Thank God I’m Not Rian Johnson

(Note: This is a post primarily about Rian Johnson. To see my thoughts on “The Last Jedi,” click here)

Holy freaking schnickerdoodle. I just saw The Last Jedi. I might be a bit biased, but I think it’s the best Star Wars movie since, I don’t know, ever?

Oh yeah, spoiler alerts and whatnot. But seriously, you get what you deserve if you’re on the 17th page of Google results for Rian Johnson and The Last Jedi. 

It’s a long movie, but never feels dragged out. It’s longer than Revenge of the Sith, but feels about half as long. There’s so much going on with it. One review equated it to a combination of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” Yes and no. It certainly answers a number of lingering questions and ends with a sense of optimistic finality that hasn’t wrapped up any Star Wars movie since “Jedi.”

But it didn’t follow the plot of either Episodes V or VI, like The Force Awakens did with Episode IV. Luke’s tutelage on Ahch-To (had to look that one up. I just assumed, in normal Star Wars parlance, it was “The Island Planet”) wasn’t just a rehash of Yoda on Dagobah (The Swamp Planet). The porgs weren’t just updated Ewoks. They didn’t rally together to fight a paleolithic guerilla war against the bad guys.

That one battle that ends most Star Wars movies – you know, the giant battle raging in space while a bunch of the good guys are on board the enemy vessel that’s about to be blown up – turned out to NOT be the culminating scene. The guy we all thought was the new Emperor Palpatine, who would be killed in an orgiastic lightning-fest to end Episode IX, was in fact betrayed and killed during that battle. But it turned out Snoke’s death wasn’t what the movie, or even the trilogy, had been building toward. There were still another 45 minutes in the movie.

And holy shit, how about that “light speed the other way” scene? Has there ever been a silence for that long in any other Star Wars movie? Did John Williams have to be paid extra to NOT write music for that scene?

That “this is not the ending you are looking for” is a classic Rian Johnson tactic. His other movies tend to play along according to form, then the last half-hour pushes the film into another realm, bringing into question all of the assumptions of the trope. The Brothers Bloom, which I think is his best, follows a typical con-man/heist formula. Had it faded to black on the beaches in Mexico, it would have been a standard con-man movie. But then there’s the whole Russia scene, where the target has tracked down the brothers because she had so much fun being conned. When they set up one final con, you’re not entirely sure who is scamming whom. When Adrien Brody realizes Mark Ruffalo actually died, there’s an emotion that isn’t supposed to be experienced in a heist.

Oops. Brothers Bloom spoilers, too. Sorry.

Then again, I might be a little biased when it comes to Rian Johnson. I know the guy. We went to high school together.

The bum still owes me twenty bucks, so his movies better succeed!

Just kidding. He doesn’t owe me any money. In fact, I’m pretty sure I accidentally stole his copy of “Woman of the Year” (1943) on VHS. Rian, sorry if you’ve been looking for a clean copy of “Blitzwolf” all these years.

The rest was all real, though. Rian and I went to high school together. And when I say that, I don’t mean he was some random guy that I knew the name of as we occasionally saw each other around a huge campus. We were in the same history and English classes from pretty much seventh grade on. We hung out outside of class.

When people ask me “Why are you the Wombat?” my go-to response is, “Because Rian was the Llama.”

Rian had a video camera. Shocking, right? We made movies together. Sometimes it was random. I think my first “Rian Johnson Project” was at his birthday party freshman year. I don’t recall the premise, other than we were breaking into a house and I was some sort of James Bond villain that used utensils as weapons. I think. I could be totally off.

But that was what Rian did. If he was with more than one other person, it was, “Hey, let’s make a movie.”

Where we really grew together, and where he started showing his directing chops, was 10th grade English. I don’t know if I would’ve passed Mr. Neidhardt’s class without Rian and his video camera. We had to do a project for every book we read. There were other options besides “make a video,” but those options are lost to time. Probably write a report? Papier mache? Interpretive dance?

Regardless, we did a film project for every book. Each one pushed the scope beyond the previous. It started with little things like adding subtitles. By our third film, we (and by “we,” I often mean Rian, but the rest of us contributed) were splicing together shots to make it look like a raft was going down the freeway and that two people were split seconds away from being hit by a train.

By second semester, we were trying new things. Did you know that when you throw a big Raggedy Ann doll off a cliff and film it from far enough away, it tumbles down just like a human would? And I remember the first time we did a “character disappears from the screen” trick. I said “Danny, you’re no longer needed in this scene,” and waved my stick in front of Danny. We then filmed the same stick movement without Danny, and voila! it looked like I waved my stick and he disappeared.

Amateur stuff, really. But considering we were fifteen years old and digital editing didn’t exist yet, not too shabby.

As I think back now, a lot of our later projects had very little to do with the book. We had built up enough credit with the teacher (a concept I wish more of my students understood), and honestly, I think the teacher was enjoying seeing what we were capable of, as well. Or maybe he had learned his lesson after the one time he said we couldn’t film a video, and then fell asleep during me and Brendan’s debate about whether or not Dungeons and Dragons led to violence.

I knew we should’ve gone with “Where was Alice’s bedroom in the Brady Bunch”?

With another four or five friends that weren’t in that class, we formed a filming group we called the Flat Poodles, after a Weird Al song. We continued to make films throughout junior and senior years. Junior year, Rian, Brendan, and I took an ROP videography class. The teacher was a distant cousin of the NBA player, Jeff Hornacek. I bet that’s not his go-to for “famous person I’ve had encounters with” anymore.

By senior year, I had pretty much hit my ceiling, but Rian was still going strong. He took the ROP class a second time for no credit just to get more experience with editing and the new-fangled (1991 era) computer graphics. By then, the entire school was aware of his talents. I think every rally senior year featured some Rian Johnson video showcasing something around the school. Being on the student’s side back then, it didn’t seem all that momentous. Rian was talented, why wouldn’t his work be featured? Now I’m a teacher, and it occurs to me how out of the ordinary that really was. Everybody at the school knew he was a once-in-a-generation talent.

It wasn’t just his talent behind the camera, though. He writes everything he directs. Movies, at least. I don’t think the “Breaking Bad” people were going to let him write the third-to-last episode. He’s funny and his natural intelligence and empathy comes through in everything he does. That was true back then, too. The rest of us could occasionally help with one or more of those things. I can be funny. Brendan might have gone toe-to-toe in intelligence. Joon and Craig had the whole humanity and empathy things down pat. But Rian was the glue.

An aside: Rian had a hilarious routine for Phil Collins’s “Take Me Home,” where he pretended to be a taxi driver. “So take, take me home.” “Yeah, buddy, you already said that. Where’s your home?” “But I don’t remember.” He timed it perfectly, and the dialogue went on for most of the song. I hoped the taxi driver would show up in one of his movies. Brothers Bloom was probably the best chance. It looks like his next few movies will continue to take place “a long time ago” in a galaxy where Phil Collins doesn’t exist.

But that opening sequence of The Last Jedi, where Poe keeps saying he’ll hold for General Hux was excellent, yesno?

I’ve stolen some of Rian’s ideas, in addition to his VHS tape. I suck at coming up with ideas, as is evidenced that I’m writing this the day after I saw The Last Jedi. Had I thought of it in advance, I could’ve posted this on Friday and gotten all the clickbait. But no, I’ll be posting it after the buzz is gone. Typical. And now that scintillating expose on “Dora the Explorer” that I was thinking of writing this week will be put off till the new year.

Freshman year of college, I took a creative writing class. We had to write a new story every week. While I think my writing is good, um, acceptable, I can’t come up with a new fucking idea every fucking week. Seriously, what the hell? And you want me to sign up for your advanced class? You know I’m on the verge of discovering alcohol, right?

Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, ideas. Whenever I was stuck for a new flash fiction idea (we called them “short stories” back then) that quarter, I would always remember some off-hand Rian comment. “I thought it would be cool to write a story from the perspective of an ant being washed down the drain in a sink.” Or “A guy is trying to get up the courage to talk to a girl and finally gives up, will maybe try again tomorrow, even though they’re the only survivors of a nuclear holocaust.” I think I stole both of those. Probably sucked horrendously at both. But add a creative writing class at U.C. Davis to the list of classes I would have failed without Rian.

Rian’s first movie, Brick, was filmed at our high school. If you look close enough, you can see the house I grew up in on the hill behind the school. I think he already had the idea for Brick, or the beginnings of it, in high school. Senior year, he had an idea for a movie about a high school student who saw through the mirage and knew the dark dealings going on beneath the shadows. We didn’t get much into it, only filmed two scenes, but the tone seemed very familiar thirteen years later.

The role of the high-school student, later “stolen” by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, was originally played by yours truly. The part moptop, part mullet, mess of a hairdo that JGL sported in the movie was exactly what I looked like in 1992. I’m not saying I was the inspiration (yes, I am), but I definitely know that Rian equated my hairstyle to a specific type of character.

And let me go one further. Rian as a director wouldn’t exist without me. I was the first headache-of-an-actor that he ever had to “direct around.” Not in the prima donna, demanding my own dressing room, type of way. But in the “I’m a horrible actor” kind of way. Think Nicholas Cage playing Austin Powers. Over the top and punctuating every joke to death. After me, Bruce Willis must’ve been a breath of fresh air.

The last time I saw Rian was at the San Francisco opening for Brothers Bloom. Back then, he was still small time and had to/got to follow his movie around to each of its openings. I told him he needed to stop killing off all of his characters. Hollywood survives on sequels. I thought maybe he was going to become the directorial version of Leonardo di Caprio, who I believe has never acted the same role twice. It turns out Rian was just waiting for the RIGHT sequels to come along.

Although he still (spoiler alert) has the tendency to kill off main characters.

It was great seeing Rian at the Brothers Bloom premiere. Someone asked him how he got into filming, and he talked about \he and his friends grabbing the camera and running off into the canyon to, I don’t know, see what it looked like when we throw a Raggedy Andy off a cliff. I thought he was throwing out that anecdote because he knew I was in the audience. Nope. That’s just who he is.

If you see any interviews with Rian, be assured that his unassuming humility is real. Remember that the next time you think only assholes succeed. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit A FUCKING STAR WARS MOVIE AND ANOTHER TRILOGY TO COME.

My Facebook feed has been filled with well wishers this week. Most of them were tongue in cheek, “going to see a friend’s art project.” I haven’t seen a sour grape amongst them. Rian’s a guy you can’t root against. The entire SCHS Class of ’92 feels a huge bit of pride, and a small bit of ownership, for him. We referred to him as “Rian, Freaking, Johnson!” long before the rest of the world knew he deserved such a moniker.

Did we know he had a Star Wars in his future? Hell, no. It was the early 1990s and as far as we knew, Star Wars was over. The Timothy Zahn trilogy that started the Expanded Universe was just hitting the bookstores. At the time, Rian wanted to work on “Twin Peaks.” Hey, “Twin Peaks” is back, too.

But David Lynch, I knew Rian Johnson. Rian Johnson was a friend of mine. And you, David Lynch, are no Rian Johnson.

George Lucas, I’m looking at you, too.

I still sometimes show one of those 10th grade projects to my current students. It was ostensibly about “Johnny Got His Gun,” but we basically used the book as an excuse to make a “commies vs. good guys” war pic. Because Dalton Trumbo was a communist. Like I said, our teacher gave us some leeway by the end of the year. Did I mention the camera was broken for one project so we just spliced together scenes from “Three Amigos” and did voiceovers?

I show the film to my students, at least in theory, because it shows what we thought of the commies in the 1980s. Cold War propaganda and whatnot. My character’s first line is “It is good zat ve attack zem from behind, because if ve fight fair, ve are so weak.” Then we both laugh, exaggerated and simultaneous. “Hah. Hah. Hah.” Now re-read that dialogue in the style of Nicholas-Cage-as-Austin-Powers.

But the real reason I show it is to give my students a glimpse of me at their age. And, as a postscript, “Oh, that other guy? Yeah, he wrote and directed <Insert most recent Rian Johnson project here>.” This year, I added, “Here’s a YouTube clip of him on Jimmy Kimmel last week.”

This year, all three of my classes, after seeing the two of us on the same screen together and what Rian is today, asked if I was pissed.

“Why in the world would I be pissed? One of my friends is awesome!”

“Because that could’ve been you.”

“No. It really couldn’t have been.”

Even if I was an accomplished writer, I wouldn’t touch Star Wars with a ten-foot pole.

That’s how my students are, though. I don’t know if it’s an age thing (Teenagers!) or a generational thing (Millenials!) or a culture thing (Low SES!), but most of my students think another’s success is at the expense of theirs. When one of them catches a touchdown, the rest of his team is pissed that it wasn’t them.

Hopefully it’s just a teenage thing and they’ll grow out of it. I hope they get to feel the pride that comes when the most talented person you know is acknowledged for that talent. I’m sure I wasn’t as nervous as Rian was when the movie was about to start, but I probably attacked the reviews more voraciously. Oh please, oh please, oh please, I thought, let it be the best goddamned Star Wars movie ever.

And it was.

After the movie, I mentioned to my wife that, had I been Rian Johnson, after Carrie Fischer’s unfortunate death, I might have gone back in and switched who was flying the ship that went to light speed and cut the First Order ships in half. It would’ve been a fitting sacrifice for a character that we know won’t make it to Episode IX.

I also don’t think I would’ve turned Benicio del Toro. I had visions of him as the next Han Solo.

My wife’s response?

“Thank God you’re not Rian Johnson.”

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