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Two years ago, SXSW gave a valuable programming slot to a piece of corporate marketing: Secrets of the Force Awakens, a standard-issue DVD-extra masquerading as a proper documentary. This year, small films like the well-received Jinn and the STEM-centric doc Science Fair again were scheduled against a Disney-produced Star Wars doc that would premiere on home video just a couple of weeks later. This time, fans had reason to expect something meaty for their time — it’s no secret that Mark Hamill, bearer of the lightsaber since the Force phenomenon started, had serious disagreements with the man responsible for bringing Luke Skywalker’s story to an end. Would director Anthony Wonke expose anything juicy about the conflict, or would this just be another gussied-up EPK?
The result is somewhere in between, as The Director and the Jedi acknowledges behind-the-scenes disagreements (something Secrets was too scared to do) without exploring them as anything rising to the level of interpersonal drama. More satisfying as a making-of than its predecessor and offering some genuinely poignant moments, the doc is worth fans’ time — even if one hopes the fest can bring itself to turn down a doc on Episode IX once SXSW 2020 rolls around.
One thing Wonke’s film quickly makes clear is that, though some fans suspect Disney hires underexperienced directors for its Star Wars and Marvel blockbusters believing they’ll be easier to control, The Last Jedi‘s writer/helmer Rian Johnson was no babe in the woods. We meet producer Ram Bergman and cinematographer Steve Yedlin, both of whom have been at Johnson’s side for all three of his previous features, starting with 2005’s Brick; though they’ll often be seen gasping at the practical challenges ahead — we’re told this production is double the size of The Force Awakens — it’s clear this team is making the movie they intend to make.
The doc is looking at an early two-day shoot on the UNESCO-protected Skellig Michael island when it acknowledges Hamill’s well-publicized concerns. Speaking of the way a newly embittered Luke Skywalker has rejected the Jedi religion, Hamill says, “I just fundamentally disagree with your concept of this character and how you use him.” Strong stuff, one thinks — depending on the personalities and the film in question, this could easily spell disaster. But the actor goes on, conceding that the character “belongs to other people, they just rent it out to me.”
Later, Johnson will tell Wonke that “Mark, understandably, wasn’t thrilled…that he dies in the end,” and the actor will elaborate on his character notes, arguing that Skywalker’s fundamental character trait, negated here, is optimism. (Some of us would say Luke’s essential quality is whininess, and that Old Luke’s disagreeable attitude is a wholly credible extension of that.)
In any event, this is all we hear on the subject — if there was any cajoling required to get Hamill on board, nobody’s talking. And once production is underway, the actor seems to have been charmingly supportive, even showing up to watch scenes Luke has nothing to do with. When not cheering on his co-stars, he tells a story or two about the old days; at one point, he recalls that George Lucas nearly had another actor dub in C-3PO’s dialogue after shooting, because he was so displeased with Anthony Daniels’ anxious-butler delivery.
Wonke spends lots of time with heads of technical departments, marveling at the extent to which practical effects were used where other films would go with CGI. This is the stuff we expect to see, yes. But one way Director and the Jedi manages to feel like a real movie, not a piece of marketing, is by avoiding those canned sit-downs with castmembers who feel obligated to tell you what a joy it was to work with each other. We hear almost nothing from Last Jedi‘s younger stars, and instead simply watch them do their jobs alongside their behind-the-camera colleagues.
Wonke naturally pays more attention to the veterans on set (including Yoda/Frank Oz), and reserves special moments for Carrie Fisher, who shot her scenes fully expecting to return for Episode IX. Fisher earns a few laughs as she assesses the job Johnson is doing with the franchise she helped build, before noting with admiration that he is able to stay true to his “dominating vision” without projecting a “dominating aspect.” That matches what we see here — a filmmaker who respects the expectations of fans and beloved actors but won’t be controlled by them, intent on telling a story that matters to him within a universe that even George Lucas can no longer claim to own.
Production company: Lucasfilm
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Director: Anthony Wonke
Screenwriter-producer: Tylie Cox
Director of photography: Neil Harvey
Editors: Dominic Laperriere, Garret Price
Composer: Antony Partos
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
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