Interview: Rian Johnson talks evolution of ‘The Last Jedi’

Spoiler alert: This article highlights some key scenes in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

If the success of writer-director Rian Johnson’s worldwide blockbuster “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” proves anything, it shows that if you have the passion, a person who works hard enough can someday venture not only to the pinnacle of his craft, but in some instance, to a galaxy far, far away.

For Johnson, his work for four years on the eighth film in the Skywalker family saga was born of the wonder inspired by the first “Star Wars” trilogy when he was young. He shared that passion in an incredible gesture the night before the first “Last Jedi” panel at “Star Wars” Celebration in Orlando, Florida, in April. In an unprecedented move, Johnson made an unscheduled appearance where hundreds of fans were camping out overnight for a spot to see the panel and the first trailer for film, meeting with each fan there individually. As it turns out, those one-on-one meetings proved to be one of the pivotal moments of Johnson’s entire “Star Wars” adventure.

“There were two parts to this whole experience. There was making the actual film and then there’s putting the film out there to the world — and that second part at Celebration was such a highlight and almost like a turning point for me,” Johnson recalled in a phone conversation Tuesday from Los Angeles.

“Coming into Celebration I was a little nervous. I was scared to go up on stage and scared of judgment. I was scared about what people were going to say about this ‘new guy’ making this movie,” Johnson said.  “So, going out that night and just meeting fans face-to-face made me realize, ‘This is me. This is us. This what I’ve been since I was a kid. This isn’t some big, scary mass of folks, this is just the same type of ‘Star Wars’ fan as I have been since a kid.’ Everyone was so kind and so wonderful, that the next day when I got up on stage in front of all of them, I felt like I was standing in front of a huge group of friends.”

Photo: Disney/Lucasfilm

Of course, there were big differences between Johnson and the “Star Wars” faithful: He had the gargantuan task of making a film that would fit within the framework of the sprawling story writer-director George Lucas created 40 years ago. That’s not to say Johnson, 44, didn’t have his share of surreal moments on the set, like bossing Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, around.

Well, maybe “bossing Mark Hamill around” isn’t the right way to put it.

“To be fair, nobody ever bosses Mark Hamill around. Good luck with that,” Johnson said, laughing. “But I formed a great working relationship with Mark and collaborated with him on this part. But yes, on any single day of the past four years of my life, I can stick my finger down on the calendar and say, ‘On this day was a surreal experience.’ For someone who grew up as a kid on ‘Star Wars’ and it being their world, everything from getting to work with Mark and Carrie Fisher to getting to film on the Millennium Falcon set … You name it, there were just so many instances that it was hard not to have flashes of, ‘Oh, my God, this is really happening.’

“But then those flashes happen, and you get to work, and you get to start to tell a living, breathing story, which is ultimately the goal,” Johnson added. “The purpose of the film is not to showcase all this stuff from your youth, but to tell a story that’s alive right now with these characters and take each one of them seriously as characters.”

In the first film in the new “Star Wars” trilogy, director J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” dealt with the introduction of new characters and caught up with legacy characters like General Leia (Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford). The telling of Luke’s story, for the most part, rested on Johnson’s shoulders. Fans only briefly saw Luke in the last minute of “The Force Awakens.” Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally locates the legendary Jedi master on an island on the remote planet of Ahch-To, where she presents to him his old lightsaber.

But in a genius spin to show just how Luke’s story evolved in “The Last Jedi,” the grizzled Luke flips the hilt over his shoulder in a move that no one could have possibly seen coming. It was the first of many unexpected moments in the film, even though Johnson says his flip move, so to speak, makes complete sense in the context of the character’s overall storyline.

Mark Hamill in 'Star Wars The Last Jedi' (photo - Disney Lucasfilm)

“For me, it doesn’t start with wanting to do something unexpected or surprising. It’s always a nice thing when you can get that, but for me, that moment with Luke was inevitable,” Johnson said. “It’s wonderful that it plays like a surprise, but given where he’s at in ‘The Force Awakens,’ even though he’s exiled on this island, even though he’s taken himself out of the fight, you realize there must be a reason he’s doing this. I started out by figuring out where the character had to be at in this movie, and it all added up to him being in a place where it would have made no sense at all if we had gotten exactly what we all wanted — which was him firing up the lightsaber and saying, ‘Let’s go kill the bad guys.’ So, the surprise for me is always best when it’s a bi-product of really trying to honestly find he most interesting place to take these characters.”

To date, “The Last Jedi” has made more than $1.2 billion in theaters worldwide and is quickly honing on a place in the top 10 highest-grossing films, globally, of all time. And while “The Last Jedi” is extremely popular, it hasn’t stopped some fans from being vocal with their criticism of the film, including how Johnson dealt with Luke’s fate.

Since Johnson is such a huge fan of “Star Wars,” it does cause him moments of introspection, but ultimately, he said, the best course to take as a filmmaker is to stay true to his vision to see the story evolve — especially since he’ll be involved in the “Star Wars” universe again as the writer and director of the first film in a brand-new trilogy.

“Having been on the internet, I can say the vast majority of feedback I’ve gotten from fans has been ecstatic and on the same level of the critics,” Johnson said. “There are fans who don’t like it and there are fans who absolutely love it. That’s because it’s a ‘Star Wars’ movie. Having been a ‘Star Wars’ fan myself for the past 40 years, (the discussion about the film) is something I’m acutely aware of. If you make a ‘Star Wars’ movie and put some soul into it and give it some life, that means you’re going to have to make choices that inevitably are going to please some fans and not please others.”

Darth Vader - Lord of the Sith Star Wars Premium Format(TM) Figure

Having grown up in the fan base, Johnson said, he knows that not being able to please everybody is always going to be the case.

“What you need to do as a filmmaker, and this is what Lucas did and all the filmmaker approaching these new movies need to do, is to tell a personal story,” Johnson said. “You have to tell it the way it feels right to you (within the ‘Star Wars’ universe). You have to tap into what that is and you have to trust that. The moment you start second-guessing that, you’re dead in the water, and you’re going to make something that is guarded, dishonest and manipulative, and all the wrong things.

“So, I love hearing the discussion among the fans. I love hearing how the movie connected with people and it’s interesting to hear people’s complaints about it,” Johnson added. “It all adds into the big soup that is the reaction fans have to any new piece of anything that is ‘Star Wars.'”

Tim Lammers reviews movies weekly for The KQ92 Morning Show,” “KARE 11 News at 11” (NBC), “The Tom Barnard Podcast” and “The BS Show” with Bob Sansevere.

Copyright 2017 DirectConversations.com

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Movie review: ‘The Commuter’ is ridiculous train wreck

Hear Tim Lammers’ review of “The Commuter” with Tom Barnard on “The KQ Morning Show” (Segment begins 10:30 in).

“The Commuter” (R)

Liam Neeson is rolling down an all-too familiar path with “The Commuter,” an action thriller that’s a mishmash of several action films, including “Non-Stop” (an in-air thriller that closely mimics this film), “Phone Booth,” “Murder on the Orient Express” and countless others. It’s clear at this point in his career that Neeson, who flirted with the idea of retiring from action films, is in it for the paycheck for this one, and he sleepwalks through what starts as interesting premise but quickly devolves into a manic, monotonous, well, train wreck.

The initial premise of “The Commuter” is promising, as Michael McCauley (Neeson) seems to have found a comfortable life as a life insurance salesman in the 10 years since he left the NYPD. But time has finally caught up with the 60-year-old worker, who is suddenly let go from his firm. Wracked with worry about how he and his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) are going to make ends meet and send their son to college, Michael is suddenly approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) on his commuter train ride home. Her proposition is simple. Find a person on the train named Prin, who is carrying a backpack containing stolen device, and plant a GPS bug on them.

It’s a seemingly easy enough gig until Michael realizes that he’s made a deal with the devil. If he decides to walk away from the job, it will put his loved ones in peril, and if he carries through the job, there will be repercussions on that end, too. Looking for ways to get out of the quandary, Michael only makes the situation for himself worse by the minute.

Directed by “Non-Stop” helmer Jaume Collet-Serra (who also directed Neeson in “Run All Night”), the prospects of “The Commuter” building on the promise of its bright premise quickly fade as Neeson finds himself in implausible predicaments, yet, given the fact he is the man who will forever have “a particular set of skills,” manages to wrangle his way out of every single one of them. The film is also hopelessly predictable, which makes this ride a long and agonizing commute that’s in the end, just loud and annoying. The only way you could enjoy this movie is laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. But it’s not an action comedy. It’s an action farce.

Lammometer: 3 (out of 10)

Tim Lammers reviews movies weekly for The KQ92 Morning Show,” “KARE 11 News at 11” (NBC), “The Tom Barnard Podcast” and “The BS Show” with Bob Sansevere.

Copyright 2017 DirectConversations.com

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At the movies: The Top 10 of 2017

10. “The Greatest Showman” A lot of critics hated it, but I loved it. Hugh Jackman is in his element in this feel-great (albeit not historically accurate) movie about circus impresario P.T. Barnum.

9. “Coco” Disney-Pixar dazzles once more in the colorful spectacle the honors the traditions of family, music and paying respects to the deceased. The film expertly captures emotions across the board.

8. “War for the Planet of the Apes” The perfect ending to one of best movie series reboots ever. Andy Serkis is stellar in his motion capture performance as Caesar, in a medium that he has almost singlehandedly defined.

Hear Tim’s take on the year’s top 5 films with Tom Barnard on “The KQ92 Morning Show” (segment begins 9 minutes in).

7. “Logan” Hugh Jackman finally gets his wish and delivers a hard-edged, R-rated story of Wolverine, a swan song to the character flanked by brilliant performances by Patrick Stewart and newcomer Dafne Keen, and expert direction by James Mangold.

6. “The Disaster Artist” James Franco is otherworldly as the director and star in this bizarre opus about Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious film star wannabe with deep pockets who self-finances what many dubbed the “Citizen Kane of Bad Movies” — a film that went on to become the midnight movie cult classic “The Room.”

5. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” The eighth film in the Skywalker family saga not only captures the tone of the original “Star Wars” films, it elevates the franchise to a whole new level with unexpected plot turns and developments by writer-director Rian Johnson. After his stunning debut at the helm of “Episode VII,” it will be exciting to see what Johnson creates for the upcoming fourth “Star Wars” trilogy.

4. “I, Tonya” Several critics have called this movie “The ‘Goodfellas’ of figure skating,” and it couldn’t be more on the mark. Often told from a first-person perspective that breaks the fourth wall, Tonya Harding (brilliantly realized by Margot Robbie), should finally feel vindicated after becoming the most hated woman in America after the infamous Nancy Kerrigan leg-rapping incident before the 1994 Winter Olympics.

3. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” The power trio of Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell gather to realize writer-director Martin McDonagh’s riveting yet darkly comedic tale about a woman who harasses local law enforcement when they fail for years to yield any leads in her daughter’s murder case.

Gary Oldman Darkest Hour

2. “Darkest Hour” Gary Oldman gives a career performance as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in riveting historical tale recalling how Churchill stood up to all detractors as Hitler’s forces came dangerously close to seizing all of Europe and changing the face of history forever. If Oldman isn’t awarded a Best Actor Oscar for this, the Motion Picture Academy will have lost all its credibility.

1. “The Shape of Water” Guillermo del Toro meticulously constructs the most fascinating tale of the year, which feels like an homage to “Creature from the Black Lagoon” yet ventures into uncharted waters by playing up the romantic angle between two central characters that was never fully realized in the 1954 classic. Featuring affecting performances by Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins, along with an iconic turn by Doug Jones as the filmmaker’s version of the gill-man, “The Shape of Water” is easily del Toro’s best.

Honorable mentions: “Dunkirk,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Wonder Woman,” “Loving Vincent,” “Thank You for Your Service,” ̶

0;IT,” “Split,” “Alien: Covenant,” “Baby Driver,” “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Tim Lammers reviews movies weekly for The KQ92 Morning Show,” “KARE 11 News at 11” (NBC), “The Tom Barnard Podcast” and “The BS Show” with Bob Sansevere.

Movie review: ‘The Greatest Showman’ is dazzling spectacle

AUDIO: Tim reviews “The Greatest Showman” on the “KQ Morning Show” with Tom Barnard. Segment beings 8 minutes in.

“The Greatest Showman” (PG)

Given the number of liberties the filmmakers take with circus impresario P.T. Barnum and his work in the film, it’s hard to exactly call “The Greatest Showman” a musical biopic. Instead, it’s more of a musical drama that’s inspired by different points in Barnum’s life that’s set, naturally, in the 1800s, yet incorporates modern music. If it sounds like a massive challenge, it is — yet ultimately, “The Greatest Showman” becomes a dazzling spectacle that works wonders.

A passion project for Hugh Jackman, who sings, dances and emotes as Barnum, “The Greatest Showman” has been in development for years, and thanks to the good buzz and eventual acclaim and fortune experienced by “La La Land,” the timing is perfect for an original musical. Better yet, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriters who wrote the Oscar-winning music for “La La Land” also wrote the music for “The Greatest Showman,” which explains why the music in the film is so engaging. And while the not all the tunes in “The Greatest Showman” are stellar or destined to become standards, the songs work within the context of the film, and are the keys to its success.

If you read up on Barnum, you’ll find out that he had a pretty eventful life apart from the circus, including that of a newspaper owner and a politician. The film, of course, focuses on the events that led up to the formation of his circus, which began as a museum for strange inanimate objects that didn’t do so well. When he introduced people of all shapes and sizes into the mix with different oddities into the mix, however, the show took off, but wasn’t entirely embraced by the public.

Directed by Jackman’s fellow Aussie Michael Gracey,  “The Greatest Showman” also focuses on Barnum’s traveling promotion of opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), which was his attempt to legitimize himself in the eyes of the hifalutins and critics, who weren’t so kind to his show of oddities. A key subplot in the film, the inclusion of the Lind story helps flesh out some of the baggage Barnum carried from his youth into his adult life, and further helps balance the film in the showman’s desperate search for acceptance.

Apart from the show’s tunes, the cast is top-notch, from Zac Efron as Barnum’s business partner and Zendaya as an acrobat. The best in show honors in “The Greatest Showman,” though, go to the always-engaging Jackman and Michelle Williams, who plays his supporting wife and greatest confidant Charity Barnum.

Lammometer: 9 (out of 10)

Copyright 2017 DirectConversations.com

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Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers