Phil Szostak’s behind the scenes book reveals the creative thinking and designs that shaped Rian Johnson’s Star Wars masterpiece The Last Jedi
“The only research that really matters is reaching back to when you were six and thinking, ‘What were the things that made Star Wars feel real then – that inspired me, personally?’” says writer/director Rian Johnson in The Art of The Last Jedi. “And then following your heart with those things.” Johnson certainly followed his heart in making The Last Jedi and his abilities as a uniquely talented filmmaker resulted in a bold, visionary picture. His take on Star Wars is as personal as it is true to the franchise’s roots.
Star Wars Auteur Theory
Like George Lucas before him, Johnson draws on cinema’s rich history, looking beyond the confines of science fiction, and putting his authorial stamp on it all. Johnson is further proof that an auteur can indeed successfully make Star Wars their own for a time. (Ah, if only David Lynch had agreed to direct Return of the Jedi…) Phil Szostak’s illuminating book confirms the influence of Rashomon, and intriguingly throws up the unlikely inspirations of Twin Peaks, The Wizard of Oz,To Catch a Thief, and The Apartment upon the latest installment of the saga. That merely scratches the surface along one line of thinking of course. The many creative talents who worked on the movie helped bring Johnson’s vision to life and many of them are represented in this book. It is endlessly fascinating to learn how cinematic challenges were solved creatively through art. “Anytime I have specific design ideas,” says Rian Johnson, “it’s entirely because of its function in the story.” All of it relates to story, which is how it should be.
The Art of The Last Jedi is an essential document of the design ideas that shaped the film. Szostak wisely lets Johnson speak as often as possible throughout. As a result, this art of volume gets even closer to a making of, which one couldn’t reasonably expect to arrive for years after the fact. The format of these particular behind the scenes Star Wars books is being perfected year on year. This is the finest one to date of the new era, just like The Last Jedi is the finest picture.
The Personal Stamp of Imagination
“Simplification is really important with nearly every design in Star Wars,” says creature effects creative supervisor Neal Scanlan. The team went through a careful process of defining what a porg would look like, letting go of the detail early on to focus on the outline. “If a child wants to draw a porg,” continues Scanlan, “how easy is it to draw so that you instantly know it’s a porg? That pushed it to two eyes and a little head on a stubby body with little legs.” The end result is indeed instantly recognisable. It’s as if they’ve always been around, which is absolutely in keeping with the lived-in universe of Star Wars. The brilliant balance between familiarity and wonder of Star Wars never fails to amaze.
The caretakers were conceived as island natives who share DNA with the porgs, having developed along divergent genetic paths from somewhere in the distant past. It’s this sort of attention to the histories underneath the stories of Star Wars that is almost humbling. This is design at its most thoughtful, world building that would’ve made JRR Tolkien proud.
Rian Johnson wanted “the caretakers to feel like nuns – to feel disapproving,” which they certainly do. There’s that moment in the film when Rey slices away a chunk of rock with her lightsaber and it tumbles off the edge, smashing the caretakers’ cart to smithereens; that look they give her is priceless. What’s fascinating is how the designers captured this personality trait in the way they did. “I didn’t say, ‘Make them fish people,’” admits Johnson. “That’s just the direction they ended up going in.” Fish people they are and it seems impossible that they could have been any other way.
Costume designer Michael Kaplan describes working on the Canto Bight casino as being “like MGM in the thirties; it was kind of crazy but wonderful.” The sequences certainly have a distinctive feel to them. Johnson’s varied cinematic interests shine throughout The Last Jedi. To try and convey some of his cinematic thinking, he hand-picked a series of films to screen at Lucasfilm in July 2014. Each represented “some tone or aspect of The Last Jedi he was hoping to evoke” or simply allowed him “to share a beloved film.” One of those screened was Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. Johnson explains it was a major influence on the world of Cantonica and the Master Codebreaker, trying to capture a sense of “devil-may-care romance.” Like Cary Grant before him, Justin Theroux has the sheer presence to embody that with a look.
Canto Bight is of course the destination of the mission that Rose and Finn go on. But in the original version of the script, it was Poe who went with Finn. “And it was so boring,” explains Johnson. “It was just these two dudes on an adventure.” Their dialogue was interchangeable and there was no conflict. The introduction of Rose solves that beautifully. Johnson considers that Rose and DJ serve Finn’s arc in a similar way to how Holdo and Leia serve Poe’s arc. And indeed how Kylo and Luke impact on Rey’s. “There are these little triangles set up – the three triangles the whole thing is built on.” A story is of course designed and built.
Johnson brought up the “embryonic visual idea” of the “mirror cave and the multiple versions of Rey” during a weeklong series of sessions with The Force Awakens production designer Rick Carter at the start of the process. Johnson didn’t know where it would go at that early stage, but Carter nevertheless got very excited about it. He was right to do so, for the sequence has all the makings of an iconic cinematic moment.
If the mirror cave is the heart of Rey’s arc within The Last Jedi, then the Force connection scenes between Kylo Ren and Rey are the blood supply. These scenes run throughout the film, but how to visualise it on screen posed a unique problem. The solution is one that again separates The Last Jedi from most other blockbusters, where the execution often takes the kitchen sink approach.
Johnson knew that he needed to “create intimacy” with the Force connection. “How minimal can we go?” he wondered. “And what is the simplest way of clearing everything out, so it’s just like you and me having a conversation in a room?” The answer Rian Johnson and his team arrived at is as powerful as it is elegant: intercutting between Rey and Kylo as if they were in the same room. It creates an unmistakable mood while also amplifying the strength of the performances:
“The idea of it being pure cinematic language – just intercutting and doing nothing else to it – that solution saw through all the way to the finished product. I think it works.”
One could almost be watching an Ingmar Bergman picture. There’s something utterly compelling about witnessing these two people interact across worlds and yet shut off together from the rest of the universe; it is, in short, the magic of cinema at play. This approach also makes it all the more impactful when Kylo and Rey are seen in the same shot after Rey’s experiences in the mirror cave. Luke’s reaction is given power by the audience’s.
Purposefully Dramatic Space
Rian Johnson is a David Lynch and Twin Peaks fan. The red drapes in Snoke’s throne room could therefore reasonably be considered another of Johnson’s inspirations. But that isn’t quite the truth of the matter. VFX art director Kevin Jenkins may be the hero of this particular piece of the puzzle however. “Rian didn’t mention Twin Peaks’s Black Lodge – the red room,” he says, “but we all did in an art department meeting.” It’s as if they started anticipating Johnson’s inspirations, a sure sign that everyone involved was keyed into his singularly brilliant vision of Star Wars.
The throne room was developed out of Snoke’s character. Snoke compensates for his physical weakness by employing theatricality, which is where the “Wizard of Oz element came in,” according to Johnson. “To some extent, he’s consciously creating a purposefully dramatic space, as opposed to the Emperor’s throne room, which was utilitarian.”
The concept of purposefully dramatic space is extended into the third act and the climactic battle of Crait. Blood red drapes provide a backdrop for Snoke in his throne room and after his death (sans backstory, which is an inspired narrative move) the blood is allowed to flow. Except not from bodies. The landscape of Crait bleeds since the characters can’t, which is another beautiful solution to a cinematic challenge. But it is also more than that. Johnson is an intuitive filmmaker and understands how a great film must satisfy multiple conditions. The visuals, editing, music, and sound design should reflect, channel, and amplify the narrative, in both subtle and bold ways. Johnson explains his approach to Crait:
“The idea of a striking graphic transformation taking place, where we start entirely white and over the course of the battle, it’s turned into this red landscape. Once we thought of that idea, it seemed like an interesting, cool way to bring a unique graphic sensibility to this battle.”
Make Something New and Exciting in It
Johnson and The Last Jedi team knew the world of Star Wars from growing up, yet didn’t want to merely “idolize the past.” Instead they hoped to “make something new and exciting in it.” That passion, drive, and commitment to push Star Wars forward is abundantly clear in every frame of The Last Jedi. It is lovingly rendered within each and every piece of art in this book. Rian Johnson followed his heart and led The Last Jedi creatives to make something spectacular. The world of Star Wars is an even richer place because of it.
The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi by Phil Szostak, and Lucasfilm Ltd. © Abrams Books, 2017 (C) 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. And TM. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization.