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Rian Johnson: A Star Wars Story

By Salim Garami

What's good?

To many, this weekend is the imminent release of "oh my god, the new Star Wars movie". To me... it's also the imminent release of "the new Star Wars movie", I can't even pretend that's not the way I think of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I just also find it very exciting to look at as the new Rian Johnson movie, a filmmaker I've followed since the start and am incredibly happy to find in his successful and stable position. This especially considering that he's one of the few filmmakers who never established a production company of his own (Endgame Entertainment, who produced The Brothers Bloom and Looper, is the only company to produce more than one of his films). 

So if you'll join me, today I'd like to look back on his journey from the lo-fi shoe-string ingenuity that inhabited the beginnings of his filmmaking career to being handed the keys to one of the biggest film properties in the world.

The Psychology of Dream Analysis from rcjohnso on Vimeo.

Well before his graduation from USC in 1996, Johnson's short films from high school and college were of an idiosyncratic and well-humored bent from a youthful fashion. Ninja Ko about a ninja master who creates impossible objects such as guns and cars from origami paper, Evil Demon Golfball from Hell!!! as a stark black-and-white Twilight Zone-esque hallucination, both made during those formative years, showed an awareness of transitions and angles as neat little gags to sell ridiculous concepts with levity that doesn't undercut the originality of the ideas. Both short films are accessible as easter eggs on the home video releases of Brick and Looper.

After the fluidly edited short film meditation on connections The Psychology of Dream Analysis in 2002 (available on his vimeo account), Johnson began to work on his feature debut Brick for $500,000 dollars. When it premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision, it wasn't set aback by how nakedly Johnson wore the influences of the film on its sleeve - a thinly-veiled adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, with word for word passages from the book ripped out, embedded into a high school drug drama - but justified by how clearly Johnson arranged familiar tropes from detective stories and high school movies into a fresh and animated serving of cynicism that ends up being a fun movie beyond that (almost certainly aided by the underpraised score by Johnson's brother Nathan, creating a new melodic language out of cabinets and utensils).

It also became the start of where he was able to show how well he worked with others, when John Darnielle of the indie folk project The Mountain Goats saw an obscure reference to their band in the closing credits of Brick. Recognizing him as a fan, Darnielle ended up asking Johnson to direct their music video for "Woke Up New" and began a long term collaboration between the two artistic entities, including directing live performance videos and other music videos.

Meanwhile, Johnson got to working on his next feature The Brothers Bloom and had it prepared in time to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008 only to have an extremely small four-screen opening in 2009 (expanding later only to 288 screens). While certainly the least talked about of Johnson's films, the globe-trotting con heist picture has charm to spare lifted by performances from Adrien Brody, an never slicker or more confident Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz (including a montage where she showcases a bunch of talents she learned specifically for the movie), and a silent turn by Rinko Kikuchi. While, in my humble opinion, it is the least of Johnson's three wide release features to date, largely because the quirk seems a bit forced and there are some sudden lapses in character logic for no reason other than the demands of the story, The Brothers Bloom remains an entertaining watch that makes lovely use of European city photography in Prague, Romania, Montenegro, and Greece, basically feeling like a slightly more tensed-up version of travelogue cinema. It's a shame that it made so little box office, especially in consideration of Johnson providing downloadable commentaries for the release.

But around the turn of the decade into 2010, Johnson furthered into the public eye through television work. After an episode of the short-lived FX series Terriers (his first time directing a script he has not written), Johnson directed his first of three episodes for the critically acclaimed Emmy-winning drug drama series Breaking Bad. While that first episode, season 3's "Fly" received a polarized response, it was yet another showcase of Johnson's ability to make due with limited resources. The over-budget season demanded an episode reserved to one location - the secret meth lab where the protagonists work - and Johnson took the opportunity to create an episode that worked as chamber drama (as Walter White slowly grows frustrated with his situation with the titular fly in the lab, his tension with his employer Gustavo Fring, and the secrets held against his partner Jesse Pinkman), recap of the events of the show so far to reckon with the themes and arcs (not entirely in a subtle way), and dry slapstick (because again, they're trying to swat a fly). Despite the varied reception, the staff was clearly so happy with Johnson's work that they had him return in season 5 for two more episodes. Both were much better received, including the 2013 episode "Ozymandias", widely considered the best episode of the entire series.

And yet before "Ozymandias" airing, Johnson was able to find himself room for one more feature and this time it became a much bigger sleeper success - the 2012 time travel neo-noir Looper, where Bruce Willis and a very audaciously make-up covered Joseph Gordon-Levitt (his third appearance in Johnson's features, fourth if we count the short Escargots) play the same character at different ages, the younger version attempting to kill the other. Once again, inventive in its vision of a psychic-inhabited future full of gritted designs so desperate to look sleek if it wasn't so tired and flippant enough about the technical convolutions of its concept to just roll with it, Johnson's one-two success with Breaking Bad and Looper finally broke him out into the mainstream and the eyes of the newly-purchased-by-Disney Lucasfilm in the midst of developing its new Star Wars trilogy.

So now we're here on the eve of the wide release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson's latest feature after writing the script for The Last Jedi and developing the story for the imminent Episode IX and apparently it's so satisfying that Lucasfilm is intending to put him in charge of a new separate trilogy. Recently, the embargo lifted to a massive amount of critical praise, promising Johnson-esque twists to the saga like he's been reliable about. My attitude about Lucasfilm's recent production practices aside, I can't help finding Johnson's new home exciting and being happy for the distance he's made. His career is a wonderful story of a man starting from the bottom with his passion of film suddenly being front and center of an event picture after all of his hard work.

So, yeah, did you guys hear the new Rian Johnson movie is coming out this weekend?

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Reader Comments (3)

Rian Johnson is just awesome as I'm happy he's living the dream and getting to make a Star Wars movie. Not bad for someone who made a high school noir film for a small budget.

December 13, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Everyone says The Brothers Bloom is his worst film, but it's by default. It's fantastic.

December 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Brothers bloom was terrible for me and such a waste of time storywise. One might overlook it if any of the main characters were likeable or sympathetic but they weren't. Another instance of how irritating expository wish fulfillment stories can be when you're not on board.

December 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commenteronetake

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