He may 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 about a career in screenwriting,” said Johnson, this year’s recipient diversityIts Creative Impact Award for Screenwriting. “I started making movies with my friends. And when I studied the form, I took it more seriously. But I still aim for the feeling of getting together with a group of friends and trying something cool.
Johnson burst onto the scene with 2005’s groundbreaking “Brick,” a neo-noir thriller he wrote straight out of college under the influence of a Dashiell Hammett novel he loved. Hollywood took notice, enabling him to establish his character as a versatile and agile genre filmmaker.
“Rian Johnson’s promise of success was realized by joining the ranks of his hallowed ‘Star Wars’ franchise with his wickedly smart sci-fi hit ‘Looper’ and mainstream success,” says Steven Gaydos, diversity Executive Vice President of Content. “But it was Johnson’s creation and direction of the sensational ‘Knives Out’ comic crime film series that made him one of the most elegantly accomplished cinema stylists in world cinema 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 grateful for that,” Johnson said of her Impact Award.
“[Among the previous recipients] Some of my screenwriter heroes, from whom I try to learn. I will try and keep trying to get better at writing and hopefully it will be worth it.”
Growing up devouring Christie novels, Johnson’s main objective was to reproduce the joy of watching old adaptations of his mystery with his entire family, both with “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”; Movies including “Murder on the Orient Express” starring Albert Finney or “Death on the Nile” with Peter Ustinov.
“They thought it was the most entertaining thing in the world. And we make these movies primarily as entertainment. What was exciting about doing [‘Glass Onion’] The idea was to try to emulate Christie with an entirely new story. I’m starting work on the third movie now, and that’s what really jazzed me up creatively: I don’t have to replicate the last movie. The goal is to strike a completely new direction tonally and thematically.”
Drawing something new from time-honored cinematic reserves is crucial for Johnson, who carefully avoids indulging in nostalgia, even when his films work within old-school genres. “I’m just trying to find something that I have deep roots in, that I have a deep love for, and go back to experience where that love came from. Not by telling the audience, ‘Remember when we liked this stuff?’ But actually trying to remember what my experience was and trying to figure out how the audience can experience it anew. Nostalgia is the enemy. It’s the exact opposite of what I always try to achieve: something vibrant and sharp that feels very present.”
In a still blossoming career full of proud moments, Johnson’s greatest fulfillment came during “Looper.”
“My dad always wanted to be in movies,” Johnson recalls. “But he was in the home building business. Before he passed away, I managed to cast him in a small part in ‘Looper’. [He got] On set and Bruce Willis gets shot in the face. It was the happiest day of his life. I feel grateful that filmmaking gave me that day.