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SXSW Film Review: The Director and the Jedi Is a Heartwarming, If Not Exactly Revelatory, Star Wars Doc

on March 12, 2018, 5:11pm
B
Director
Anthony Wonke
Cast
Mark Hamill, Ram Bergman, John Boyega, Jamie Christopher
Release Year
2018
Rating

The making of The Last Jedi was, by all accounts of those involved, a smooth and enjoyable process, at least for a Star Wars film. It didn’t have the endless personnel-shuffling of Solo, the neutering reshoots of Rogue One, or the decades-fueled anticipation of The Force Awakens. Disney hired the low-key yet visionary Rian Johnson, he brought his own distinct vision to both the writing and direction of the franchise, and everyone had a blast making it. Like many films, it was hard work. Unlike many films, it was undeniably fun and successful.

So you can’t exactly fault Anthony Wonke’s making-of documentary, The Director and the Jedi, for its lack of conflict. His only job when following around the cast and crew of The Last Jedi for the majority of pre-production and principal photography was to tell the truth. And from what I can tell, that’s exactly what he does. With nary a voiceover or talking head in sight, he views the entire process through a naturalistic, holistic, often handheld lens, paying close attention to Johnson’s mutually admiring relationship with Mark Hamill while also widening the scope to include other actors and artists who were so integral to the film.

What follows ends up being reflective and heartwarming rather than revelatory — a documentary that’s more generous in visual anecdotes than new information about the most popular film series on the planet. We see Johnson break into slight, high-pitched laughter every time he sees a sculpt of one of the film’s many animatronic creatures (the frumpy sea cows get the most screen time). We see Hamill moved to silence when he sees Frank Oz operate a physical Yoda puppet for the first time since 1999’s The Phantom Menace (and even that was replaced with CGI for the 2011 Blu-ray release). And in a eulogistic sequence that everyone knows is coming, we see Johnson remember Carrie Fisher; how they would rib each other between takes, and how General Leia’s final interaction with Luke Skywalker now has an added weight to it.

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But Wonke’s most memorable fly-on-the wall transmission takes place during the shooting of The Last Jedi‘s Canto Bight casino sequence. As Hamill sits in the corner, simply watching everything unfold, he gets approached by an extra wearing a giant, vision-obstructing alien mask. The actor apologizes for not recognizing Hamill earlier and confesses how much the franchise and Luke Skywalker meant to him as a kid. Hamill smiles, chats with the guy, then guides him to his next shooting location. While the brief exchange won’t make it onto any Wookieepedia page, it does give us a glimpse into the humanity that sometimes gets lost in the rollout of a Hollywood blockbuster.

If there’s even the slightest bit of tension to be found in The Director and the Jedi, it’s in Hamill’s feelings on the fate of Luke. It’s no secret that the actor initially took issue with Jedi Master becoming – in his words at the post-show talkback – “a suicidal grouch.” But when confessing his trepidation about the script, he never becomes difficult or full-on doubts Johnson. At the end of the two-sun day, he respects the filmmaker’s vision and eventually allows himself to be swayed. In the same talkback, Hamill even went as far to correct an audience member who described him as having “detested” the change in Luke’s character.

The respect goes the other way, too; Johnson understands Hamill’s hesitation and is more than willing to listen to him. Their professional dynamic is The Director and the Jedi in a microcosm: a documentary about people who love working together. Is The Last Jedi‘s production a little too seamless at times to make for compelling drama? Sure. But as Wonke’s film shows, it’s that very seamlessness that made for such a good Star Wars movie.

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