THE FORCE IS STRONG WITH THIS ONE
Rian Johnson Reveals Secrets of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’: On Rey’s Parents, Luke’s Fate and More
The writer-director opens up to Melissa Leon about his record-shattering blockbuster epic, spoilers, and his all-new ‘Star Wars’ spinoff trilogy.
Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Turn away now if you haven’t seen the film. Seriously. The porg will scream.
Luke Skywalker’s journey in Star Wars: The Last Jedi ends as his saga began: with a solitary gaze into a binary sunset, a seemingly endless expanse away from the rest of the galaxy.
Gone is the yearning Tatooine farm boy of 40 years ago, for whom the pinnacle of excitement was a trek to Tosche Station. And gone is the angry, regretful broken shell of a man who turned his back on the Force, his legacy, and his loved ones, choosing self-imposed exile over facing his own failures.
This Luke is different. Depleted, but at peace. He’s confronted his past, finally learning to neither toss it off a cliff, like he does his own lightsaber, nor leave it to rot on some dusty holy shelf like the Jedi texts. He finds hope again—not in himself, but in a new generation of Force-users unburdened by the same Jedi hubris that allowed the Dark Side to rise again and again. It’s the Last Jedi philosophy in a nutshell, one that’s far from precious about holding onto rituals of the past. Like Luke, it accomplishes feats never before seen in Star Wars. And, like the once-Jedi Master, it leaves behind a hero’s mantle that anyone can take on—Skywalker blood or no.
In writer-director Rian Johnson’s hands, no feature of the Star Wars-verse is too sacred to upend. Things break. Beloved characters perish. The good guys lose. Dazzling twists and turns defy expectations in service of gratifying pathos and nuance. It’s irreverently funny to a degree no Star Wars film has been, and even sexier, too. It is undeniably, quintessentially, lovingly Star Wars, and yet it dares to push the franchise beyond its well-worn obsessions to new, more challenging ground.
‘We Can’t Be Precious About This Stuff’
In a franchise steeped in such revered mythology as Star Wars, in which even slight deviations provoke cries of heresy (and of course, this one already has), Johnson’s approach is, in a word, bold. Still, to hear him tell it on the day of The Last Jedi’s release, it is all done out of affection.
“I didn’t come into it thinking that the way to move Star Wars forward is to trash it or to throw it away,” he says by phone from the Disney lot in Los Angeles. “I came into it thinking that we can’t be precious about this stuff. We have to take the toys out of the box and play with them. That means some of them are gonna get broken, but we’re still doing this because we love them and we love this and we love what it is. We have to build on the past, which is hopefully where the whole thing lands.”
The Last Jedi is a movie about characters wrestling with their histories, and the regrets and disappointments rooted in them. Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, is so tortured by his chosen path down the Dark Side that he can only cope by burning it all down: “It’s time to let old things die,” he tells Rey, a young woman consumed by questions about where she comes from.
It’s her search for answers that brings her to Ahch-To and the moment this movie’s predecessor, J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, spent its yarn leading up to: Rey handing Luke his old lightsaber. Johnson picks up exactly where Abrams left off—and instantly takes a hilariously wonky left turn: Luke takes one look at the thing, wrinkles his nose and throws it over his shoulder.
“I didn’t want to be writing out of fear,” says Johnson. “At the same time, it’s mostly Kylo and, ironically, Luke’s perspective for much of [the film] that the way to move forward is to toss out the old, and I don't think that’s ultimately where the movie’s heart ends up landing. Rey is the one who’s kind of really our proxy for finding our way forward, who is much more where I kind of land. Which is like what Luke says to Kylo at the end, you know, ‘try and get rid of me by violently striking me down and I will always be with you.’ That’s the case in life, I think.”
“I mean, for example that lightsaber moment [with Luke and Rey], it just completely came out of me feeling that that’s how Luke would react in that moment,” he laughs. “He’s done this herculean effort of taking himself out of the fight and leaving this all behind, and here comes this kid shoving this thing in his face with this look in her eye like, ‘Here you go, let’s go on an adventure!’ and it’s a symbol of everything that he’d walked away from.”
Luke tossing out his legendary lightsaber like so much expired green milk sets a nutty, unpredictable tone—an early sign of how unrestrained by Lucasfilm Johnson was in writing his script. There were no specific prescribed storyline turns he inherited from Abrams. But no Last Jedi plot point reflects the film’s unprecedented shakeup of core Star Wars ideas more powerfully than the answer it offers to a hotly-debated question: Who are Rey’s parents?
‘You’re Nothing. But Not to Me’: On Rey’s Parents
Rey’s mysterious background and her powerful Force abilities made her seem like a natural Skywalker—or at least, Skywalker-adjacent—by the end of Force Awakens. Parsing the possibilities became a favorite nerd pastime: She’s got be Luke’s secret daughter, some guessed, while others figured Han and/or Leia had some ‘splaining to do. Maybe she was Obi-Wan’s? Or hell, maybe a clone made from the DNA of Luke’s severed hand? (I’m not making that up.)
Each seemed more likely, if not more palatable, than the most ordinary answer imaginable: that she not be related to anyone. As we’d always known it, Star Wars was the saga of the Skywalker family, from the rise and fall of Anakin, to Luke and Leia saving the galaxy, to Kylo Ren’s threats to destroy it. That Johnson chose for the hero of this shiny new trilogy to be an unknown—“They were nobody,” Kylo forces Rey to admit of her parents—is not only bold, it’s downright radical in Star Wars-land.
“They were filthy junk traders,” he tells her, after peering into her mind and witnessing the vision she had in the Mirror Cave below Ahch-To. “Sold you off for drinking money. They’re dead in a pauper’s grave in the Jakku desert. You come from nothing. You’re nothing. But not to me.”
While Abrams (who is penning the script for Episode IX with Argo’s Chris Terrio) could conceivably retcon Kylo’s revelation as a lie, as it stands now according to Johnson, it’s true. All of it. Rey is a hero who comes from nothing—just like Finn and Rose and Poe. It’s a welcomely populist rejection of the idea that the fate of the galaxy hinges on Skywalkers — people born special and considered elite by virtue of their last name.
Johnson confirms that was the idea. “That seemed so appealing to me. I mean, that really seemed like something that was genuinely exciting,” he says. “I think that actually gets back to the roots of what makes Luke appealing, because when you’re watching that very first movie, A New Hope, you have nothing in your head about him being the Chosen One or his lineage or this or that. What you see is a kid who’s in the middle of nowhere on a farm, who’s a nobody, who feels like he’s never gonna get out. The same way that when we’re kids on the cusp of adolescence, we feel like we live in a really small world and, oh man, am I ever gonna grow up? Am I ever gonna have these adventures that I keep hearing about on TV?”
“He’s on the cusp of that,” he says, “and then he jumps into an adventure and is pulled into the center of it. That, to me, is the essential appeal of it. And to me, the notion of Rey being a nobody and coming from that and then suddenly finding the power in herself to be central to these big adventures? That’s uniquely Star Wars.”
“I do like the notion, and I think it’s something that’s gonna be necessary, that we’re pulling it away from the idea that [the main Star Wars saga] is limited to this small club of Skywalkers,” he continues. The big reveal had dramatic implications too. “Rey is our protagonist and the truth is, in the story, the toughest possible thing for her to hear is, you know, you’re not gonna get the easy answer that you’re so-and-so’s daughter, this is your place. You’re gonna have to stand on your own two feet and define yourself in this world. And you always want to throw the hardest thing at your protagonist.”
Farewell to Luke Skywalker—and to Carrie Fisher
The Last Jedi, of course, is still an end to Luke Skywalker’s story—and a redemption.
Through a staggering feat of Force ability at the movie’s climax, Luke does what only the most enlightened Jedi can do and astrally projects his spirit to Crait, where a Resistance in tatters is staving off the First Order. There, Luke and Leia—Mark Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher—reunite in their first (and now last) scene together since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.
“It’s bizarre because, you know, obviously we didn’t know it would have the weight it eventually did and that it was gonna be a farewell scene,” Johnson says. “And it’s odd because I remember when we were shooting the Luke-Leia scene, it felt like church on set. It was usually a jovial set. It was usually, you know, a really happy, bouncy set. And that day, everyone was just quiet and watching these two. It was like a hush over the whole set. It really did feel like church.”
“And now when I watch it, of course it’s…” Johnson adds, trailing off. “I mean, it’s complicated. It’s very complicated. I feel very—God, I feel lucky, you know. I feel lucky to have this performance from her. I feel lucky we had those moments with her. I feel so lucky that her last moments in the movie, which are at the very end of the movie, are words of hope given to Rey, given to us. Yeah. God, I wish she was here to see it.” (For more from Johnson on Fisher’s contributions to the film, including the emotional scenes she co-wrote with him, head on this way.)
Luke seeks forgiveness from Leia for failing her son, Ben. They mourn the loss of Han Solo, the love of Leia’s life. And then Luke does what’s most difficult: he faces down the young man he hurt, stoking his anger by appearing just as he did the night he almost killed him. In a cunning feat of pacifistic badassery, Luke distracts Kylo long enough to allow the Resistance to escape and, back on Ahch-To, simply vanishes, becoming one with the Force. A fitting end for a Jedi Master.
Johnson admits feeling “terrified” at the prospect of ending a universally beloved cinematic icon’s life in his script. “OK, are we really gonna do this?” he remembers thinking. “Yes, this really does feel right for this moment to happen here.” The sunset scene itself, which intercuts with Rey telling Leia she sensed “peace and purpose” in Luke’s final moments, took “a long while” to crack and “land with the most emotion we possibly could.”
It’s the last scene of the movie that drives Luke’s sacrifice home most effectively. A boy working in the stables of the casino planet Canto Bight watches the story of Luke Skywalker recreated with tiny homemade toys. As he’s scolded and sent outside, he pulls a broomstick toward him with the Force and stands gazing up at the stars, his tiny silhouette evoking that of a Jedi.
“The purpose of it is about Luke’s journey,” explains Johnson. “It’s showing that his grand act was about more than saving 20 people in the cave. It was about the spark of hope he’s now lit in the galaxy and the underclass who will take that and be inspired to retell his story, the way I did when I was a kid with my action figures, and be inspired to grow up and fight the good fight themselves, you know?”
Still, it was difficult for Mark Hamill to reconcile with this new, bleak vision of Luke. “He had lots of reservations coming into it,” Johnson remembers. “He’s been really vocal about talking about how when he first read the script, it was not the version of Luke that he expected. And I’m sure it won’t be the version of Luke that lots of fans will expect. But it’s the version of Luke that, coming out of The Force Awakens, it needed to be.”
Johnson remembers “a lot of discussion and a lot of arguing” with Hamill. “He was hesitant about Luke having real gravitas and this weight and rejecting the mantle of Luke Skywalker the hero. Mark wanted Luke to come into it with lightsabers blazing,” Johnson laughs. “Which would have been, you know, I totally get it! I understand it. It would have been wish fulfillment.”
“But we’re not here for wish fulfillment, we’re here to tell a story,” he says, “and that means we have to be true to where Luke is at in the story. We’ve got to follow that path. Hopefully then, by the end, it’s the wish fulfillment that you didn’t know to wish for, which is seeing the power of Luke Skywalker make the decision to come back and be motherfucking Luke Skywalker.”
“Eventually, he decided to trust me, I guess, and to play his version of it. I think he just threw himself into it and, really, I’m so proud of his work in this movie.”
Bringing Diversity to a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Luke may have relit the fire of hope, but to real-world fans, newcomer Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico is a spark all her own.
Rose is a mechanic who spends “all day behind pipes,” as she excitedly sputters to Finn in her starstruck first meeting with him. More than any character in the new saga, Rose comes closest to a genuine audience stand-in. “Rose was first conceived by me as what would I, as a ten-year-old, feel like if I was thrown into a Star Wars adventure and the truth is, I would feel like you’ve got the wrong person, I don’t really belong here,” Johnson laughs. “A genuine nerd.”
“That was the whole idea behind Rose: her sister is a great fighter pilot, while she works behind pipes all day. And she’s the one who’s been tossed into it and has to kind of prove her mettle.”
Resourceful and inventive—not to mention the first new character of the saga to steal a kiss onscreen—Rose also stands as Star Wars’ first heroine of color, a long overdue addition to the increasingly diverse cast roster of the highest-profile franchise in the galaxy.
“We did a huge casting call for her,” Johnson remembers. “We looked at a lot of talented actresses, both white actresses and women of color. We looked at a broad, broad range. I wasn’t going into it specifically that I was looking for an Asian actress. But when Kelly auditioned and I saw her and the whole package of her, it felt so right and I just knew that she would be perfect for the part, and it was less about specifically looking for an Asian actress and more about finding Kelly.”
Tran’s infectious enthusiasm, now well-documented on social media, is such that it even changed Johnson’s vision of the role. “The character actually ended up really evolving after I cast Kelly because she was originally written as a much more kind of Eeyore type,” he says, laughing. “Like, you know, a grumpy character. And when I started working with Kelly, I realized she’s got such an open heart and spirit that I gotta use that in this character. And so I actually ended up adjusting her character, especially in that opening scene with her and John [Boyega] to take more advantage of what I was getting from Kelly.”
Johnson, meanwhile—an impeccable visual stylist acclaimed for his neo-noir Brick, time-travel mind-melt Looper, and one of the greatest episodes of television ever made, Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias”—will return to the Star Wars universe again in an all-new trilogy. Those films, on which he will collaborate with his longtime producing partner Ram Bergman, will veer entirely separate of the ongoing Skywalker saga.
He will write and direct the first installment, which he’s only started to sketch out, and oversee the story for all three. On whether this leaves room to hire another long-overdue welcome to the the Star Wars universe—a female director—Johnson says he’s all in favor. “Believe me, it’s something that’s absolutely on my mind going forward,” he says. “There are so many talented female directors who I would love to see play in this galaxy. I don’t know how it’s gonna play out, but yeah, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about it.”
The more new blood welcomed to a galaxy far, far away, the better.