’s most human scenes. It’s perhaps no surprise to any longtime Star Wars fans that the most genuine on-screen emotion happens when Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill get involved. On the tension front, Hamill’s initially blunt frustration with The Last Jedi’s new direction for Luke may be the only real conflict within the entire documentary. "My character always represented hope and optimism, and here I am pessimistic and disillusioned and sort of demoralized," Hamill says. "I told him, ‘I fundamentally disagree with this concept and how you use this character, but I’ll do everything in my power to fulfill your vision.’ This character doesn’t belong to me, they just let me rent him out. So no matter how it comes out, if it’s wonderful, it’s because of him. If I’m horrible, it’s also his fault."
(The majority of the post-show Q&A stayed on the relationship between Hamill and Johnson, given that the documentary leaves audiences wanting more of that dynamic. The most recent film’s title literally comes from Johnson’s new Luke Skywalker direction, after all, and one of the best moments in this doc comes when the director reveals his title idea to Hamill for the first time.)
As carefully curated as you'd expect this Disney-approved documentary to be, Carrie Fisher both shares and elicits what seems like the doc’s few truly moving moments. We see her interacting with Ridley and Laura Dern, younger actors approaching Fisher with reverence both on and off screen. And moments later when the first lady of this franchise is asked how Johnson is fitting into the director’s seat and handling the canon, she doesn’t hesitate to flash the personality fans have grown to adore. "He’s an asshole," she quips, prepping the insightful compliment to come. "Rian has a very specific vision, but he’s not like that when you first meet him. He doesn’t have a dominating effect, he has a dominating vision." The off camera mechanics behind The Last Jedi's Leia-Luke reunion are later explored, speaking to that Johnson vision that combines reverence with new energy. It was the lone documentary moment where it felt like the entire audience silently caught themselves welling up.
"The movie wasn’t meant as a goodbye," Johnson notes. "But hopefully there are a lot of scenes that will give people… scenes that will feel good to see."
For diehard fans of the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi, or Johnson's work in particular, The Director and The Jedi qualifies as must-see. You may not get all the process you want, but you’ll leave with a sense of Johnson’s persona behind the camera and his particular approach to the unique challenge presented to him with The Last Jedi.
For everyone else, you'll probably enjoy the experience, too—just know you’ll likely glance at your phone or second screen a few times. The Last Jedi this is not. But it’s more than that film’s Blu-ray extras, too.
The Director and The Jedi is set for wide release on June 27… naturally, as a behind-the-scenes featurette on the Last Jedi video release. No information on additional screenings is available at this time.