Ram Bergman co-pilots The Last Jedi

January 4, 2018 Danny Munso

“Never in my life did I think I would make a career in movies.” Ram Bergman didn’t say this from the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon itself, but he may as well have. The longtime producer has gone from wondering if he would ever get to make a movie period to shepherding small indie projects to now, most prominently, becoming one of the individuals who brought the most anticipated film of the year— Star Wars: The Last Jedi —to life.

It’s more than a full-circle moment for Bergman, who grew up halfway across the world, far from the lights of Hollywood in Rishon LeZion, Israel, where pop culture was not as big as it is in America. But he found his way to the theater and was transformed by what he took in: Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark and, most crucially, George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. “Something clicked when I saw those,” Bergman says. “I loved watching movies like that so much, and I woke up one day and thought, Well, why not just go make movies? That was really it. I believed I was going to make movies and do whatever I want to do, whether I had any education [in that area] or not.” He moved to the United States in 1991 and immediately took a job as an on-set production assistant. After only one gig, he realized that while he was indeed in the business tangentially, the insane schedule of an assistant didn’t allow him time to network or get projects off the ground as a producer. He quit that job and began working as a valet because it afforded the free time he needed. The seemingly odd trade-off worked: Within a few short years, Bergman was a credited producer on several small films.

His career—and life—really took a leap in 2002, when a USC film grad named Rian Johnson handed him a script called Brick, a high school drama told through the unique lens of a film noir. It was unlike anything Bergman had ever read. Johnson had been struggling to get the film made, and Bergman told him part of the reason was the budget was too large. He convinced Johnson to make the film for only $350,000, down from Johnson’s planned $1 million, most of which was able to come from family and friends, and if he came aboard as producer, he would ensure that the singular vision for the film would not be tampered with. Sure enough, with Johnson directing and Bergman producing, Brick became an indie hit upon its release in 2005, garnering accolades when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and later when it went to wide release in theaters. Bergman believed in Johnson’s filmmaking potential, and the two seemed to be a winning team. “I had never read a script like Brick before, but you have no idea how somebody really is until they’re on set,” he recalls. “But right from the first setup of the day, I knew after 10 minutes that I didn’t need to be there. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He has complete command and control of what he wants to do.”

Their bond solidified, Bergman went on to produce Johnson’s next two films, The Brothers Bloom in 2008 and 2012’s hit Looper. When it was announced in July 2014 that Johnson would be helming The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in Lucasfilm’s Skywalker saga, there was no doubt Bergman would be alongside for the entire ride as the producer. The two creative partners have long become incredibly close friends. “This guy is a special person,” Bergman says of Johnson. “Forget how talented he is as a writer and director, he’s just a really special human being. Every time I make a movie with Rian, I tell the cast and crew they are never going to experience somebody like this. And everybody calls me afterward and says, ‘You were so right.’ Once you work with him, it’s hard to work with somebody else. He’s the best human being in the world, and I’d take a bullet for him. I want to continue making movies with him for the rest of my life.”

Once the project was under way, Bergman and Johnson tended to their respective high-profile duties. For Johnson, it was creating story from scratch for long beloved characters like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) as well as such new ones as Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), introduced to the saga by J.J. Abrams in 2015’s The Force Awakens. For his part, Bergman needed to find a way to navigate the sheer scale of a Star Wars production. Until The Last Jedi, the biggest film he had worked on was Looper, with a price tag of $30 million. Jedi’s budget hasn’t officially been reported, but it’s fair to say that it could easily be 10 times that amount. “When I took the gig, I realized the most important thing is to have a long prep period,” he says. “So we actually started prepping the movie while Rian was still writing. We brought in the production designer 16 months before we started filming, and he began working on designs based on what Rian was writing. I knew prep would be the best way to make this movie run smooth and efficiently.”

Because of the two filmmakers’ mutual familiarity, Bergman gave input as Johnson was working on the script, acting as a sounding board for ideas and concerns related to the complex story. “[Johnson] is comfortable sharing that with me, and throughout the whole process I will voice my opinion. I gave him notes on the first draft, and then he went and did another one. After a few, we felt it was good enough to share with the studio, and luckily they all responded to it. Rian and I have such a trust between ourselves, and that goes all the way through postproduction. It’s not about ego or anything, it’s about making the best movie. We’ll go back and forth, but it’s always for the best of the movie. Sometimes he will listen, and sometimes he won’t.” Bergman credits that strong first draft as the primary reason the entire production went so smoothly from his producer perch. Not only did Johnson deliver the script earlier than expected (while The Force Awakens was still being made), but Bergman estimates that 90 to 95 percent of the finished film was in the first draft in some form or another. “It made everything easy for us. I hesitate to say easy, but we had all the information and we didn’t have to wait for a script being delivered at the last minute with continual rewrites. I think, again, the way to do it is by being prepared and have as much lead time as possible. That’s literally why we were able to do some of the things we were able to do in the movie—because we had the time to be prepared.”

As such, the shoot didn’t have any of the nightmare stories that can sometimes accompany big-budget productions, such as an on-set accident like the one Abrams had to endure on his set when Harrison Ford broke his leg and caused the upending of production for two months. But the sheer size of the project meant he had to juggle producer duties on a scale he had never experienced. In a lot of ways, The Last Jedi is the most epic Star Wars film to date. It has the longest running time of any film in the franchise’s history (150 minutes), and thanks to the scope of Johnson’s script, the team built more than 125 sets. The expansion of the Star Wars universe to new corners of the galaxy—such as the mining planet of Crait, home to one of the film’s major battles, and the upscale casino setting of Canto Bight—has long had fans excited but also led to some logistical nightmares. “It was a massive amount of sets and some that were incredibly big,” he says. “So it was about figuring out the puzzle of that with the number of soundstages we had available, because we covered the entirety of Pinewood [the studios in the U.K. where the majority of production took place]. Some of the sets took three to four months to build, so it was making sure it’s all lined up. You can’t afford to fall one day behind because that will screw up the entire house of cards. There are only so many stages and so many backlots and so many sets. So that was one of the things I would always be worried about on a daily or hourly basis.” He is quick to add that the people who continually impressed him most were the artists putting all these sets together in such a limited period of time.

Bergman isn’t finished exploring the world of Star Wars with Johnson—more on that later—but he does look forward to producing other types of films after spending so long on this. And if you glance at his filmography, you notice a pattern. He clearly enjoys working with first-time directors, whether it’s Johnson on Brick or his more recent efforts shepherding the debut passion projects of actors, including Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon and Natalie Portman’s A Tale of Love and Darkness. “It’s exciting for me,” he says. “It’s appealing for me when you find somebody really talented that you like and you can help them make their first movie. To me, it’s rewarding. Usually, movies are a labor of love and nobody’s really making any money. These people are there to make whatever film they wanted to do, whether it’s commercial or not. I bet on people. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose.” Bergman also offers without prompting that he looks for different types of filmmakers to work with now that he is older and wiser. “I’m in a different place today than I was starting out,” he says. “If I’m going to spend two to three years with this person, you want to know you believe this person is talented but you also [need to] believe in the person as a human being, that you want to spend time with them. Ten to 15 years ago, I just wanted to get movies made. If I thought somebody was talented but was maybe not so nice, I still just wanted to get the movie made. In today’s world, I can say I just want the person to be both, and that can be hard to find.”

He has certainly found both in Johnson, and their next project together was recently announced by Lucasfilm. With such strong buzz for The Last Jedi, many assumed the two would be brought back for Episode IX, the untitled final entry to Star Wars’ new trilogy, after the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow. So it was a surprise when Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy announced Abrams would be retaking the director’s chair for the 2019 film. The explanation turned out to be something that sent waves for through the fandom: Johnson and Bergman were indeed returning but to helm an entirely new trilogy set in a different time and place than the main Skywalker-based saga. What is unclear is whether the duo will be involved in all three of those films or just the initial offering. As Bergman tells it, the details are still a mystery to him and Johnson. “It’s too early for us to say definitively, I think. Once The Last Jedi comes out, we’ll take a few months to regroup and figure out what the next few years are going to look like for us. But we are definitely planning to do more movies together.”