By Eric Heinz
In a land foreign to him, equipped with an 8-millimeter film camera, a young man practiced his craft, unaware that the fate of the universe would later rest in his hands.
But instead of shooting womp rats on Tatooine to gain precision, the young man was aiming through the scope of a camera.
Much like the characters he creates and directs, Rian Johnson made extensive efforts to reach the status of Jedi master (in cinema), and believing in his abilities was essential to maintaining balance of “the force.” Johnson, a San Clemente High School graduate from the class of 1992, is the new writer-director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, set to be released in theaters on Friday, Dec. 15.
Originally from Silver Spring, Maryland, Johnson moved to San Clemente when he was 11 years old. While growing up in South Orange County, he said he would frequent the theater in Mission Viejo and worked for a short time at the movie theater in San Juan Capistrano.
He later enrolled at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television (now named School of Cinematic Arts).
“We all loved working with Rian on The Last Jedi,” said Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, in a press release. “He’s a creative force, and watching him craft The Last Jedi from start to finish was one of the great joys of my career. Rian will do amazing things with the blank canvas of this new trilogy.”
Johnson spoke with the San Clemente Times about the film and his early years in South Orange County during a phone interview.
SC Times (SCT): What about San Clemente do you remember most and what experiences influenced your life’s direction?
Rian Johnson (RJ): I came to San Clemente as I was going into seventh grade and I landed at Shorecliffs Junior High (Middle School), and I was (in San Clemente) until I graduated. My main memories are about how it was a pleasant place to be a teenager. It was low-key. I feel like we didn’t get a lot of the, you know, craziness we would have had if we were in LA, but we still got the kind of beach-town environment.
Obviously, being at San Clemente High and the experiences I had there ended up feeding a lot of the first movie I made, Brick. We shot the film there.
SCT: You started shooting 8-millimeter films as a kid. Did you start doing that here or in Maryland?
RJ: That was in San Clemente. I got my first camera at the Mission Viejo mall, this little, junkie Super 8 camera. With my friend, Brendan Koelber, who I named the main character after in Brick, we made a little claymation movie called The Moos Brothers, which was The Blues Brothers, but with cows. So clever (laughs). But it’s funny, as I actually still have the old Super 8 stuff. I was just re-watching a little transfer I made of it recently. It’s terrible, but it’s fun to see what we did in my friend’s driveway using all those old G.I. Joe toys.
SCT: Were there people who really influenced your creative outlets and your penchant for directing and creating movies?
RJ: I had a small ground of friends who I was really tight with, and I guess, we were nerds in the sense that we weren’t going to parties and weren’t really living the teenage life you see in the movies, although I don’t know if anyone really does.
We constantly made these dumb, short movies together, constantly. I added them up when I was graduating high school and I think I made 80 short movies by the time I got out of high school. But that sounds grand, calling them short movies. We were really just hanging out on the weekends, and what did we do? We just grabbed a camera and got some ketchup packets and made some kind of fake Kung-Fu movie. So that was kind of a starting point to it all, loving movies and being bored.
SCT: Were there any teachers at San Clemente High School who motivated you to continue pursuing this dream (of directing)?
RJ: Yeah, I actually name-check her in Brick, a wonderful teacher named Sheila Kasprzyk. She’s the English teacher that Branden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in Brick, says is tough but fair. And she was wonderful, and it was more about writing instead of making movies. She was the best writing teacher I’ve ever had. I took an AP Language class from her. I owe her a lot.
SCT: How has your life changed since being named the next writer and director of not just Episode VIII, but your own Star Wars trilogy?
RJ: The big way it’s changed is that I’ve been working on this (The Last Jedi). I moved to London for about a year and a half working on this movie because we mostly shot this at Pinewood Studios.
And (life has) been absorbed into making this movie. Life itself doesn’t change much, but…you find yourself absorbed in the process of making this thing and meeting all these great people and having all these new experiences.
I have no idea what doing this new (trilogy) is going to be like. I hope it’s like doing Episode VIII because I had the time of my life doing this.
SCT: How much of your voice and your own style have you put into this movie (Episode VIII)?
RJ: Well, I mean, you never try, at least I never try, and sit down and put some kind of stamp on anything. You try and sit down and tell the story you want to tell as honestly as possible, and your voice naturally ends up affecting it because you’re telling it in your voice. But especially with Star Wars, the last thing on my mind was coming in and wanting to make it something different or make it my own; I just wanted to make a great Star Wars movie.
But part of that is the original films. When (George) Lucas made the original films—I think this is part of why those films are so resonant—they were personal. That’s the sense I get, knowing them and growing up (with) the mythology of George Lucas’s life.
I think that’s the way you have to be with any movie, and so you always have to find your own personal way into it. And I definitely did with this. It’s a complicated mixture, I guess, trying to make a good Star Wars film. But part of that, and part of making any film you want to be good, is finding what you care about personally and trying to see that through.
SCT: How much creative freedom do you have in writing the next trilogy as well as Episode VIII?
RJ: Well, the next one I haven’t really gotten into. I know with Episode VIII I had a ton. I really had creative freedom to really find what I cared about and to kind of follow that with these characters in the story. And, yeah, I would say, you would think that it was kind of going to be this big machine that you have to…work your way into and fit yourself around, but the opposite was true.
All of the stuff I mentioned before about Star Wars having to be personal for the filmmaker. Kathy Kennedy and all the people at Lucasfilm, they really…that was something they actively encouraged from the start. So, yeah, it honestly feels like this movie, in its own way, is personal to me as any of the other movies that I’ve done.
SCT: How do you think young Rian would react if he knew years ago that he would be the director of Star Wars?
RJ: Well, I don’t know. When you’re a kid and just playing with your toys and making the movies in your head, I mean part of what’s magical about it is there’s not much separation between in your head, the play you’re doing in your head, and what happened on the screen. When you’re running around alone in your backyard with the Millennium Falcon, you feel like you’re making a Star Wars movie.
Little kid Rian would probably be like ‘Oh, cool, yeah, great, I have some good ideas.’ Then when you become a teenager and get into your 20s and you start realizing the reality of life and that you’ll probably never get to do the things you dreamed about when you were a kid, that’s when the weight starts settling in. Film school Rian would probably just laugh and think that it was a prank call from the future.
SCT: What’s been the most challenging or daunting aspect of taking on Star Wars?
RJ: Having been a Star Wars fan since I was 4 years old and especially having been a fan beyond my teens and 20s, knowing the expectations and the passion of the fan-base and not wanting to let them down, at the same time knowing if I was thinking during the process about not letting them down, I would probably end up terrified and making a bad movie.
So early on I needed to trust…that I know that I’m a fan, I know what I love about Star Wars, and I’m just going to shut everything out and not think about what the world or the fans are going to want or expect. I’m going to try and make something that makes me happy.
Once I did that, the process was a joy. We’ll see what people think about it now.
SCT: (In a biography from Turner Classic Movies), it was mentioned that you had some difficulty getting into the USC film school. What kept you motivated and what kept your spirits up and finally persevering to get in?
RJ: I got into USC but I didn’t get into the film school. Because it was undergraduate, that meant I could go undeclared and keep reapplying to the film school every semester. So that’s what I did. The first two years (I was taking) just general education classes. I just took them and kept getting rejected time after time after time.
All that time, of course, I was frustrated, but I was also just sneaking into film classes, and all my friends were film majors and I was still just making my own short films. You don’t need to be in the class to make your own shorts.
So, I was basically just continuing to make movies, and that’s ultimately what made me happy. I ended up getting into the film school a semester late, basically. But at that point, honestly, I would have been fine even if I hadn’t. In my own head, I had kind of plugged into the film culture there, and that’s what I was there for, anyway.
SCT: What kind of advice would you give to film students who are going the same path as you did, starting off with those short films and trying to get (more) recognition and feature films?
RJ: If you want to direct movies, just focus on making movies, just keep making them and keep getting them out there however you can, and get more and more comfortable behind the camera—develop your voice not just in terms of getting shots but also your voice in terms of what you care about in the world, what you want to explore in your movies, what you want them to feel like. Watch movies and watch movies that go…far off field and from directors that you haven’t heard of before.
Essentially, at the end of the day, developing your own unique voice and getting really good at it, if you get to that point, then that’s what is going to poke you out of the field. You can never say the industry is going to find you because luck is always involved, but that’s the only thing the industry really responds to, I think. (The industry) looks for someone who’s actually got talent and has something to say. If you’ve got that and keep making your own stuff and putting it out there, you’ll be surprised. People will react to it. And, I’m sure, if 20-year-old me heard that, he would get frustrated. But that’s honestly the best and most genuine advice I can think of to give.
SCT: You’re going to direct (Episode) VIII and J.J. Abrams is going to direct IX. How are you going to collaborate into making continuity work?
RJ: It’s kind of like a baton hand-off in a relay race. It was like when I started VIII where J.J. left off with VII. It’s very much, you know, I read the script for VIII. I had a couple conversations with J.J. about clarifying some stuff that he was going to do in the movie. And then it was very much an open field in terms of what happens next. What makes sense for these characters? Where does it feel right for them to go next? And kind of being able to develop the story organically going forward, which is really nice.
It’s a similar thing with VIII; I took it up to a point where it should get to the middle chapter and the characters are on a path and we brought them to a certain point, and now it’s just a relay hand-off back to J.J. He and Chris Terrio, who he’s writing with now, are figuring out the same things I did: where does it make sense for these characters to go and end up?
SCT: Do you come down to San Clemente at all still? Do you have any family in the area?
RJ: I do! My brother actually. I grew up in Cypress Shore and Cove, the very southern tip down there. My brother is actually living around that same neighborhood now with his family and kids, so I come down to see them. My mother lives in Laguna Niguel also, so I’m down to Orange County quite a bit.
SCT: Is there any chance that any of the next Star Wars films—X, XI and XII—could be shot in San Clemente?
RJ: (Laughing) I don’t know, man. We’ll see. T-Street could double as another planet, maybe? You could have Pedro’s Tacos as a new cantina. I love San Clemente and I had a great time growing up there, and I love coming back. Every time I come back, it feels like coming home. And if you’re a teenager in San Clemente and you love making movies, just keep making them.
Editor’s note: An abridged version of this article was published in the Dec. 14-20 edition of the San Clemente Times, titled May the Force be with Him: Q&A with San Clemente’s Rian Johnson, the director of ‘Star Wars.’