NB: The following contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Skellig Michael, a beautiful yet desolate and windswept island off the coast of Ireland. At some point in 2016, a bunch of puppeteers stood precariously on a cliff edge, dangling several dozen feet above jagged rocks and a roiling sea. It’s the shoot of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and director Rian Johnson and his team are trying to get some location shots to help create a mythical planet in a galaxy far, far away – Ahch To, the planet where an ageing Luke Skywalker has fled to see out his final days.
At least a couple of these shots involve the Porgs – little alien birds that the production has dreamed up as stand-ins for the thousands of puffins that constantly flap in and out of shot on the island. With space at a premium, the puppeteers in charge of moving the Porgs around are attached to harnesses, designed to catch them if their feet slip on the moss and they fall off the edge of a cliff. The Porg puppets, almost as valuable as the puppeteers controlling them, also have their own little harnesses, just in case they happen to drop off the precipice.
Moments like these highlight the faintly absurd reality of filmmaking. Even if you carry around the illusion that making movies is all money and glamour – which it often isn’t – there’s also the curious truth that actors, directors, stunt people and puppeteers willingly put themselves through hell to get the perfect shot. Strip away the fan fervor and the decades of cinema history, and The Last Jedi is a space pantomime about giant alien sea cows that ooze milk and power-crazed fascists piloting star cruisers. Yet bizarrely – and poignantly – artists, designers and storytellers put an incredible amount of thought, effort and craft into making these movies look and sound as good as they can.
This much is clear from watching only a few minutes of The Director And The Jedi, the 90-minute making-of documentary that accompanies The Last Jedi’s home release. Consisting almost entirely of behind-the-scenes footage, it provides a detailed look at the making of Episode VIII, from the obvious apprehension of its director, Rian Johnson, as he embarks on the biggest film of his career, to the shoot itself – which takes in over a 100 days of frantic set-building, filming, fretting and pointing.
The documentary’s maker, Anthony Wonke, appears to have enjoyed pretty much unfettered access to The Last Jedi’s production, which is an intriguing development in itself. Only a year earlier, Star Wars: Rogue One made headlines with its stories of story difficulties and last-minute reshoots. Oddly, the documentary material supplied on that film’s home release gave little sign of what had gone on behind the scenes, making it the studio equivalent of Han Solo’s “We’re all fine here now, thank you,” bit from A New Hope.
Our best guess is that, for all the stresses and late nights that went into making The Last Jedi, its making was far less contentious than Rogue One’s – hence The Director And The Jedi, which certainly has a few warts-and-all moments (Mark Hamill’s evident misgivings about his character’s trajectory, for one) but nothing as dramatic as a third-act retooling or a whole new director being brought in during the thick of filming, like this year’s Solo.
What the documentary does capture, though, almost by accident, is the final few days of an old generation of Star Wars characters. The untimely passing of Carrie Fisher cast a melancholy pall over The Last Jedi’s release, and it’s just as sad to see the actress go through her final scenes here. Fisher still has her feisty edge, but she seems desperately frail between takes; the sequence where she meets Luke Skywalker for the final time, captured by a documentary-maker’s camera from an obscure angle, is perhaps even more heart-rending to see in this context than in the original movie.
The Star Wars saga will inevitably rumble on – even Hamill seems resigned to the fact that he’s only “renting” the Skywalker persona – but the faces that made the series what it was back in the ’70s and ’80s are, inevitably, fading away. Little wonder, then, that Rian Johnson and his filmmakers bear the wait of the franchise so visibly on their faces: it’s up to them to keep the juggernaut rolling.
At one stage, Johnson sits down between shots and talks to his longtime producer, Ram Bergman, about his mounting anxiety over the sheer size of the project he’s taken on. In another, Bergman tells Johnson about a meeting with Disney-Lucasfilm’s top brass, in which he had to explain that the production was approximately 50 days in with about 100 sets left to build. Johnson replies weakly that, well, at least they’re still on schedule.
Moments like these are wonderfully human, though there’s little getting away from the feeling that, at about 90 minutes, The Director And The Jedi feels over-stretched. Yes, it’s fascinating to see the work that goes into the construction of all those sets, and the planning and labour that goes into moving a gigantic foam-rubber sea cow via helicopter to and from a mossy island several hundred miles away. But all the same, there are only so many shots we need of explosions captured in glorious slow-motion, or of crewmembers kissing and hugging one another after a long day’s work.
A 40-minute-long documentary could have neatly distilled the planning and uncertainty, the joy and the melancholy. At more than twice that duration, The Director And The Jedi highlights a paradox that will always spring from studio-approved documentaries: if things had gone truly south on the production of The Last Jedi, then this making-of wouldn’t exist. Or, in the case of Rogue One’s extra features, it would’ve been carefully put together to avoid delving too deeply into what actually happened. Producer Kathleen Kennedy was obviously delighted with what Johnson ultimately produced, and so here we are, with a film that proudly shows us how tidily a potentially overwhelmingly huge movie came together.
It’s probably naive to expect something with the weight and jaw-dropping honesty of something like, say, Heart Of Darkness – a stunning behind-the-scenes tour of Francis Ford Coppola’s calamitous Apocalypse Now – but then Disney-Lucasfilm partly invited the comparison by giving The Director And The Jedi a prominent screening at the South By South-West film festival. With a high-profile debut like that, we were hoping for something a bit more revelatory.
Still, taken as a disc extra, The Director And The Jedi is worth a watch. Behind-the-scenes nerds will get a kick out of seeing all those gorgeous clay aliens being carved and caressed into life. Some of the shots of sets being built and actors being put through their fight scenes are nicely captured. But once again, it’s the incidental stuff that proves to be the most revealing. When Disney bought Lucasfilm and revived Star Wars, it no doubt thought (perhaps rightly) that it was in control of a timeless franchise that could be rolled out annually for the next decade or so. But time and again, the march of time cuts through the comforting nostalgia: it’s spooky, and even a little sad, to see how different Han Solo and Luke Skywalker look in the current films compared to the 80s pomp. The passing of Carrie Fisher, meanwhile, threatens to leave a hole in the franchise that even Hollywood’s best screenwriters will struggle to fill.
The Director And The Jedi may purport to be about Rian Johnson’s battle to make a Star Wars movie, but it’s those shots of Hamill and Fisher – the Jedi and the Princess – that cut the deepest.
The Director And The Jedi can be found on the Star Wars: The Last Jedi Blu-ray, out now.