Rian Johnson Thinks Catering Foremost to Fanservice Is a Potential Mistake (and He's Right)

“So yeah, I’m just gonna toss this lit match on this pile of gasoline cans and you’re gonna wanna run away in like, that general direction?”
Image: Lucasfilm

As we sit waiting to see (and hear more about beyond vague social media reactions) just how Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker puts an end to the Skywalker saga, many people involved in the process have been reflecting on what it means to tell a story that caters to the passion of its audiences. Elsewhere, The Last Jedi’s director has thoughts of his own.

Speaking to Radio.com in an extensive interview last week (via Indiewire), Johnson was asked about the idea of fanservice, and the level of influence fandoms should have on the process of making something. And—perhaps unsurprising for a director behind a Star Wars film that was both lauded and vilified for playing with fan expectations, and the way it treated teases and mysteries set up by its predecessor—Johnson’s thoughts are that, even with his own fandom, he would prefer the creative process to be separate from any idea of specifically catering to fans, and focus on telling new stories that add to a mythos before they reinforce what came before.

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“I think approaching any creative process with [making fandoms happy] would be a mistake that would lead to probably the exact opposite result,” Johnson told Radio.com. “Even my experience as a fan, you know if I’m coming into something, even if it’s something that I think I want, if I see exactly what I think I want on the screen, it’s like ‘oh, okay,’ it might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards, but that’s not really going to satisfy me.”

The goal Johnson wants instead, from the perspective of both a creator and as an audience member, is to find his theories and beliefs about a piece of media to be confronted as much as they are affirmed. “I want to be shocked, I want to be surprised, I want to be thrown off-guard, I want to have things recontextualized, I want to be challenged as a fan when I sit down in the theater,” the director continued. “What I’m aiming for every time I sit down in a theater is to have the experience [I had] with Empire Strikes Back, something that’s emotionally resonant and feels like it connects up and makes sense and really gets to the heart of what this thing is, and in a way that I never could have seen coming.”

Whether or not you agree that Johnson did such a thing in The Last Jedi—these are lofty goals, and it’d be a rare film to exist that nails these goals perfectly—his remarks ring true. Fandom influence can be a beautiful thing. There’s a whole reason transformative works of fan writing, art, and other creative endeavors are finally starting to be recognized for their value more and more. Telling a story beholden specifically to pleasing already established fans risks not just dulling the impact of a story being told—after all, those fans being catered to would probably have a solid idea of what to expect out of a film made up of the things they desire most, because they’ll have seen it all before. But it also robs that story of the chance to appeal to broader audiences, to engage on different levels of viewership in a way that potentially draws a wider array of diverse thought into that fandom. Catering to those who are already diehards can, as well, serve to empower the most toxic elements of those groups to believe that they wield a level of hostile control over these stories, shutting out new perspectives and voices in the process.

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Although Johnson’s comments are made all the more intriguing thanks to the recent hubbub surrounding comments made by J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and the cast of Rise in regards to The Last Jedi—sparked mostly by two separate quotes in a New York Times piece being placed together and disseminated online to create the alleged context of the cast and crew disparaging Johnson’s work—it should be made clear that this is not some tit-for-tat response on the director’s behalf. These are not his own reactions to The Rise of Skywalker—the interview with Radio.com took place last week, before last night’s premiere, an event Johnson did not attend (his longtime producer, on The Last Jedi and several other of his projects, Ram Bergman, did), presumably out of commitments to his press tour for his current project, the murder-mystery caper Knives Out.

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We’ll likely hear Johnson’s actual reaction to the film soon after its release later this week—and, in all likeliness, it’ll be a diplomatic one, regardless of however Rise ultimately handles The Last Jedi’s grandest subversions. But for now, we’ll have to see if this particular piece of commentary from the director holds true when The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters this Friday, December 20.


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James Whitbrook

James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!