Auteur of the Week: Rian Johnson
Rian Johnson is fairly new to Hollywood – his debut feature Brick was released in 2006 – but he’s definitely one of the great up-and-coming auteurs of his generation. Although I love Brick way more than his sophomore effort 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, it is in no way a sophomore slump. Both films are wildly original and filled with some of the more memorable characters of the last decade. I think he’s got a major talent and we’ve only seen the beginning of what could very well prove to be a brilliant career.
Rian Johnson was born on December 17, 1973 in Maryland and raised in San Clemente, California. He then attended the University of Southern California and graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 1996.
He wrote the first draft of Brick in 1997 after graduating from USC, but spent nearly seven years pitching the script in Hollywood. He was told the script was too unusual for a first-time director. Eventually Johnson was able to borrow $450,000 from friends and family in order to fund the film and production got underway. Much of the film was shot on 35 mm film stock in San Clemente, including the very same High School he had attended. Although the film was much inspired by the writing of Dashiell Hammett, Johnson did not want any of his actors to be influenced by any of the film adaptations of Hammett’s writing. Instead he had them read Hammett’s work. Johnson has cited Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns as well as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown as influences on the film’s stylization. The film’s score was composed by Johnson’s cousin Nathan Johnson, who was in England at the time so much of the scoring was done over Apple iChat. The film premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision. It was then released in two theaters on April 7, 2006 and grossed roughly $2.07 mil. in the United States. The film received generall positive reviews and was released on DVD by Focus Features on August 8, 2006.
I resisted watching this movie for about two years after its release because the trailers kind of irritated me. As much as I loved Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I couldn’t get over high school kids spouting noir-esque lines. Eventually though, I was convinced by various friends to give it a shot. When I first watched it I was so engrossed I couldn’t even believe it. I immediately re-watched and then I watched it again the next morning. I couldn’t believe how much I loved it and how all my preconceptions about the dialogue were so completely wrong. It is kind of strange having teenagers speak like they’re in The Maltese Falcon or something but at the same time it just makes sense. This film lives in its own world and if you just go with it, I guarantee you’ll enjoy the ride.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is just so amazing as the film’s protagonist Brendan. He dominates the screen, much the same way Bogart does in his great film noir films. He’s completely focused on his cause and lets nothing stand in his way. What I love so much about it is how sincere his performance is. There are some really beautiful, tender moments in this film. As much as I love the rest of his manic, quick-witted performance, it is these moments of genuine love and torment that I love the most.
I also have to point out that this film contains my all-time favorite fight in all of film history. It is so perfectly executed, from how Brendan provokes his opponent to his moves during said fight to the nonchalant way in which he exits. It is an absolutely flawless scene.
At first I didn’t really like Nora Zehetner or her character Laura, but after repeat viewings her character and her performance have grown on me. She’s no Lauren Bacall, but she does her job as the film’s femme fatale well. I particularly like the way this character is styled.
I also love Lukas Haas as The Pin. He makes for a great mysterious villain. He’s been in films for a long time – his first major film being 1985’s Witness. His performance in Tim Burton’s 1996 film Mars Attacks! will always be my favorite, but this is a close second.
I have to mention my love of Matt O’Leary’s performance as The Brain. O’Leary was one of the few cast members playing close to his actual age in the film. He has great on-screen rapport with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with whom he almost solely appears with in the film. It’s a shame his career has yet to really take off since this film, but he’s young yet, so he’s still got time.
Johnson’s follow-up film was 2009’s The Brother’s Bloom, the idea for which he had before he filmed Brick. He started writing the script after Brick debuted at Sundance. His aim was to create a character-based con man film that also had an “emotional payoff.” Johnson has said that the greatest influence on the script was Paper Moon and that he watched The Conformist and 8½ for visual style.
While this film is not overall as great as Brick, it is a wonderful film. The cast is impeccable and it is an incredibly lush and stylish film – especially the costumes. I think Rian did exactly what he set out to do – make a genre flick with a twist. From the very beginning of the film you think you know how it’s going to end, but it’s filled with one twist after another. Ebert apparently felt like the film had one too many “encores.” Usually I don’t like a film that looks like it’s going to end but then doesn’t, but when it’s done well as in this film (and 2007’s Gone Baby Gone), I love it.
This film had a much larger budget than his previous film – $20 mil – and because of this Johnson was able to film in a myriad of locations, including Sinaia, Romania, Belgrade, the Constanta Casino, the Port of Constanta (Romania) and various locations in Greece and Montenegro. Filming in these great locations allowed Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin to achieve some really beautiful shots.
I really love Mark Ruffalo and have since 2004 when he wowed me in the silly, but ultimately sweet romantic comedy 13 Going On 30. Ruffalo’s career has been peppered with amazing turns in dramas and independent films as well as silly rom-coms (aka paycheck roles). I have yet to see a film he’s been in wherein I didn’t at least love him. His turn as Stephen goes on my list of best Ruffalo performances. He’s charming and sly at times and grave and genuine at others. It’s definitely a perfect part for the perfect player.
Adrien Brody has the distinction of being the youngest Best Actor Oscar winner for 2002’s The Pianist. Most of his post-Oscar films have not been all that great. Luckily, this is one of his better films and better performances of his career in general. He’s got perfect chemistry with both his brother Ruffalo and his on-screen love interest, played by fellow-Oscar winner Rachel Weisz. I just wish he’d make more films like this and less paycheck driven roles like his recent turn in Predators (I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard bad things).
Rachel Weisz has had a rocky post-Oscar career since her win in the Best Supporting Actress category for 2005’s The Constant Gardener, but not for the same reasons as Brody. She’s mostly chosen quirky, under-the radar films like The Fountain. However, like Ruffalo, no matter the quality of film she’s in I always love her. She’s delightfully quirky in this film, if not a little naive. She also learned several skills for this film, including playing the banjo, violin, guitar, piano, juggling, break dancing, skateboarding, and card tricks.
My favorite performance in the film is that of Bang Bang by Rinko Kikuchi. Apparently Johnson was nervous casting her because he didn’t know if she would want another mute part after her Oscar-nominated turn as a mute Japanese girl in 2006’s Babel. I really hated that film, but I love her in it. And I love her in this film. She has immense screen presence, she has no need for words. But when she does speak, she drops little bombs of perfection.
Johnson’s next film is going to be entitled Looper and is set in the near future, and is described as dark sci-fi, and involves hitmen that are sent their victims from the future. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in talks to star. Johnson has set up an official tumblr blog as he works on the film.
If you’re interested in buying any of his film you can do so here.