Rian Johnson: The Art in Film

Rian Johnson: The Art in Film

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Episode VIII!”

Since director Rian Johnson uttered those words, Star Wars fandom has been anticipating and speculating where he will bring the next story. As Mark Hamill said, “It’s a real journey of discovery.” However, before we take the next step into a new larger world, let’s rediscover Rian Johnson and his previous directing achievements.

The first item anyone should know about Johnson is that he is an uber fan of hard-boiled detective novels like ones written by Dashiell Hammett. When one watches Brick (2005), a high school detective tale draped in 1940s film noir; this becomes immediately evident. It’s a fast cut film and with even quicker dialogue. So fast in fact, that even with the subtitles it was a challenge keeping up, especially with the odd terminology.

During Celebration London, Johnson stated that to prepare his film crew he had them watch Three Outlaw Samurai, Sahara, To Catch a Thief, and Gunga Din. For Brick, he has cited Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Chinatown, and Cowboy Bebop as visual references. Johnson is first and foremost, a student of film.

In Brothers Bloom (2008), Johnson delivers another noir-style film, not only in dialogue this time but in visuals as well. It starts out with two brothers, Stephen (13) and Bloom (10) who con people left and right. Fast forward 25 years, Bloom wants out. He wants an “unwritten life.” It’s clear Johnson has a vision in mind, he is an artistic filmmaker who has a unique way of making movies. Johnson is wholly original in his craft there’s no doubt. While writing the script for Brothers Bloom, Johnson watched The Man Who Would Be King, but cites Paper Moon as his primary influence. Similarly, when filming Johnson watched The Conformist and 8 ½ for visuals.

Johnson isn’t constrained to only movie directing. After directing an episode of the ill-fated television series, Terriers, Johnson directed three episodes of the critically acclaimed series, Breaking Bad. “The Fly” aired on May 23, 2010, which required Johnson to direct an episode under severe budget constrictions. Always a plus in the eyes of Lucasfilm.

It’s here where Johnson’s ability to adapt to a different genre shines. His filming technique is different from his films in that it is not as noir-influenced. It’s an episode where his direction helped create more character depth. Much credit also goes towards the writing and cinematography.

“Fifty-one” aired August 5, 2012. Rian Johnson won Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing – Drama Series. Not much else to say about Johnson’s directing here other than to appreciate the acting job by Anna Gunn, one must watch. It’s a great mixture of superb directing and top-notch acting.

“Ozymandias” aired September 15, 2013, to critical acclaim. It is often cited as one of the best episodes in television history for it’s acting, writing and directing.

In between “Fifty-one” and “Ozymandias,” Johnson directed Looper (2012), a science fiction time-traveler which featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt in one way or another for the third time. Once again for influences, Johnson watched The Terminator, Akira, 12 Monkeys, and Timecrimes. And read Domu: A Child’s Dream and the Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World.

I’m curious to see how he incorporates his film making into Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Will we see quick camera shots or long view images? Will there be fast noir type dialogue like in A New Hope? I’d argue that at the time of his taking on Episode VIII, Johnson may be the most competent director ever to film a Star Wars film outside Lucas. J. J. Abrams is a household name, but his directing style rubs some the wrong way. It’s lens flare vs. film noir.

Johnson treats filmmaking as an art form, and like Daisy Ridley said, “Rian is doing many unexpected things, and taking characters in new directions.” As any artist will attest, the only way to grow is to keep moving forward and never to become complacent.

How Lucasfilm chooses their directors seems like a game of pin the tail on the donkey at times, but in Johnson’s case, it appears there could not have been a perfect fit. With George Lucas’s interest in noir-style dialogue, Lucasfilm ensures to get a similar film making style. There is no doubt, Rian Johnson’s directing and writing are superb and show off his unique film technique.



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