The World Premiere documentary The Director and the Jedi by Anthony Wonke screened with great buzz as a “Spotlight” film at SXSW Film Festival. Mark Hamill appeared on the Red Carpet and stayed for the screening and the Q and A afterward with Rian Johnson. Naturally, fans crushed my feet (I sat in the front row), to get to Hamill for autographs. If they could but shake the hand that held the lightsaber, in Star Wars 1977, the magic would last a lifetime.
Hamill graciously spoke with a few fans. Then SXSW officials whisked him off to prepare the Paramount Theater for another screening. Was the long wait in line for the screening worth it? Did fans who rushed to witness the ending of an era to see Jedi Hamill in person, fulfill their expectations? Of course!
Present at the Q and A, with Hamill were Rian Johnson who wrote and directed The Last Jedi, and producer Ram Bergman. The documentarian in The Director and the Jedi includes Johnson, Bergman, and cinematographer Steve Yelten who have worked closely together in prior films. Additionally, we see a brief clip of Kathleen Kennedy, other producers and of course the actors, tech crew and the magnificent team whose genius brings The Last Jedi to life.
In Wonke’s brief interview clips, Johnson states he grew up with Star Wars like all of us. Wonke makes clear Johnson’s veneration of the Star Wars franchise, Lucas, and Lucasfilm. Thus, his appointment to be the scion who joins the talented family of directors who have gone before, demanded he rise to the occasion. Johnson has film experience. Just not experience in the Star Wars phenomenon which he must newly script. Humorously, Wonke includes clips of Johnson’s expressed nervousness and hope to be worthy of this endeavor. And he appropriately includes a clip of Scott Glenn as Alan Shephard in The Right Stuff saying, “Please God don’t let me fuck up.” Surely, this thought ran through Johnson’s mind more than a few times.
The good humor, determination, and diligence required to take on such a production rumored to be twice the size of The Force Awakens, Johnson expresses throughout. Of course, Wonke showcases this. And we acknowledge Johnson’s sincerity. Indeed, Johnson, like all of us would, waxes eloquent when viewing the astounding crafting of creatures and set creations (i.e. the sea cow, the exploding mountain). Nevertheless, clips reveal his choices rule as he establishes the vision for his film. And he strongly corrals his team to execute his ideas and “make them work.” Constantly, we understand that as director, his opinion, his word sounds the bells and rings the alarms. For those few who see the documentary before Episode VIII, Johnson’s prodigious concern and that of the team intrigues and fascinates. However, does Johnson’s final rendering live up to the Star Wars myth?
Closely working with him, we meet producer Ram Bergman and cinematographer Steve Yedlin. Both have been at Johnson’s side for all three of his previous features. They, too, become gobsmacked at the sheer scale and technical range they witness live. Overwhelming thoughts of the filming schedule, deadlines and uncovered difficulties and challenges require their continued vigilance and each other’s encouragement. One wonders. If they did not work together before, would the challenges have been greater?
Wonke’s excellent film highlights the key conflicts, stresses, and glories of making this eighth go-round episodic. Indeed, his receiving access to shadow Rian Johnson and his team seems amazing, despite the obvious marketing ploy. Notably, Wonke’s MO sticks to Johnson’s and the teams’ decision making. Indeed, we enjoy witnessing the active process ironing out difficulties.
Instead of static interviews, Wonke treats us to action clips. For example, we watch Daisy’s Rey practicing for a fight scene without props. Many moments like these flourish. We note a brief Kylo segment and other choice and humorous tidbits. These Wonke intersperses with process and tech clips at Pinewood Studios’ workshops. Wonke avoids extensive interviews with the actors. However, the chief star does become Mark Hamill who receives more screen time, a smart decision on Wonke’s part.
The interviews include only brief clips and quips from cast members and crew while they work. As brevity is the soul of wit, the striking images remain with us forever. For example Wonke’s edits of Carrie Fisher looking into the camera unloading teasing commentary about Rian Johnson’s direction shine. We remember that these treasured moments epitomize her great good humor and her starry presence as the Star Wars icon. At the time Wonke filmed the documentary, Carrie and everyone else believed she “would be back.” Wonke’s sensitive inclusion of her footage adds nostalgia. It is Carrie’s forever goodbye, devastating, heartfelt, real.
Again and again, Wonke’s approach gains an intimacy into the filming of The Last Jedi. This becomes especially so with his revelatory coverage of Mark Hamill. Hamill’s candid discussion of his differences with Johnson over characterization, interpretation, and logic in episode VIII, disclose his acting chops like never before. Also, Wonke features Hamill as storyteller reminiscing about how C3PO’s Anthony Daniels made the cut. Sharing this history and experience strikes gold. And Hamill’s sincerity about the challenges of seamlessly melding the illogical elements of the role strengthens the documentary.
For example, Hamill points out the gaps in rational for Luke’s characterization. These he must make work because that’s what actors do. One considers, however. How did this occur? Was it through Johnson’s possibly unwitting inattention to details? In The Last Jedi Luke has rejected The Force for a powerful reason. Nevertheless, on the island living in isolation, Rey finds Luke wearing the robes of the Jedi. Why, if the character rejects the religion? Hamill’s suggestion to tweak this could have led to brilliant additional costumes and twists. But Johnson held out for his own vision and kept the logic gap. He forced actor Hamill to deal with the illogical twist as an inner conflict.
Thus, Hamill had to take this strange conceptualization and all it entailed and make it work, despite the glaring inconsistency. A nit-picking detail or a clue to missed characterization by Johnson? Additionally, Hamill questioned why and how Luke’s overarching hope and optimism turned to nihilism. These points are answered in the film. Perhaps, not to Hamill’s satisfaction.
However, to his credit Hamill makes it work in perhaps the deepest, richest performance of his Luke Skywalker performances. Wonke includes Johnson’s take which speaks volumes. Indeed, he fluffs it off by stating that Mark Hamill disliked that the story called for his death at the end. Yet, Hamill’s unflinching participation with good cheer indicates his professionalism and understanding of how actors really inform their work with backstory and inner meaning.
Those closely following the film roll-out heard the rumors about Hamill’s and Johnson’s disagreement. Wonke does not obscure this. And he manages to find a satisfying resolution without harming either individual with idle and infantile dead meat for the hungry gossip vultures.
In an elucidating moment Johnson who has kept the title of the film secret from everyone shares it with Mark Hamill. Wonke includes this in the documentary and the moment heartens us. Especially after Carrie Fisher’s passing, these segments with Jedi Mark Hamill are remarkable.
Wonke engages us with unobtrusive camerawork. And he peels back layers as he slips behind the doors and anticipates what might be fascinating to observe. In the Q and A, Rian Johnson and Mark Hamill stated they tucked his presence in the back of their minds and forgot, yet didn’t. The result is charmingly surreal. Most probably, all that Wonke picks up via the commentary, the cast and crew intended he pick up. Yet, what remains is fresh and appears to be unique and unscripted, though Tylie Cox wrote the screenplay.
Most fascinating becomes the intricacies of the actual sets built and less reliance on CGI. Wonke follows the crew to the difficult to shoot in UNESCO Michael Skellig Island. And there we notice the native, rare habitat and wildlife and hear of the “impossibilities” they will encounter as they devise the shooting schedule and more. No detail seems boring about Frank Oz puppetry. Oz quips about bringing back Yoda, something to the effect of “Do they know what they’re in for?” And Hamill comments about the nostalgia of revisiting with Yoda again. It is another stellar moment, especially for those who welcomed Yoda as a kid decades ago.
The Director and the Jedi will enter the Star Wars canon with fireworks and take its hallowed place among the ancillary accompaniments to the space saga. That Wonke filmed it during the filming of The Last Jedi sets it toward becoming a classic. Following the home release of The Last Jedi, the documentary is rolling out now. Don’t miss it for its more intimate look at one of more profound of the episodes and what some refer to as a second best. (They think The Empire Strikes Back is THE best.)