Whether it’s that final shot of the twin sunset on Ahch-To or Laura Dern’s Holdo crashing her ship into a First Order Destroyer, Steve Yedlin says his job as cinematographer on Star Wars: The Last Jedi was made easier because of the way director Rian Johnson wrote his script — with such a wealth of detail that the crew knew exactly how to bring his visually awesome ideas to life.
I caught up with Yedlin for a brief chat to discuss a few key scenes and to get his thoughts on working with Johnson for the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise.
When you’ve got a project like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, where does it begin?
The beginning of it for me is it’s a Rian Johnson movie and getting into the amazing script he wrote. You start piece by piece figuring out how to bring Rian’s vision to life. It’s way too big to have any kind of one giant overarching solution. It really is a long prep period of sitting down with every individual set and scene and planning out a way to make it visually awesome, not just in a flashy way, but in a way to tell Rian’s story.
Visually awesome is the best description. I love it.
What’s awesome about Rian is he’s such an amazing storyteller. He’s such a visual artist. So much of the visuals whether it’s my stuff with the photographer, Ben’s stuff with the visual effects, or Rick’s with Production Design, wardrobe and all of that, it’s so orchestrated by Rian — where so much of the visuals are so much of the narrative, he’s not just thinking of flashy ideas. We can use the prep and design time in a lot of ways, rather than saying, “What about this or that?” the idea is in the script, so we spend time on how to make something better and more evocative. The idea isn’t spiraling and we use the time to plan. The concept level is so deeply ingrained in the story whether it’s the light going into the cave or the flaming tree light, so much is there that it’s a pleasure to say that we already have this cool concept in every stage of planning whether it’s the concrete planning or the finesse stage of planning where you take the outline and write the sentence on set, every single one is finessing this amazing vision that Rian had.
Let’s talk about the lightsaber duel scene between Rey and Snoke and working on that scene.
That is one of my most in awe moments. It was a moment when I was most in awe of Rian’s conceptualization and execution. Firstly, there’s the red of the room we talked about. As we were going into it, Rian was asking, “Do I really want to do this, it’s a really bold choice?” Once he decided on that, we really jumped into it. Rick, the production designer and I decided we didn’t want to do anything by any half-assed measure. In terms of the actual fight, the choreography you’re talking about, Rian had already worked with the stunt and fight co-ordinator’s to get this amazing stuff. The way we did it, it’s going to sound downplaying it, but it’s the same way Rian approaches any scene, and that’s asking what is the best way to be in there to capture the essence of the scene and what’s happening. It’s about designing the shot to tell the story. Rian had the fight coordinators go through it very slowly and he would hold the director’s finder as if he were doing a close up on an actor delivering lines in a dialogue scene.
We’re in a renaissance where this is happening less these days, but in the past decade or so, we’ve had so much tight shaky handheld action stuff and you make it in editing. This is very much the opposite and it’s in the mise en scène. You can only see what’s happening, not in an objective wide shot way, but you’re really inside the action and the shots are evolving in an exciting way and every moment.
The Luke and Kylo standoff was evocative of earlier Star Wars duels.
It’s not a crazy flurry of action. These are two masters in almost like a high-end chess game that only they understand. I was always so excited about the thematic concept of that. That low sun and it’s changing because as the stuff gets kicked up, because it’s getting later, that was all at the script level. We planned so much to make it exactly that in the photography right down to the timings of when the sun lowers. ILM brought that home, we did it in the photography and they carried it on with their magic.