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A self-described audio-visual geek who made over 90 short films by the time he left film school, director Rian Johnson spent years struggling to make his first film before finally cobbling together enough money to make the stylish teen-centric film noir, "Brick" (2005). Hardboiled by way of Dashiell Hammett, "Brick" was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and announced Johnson as a fresh new voice in independent film. From there, he diversified his talents, directing music videos for bands like The Mountain Goats, and helming episodes of "Breaking Bad" (A&E, 2008-2013) and "Terriers" (FX, 2010). He went on to direct his second feature, "The Brothers Bloom" (2009), which failed to live up to the precedent he set with his breakthrough film. But he did earn considerable acclaim for his third film, "Looper" (2012), a dark and gritty sci-fi thriller that proved Johnson was a significant filmmaker with a bright future. That promise was fulfilled when Johnson was announced as the writer and director of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" (2017).
Born Dec. 17, 1973 in Silver Spring, MD, Johnson was raised in San Clemente, CA from the time he was in the sixth grade. Like so many future film directors, he began making shorts with a Super 8mm camera and by the time he graduated San Clemente High School in 1992, he estimated that he made over 90 films. In fact, Johnson was so dedicated to his craft that the self-described "AV geek" commuted 20 minutes to a satellite school three times a week in order to use their audio-visual equipment. Following his graduation, Johnson applied to the University of California's renowned School of Cinema-Television, but was rejected due to insufficient grades. Instead, he entered USC as an undeclared major and spent his first two years applying to - and being rejected by - the film school. When all was told, John was rejected five times, leading him to write a passionate and rather angry letter decrying the university's admission process. Something in the letter must have impressed - or frightened - the school and USC finally admitted him.
While in film school, Johnson completed the horror comedy short, "Evil Demon Golfball From Hell!!!" (1996). While the film was relatively typical of a film school project made on virtually no budget, it still proved a significant project in Johnson's development, as he performed all duties - writing, directing and editing - on the film. Most importantly, Johnson collaborated with director of photography, Steve Yedlin, who later became his go-to cinematographer on his films. While attending film school, Johnson had grown particularly fond of the novels of Dashiell Hammett, on whose books many of the most famous film noirs had been based. The young filmmaker dreamed of updating the genre for contemporary audiences, many of whom knew nothing of the beauty of post-war film noir. So shortly after his 1996 graduation from USC, Johnson penned the screenplay for "Brick," placing his modern detective tale in a high school setting and creating his own stylized slang for his teen characters to bandy about. Despite positive reactions to his writing, the subject matter scared off Hollywood producers, leaving Johnson no closer to making his dream film.
While spending the next six years trying to raise the money to make "Brick," Johnson continued working film-related jobs. He produced promo spots for the Disney Channel and made videos for a deaf children's preschool, and was also an editor on "May" (2002), a low-budget horror film. Finally, Johnson was able to raise his half-million dollar budget, primarily from friends and family members and was ready to shoot "Brick." Starring former "3rd Rock From the Sun" star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the film focused on an outsider high school student who investigates the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin), leading him to uncover a labyrinth plot involving an organized group of teenage criminals. Shot entirely in San Clemente, Johnson's former hometown, "Brick" made its debut at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and won its director a Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision. Focus Features purchased distribution rights and released the film theatrically the following year, earning Johnson substantial critical acclaim. A vindication for Johnson after years of struggle, the film opened the doors to Hollywood, though he intended to remain a largely independent filmmaker in the vein of his idols, the Coen Brothers.
Following "Brick," Johnson directed the music video for The Mountain Goats' "Woke Up New" (2006) after band members noticed a reference to them in the credits for "Brick." He went on to direct his second feature, "The Brothers Bloom" (2009), a dark crime comedy about two con artist brothers (Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo) who plan the perfect confidence game before getting out of the business. The film earned mixed reviews and little in the way of box office, making it an underwhelming follow up to "Brick." Turning to the small screen, Johnson directed an episode of "Breaking Bad" (A&E, 2008-2013) called "Fly" in 2010, where Walt (Bryan Cranston) becomes obsessed with a fly contaminating his meth lab. After directing an episode of the short-lived crime comedy series, "Terriers" (FX, 2010), he returned to "Breaking Bad" to helm the season five episode, "Fifty-One," which involved Walt and Jesse's (Aaron Paul) hunt for more methylamine in order to resume cooking. Johnson returned to features with his third film, "Looper" (2012), a mind-bending sci-fi action thriller about a corporate assassin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the year 2047 who finds himself forced to take out his future self (Bruce Willis) after he escapes through time from 30 years in the future. The film's critical and commercial success raised Johnson's Hollywood profile considerably. In 2014, it was announced that Johnson had signed to direct the eighth film in the rebooted "Star Wars" franchise, "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" (2017). In addition, Johnson wrote the story for the ninth film in the series, building on the events of "The Last Jedi," and even made a cameo appearance in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (2016) as a technician working on the Death Star.
By Shawn Dwyer
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