Rian Johnson became an indie hotshot with 2005’s neo-noir “Brick,” but the director, according to a recent IndieWire interview, said he managed to keep a low profile after making the film. However, he said that wouldn’t be the case today.
It’s now the trend that studios chase indie filmmakers after a big breakout. But Johnson said, “Personally I'm grateful that environment didn't exist when I made ‘Brick’ because I would've jumped into it. I'm glad I paved my own path where I made my own films. Today if I had put ‘Brick’ out and I was 30, I'm sure the calls would've come in.”
Johnson waited three years after “Brick” to release his follow-up project, “The Brothers Bloom,” a $20 million indie that flopped hard at the box office but nonetheless remains a cult favorite. Johnson added that it wasn’t until his 2012 time-hopping science-fiction film “Looper,” released by TriStar, that other major studio heads started to take notice. “Once I made ‘Looper’ I did start getting approached for stuff. Some of it got made, some of it didn't,” Johnson said. “I just got in the habit of saying no as a matter of course because I wanted to do my own things.”
In discussing his turn from indies to studio filmmaking, Johnson recalled a story about “The Lighthouse” director Robert Eggers, who became the toast of Sundance after winning Best Director in 2015 for his haunting folk-tale horror movie “The Witch.” “Literally his agents got calls from studio people who he knew hadn't seen ‘The Witch.’ This is just the way the farm system works. I don't know if that's hehy,” Johnson said.
However, Johnson’s resistance to tentpole filmmaking changed with the 2017 release of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” his wildly successful first foray in that universe that earned him enough trust from Lucasfilm to task the “Knives Out” director with writing a new trilogy of films for the series. “Star Wars came along, which was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he said.
Johnson also stressed the creative control he was handed by Lucasfilm in putting together “The Last Jedi.” “I did not feel those boundaries. It had to do with the exact people I was working with and the situation. I got to really engage with the thing on a personal level and come up with what was important about this thing that's been a part of my life since I was five years old while respecting what the thing is and continuing the story of it,” he said.
As for what’s next in Johnson’s upcoming “Star Wars” films, he said he’s still cooking up ideas for the story, which will reset the narrative now that the Skywalker Saga is ending with this December’s “The Rise of Skywalker” from director J.J. Abrams.
“I'm poking around and trying to find stuff. When I'm around at Lucasfilm, I see things. I visited the set of ‘Mandalorian.’ The producer I was with was like, you know, don't say a fucking a word. With the creators, you're doing stuff and feel like everyone's sharing their vibes and they're open about stuff. It doesn't feel like there are little locked rooms you can't go into. I run into Dave Filoni in the hallways and we talk about what we're working on,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s murder mystery “Knives Out” opens theatrically on November 27.
If you need a break from sitting around watching endless hours of TV during quarantine and want to do some reading, Rian Johnson is here to help. The filmmaker has made the shooting draft of Knives Out available for all to read. Since it’s a shooting draft it’s pretty similar to the final film, although there are a few interesting differences here and there. Mostly, though, it’s another reminder of how damn fine a script this is.
Just posted the shooting draft of Knives Out to my site. All previous scripts that don't involve outer space are up there too. https://t.co/aseGDIdwZJ
— Rian Johnson @rianjohnson March 23, 2020
Hey, remember Knives Out? One of the best movies of last year? Well, it’s back – in script form. Rian Johnson was nice enough to put the script on his site, along with all his other scripts except for The Last Jedi. It’s a fun read, mostly for the tiny little differences here and there. For instance: in the final film, when Benoit Blanc is first introduced as sitting in on the questioning of the Thrombey family, he casually taps a piano key every time he wants the line of questioning to change. In the script, he simply taps the back of a chair with his foot – which isn’t nearly as over-dramatic and memorable as the piano key thing.
Beyond that, you might notice that Johnson has a weird aversion to punctuation in some places, and more often than not, certain character’s dialogue just stops – no period, no em-dash, nothing. It’s a little jarring, but who am I to argue with the guy who wrote and directed the best Star Wars movie?
There’s one particularly telling and effective moment in The Skywalker Legacy, the feature-lenght documentary that’s included on the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker home release that sums up much of the ambivalence and consternation that some had with J.J. Abrams’ return to the Star Wars universe. After showing the intricate construction of a giant, practical snake monster, the doc cuts back to footage of Jabba The Hutt, that old analogue beast that slithered its way into our hearts. The sentiment is clear – we’re making movies like we used to! A celebration of practical effects, the dripping of k-y jelly to give viscosity just like the old costume days, it’s all there. There’s excitement on set, everyone talking about how amazing it looks, how lifelike, how this is how you’re supposed to do movies like this.
Cut to Visual Effects Supervisor Roger Guyett who shatters the myth, letting us know the creature was replaced by a CGI version in post.
Guyett’s resume is mighty. Having made his bones on groundbreaking films like Twister and Casper, he helped Spielberg bring the events of D-Day to screen in Saving Private Ryan, helped bring to life the best looking film in the Harry Potter series, Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban, and even made the theatrical version of Rent feel more than a stage production. Guyett has had many collaborations with Abrams – from the Star Trek Reboots through The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker he was even second unit director on the former, as well as working with George Lucas on Episode III to round off the prequels. He’s in a unique position to speak to these changing landscapes of epic filmmaking.
We spoke at length about the apparent contradictions and indulgences in making a Star Wars film, and he made the case for why nothing was wasted and all contributed to the final presentation. He was erudite and open to the discussion, making for a dream conversation with a man who quite literally has helped shape what amazes us on screen for decades.
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
We see practical effects being championed as almost a marketing ploy with the “postquels” as a mix of nostalgia and an attempt to delineate from Lucas’ second trilogy. In some ways the love of the practically-realized snake undercuts the extraordinary CGI you and your team accomplished, and raises questions about why the need to fetishize the on-set inclusions when they’re replaced anyway. Could you talk about that ethos, that somehow doing stuff on a computer is a “cheat” while doing an effect practically is not?
I think at the end of the day we’re all trying to do the best that we can, trying to make the best, most dramatic or emotional movie we can visually. I’m coming from figuring out how do you get the most...