An Audience With Rian Johnson

Image: Lionsgate

Alongside the many, many films making their UK debuts, the London Film Festivaleach year plays host to a variety of Screen Talks with the great and the good from the global film industry. This year’s biggest draws included The Irishman himself Robert De Niro and Céline Sciamma, director of the extraordinary Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Amongst these star appearances was one Rian Johnson, the recently-indie director who thanks to Star Wars: The Last Jedi is now a huge name in the film business, the kind of filmmaker who attracts poster-clutching fans waiting outside of his appearance at BFI Southbank.

The Screen Talk events consist of an in-depth interview with the subject punctuated by a few clips and are often conducted by an interviewer who is known in their own right. For Johnson’s turn in the hot seat the interviewer was none other than the Good Doctor Mr. Mark Kermode, the closest thing that UK film criticism has to a star. Over the course of an hour-long chat between Kermode and Johnson the latter revealed many insightful things about his career so far and of course upcoming release Knives Out, which itself played at the LFF.

Knives Out, which is utterly delightful and is on general release in the UK on 27th November, is a yarn which Johnson has clearly had a lot of fun spinning. He spoke admiringly of his all-star cast including a hilarious Daniel Craig as private investigator Benoit Blanc. In discussing Craig’s performance Johnson gave away a detail in Blanc’s character that is indicative of the film’s overall approach – he is “clownish”. In that, highlighting the inherent buffoonery and performative nature of the PI, Johnson said a lot about the comedic seam running through Knives Out. This is not, however, a parody – something which Johnson was most insistent on. His genuine love of Agatha Christie and the whodunnit genre is clear throughout the interview, as he speaks with genuine affection of his experience putting a ‘Johnsonian’ twist on murder-mystery staples.

Putting his own spin on a well-worn genre is Johnson’s stock-in-trade, having tackled noir with low-budget breakthrough Brick and had a crack at time travel with the acclaimed Looper. As Kermode moved through Johnson’s back catalogue with the aid of some clips, the director offered a warm look back at his filmography, finding the positives in all of his work. Most candidly, he ruminated on the relative lack of success for his passion project The Brothers Bloom and the joy that he had in making it. There is a pleasantness throughout to Johnson’s answers, always seeming grateful for the success he has had and never bitter at any criticism he has received. 

Such an attitude well equipped him, it seems, for writing and directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Met with both wide critical acclaim and a chorus of boos from some sections of internet fandom, the film proved to be one of the more divisive entries into the space-opera canon. When asked about the trolling he received as a result of the film, Johnson seemed to hold no contempt for most of his detractors, clearly understanding the importance of the franchise to its followers. Johnson spoke with the glow of someone who still can’t believe they got to make a Star Wars movie and had such a blast doing so. He seemed to understand blockbuster franchising and approach it with love rather than looking down on it and its fans.

This clear lack of snobbishness mixed with an enthusiasm for the movies makes his response to the inevitable ‘Scorsese vs Marvel’ audience question all the more exciting. For those not in the know, Martin Scorsese in passing and in a much larger interview said that the MCU movies are ‘not cinema’. As the director of a similarly blockbusting behemoth one might expect Johnson to have attacked his fellow director for such close-mindedness but instead he offered a diplomatic response and seemed to even have some sympathy with Scorsese despite clearly being a big genre fan. Most pleasingly he offered the simplest answer to the ongoing arguments: “Martin Scorsese can like and not like whatever the fuck he wants.”

This humour and a clear love for filmmaking and storytelling make Johnson into a delightful presence and a director we can only hope has a long career ahead of him, taking on one genre at a time.

The full Rian Johnson Screen Talk and several others can be found on YouTube.

Andrew Young