Rian Johnson, Star Wars

One of the more heated debates around The Playlist water cooler often centers around how "assembly line," so to speak, the upcoming “Star Wars” films will be. Perhaps we are jaundiced with respect to the prequels from 1999-2005, or we are cynical regarding Disney’s involvement —the studio reportedly pushed for "Star Wars: Episode VII" to be released in 2015 rather than giving the filmmakers an extra year— but in any case, the more skeptical members of the team assume 'Star Wars' may be compromised from the get-go. The thinking among these quarters is that the movies will have to include things like Jedis, Empires and the original characters of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, etc. and will thus play it safe to appeal the broadest audience possible. And even being far more optimistic about the reborn franchise then many of my colleagues, I have to admit that any inclusion of familiar elements —the Millennium Falcon, R2D2, C-3PO— would be disappointing. We’ve said it so many times before: the possibility of this universe being expanded seems incredibly promising, whereas heavily leaning on all the classic elements would render “Star Wars: Episode VII” as just another continuation of the George Lucas-created story.

With the addition of new cast members Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson among others, the hope is that the J.J. Abrams directed movie will use classic “Star Wars” elements from episode ‘IV’ through ‘VI’ as a launching pad to explore new stories (but I swear, if this movie introduces a generic “new generation,” a passing of the torch from the wise old mentors to young upstarts, I’m going to scream in disgust).

From what we’ve heard so far, Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy have a genuine love and respect for the classic material and want to do right by it. They’ve invited franchise veterans like 'Empire Strikes Back' writer Lawrence Kasdan to be part of the core writing team, possibly to bring back the humanistic values the best of the 'Star Wars' films have. Point being, as cynical as you might be about it, everyone's hearts appears to be in the right place. Sure, the same is said about every classic reboot (“Total Recall” or “RoboCop” for example) but at least they’ve been saying all the right things. While a lot of too-obvious elements from the original trilogy are being recycled, it appears the filmmakers could expand the universe in intriguing ways. There’s even been talk of trying to “redefine longform storytelling” which is an exciting prospect.

I digress. I can’t say whether these movies will be good or not, but I’m hoping the filmmakers will have some creative freedom to move far beyond the original films and head into a bold new direction. Maybe Abrams' film is a springboard for something that’s truly original. Some hopeful words arrived from Rian Johnson today, talking to filmmaker Terry Gilliam on the excellent TalkHouse podcast.

Amusingly enough, Gilliam doesn’t even know that Johnson is writing and directing “Star Wars: Episode VIII,” and the “Looper” filmmaker has to explain it to him. “Wow,” Gilliam says incredulously when told (which is a little bit LOL, but maybe we should get some perspective). “What does it feel like when you take over someone else’s world?” a genuinely intrigued Gilliam asked. “I’m just starting into it, but so far it’s been nothing but… honestly, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had writing. It’s just joyous." Johnson talks about not only growing up with the movies, but playing with Star Wars toys as a child. “The first movies I was making in my head were part of this world, so part of it is a direct connection —it’s almost like an automatic jacking-in into childhood in a weird way.”

Gilliam asks if Lucas is “looking over his shoulder,” but Johnson reminds the older director that Lucas sold Lucasfilm and is no longer directly involved. “Are you free?,” Gilliam asks, inquiring about Johnson’s obligations to the “Star Wars” franchise but perhaps also asking how much creative freedom he’ll retain. “I’m figuring it out as I go,” he said. “I’m dancing on top of the avalanche a little bit. But it’s a challenge of remembering what inspires you about [the original films], but I think you can probably go to the wrong place by feeling too responsible to it. You have to keep your head loose enough to tell a story you actually care about.”

Gilliam wonders about the obligations and the responsibility one has to such an iconic franchise and Johnson suggests that the environment as such is fairly easy. “Well, that’s been the great thing about it —Kathleen and her whole creative team have been so insistent on all the filmmakers they’ve been hiring for these new movies: ‘We want you to take it and turn it into something that you really care about.’ And we’ll see how the process plays out, but so far, that’s a big part of the reason I’m [doing the film]. Because that just seems like their attitude towards it. It’s really exciting actually.”

Well, that sounds pretty good, no? Meanwhile, Abrams and “Batman Vs. Superman Dawn Of Justice” helmer Zack Snyder continue to play out their strange social media mash-up game, where each filmmaker takes an element of the other’s film and includes it in some photo or video. Snyder recently posted a photo of a Stormtrooper on the set of his film being placed into a Gotham City cop car (see below) and Abrams has now responded with a video that pans around the immense hulking Millennium Falcon and shows a little Batmobile hidden underneath its hull. Is he trying to infer that the Batmobile is a hunk of junk like the title of the clip? We suppose these games are fun for the filmmakers, but we do pity the fans that are expecting/hoping for a “Star Wars/Batman” crossover film. Just not gonna happen. Listen to the podcast, check out Snyder's pic and Abrams’ “Star Wars” clip below.