Spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi are discussed below.
When Rian Johnson was announced as the writer and director of Star Wars: Episode VIII, it came as something of a surprise, but a welcome one to be sure. Johnson hadn’t exactly made a big blockbuster movie before, but he also wasn’t some filmmaker with a single indie under his belt—he had been working consistently for years, expanding in scope with each successive film. Moreover, he’s a brilliantly unique storyteller, so audiences had faith that Johnson would deliver something original on this giant franchise canvas.
Indeed he did, as Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a bold, thrilling, wonderfully surprising sequel that is thematically satisfying and still, at a base level, wildly entertaining. One of the joys of watching the film was seeing just how gorgeous a Star Wars movie it is, and knowing that on The Last Jedi, Johnson was working once again with his longtime cinematographer Steve Yedlin.
Johnson and Yedlin have done stunning work together over the years, going all the way back to Johnson’s debut feature Brick, and Yedlin has a particular eye for interesting shots. With The Last Jedi the two craft their most visually arresting film yet, one in which each shot reinforces the thematic or narrative thrust of the scene, and one imagines the quality of the image has something to do with the relationship the two have built over the years.
I recently got the chance to speak with Yedlin about his work on the film during a press day for The Last Jedi, and while the conversation was all too brief, the cinematographer offered some terrific insight into his work on the Star Wars film. He discussed his working relationship with Johnson, how the two crafted such iconic shots within The Last Jedi, the use of the color red, and he talked specifically about putting together that unforgettable Throne Room sequence and Luke and Leia’s long-awaited reunion.
While I could have spent another hour peppering Yedlin with questions, this resulting interview offers fascinating insight into Yedlin’s work and his incredibly fruitful relationship with Johnson.
I know you and Rian have been working together for a really long time and I’m always curious with cinematographers, what were your early conversations on what you guys wanted to hit upon for the visual idea for this thing?
STEVE YEDLIN: Well, the very first time, I mean I really do remember the very first time Rian and I kind of talked about it. You know, like what we were actually going to do as opposed to just him informing me that he had been offered the job, taken it and bringing me on. We kind of had this discussion, which I think he had pretty much already decided in his head, but kind of wanted to bounce it off of me and say it out loud. But I think he pretty much already knew how much we were going to try to inform the visuals, based on the other movies, or try to specifically do something that we thought was Star Wars-y or something. And I think that the decision was kind of, you know, we’re not really going to do that.
We’re both very much inspired by Star Wars and especially Empire was just always there as an inspiration. But in terms of literally what are we doing? It’s just let’s figure out the most visually exciting way to tell this particular story in a way that excites us and feels personal. And you know, that’s what we did. The genesis of the visuals was just this is Rian’s movie and we want to make it as visually amazing as possible, but not in a flashy way that’s slapped on top of the narrative, but that the visuals are part of the narrative.
Clearly the color red is really important. I was wondering if you could talk about the use of that color in this film throughout, as kind of a motif.
YEDLIN: Yeah. I mean Rian obviously has some really big thematic stuff that’s he’s doing with that. Strangely, I mean because a lot of times he and I don’t talk about that stuff literally, we don’t start pontificating on the thematic stuff, it kind of feels like we already vibe with each other on that stuff. So we end up kind of, you know, the concept is there. We kind of both know why it’s awesome and we delve right into the figuring out kind of the finer grain. How are we actually going to do this and make it awesome and make it full throttle where this isn’t a half-measure but not look overcooked? So I think a lot of times when Rian tells me the visual anchors with this stuff, there’s kind of that moment of being like, ‘Yeah Rian is brilliant.’ This is so thematically awesome in my head and then we just dive into figuring it out and we don’t linger on all the, you know we kind of don’t do a whole kind of literary criticism dissection of it.
Something that really struck me is that were so many great iconographic shots in this film. You have Luke and Leia reunited and Kylo and Rey fighting in slow motion and I was just kind of curious, did you guys storyboard a lot of these specifically? Were there any shots that came up super early in the process that you really, really, wanted to get onto film?
YEDLIN: Absolutely. Rian has always been such a planner and you know, this was no exception. How we communicate that plan had to evolve on this because more people had to understand it in detail. We just didn’t have it where only me and him have to understand it in detail and the people only have to know the broadest strokes, because you know, between visual effects, stunts, art department, construction, physical effects, you know, there’s so much to coordinate. So there’s pre-vis and all that, but that was really just kind of an administrative thing of how are we communicating Rian’s shot ideas.