When an indie director goes Hollywood, our first reaction is often along the lines of “Oy.” But when Deadline broke the news earlier today that Rian Johnson would be writing and directing the next two “Star Wars” movies, we thought: “This is nothing less than awesome.”
Though production just began on “Star Wars: Episode VII,” helmed by J.J. Abrams, Disney and Lucasfilm have already tapped Johnson for episodes VIII and IX.
Of course, Johnson first got attention back in 2005 when his writing-directing debut, the high school noir “Brick,” premiered at Sundance. After winning a special jury prize for his “originality of vision” and several Independent Spirit nominations, Johnson followed up with the less successful “The Brothers Bloom,” which premiered in Toronto in 2008. He redeemed himself with “Looper” in 2012.
The time-travel, dueling-hitman action film, starring Bruce Willis, also proved crossover appeal to mainstream audiences. In his review of the film, Indiewire Chief Critic Eric Kohn wrote, “Johnson’s acrobatic camerawork swirls about his characters with a vibrant pulse that sets his imagery apart from the countless other near-future noirs unleashed since “Blade Runner.'”
Most recently, Johnson brought his visual style to “Breaking Bad,” directing some of the award-winning AMC series’ best episodes.
Johnson realizes the daunting task ahead of him and even shared a clip from “The Right Stuff” that approximates his state of mind at the moment, tweeting the following:
1. Visual Style: Visually, both in terms of cinematography and production design, he’s a really strong director. Though “Brothers Bloom” is by no means a masterpiece, Johnson clearly knows how to pace a story.
2. Future Worlds: With “Looper,” Johnson proved his ability to create a world within a not-too-distant-future, which could come in handy working within the “Star Wars” universe (so to speak).
3. Interlocking Narratives: “Brick” and “Looper” both featured interlocking storylines and complex adjustments to the concept of narrative, which gives us confidence that Johnson can bring some necessary complexity to the franchise.
4. Moral Complexity: Johnson has shown that he knows how to deal with the issues of good and evil in a complex way. “Brick” dealt with the issues of morality that arose after a murder. Johnson also directed the most lauded episode of “Breaking Bad,” “Ozymandias,” in which Walt (Bryan Cranston) oscillated between good and evil more times than in any episode, ultimately making heartbreaking sacrifices.
5. Box Office: Though neither “Brick” nor “Brothers Bloom” were box office hits, “Looper” brought in $176 million worldwide.
Still, it’s worth noting that another indie director, Edgar Wright, recently dropped out of “Ant-Man” over script issues. It’s becoming increasingly clear that no matter what sort of talent you have as a filmmaker, when you’re working on a franchise, it’s the studio that calls the shots.
We’ll be watching to see how — and if — Johnson manages to work within the studio system.
(Editor’s Note: Paula Bernstein, Emily Buder, Eric Kohn and Liz Miller contributed to this story).