Weekend Binge: The 3 films that made Star Wars’ Rian Johnson the biggest director on the planet right now

Rian Johnson just went from being a promising indie talent to one of the biggest directors on the planet. After Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you must (re) discover his films.

weekend binge Updated: Dec 16, 2017 09:08 IST
Rohan Naahar
Rohan Naahar
Hindustan Times
Weekend Binge,Star Wars,Star Wars The Last Jedi
Beyond Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Revisit Rian Johnson’s terrific movies.

Every week, we will curate a collection of titles - movies, TV, general miscellanea - for you to watch (and in some cases, read, or listen to), in a series we call Weekend Binge. The selection will be based on a theme which binds the picks - which could be extremely blunt in certain instances, or confusingly abstract in some. No rules apply, other than the end goal being getting some great entertainment to watch.

While the idea is to base the theme on the week’s major events -- it could be the release of a new movie, or show -- we could also use this opportunity to comment on our world in general, and turn to art to wrap our heads around some of the more difficult stories of the past seven days.

On December 14, Rian Johnson was a genre filmmaker with immense promise, well regarded in the geek community thanks to three celebrated (and cerebral) films, but rarely discussed outside it. On December 15, however, he became a household name. He even has a Twitter emoji now! With Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Johnson has become the new favourite of an industry that enjoys raising up-and-comers onto pedestals, only to rudely relieve them of their positions whenever a younger (and cheaper) man comes along.

Weeks before the international release of The Last Jedi, Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy displayed a rare show of support by handing him the reins of a new trilogy of films - a remarkable move because under Kennedy’s tenure, four filmmakers have been fired from Star Wars projects and one has been sidelined during filming.

But before Johnson was commanding sets the size of small towns, a cast as large as entire crews on some of his earlier films and a budget roughly 500 times larger than that of his first feature, he earned a stellar reputation as an indie filmmaker with a voice that deserved to be heard.

Star Wars is a religion -- as geek overlord Kevin Smith said in a recent episode of his podcast, he went into the original film a Catholic but came out a Jedi. Johnson is a bonafide fan and now’s as good a time as any to revisit his films.

Brick

It isn’t surprising that no one wanted to buy Johnson’s first script. On paper, it was a high school movie about characters facing problems typical to those of students. The catch: Johnson had written it in the style of a hard-boiled detective fiction novel - the sort made popular by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

It was a classic film noir, but populated by teenagers who delivered dialogue right out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. In Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he found the perfect young actor to play Brendan Frye, his version of a traditional noir hero, thrust into a devilish plot involving femme fatales, mysterious men, and classic cars.

To achieve his ambitious visuals, he utilised some of the oldest cinematic tricks in the book - he shot a memorable car chase by putting the car in reverse and then chasing it with his camera. When I first heard about this hack as a teenager, I found it ingenious.

Brick became a cult classic. How could it not? And its almost meta-essence has seeped into Johnson’s other films, even Star Wars.

The Brothers Bloom

When was the last time you heard - not saw, but heard - a film being described as a ‘caper’? They simply don’t make any these days - sort of like noir. They aren’t heist movies, but more pastiche-y. Off the top of my head, I can recall just two recent caper films -- Colin Firth’s Gambit, notable for having been written by the Coen Brothers and Mortdecai, notable for having put Johnny Depp’s already maimed career out of its misery.

Like Brick, Johnson shot The Brothers Bloom in the style of a late ‘60s Rat Pack movie - with a bright colour palette that would make Wes Anderson jump with joy, snazzy snap zooms that would make Quentin Tarantino moan with pleasure, and over the top performances by a great cast - Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffallo, Rachel Weisz and Rinko Kikuchi - who play characters named Bloom Bloom and Bang Bang.

It lost millions.

Looper

Johnson’s third feature film was yet another tonal and stylistic jump for him. This one was a science-fiction time-travel mindbender - the one you’re most likely to have already seen. Each of his films, you would’ve noticed, is rather distinct. Besides a similarity in certain editorial ticks, there’s really not that much that binds them as the work of one man.

There is, however, in all his films, a knowing acknowledgement of the genres they’re playing around in. The movies come from a place of deep respect, and an even deeper understanding of genre - this gives Johnson room to have fun.

Looper understands the inherent loopy nature of time travel movies - and, to a lesser extent, superhero movies. It’s essentially a play on that ‘if time travel existed would you kill Hitler’ conundrum that involves a hitman tasked with taking out a future version of himself, but neatly wrapped into an imaginative tale about identity, familial bonds, and corruption.

Breaking Bad

You might not know this, but between creating wildly original movies, Johnson helmed not one, but two of the finest episodes of Breaking Bad - a show I believe to be the greatest ever made.

His first was one every fan of the series would immediately remember, a bottle episode called Fly, in which a pesky fly threatened to put Walter White’s multi-million dollar drug business into jeopardy. It’s a darkly humourous, and surreal little hour of TV that took a break from the relentless main plot, and focussed on Walter’s failings - and hubris - as a human being.

His other great episode was the legendary Ozymandias, the penultimate episode of the show’s final season, which achieved the almost impossible-sounding feat of converging six seasons’ worth of plot, sending off beloved characters, and setting up what had to be the most awaited finale in years.

I’ll never forget watching the behind-the-scenes for Ozymandias, and how Johnson directed Anna Gunn in the scene in which she races out of her home after realising that Walt had kidnapped their baby daughter. The scene required Gunn to rush out into the street and deliver a scream of anguish as she fell to her knees. After a couple of takes, Johnson walked up to her, put an arm around her shoulders - she was visibly shaken - and whispered into her ear, isolated from the rest of the crew.

It earned Gunn an Emmy nomination.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

First Published: Dec 16, 2017 08:57 IST