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Playback: Rian Johnson on ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ and Thriving Within Lucasfilm

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is set for release Dec. 15. You might have heard of it. The reinvigorated Lucasfilm franchise continues to be an annual event, not just in the film space but, certainly, in consumer and popular culture. Amid all that machinery, at the center of the latest installment, is 43-year-old Rian Johnson, an indie filmmaker who really showed what he was capable of with the 2012 sci-fi film “Looper.”

(Note: There are NO SPOILERS in this podcast. Feel free to listen and enjoy without fear of having any of the new film’s secrets ruined.)

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

Click here for more episodes of “Playback.”

Principal photography for “The Last Jedi” kicked off in February of 2016, in the immediate wake of the near-billion-dollar crater “The Force Awakens” left at the domestic box office. J.J. Abrams’ new trilogy starter would go on to gross twice as much in total worldwide, while lighting the spark for fans across the globe desperate for these movies to really click. It was difficult not to feel a sense of elevated stakes as Johnson and his crew set out to continue the saga of Luke Skywalker and company.

“When ‘Force Awakens’ came out we were in prep and there was definitely a little gasp,” the director says. “The spotlight turned on us briefly and we went and made sure the script was as tight as it could be and did a little polish to it. For me, the big thing I’m thankful for looking back is I wrote the script before ‘Force Awakens’ was even really made. They were shooting it while I was making the script. So I got the best of both worlds. I got to just personally react to the story and the script and what I was seeing the actors bringing to the parts in the dailies, and I got to put that personal reaction into it without trying to filter all the world’s reaction to it.”

Johnson, a lifelong “Star Wars” fan, notes that you don’t come into a machine like this wondering how you can shake things up, per se. It’s its own self-driving apparatus, and though Johnson is uniquely the sole writer-director voice on the franchise since George Lucas birthed it, he had very clear ideas about how to push the characters J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan introduced to the galaxy in “The Force Awakens” two years ago.

“My pitch to Kathy [Kennedy, producer and Lucasfilm president] was basically if the first movie was introduction, this movie is training,” Johnson says. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean Yoda-style training or a training montage. To me what that means is it’s the movie where we test each one of the characters. We find the hardest possible thing they can come up against and we throw it at them. It’s just like the second act of any movie. It’s where the complications come in and everyone gets stumbling blocks thrown in their way. That’s how you define characters.”

On a craft and design level, Johnson was equally aware of the softly defined limits of what these movies ought to look like. In many ways, “Star Wars” is its own aesthetic, and the temptation could be to take it in bold stylistic directions. So in developing the visual identity of the picture, Johnson and his team of designers kept a particular eye on being creative while instilling the proper fidelity.

“You find folks pretty quickly who just kind of have an innate sense of something that feels ‘Star Wars’-y, and it’s tough to really nail it down and put it into words, because it’s not futurism,” Johnson says. “That’s kind of the trap, because any time a new designer would come in and want to push it forward, the problem is pushing it forward, nine times out of 10, meant it started looking like — not to denigrate this, because it’s beautiful design — but it started looking like Marvel movie spaceships where it’s lots of holograms and glowing surfaces. Or it started looking like an Apple Store. It’s futurism, pushing into what feels modern now, and ‘Star Wars’ is not that. It’s a period film. The period is this world that we loved when we were watching the world as kids.”

The result is a “Star Wars” film that was completed months ago and with very little fuss behind the scenes. That makes Johnson’s tenure with Lucasfilm somewhat unusual, frankly, as a number of filmmakers — Josh Trank, Colin Trevorrow, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — have struggled to realize their own visions on other “Star Wars” productions like the currently untitled “Episode IX” (which brought Abrams back into the fold) and “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (which Ron Howard stepped in to reshoot).

“Other people’s sets or movies are like other people’s marriages: If you’re judging them from the outside and you think you have an idea of what’s happening in them, you’re probably wrong,” Johnson says. “And I was not in any of those processes, so I can’t speak to them at all. But speaking to the process I went through, I had an incredibly good time with Kathy Kennedy and with Lucasfilm and Disney. I’ve felt not only just creative freedom, but really protected to pursue what I wanted to do with this story.”

For more, including thoughts on Johnson’s planned new trilogy within the “Star Wars” galaxy and what the late Carrie Fisher meant to “The Last Jedi” beyond merely her on-screen work, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

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