“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was one of the biggest blockbusters in history and a huge production feat for director and “Star Wars” fan, Rian Johnson. The film, which was released on 4K Ultra HD Tuesday, also marked the return of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.
Hamill and Johnson spoke with CNN at the South by Southwest conference earlier this month and talked about Luke’s fate and what it’s like to field criticism from “Star Wars” superfans in the age of social media.
The following conversation – which contains major spoilers about “Last Jedi” – has been edited for length and clarity.
So what was it like to have Disney, this famously tightly run studio, just give you the reins to the biggest brand in movie history?
Rian Johnson: Yeah, it was scary in exactly the way you would think it would be scary because my producer Ram [Bergman] and I came into it, and we’re very used to working within the indie film world and having total control. But the truth is, Disney and Lucasfilm, I mean they were good collaborators, but they really let us do our thing.
“Last Jedi” did receive some criticism online, even in the “Star Wars” community…
Mark Hamill: Fancy that. Criticism online? Unheard of.
Looking back, was any of the criticism fair?
Johnson: No, no.
Hamill: We were happy to ruin people’s childhoods.
Johnson: The thing is though, “no” in terms of, “Oh wow, they’re right, I shouldn’t have done that,” but “fair” in terms of every single “Star Wars” thing that comes out, every fan has stuff they love, stuff they hate about it. Every movie has its lovers and its haters. Every single one going back to the originals.
Hamill: We were so lucky there wasn’t social media when “Empire Strikes Back” came out.
Johnson: Yeah, “Empire” would have gotten roasted. If you look at the criticism of “Last Jedi,” can you imagine what they would have said about Luke just getting his ass handed to him by Vader? Oh my God.
Hamill: Right, the hand getting cut off, we lost and dad Vader.
Han gets turned into a coffee table.
Hamill: Yes, exactly. In those days you really had to take a lot of effort and sit down and say, “Dear Mr. Hamill, why did you turn Harrison Ford into a coffee table? This is not right.” Now, it’s wallop and send. It’s so easy. Pure hatred can be delivered directly to your home in a nanosecond.
Johnson: But that’s also the other side of the coin of what’s great about “Star Wars” fans… Everyone is so passionate about it.
Hamill: They have such an investment in it, you know? They feel they have a sense of ownership, and I totally get that. I feel the same way. Things don’t always go the way I like them, either.
Now that Luke is gone, are we going to see him ever again? Maybe as a force ghost or something like that?
Hamill: Who knows? I really don’t know. It’s totally up to [“Episode IX” director J.J. Abrams] and Lucasfilm, but I feel content whether I’m not in it or I’m in it. I’m fine with it because I had a perfect entrance in [“Force Awakens”] and Rian gave me a perfect exit in ["Last Jedi”].
Rian, was there ever a version of this story where you didn’t kill Luke?
Johnson: It’s not something where it was like, “This has to happen in this movie.” It was something we got to organically. It was never like a mandate. It was a big thing. It was not something I ever wanted to do. It was not even something I decided and that was it… It would be the easiest thing in the world [to not kill Luke] You just don’t fade him out at the end, you just leave him on the island. It would have been simple. It was something I gave lots of thought to all the up to the very end of the process.
Hamill: It’s all right. I’m still in denial. I think I just force projected to another planet.
Johnson: I like the idea that you appear at the beginning of “Episode IX” in modern day New York.
Hamill: Panhandling in front of Hooters.
Rian, you have a new “Star Wars” trilogy coming up with Disney. There’s diversity in front of the camera, but not so much behind it. Is that something that you want to pursue?
Johnson: My god, right now there are so many talented women filmmakers that I would love to see make a “Star Wars” movie, and directors of color. Anything that I can do in the future going forward so that can happen, believe me on that.
“Star Wars” has been around for 40 years. What is at the heart of “Star Wars” that really moves people?
Johnson: It’s a combination of that mythic hero’s journey, which is all really about going from childhood through adolescence into adulthood. It’s just something that all kids can relate to, jumping into a big scary world, finding your place in it. These new powers that are forming in you, finding out how you’re gonna use them. These scary figures in your life that are adults that you’re trying to navigate, what you’re going to get from who of them. It’s that combined with a spirit of fun and adventure.
Hamill: And classic escapism. People want to get away from their dreary, humdrum lives, so whether it’s Oz or Middle Earth or Hogwarts or you know a galaxy far, far away, it’s just a great way to be swept away to a place of more fun than where we are right now.