One can easily discern an informative and affecting documentary short — maybe 20 or 30 minutes long — embedded amid the ungainly sprawl that is “The Director and the Jedi,” a SXSW Film Festival world premiere offering set for wide release March 27 as a bonus behind-the-scenes feature on the home-video release of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
As its title might indicate, the film works best whenever director Anthony Wonke narrows his focus to concentrate on the complex working relationship between Rian Johnson, the rising young filmmaker who dove into the deep end of the pool by accepting the challenge of writing and directing “Episode VIII” of the “Star Wars” franchise, and Mark Hamill, AKA Luke Skywalker, who remained a good soldier, despite serious misgivings, even after being told his iconic character would be a battlefield casualty in Johnson’s scenario.
Wonke also grabs attention — and tastefully plucks heartstrings — with interview snippets and on-set sequences devoted to Carrie Fisher, who passed away shortly after completing her scenes as the heroic Gen. Leia Organa (née Princess Leia) in “The Last Jedi.” Her character’s significance to the franchise — and, by extension, to pop culture in general — is respectfully noted by Fisher’s collaborators, who liken Leia to a feminist role model, and gently kidded by Johnson, who pauses a beat after giving Fisher an introductory close-up. (He holds the shot, he tells her, in order to allow time for the audience to applaud enthusiastically.) It’s a bit distressing at first to see just how frail Fisher looks while addressing an off-camera interviewer. But then she pipes up with a bleeped vulgarity (yes, some words are bleeped here) when asked to describe Johnson, and a viewer can’t help smiling at her sass.
Trouble is, there’s a great deal more to “The Director and The Jedi” than affectionate glimpses of Fisher and Hamill, and that turns out to be a decidedly mixed blessing. “Star Wars” completists and movie buffs of all stripes may be fascinated by such inside-baseball details as the casting and costuming of extras, the designing of creatures and weaponry, and the budget-conscious debates over whether CGI would be preferable to practical animatronic effects. And there is amusement to be found in a brief sequence that underscores how debilitating it can be to literally lose sleep while participating in the making of a blockbuster.
As a whole, however, the documentary winds up being at once too much and not enough. Johnson and producer Ram Bergman sporadically talk about adjusting to the move from small-scale features “Brick” and “Looper” to a “Star Wars” spectacle, but their words are vague and their anxieties appear checked. Likewise, Johnson briefly describes his overarching vision of “The Last Jedi” as a journey from adolescence to adulthood — but he doesn’t expand on that. (It would be interesting to examine whether some of the longtime “Star Wars” fans who absolutely hated “The Last Jedi” did so in response to its underlying theme of letting go of the past.) The director speaks glowingly of newcomers who joined the franchise in the previous episode, “The Force Awakens.” But of that group, only John Boyega is represented here in on-camera interview segments.
Still, the documentary’s final farewell to Fisher is quite touching. And Hamill repeatedly delights, whether he is cracking jokes and sharing anecdotes between takes, or explaining why, although he “fundamentally” disagreed with Johnson’s concept of Luke Skywalker for “The Last Jedi,” in the end, he set aside his reservations and followed his director’s lead. “It’s not my character to decide,” he says philosophically. “It belongs to other people. They just rent it out to me.”
All of which makes it even more of a joy — especially, though by no means exclusively, for decades-long “Star Wars” fans — when Johnson finally reveals to Hamill the official title for the film that had heretofore been known only as “Episode VIII.” “The Last Jedi,” eh? “Oooh!” Hamill responds, sounding like a child who’s just been told that, from now on, every other Tuesday will be Christmas. “That means me!”