He might have signed his name under one of the best “Star Wars” chapters of the 21st Century with “Episode VIII — The Last Jedi,” as well as revived the cozy whodunit. But at his heart, writer-director Rian Johnson has always remained the same young, curious-minded storyteller who made spirited DIY shorts in the ‘90s.
“I didn’t start out thinking of the profession of screenwriting,” says Johnson, this year’s recipient of Variety’s Creative Impact Award for Screenwriting. “I started out making movies with my friends. And when I studied the form, I took it more seriously. But I still aim for that feeling of getting together with a group of friends and trying something cool.”
Johnson burst onto the scene with 2005’s sophisticated “Brick,” a neo-noir thriller he wrote straight out of college under the influence of the Dashiell Hammett novels that he loved. Hollywood took notice, enabling him to build his oeuvre as a versatile and agile creator of genre films.
“The promise of Rian Johnson’s breakthrough was realized with his wickedly smart sci-fi hit ‘Looper’ and mainstream success followed with his joining the hallowed ‘Star Wars’ franchise team,” says Steven Gaydos, Variety executive vice president of content. “But it’s Johnson’s creation and direction of the sensational ‘Knives Out’ comic crime film series that makes him one of world cinema’s most elegantly accomplished cinema stylists and a worthy heir to Agatha Christie and all the other greats of the whodunit genre.”
“It’s pretty special and amazing. I’m very thankful for it,” says Johnson about his Impact Award.
“[Among the previous recipients] are some of my screenwriting heroes, people that I’ve tried to learn from. I’ll try and keep continuing to get better at writing and hopefully at some point deserve it.”
Having grown up devouring Christie novels, Johnson’s chief objective with both “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” was reproducing the joy he felt watching older adaptations of her mysteries with his whole family; movies including “Murder on the Orient Express” starring Albert Finney, or “Death on the Nile” with Peter Ustinov.
“They felt like the most entertaining thing in the world. And we make these movies as entertainment first and foremost. What was exciting about doing [‘Glass Onion’] was the notion of trying to emulate Christie with a completely new story. I’m starting to work on the third movie now, and that’s also what’s got me creatively jazzed: I don’t have to replicate the last movie at all. The goal is to strike out in a completely new direction tonally and thematically.”
Extracting something new from time-honored cinematic reserves is crucial to Johnson, who cautiously avoids indulging in nostalgia, even when his films operate within old-school genres. “I’m just trying to find something that I have deep roots in, that I have a deep love of, and get back to the experience of where that love came from. Not by telling audiences, ‘Remember back when we loved these things?’ But by actually trying to remember what my experience was and figure out how the audience can experience that in a fresh way. Nostalgia is the enemy. It’s the exact opposite of what I’m always trying to get to: something vibrant and sharp that feels very present.”
In a still blossoming career full of proud moments, Johnson’s most fulfilling happened during “Looper.”
“My father always wanted to be in the movies,” Johnson recalls. “But he was in the home-building business. Before he died, I got to cast him in a small part in ‘Looper.’ [He got] to be on set and got shot in the face by Bruce Willis. It was the happiest day of his life. I feel grateful that making movies has given me that day.”