When Rian Johnson was announced as the director of The Last Jedi, the eighth Star Wars movie, there was much rejoicing. Johnson is known for his imaginative twists on familiar genres, both in the film world and, on occasion, in the television world too — and his prior work seems to have served him well, with The Last Jedi already pulling in an avalanche of positive reviews.
The director, who will turn 44 two days after The Last Jedi opens in theaters worldwide, has only three feature film credits to his name prior to Star Wars. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 1996 and made several short films (including one called Evil Demon Golfball from Hell!!!, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart) before attracting attention with his feature debut, Brick, at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
Since then, he’s made two more features and directed several of the most highly praised episodes of Breaking Bad (including one of the series’ acclaimed final episodes, “Ozymandias”). Throughout his career, he’s consistently exhibited two special talents: putting new spins on established genres, and doing it without sacrificing attention to characters.
All of Johnson’s past work is well worth a look for new fans (and conveniently able to rent digitally or stream on Netflix). Each of his films — and one of his Breaking Bad episodes — represent building blocks in a career that is now intersecting with the biggest movie franchise of them all.
Brick (2005) was a stunning debut with a clear, exciting vision
The singular, astonishing vision and voice of Johnson’s feature debut instantly established him a writer/director to watch. Johnson wrote the screenplay in 1997, but spent six years getting it funded, and his efforts were totally worth it; the movie won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at Sundance in 2005 and launched Johnson on a path toward a big career.
Brick is a neo-noir film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and set in California — but in a twist, it’s on a high school campus among teenagers. Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a teenager who is still pining for his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) when she calls him to cryptically ask for help, and then turns up dead.
The film is modeled directly on hardboiled detective stories by authors like Dashiell Hammett and others, and it boasts many of the same plot elements — the lovelorn detective, the femme fatale, the seedy underbelly of an apparently respectable society (in this case, an affluent high school). But the real marvel is the dialogue, which also takes its cues from neo-noir; it sounds at first out of place, and then marvelously perfect, in the voices of the modern-day teenagers reeling off lines like, “No, bulls would gum it. They'd flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one. But they'd trample the real tracks and scare the real players back into their holes, and if we're doing this I want the whole story. No cops, not for a bit.”
The Brothers Bloom (2008) gave Johnson the chance to work with bigger stars and new genres
Johnson’s follow-up to Brick came three years later with the higher-budget The Brothers Bloom, which he started working on after the 2005 Sundance win. The caper comedy, which stars Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, and Mark Ruffalo, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2008 and opened in theaters the following May, netting solid-but-mixed reviews from critics.
The Brothers Bloom is a classic con man story about a pair of brothers (Ruffalo and Brody) who, after being orphaned at a young age, are now skilled scam artists. One of them wants out of the family business; his brother convinces him to pull off one last job, with the wealthy heiress Penelope Stamp (Weisz) as their target. But the plan, as you might imagine, goes awry.
The Brothers Bloom feels like a more conventional movie than Brick, but it shares one key characteristic with its predecessor: a lively imagination that takes the conventions of a genre and uses them to tell a fresh and unexpected story.
Breaking Bad’s “Fly” (2010) showcased Johnson’s ability to work nimbly within an established world
Johnson directed three episodes of Breaking Bad throughout the show’s run: “Fly” (season three, episode 10); “Fifty-One” (season four, episode five); and “Ozymandias” (season five, episode 14). All three attracted a lot of attention — Johnson earned a Director’s Guild Award for Outstanding Directing for “Fifty-One,” and some have called “Ozymandias” the greatest episode of TV ever.
But it’s “Fly” that’s most unforgettable, even though it received mixed reviews from viewers when it first aired. Walt and Jesse spend most of the hour inside their concealed meth lab, trying to catch a fly that has gotten in, because Walt is certain it will contaminate their extra-pure meth cooking process. The episode plays out more like theater than traditional TV — the interactions between Walt and Jesse as they wait for the bug to enter their trap reveal much about the characters, despite the fact that not much is happening. And Johnson’s hand is especially visible in the episode’s visuals, which occasionally feel surreal and a bit zany; writing at the AV Club, Donna Bowman praised the director’s “unhinged images and bold juxtapositions.” Everything that made Breaking Bad great is on display in this episode, but it feels wholly different from much of the rest of the show.
“Fly” is available to stream on Netflix.
Looper (2012) let Johnson helm a bigger-budget production while telling a human story
In his most recent film before The Last Jedi, Johnson took on another familiar genre: time-traveling science fiction. He mixed in some of the same neo-noir elements he used in Brick and added a dash of thriller, and the result was something exciting: a movie about a time-traveling contract killer who discovers that his target is ... himself.
Starring Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, and Bruce Willis, Looper found a big audience, ultimately making $176.5 million worldwide against its $30 million budget — a bona fide hit. Critics loved it, too, praising the way it offered a thought-provoking and inventive take on familiar genres without abandoning characters for plot machinations. It earned a 93 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes and the admiration of many, including Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy, who hired him for The Last Jedi.
Johnson’s talent for genre-bending and character development should serve him well for Star Wars
At the time of Looper’s release, Johnson spoke with the Hollywood Reporter about his approach to the film, and his comments serve as a good explanation of both how he thinks about genre and his appreciation for great characters:
Even though [Looper is] a time-travel movie, the pleasure of it doesn't come from the mass of time travel ... I very much wanted it to be a more character-based movie that is more about how these characters dealt with the situation time travel has brought about. So the biggest challenge was figuring out how to not spend the whole movie explaining the rules and figure out how to put it out there in a way that made sense on some intuitive level for the audience; then get past it and deal with the real meat of the story.
That commitment to really considering how a story’s conventions work on the audience, as well as to how his characters must operate and exist within those conventions, makes Johnson a great fit for films in the Star Wars universe, which double as intimate family dramas and action-filled tales of galactic conflict. And Lucasfilm and Disney seem to agree: In early November, ahead of The Last Jedi’s December 15 release, they announced that Johnson will oversee a new trilogy in the Star Wars universe, writing and directing the first episode.
Johnson’s trajectory from independent, small-budget filmmaker to keeper of the biggest franchise in cinema is a heady one. But it’s one that fits well with his vision and plays to his strengths. And it bodes well for the direction of the Star Wars universe, too.