Our Favorite Screenwriters: Rian Johnson
Because Rian Johnson also directs his films, it’s easy to forget he writes them. Johnson has established himself as not just a top director, but a master screenwriter as well. With early raves coming in for his next film, KNIVES OUT (currently at 98% on RottenTomatoes), let’s take a look at Johnson’s remarkable output.
In the book, The Film That Changed My Life, Rian identifies ANNIE HALL as a major inspiration because it broke so many rules of narrative. This statement is telling when considering all his work.
Rian shot out of the gate with his debut feature, BRICK. This is where his talent as a screenwriter is particularly relevant. The film had a budget of 500K. It could easily have come and gone without anyone noticing. Much of the attention the film received arguably is due to Rian’s script.
The choice to make high school a film-noir is fitting given Rian’s rule-breaking inspiration. Reviews for the film almost all comment on creative choices that were made at the script stage. Slate said, “there’s no arguing that its brand of deadpan cool is precisely unique.” The Boston Globe noted that the film, “is almost fiendish in its insistence on finding modern-day parallels to classic pulp-fiction figures.” The Washington Post noted, “Even as you struggle to keep up with its speedy chatter and multi-character complexity, Brick is always entertaining.”
Critically, Rian’s choices in BRICK are not just gags for their own sake. High school, this cloistered world which, when you’re a teenager, feels like the entire world, and which runs by its own set of teenage rules, feels super-serious when you are in high school. That lends itself to (and adds weight to) the noir approach.
Rian also made the film LOOPER, starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as different versions of the same person trying to kill each other. Again, the gag is not just for show. In one of the film’s best scenes, Bruce Willis speaks to the younger version of himself at a diner.
Willis’ character immediately dismisses the idea of deconstructing the time-travel component of the story. The reason why is that it’s not important. The emotional element of the story is what matters. And here is where Johnson’s script elevates past the time-travel gimmick. The older man tells the younger version of himself about the woman he’s going to meet who is going to save his life.
The older man tells the younger version of himself what an idiot he is, how immature, self-absorbed and stupid he is. The scene is about regret, literal regret, as the older version of a person tells his younger self how foolish he is, and the younger person can’t really hear it.
Rian also wrote the script for THE LAST JEDI. The rule-breaking nature of the script (at one point Yoda essentially mocks the sacred Jedi texts as boring reading, saying, “Page-turners, they were not,”) may have contributed to the divisive nature of the film, but it still grossed a literal billion dollars and holds a 91% on RottenTomatoes.
Is Rian Johnson one of your favorite screenwriters? Let us know in the comments below.