Director Rian Johnson Says Star Wars: Episode VIII Will Get To The "Heart" Of Its Characters

Johnson talks character-focused Episode VIII, Rey and Luke's opening scene, and doing something no Star Wars film has ever done before

LONDON — If Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the spark that ignited a flame, next year's Episode VIII will be a slow burn. Fans of Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren can expect a film grounded in its characters.

Director Rian Johnson took to the stage at Star Wars Celebration in London for its closing Future Filmmakers panel on Sunday (July 17), where he confirmed that for the first time in Star Wars history, Episode VIII would pick up immediately following the closing shot of The Force Awakens — with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) on Ahch-To. According to Johnson, his thought process at the time was, "I don't want to skip ahead [after] that last moment of Episode VII; I want to see what happens next." (Unfortunately, we don't know what this means for the film's opening crawl sequence, or if one will even exist.)

Johnson and his crew filmed the scene between Hamill and Ridley on Skellig Michael months before principal photography commenced in London. "It was the first thing that we did, and it was very surreal," he said. "There is something magical and mystical about that island... So to be there and see Mark and Daisy standing up on Christ's Saddle was appropriately surreal."

The closing shot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The last scene in The Force Awakens is fraught with emotions, as Luke is faced with the first new Jedi in a generation approaching him with his own lightsaber, while Rey makes a decision to truly embrace her destiny. "The first film was this incredible explosion of adventure and excitement that sets up these characters," Johnson said. "Then, just out of necessity, it's very natural that the second film is where we start zooming in on the characters. We're getting to the heart of them, challenging them, and pushing them deeper. The actors were all very excited about that."

Thankfully, Episode VIII is not just two hours of Rey and Luke staring at each other. (Although, I would be very into that film.)

Later during the Future Filmmakers panel, Episode VIII star John Boyega (Finn) made an appearance, adding that "[In Episode VIII], the characters have been pushed in a new direction in a very, very cool way." So don't expect Finn to stay knocked out for too long.

"Cool" seems to be the operative word to describe the film. Back in February, Ridley told MTV News that "Luke is so cool in [Episode VIII]. Really." While Johnson had little to say about Luke's character arc in Episode VIII, he did add that the film, like The Force Awakens before it, would also feature an abundance of practical effects and new locations. "The amount of sets we've built on this movie has been absolutely outrageous," he said.

Johnson also offered up a bit of a tease for film aficionados to decipher: The 1949 Gregory Peck film Twelve O'Clock High was a "really crucial" stylistic influence on the eighth film in the Star Wars saga. (It's also currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.) Other inspirations include Bridge on the River Kwai, Gunga Din, Sahara (starring Humphrey Bogart), and Three Outlaw Samurai — all of which he watched with Lucasfilm on Skywalker Ranch.

President of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy praised Johnson's skills as a director during the panel, saying, "Watching him on set [for Episode VIII], Rian moves the camera as well as Steven Spielberg."

So there you have it: Episode VIII will be a character-based follow-up to The Force Awakens starring Rey, Luke, and (possibly) Finn — featuring a cameo from Rogue One director Gareth Edwards as an undisclosed character — with plenty of exciting new sets and practical effects. Oh, and it's also really, really cool.