The making-of featurette was a gateway drug for movie obsessives of a certain age. In the 1990s, you could find them all over: HBO’s First Look series would run between showings of Just One of the Guys and Jurassic Park. In theaters, pre-screening trivia games and in-house refreshment advertisements were buttressed by fast-cutting behind-the-scenes segments hooked to forthcoming movies. Entertainment Weekly and Premiere magazine persisted on the strength of a kind of on-set reporting that was both fluffy and insightful. But it was on DVD where the form really took hold. Ostensibly promotional material funded by the studio with little commercial intent or journalistic value, “making ofs” were a window into what a movie set looked like and a way to learn how technical the endeavor really is. There were once staid, carefully managed books about the craft of moviemaking (Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies and Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye being rare exceptions), but in the span of a couple of decades, soon there were reams of footage of actors and filmmakers at work. And it was all very practical.
Making movies looks more like building a Starbucks than it does weaving magical threads. Sets are raised and then razed. People scurry around and then halt. Anxiety operates at a low hum, even on the calmest sets. These are inherently physical acts. The best movies about this process are often operatic and full-length. They explore existential doubt, like 1991’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, on Francis Ford Coppola’s disastrous, deathless shoot for Apocalypse Now. Some show delusions of grandeur, like Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams from 1982, which chronicles Werner Herzog’s mad quest to drag a ship up a mountain while making Fitzcarraldo, a film about dragging a ship up a mountain. Those are sagas, stories about the peril in art. But I dig the chin-scratching ones, too, like the peppy, quizzical making of that accompanied David Fincher’s Zodiac. And I especially liked That Moment, the 70-minute verité doc that tracked a frenzied Paul Thomas Anderson during Magnolia’s production. They feel real, even when they’re artifice.
The making-of doc has started to die out in recent years, as the home entertainment market has collapsed. Some movie phenomenons still get the full treatment—see: the alternate ending available on the home release of Get Out. But the subject typically needs a dedicated audience as invested in the how as the what. Star Wars, of course, fits the bill. And as a companion to the release of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Lucasfilm produced The Director and the Jedi, Anthony Wonke’s full-length film tracking the making of that franchise installment.
It’s a fascinating document that is no less a promotional tool than most others, but is also bound by tension and real relationships—director Rian Johnson’s relationship to the Star Wars mythos and the real people who embody them; Lucasfilm’s relationship to success and the desire to make a massive movie true to its predecessors; producer Ram Bergman’s relationship to creative chaos at scale; and the meta relationship between making a dream and then realizing that dream may not be everyone else’s. And then sticking to it.
The Last Jedi is a worldwide success and critically acclaimed, but it endured a strange bout of criticism from some fans who felt betrayed by its storytelling choices. That kind of faceless, online herd is tipped early in the movie, when Johnson encounters demands from Russian bots begging the director not to kill off General Hux, the First Order military leader played by Domhnall Gleeson. (Hux didn’t die.) But there is a rollicking, cheerful sheen in The Director and the Jedi, as we see the depth and rigor of the moviemaking—practical effects that went into construction of the movie are spotlit time and again. Anthony Daniels practices C3PO line readings in and out of costume. Frank Oz regains control of Yoda for a puppeteering master class. Mark Hamill and Daisy Ridley clash in a bucolic backyard, wielding fake swords while rehearsing crucial scenes set on Ahch-To. It’s a reminder that real people make movies, even ones on the biggest stages cloaked in green screen.
The crisis of story between Johnson and Hamill, and the indivisible notions of fatherhood and legacy baked into the series are eerily represented here, too. That the core criticism surrounding the film—“that’s not my Luke Skywalker”—was also present in the production of the film signals what makes Johnson’s storytelling choices so provocative in the first place. All of J.J. Abrams’s decisions in The Force Awakens allowed Star Wars fans to feel safe in this return mission; they have their inevitable inversion in The Last Jedi. Even Luke himself worried over bucking convention.
Wonke is present for indelible moments, tiny crisis points over story, timing, and actor management—all the vagaries of moviemaking. On the eve of Solo: A Star Wars Story, a film with a complex production history of its own, it’s doubtful we’ll get a movie as open-armed about the process again. Movie obsessives have become more interested in the teeth-gnashing industry-watching that consumes so much media—and of which I’m certainly guilty—than the nuts and bolts that goes into the making of the things themselves. The hubbub around Solo and the breathless reporting around the reshoots on another Star Wars property, Rogue One, were certainly louder than a movie that hopes to unpack precisely how Johnson staged that breathtaking showdown in Snoke’s throne room. To call that a tragedy overstates the value of what is ultimately a commercial for another movie. But The Director and the Jedi is a hell of a commercial.