Rian Johnson has had the sort of career that many young independent filmmakers dream of. He's not the most prolific filmmaker, with only five films in fourteen years. But the filmmaker, 45, has been able to nimbly hop genres and even dip his toe into the waters of big-budget studio filmmaking. (He got to play with one of the most beloved franchises of all time, no less.)
With the release of Johnson's new film, KNIVES OUT, we thought we’d look back at his unique directorial journey. Here are all the projects that let to his wacky whodunnit.
[Image Credit: Focus Features]
Johnson’s debut feature was made for just half a million dollars. It's a high school-set thriller inspired by the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett. Don't let the high school setting fool you, however: BRICK features dense, rapid-fire dialogue that replicates the feeling and tone of hard-boiled crime fiction from the 1940s.
The film is notable for establishing some of the key creative partnerships that have lasted throughout Johnson's career, including with star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, producer Ram Bergman and cinematographer Steve Yedlin. Intriguing and provocative, BRICK is the work of an assured artist finding his footing. If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth seeking out.
[Image Credit: Summit Entertainment]
The idea for THE BROTHERS BLOOM predates BRICK, but it was apparently a tougher screenplay to crack. Indeed, the resulting film is maybe the oddest movie that Johnson has made — which is saying something, considering how esoteric his career is.
Ostensibly a con man movie about a pair of brotherly grifters (Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo) who are conning a kooky heiress (Rachel Weisz) aboard a cruise ship, THE BROTHERS BLOOM is equal parts bubbly comedy and, in its last act, a dark tragedy. Inspired in part by Peter Bogdanovich’s PAPER MOON, it’s maybe the most challenging film in Johnson’s career. But even when some of its ideas don't quite come together, the cast gives top-tier performances. Weisz, in particular, ventures far outside her comfort zone. Her one-take performance of a complicated card trick, done while she also performs a monologue, is a terrific moment.
[Image Credit: TriStar Pictures]
We said that Johnson only has a handful of features to his name, which is true. He also directed a few episodes of "Breaking Bad," including the brilliant bottle episode “Fly,” which saw Walt and Jesse trapped in the meth lab with an annoying insect. That show was made before beginning production on LOOPER, in early 2011. LOOPER was a project that Johnson seemed to talk about a lot in the years following THE BROTHERS BLOOM, but it had trouble finding its funding and cast. Once everything aligned, though, wow.
One of the most inventive and entertaining science fiction movies in recent memory, LOOPER stars Gordon-Levitt as a contract killer who murders people who are sent back in time from a not-too-great future. (These killings "close the victim’s loop," so the assassins are called loopers.) All hell breaks loose when Gordon-Levitt realizes his new victim is his future self (played by Bruce Willis), who manages to escape. Less concerned with the intricacies of time travel than with the rich character work (Emily Blunt plays a mourning mother whose son may turn out to be a genocidal madman) and propulsive action, LOOPER felt like a true breakthrough for Johnson. How much of a breakthrough wouldn’t be known until his next directorial feature…
[Image Credit: Lucasfilm]
Before that next feature film venture, Johnson returned to Albuquerque for two more episodes of "Breaking Bad," including the shattering “Ozymandias,” which routinely lands at the top of "best-ever episodes of TV" lists. And then Johnson took over for J.J. Abrams, on the eighth chapter of the STAR WARS saga. That film, eventually dubbed STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, is just as idiosyncratic and stylish as anything Johnson has done. It pushes our established characters into bold new territory for what is arguably one of the greatest installments in the entire franchise. Lucasfilm producer Kathleen Kennedy loved her experience with Johnson and sang his praises from the rooftops, announcing that the filmmaker would be behind a new trilogy of STAR WARS movies set to open at some point in the future.
You can see Johnson’s ideas all over THE LAST JEDI, from the disillusioned Luke to the morally nebulous casino planet (where people get rich selling weapons to both the Resistance and First Order) to the odd flourishes like the Force-assisted communication between Rey and Kylo Ren or Yoda’s wonderful appearance. It’s a movie full of surprises, made by a true master of the craft. Despite being his biggest movie yet, it doesn’t feel like it lost an ounce of its authorial stamp.
Perhaps thinking that his next journey to a galaxy far, far away would take place sooner rather than later, Johnson jumped into KNIVES OUT as soon as his promotional duties for THE LAST JEDI were done. Johnson had started to float the idea of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery during the press tour for LOOPER. When Daniel Craig became available thanks to delays on the new James Bond film, NO TIME TO DIE, production on KNIVES OUT got underway at great speed.
This classical whodunnit features Craig alongside Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer and Yoda himself, Frank Oz. Johnson has even talked about doing another movie with the Daniel Craig character at its core. We haven’t even seen their first pairing, but the very idea has us ready for more.
All images courtesy of Lionsgate, except where noted.