The Force Awakens was wrapping up production, and its sequel, The Last Jedi, was just getting underway. J.J. Abrams had not only resurrected the Star Wars universe, but he had introduced entirely new characters to the galaxy to carry the narrative forward.
But as one film prepared to hand off the story to the next, The Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson had a major favor to ask: Would Abrams mind changing the ending of his film?
Just a little.
Pun-based celebrations are never really the high holy days for any group, but since this is 5/04/17 — a.k.a. #StarWarsDay, and “May the Fourth (Be With You)” greetings abound — let’s finally solve this mystery: What was Rian Johnson’s big ask? (We also got him to discuss why Luke Skywalker fled into exile rather than stay and fight the First Order.)
Obviously, slight spoilers ahead …
Johnson already had a to-do list for the Force once it awakened, and he was involved early enough to know exactly where Abrams and co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan were taking things. But when he saw the planned ending — that silent scene of Rey returning an exiled Luke Skywalker’s first lightsaber to him — he had a concern about who was accompanying her on that journey.
His request will end up returning a long-beloved Star Wars figure to the center of the action: R2-D2.
“Yes … The big [favor] was, I asked if R2 could come with Rey, and if BB-8 could stay behind with the Resistance,” Johnson says. “Originally it was BB-8 who went with Rey, which makes sense for the story in a way. But I asked, ‘Can you do me this solid and switch the droids?’”
As everyone knows, The Force Awakens saw R2 spending most of his time in sleep-mode, completely sidelined from the action as he awaited his own opportunity to awaken and provide the final piece of the galactic puzzle that would lead Rey and the Resistance back to Luke.
BB-8 won’t be shunted aside for The Last Jedi — he’ll just spend his time as the familiar of X-wing pilot Poe Dameron. And ask you can see from the recent Star Wars Celebration gathering, the director and the roly-poly robot have no hard feelings toward each other.
In The Empire Strikes Back, R2 was the only other member of the original group to accompany Luke on his journey to Dagobah as he sought to train under the similarly exiled Jedi master Yoda. History may not repeat, but Abrams’ droid-swapping favor allows it to echo.
It also provides Luke with a beloved old friend after so many years in isolation. Johnson offered a little more insight into his request: This provides two of the original trilogy mainstays to move to the center of The Last Jedi.
For everyone worried that Luke Skywalker might not have much of a role in the saga going forward, Johnson tells EW that his is the central story.
“Figuring out where his head was at was the very first thing I had to do when writing the movie. I had to crack this. And it had to be something for me that first and foremost made sense. Why did Luke Skywalker go off to this island?” Johnson says. “That was the starting point, and that’s what the entire movie explores.”
We know the vague details from The Force Awakens: After the events of Return of the Jedi, the Rebellion became a New Republic and Luke founded his own Professor X-like school for gifted students who displayed a sensitivity to the Force. One of them was his own nephew, Ben Solo, who became corrupted by the Knights of Ren (we still don’t know too much about them) and Supreme Leader Snoke (ditto.)
Taking the new name Kylo Ren, he helped slaughter his fellow students at the school. After that, his parents — Han Solo and Leia Organa — were driven apart, overcome by grief and shame. And Luke Skywalker retreated to a secret, sacred Jedi site on the island-world of Ach-To.
But … why did Luke run? Shouldn’t he have stayed to fight, to make this atrocity right? Does fleeing make him a coward?
“I didn’t want it to,” Johnson says. “There has to be a good reason that makes sense to him — and to some degree makes sense to us.”
What is that reason? What possible justification will there be?
All we know is, now R2-D2 will be there alongside Luke when The Last Jedi provides the answer on Dec. 15.
Happy Star Wars Day, everybody. May the Fourth Be With You.