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11 Indie Directors Scarlett Johansson Must Work With

11 Indie Directors Scarlett Johansson Must Work With

Scarlett Johansson sure has come a long way since “The Nanny Diaries.” Thanks to a quartet of diverse performances over the past year in “Don Jon,” “Her,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Under The Skin,” Johansson has reached a rapturous peak in her twenty year career and has cemented her status as one of the most exciting actresses working today. On one hand, her integral work as Black Window in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has earned her global recognition as a bona fide ass-kicking heroine, an opportunity she’s seizing this weekend in Luc Besson’s “Lucy.” On the other, her eclectic tastes have kept her feet grounded in the independent film world. After rising to prominence in low budget hits “Manny & Lo” and “Ghost World,” the 29-year-old beauty has continuously stayed true to her independent roots despite countless mainstream efforts. The result is an actress who can confidently headline an R-rated action film while also circulating the latest Coen Brothers project. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Johansson is equal parts blockbuster babe and indie starlet. As “Lucy” sets its target on becoming the sleeper hit of the summer, we look to Johansson’s indie sensibilities with 11 directors who could do wonders with her various talents.

John Carney (“Once,” “Begin Again”)

The latest phase of Johansson’s career has been full of experimentation. From her transformative voiceover in “Her” to the silent improvisations of “Skin,” the actress has been rapidly growing with one risk after another. But while surprises are always welcome, Johansson should not abandon the conventional romantic comedy-drama altogether. Her playful smile is too winning not to be put to good use. It’s a shame the genre has become a tired cliché dumping ground when such contrivances can be so winning given the right cast and material. Enter indie-musical wunderkind John Carney. As proven in the acoustic “Once” and its more glamorized Hollywood sibling “Begin Again,” which has become an indie summer hit with nearly $10 million and counting, Carney can make clichés ripple with genuine feeling by creating relaxed, believable chemistry between his leads. Sappiness and predictability could have killed “Begin Again” if it wasn’t for the likable gravitation between Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightly. And if Johansson has mastered one thing, it’s effortless chemistry. Even in duds like “He’s Just Not That Into You” and Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought A Zoo,” Johansson’s earnest appeal and natural rapport with her costars have shined bright. And if Carney is looking to make a successful indie-musical hat trick, the actress has sultry singing pipes to spare, just check out her albums “Anywhere I Lay My Head” and “Break Up” for proof. If Johansson is ever in need of a wholesome romantic hit, Carney is her man. 

Terrence Malick (“Badlands,” “The Tree Of Life”)

A lot of what makes Johansson’s performance in “Under The Skin” so groundbreaking for her career is its entrancing silence. With barley any dialogue, the role forces Johansson to abandon her trademark husky voice and to use her face as a canvas of evolving emotions. Everything we come to know and feel about the alien she inhabits is a direct reflection of her specific facial expressions. The more she adds layers of curiosity onto her extraterrestrial blandness the more unstable the feature becomes, and when it’s finally time for her to bare the horrific shock of human empathy, Johansson makes “Skin” burn with tormented pain. It’s this vast expressiveness that would work perfectly in the contemporary films of Terrence Malick. In recent efforts such as “The Tree Of Life” and “To The Wonder,” the prolific filmmaker has been creating visual poems on resonant themes of childhood and love, where Emmanuel Lubezki’s swinging cinematography is the pen and the actors are the various punctuation marks. Other than voiceover, the performances of Jessica Chastain and Olga Kurylenko in these works rely entirely on their graceful expressions and gestures in combination with Malick’s melodic direction. While the actors may not pull most of the weight, Malick’s talent as a director is his ability to transform the performer’s silent expressionism into his own lyrical prose. As a result, Malick’s films require emotive precision from the actor, and Johansson’s muted skills would fit beautifully into his thematically structured works. 

Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies,” “Happy Christmas”)

“Her” proved Johansson’s staggering vocal prowess, making her an ideal casting choice for mumblecore maestro Joe Swanberg. A pioneer of the independent sub-genre, Swanberg’s low budget dramedies thrive on stripped down filmmaking techniques and highly natural conversations. Rather than build on the foundations of a rich plot, Swanberg’s films feel loosely structured with a focus on how dialogue plays a role in forging relationships with the ones we love. If Johansson could create a fully formed human from just the sprightly banter and breathy pauses of her vocal delivery in “Her,” imagine the marvels she could achieve in the flesh with a filmmaker whose material lives or dies by the improvisational pule of his screenplays. Furthermore, Swanberg’s works exist in the everyday, which forces even the recognizable names he casts to expose low-fi, mumblecore layers. Take Olivia Wilde in “Drinking Buddies” as a shining example. Like Johansson, Wilde is stunningly gorgeous, but the effectiveness of “Drinking Buddies” is how it strips the actress of her Hollywood sex symbolism to reveal acting chops that are starkly honest and sympathetically messy. Swanberg shreds all traces of Hollywood glam, making his down-to-earth movies the perfect place for Johansson to reveal her most organic self. 

Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”)

Johansson’s assured physicality as a performer has been a constant strength throughout her career. The next time you watch a Johansson film, pay close attention to the way she uses posture and mannerisms to develop her characters. The seductive elegance of Nola Rice in “Match Point,” the crippled shyness of Griet in “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and the gradual loss of humanity in the eponymous “Lucy” are all revealed in the way Johansson carries herself and manipulates her stature. But in order take full control of her physicality, it would do Johansson good to work with Kathryn Bigelow, a director whose protagonists are fully created by the actor’s physical performance. In her Oscar-winning hits “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” the leads played by Jeremy Renner and Jessica Chastain, respectively, are seen only in the contexts of their jobs, and it is up to the performer to create exposition for the character through sheer use of body representation. The nonchalant strut of Renner as he defuses bombs, for instance, unlocks the mental instability of his soldier’s war torn past, while Chastain’s tightly wound posture eludes to the years her character spent fighting her way through a male dominated CIA. As a filmmaker, Bigelow never takes the easy way out, turning the transitional physicality of the performance into the character’s full-blown arc and the film’s thematic whole. The anti-war sentiments of her previous two films aren’t advocated through dialogue or blatant messages but in the subtle ways Renner and Chastain are physically worn out and slowly chipped away at over their films’ runtimes. Johansson has already proven herself a pro in this area, making her an ideal candidate for a future Bigelow project. 

David O. Russell (“The Fighter,” “American Hustle”)

Love him or hate him, David O. Russell has become an independent film golden boy, racking up Best Picture and Best Director nominations for each of his last three features. Importantly, his last two movies, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” garnered acting nominations for their entire ensembles, meaning every actor could probably benefit from working with him, let alone Johansson. But while Russell is a master at creating electric ensembles, something Johansson already has expertise in given the sly way she bounces off her fellow Avengers, he is even better at subverting the sexuality of his female leads. And let’s face it, no one is as inherently sexy as Scarlet Johansson. A major reason Russell has formed such prestigious relationships with Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams is because he writes roles that dig way beneath their sensual looks. If Tiffany (Lawrence, “Silver Linings”) and Sydney Prosser (Adams, “American Hustle”) were books, they would have covers marked by sexual beauty but pages stuffed with vulnerabilities and fears. That’s how Russell creates such vibrant characters: he uses the interior emotions of the character to deconstruct his/her exterior appearance. For this reason, the plunging necklines of “American Hustle” are hardly a cause for sexualized concern, for they exist to mask the insecurities of his female characters behind their wannabe sexual glamour. Russell’s female characters have relatable, complex issues that deconstruct their sexual allure, which makes Johansson an ideal choice for the director’s next ensemble. 

Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Enemy”)

After his drama “Incendies” earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve finally arrived on the American filmmaking scene last year with a knockout pair of psychological dramas, “Prisoners” and “Enemy.” While the heady ambiguities of both features fit nicely in line with Johansson’s “Under The Skin,” the two ought to work together since both are dynamic in executing a particular filmmaking vision. Villeneuve’s features reveal a director with a knack for creating ominous mysteries that have a specific sense of pacing and palpable dread. It’s this vision that gives even a mainstream effort like “Prisoners” the tedious slow burn of a European art house thriller. Meanwhile, Johansson has proven numerous times that she is always game for stepping into a director’s carefully constructed world. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt needed her to enter the broad characterized atmosphere of “Don Jon,” she did so with a provocative wink. When Jonathan Glazer needed her to be the morally shifting backbone of “Skin,” she showed up with mysterious curiosity. The fact that Johansson can effortlessly slip into a director’s vision makes her a versatile team player, one that could do some serious dramatic work under Villeneuve’s foreboding gaze. 

Lynne Ramsay (“Morvern Callar,” “We Need To Talk About Kevin”)

That Lynne Ramsay has yet to follow up her 2011 impressionist nightmare “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is a true crime, for no one does grueling drama more effectively than the Scottish writer-director. In features such as “Ratcatcher,” in which a young boy must cope with his friend’s drowning, and “Morvern Callar,” where a woman publishes her boyfriend’s manuscript after he commits suicide, Ramsay creates soul-shattering examinations of guilt. Her movies feature lead performers who carry the tormented weight of the picture, something Johansson has already done effectively in the closing minutes of “Skin.” But while each actor’s punishing work adds to Ramsay’s arduous vision, the power of her films come directly from the suggestive restraint of her leads. Take “Kevin” for instance, a drama structured around a mother before and after her son commits a disturbing act of violence. Ramsay’s screenplay hides the violent encounter till the very end, but its effect on Swinton’s mother is constantly clear in every weary gaze and devastated shrug. Swinton’s performance does not lash out for help but instead creates a cracking shell of suggestive misery. Surprisingly, Johansson’s work as Black Widow is the best indication for a successful collaboration with Ramsay. Marvel has yet to reveal anything about Widow’s origin story through three feature length movies, but the subtle fear and humanity Johansson brings to her character’s quitter moments hints at a damaged past and makes Widow more complex than she ought to be. Combine this emotional suggestiveness with the distraught pain Johansson brings to the climaxes of “Skin” and “The Other Boleyn Girl” and she could be just the actress Ramsay needs to make a stirring comeback. 

Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive,” “Only God Forgives”)

If her work in “The Avengers” and “Lucy” is any indication, Johansson has a clear soft spot for stylized action and violence. Heck, she even starred in the ill-fated Michael Bay clone “The Island.” And while the violence of Nicolas Winding Refn remains divisive, with some finding it artfully tasteful and others disturbingly gratuitous, his auteur stylizations and broad characterizations appeal directly to Johansson’s strengths. In fact, doesn’t “Lucy” and its violent drug-deal-gone-awry premise and revenge plot just sound like a Refn movie to you? Refn’s profile has gone up dramatically thanks to the Ryan Gosling-starring “Drive” and “Only God Forgives,” but anything Gosling has done in those movies – silently brood, create believable chemistry with a love interest, whip out a gun, go head-to-head with thugs while being bathed in neon light – Johansson could do just as good, if not better. If someone were to remake these features with a female lead, Johansson would unquestionably be casting choice #1. Refn’s recent efforts are right in her wheelhouse and would give her the opportunity to take her action skills to the independent film world, a combination that sounds like a match made in heaven for the actress. If anything, Refn should be clamoring to work with Johansson, for a duet between the two could finally give his cinematic worldview a much-needed feminine shakeup. Plus, the image of Johansson lurking the streets to the pounding synths of Cliff Martinez would be too good to be true. 

Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Young Adult”)

Jason Reitman’s comedies are full of complex and cartoonish women such as the bouncy Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page, “Juno”), the boozy Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron, “Young Adult) and the business motor mouth Polly Bailey (Maria Bello, “Thank You For Smoking”). The strength and memorability of these performances rely entirely on the actress’ ability to create an idiosyncratic personality and to deliver Reitman’s sharp dialogue with ace comedic timing. Whenever Johansson has gone for funny it has been in some kind of romantic comedy, which is why working with Reitman could be a godsend for her. Regardless of whether the Oscar-nominated director is in social satire or dark comedy mode, his films always have a truth-telling, sidesplitting moxie to them, which is similar to the peculiar tone of “Ghost World.” In the graphic novel adaptation, a teenage Johansson and co-star Thora Birch are very much in super snarky Reitman mode, wandering around their hometown with a dry wittiness as they make various digs at American pop culture. It’s a tone full of the pseudo-intellectualism that makes “Juno” and “Thank You For Smoking” pop with clever satire, and it’s one that would be completely refreshing for Johansson to try once again. And if it’s any boost, Reitman’s style of comedy goes very well with female leads and awards consideration.

Sarah Polley (“Away From Her,” “Stories We Tell”)

Actress turned director Sarah Polley has become one of the indie scene’s brightest storytellers. Among her three features – the Alzheimer drama “Away From Her,” the relationship dramedy “Take This Waltz” and the documentary “Stories We Tell” – Polley has proven that her sensitive directing skills are surpassed only by her soulful screenwriting. Like a more barebones Nicole Holofcener, the Oscar-nominated Polley structures screenplays in order to reveal the dynamics of budding and dying relationships. Her movies have a narrow focus on a core cast of central characters – a husband and wife, a woman and her two love interests, her own family – and could moonlight as Broadway plays thanks to their plotted simplicity and written honesty and elegance. For this reason, the Tony-winning Johansson should give Polley a go. On Broadway, Johansson starred in a revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” as Catherine, a Red Hook teenager coming of age in the dark shadow of her family’s convoluted bonds. It’s a role that gives weighted observation to an ordinary stage of life, which is exactly the kind of natural stories Polley brings to fruition on the big screen. 

Thomas Vinterberg (“The Celebration,” “The Hunt”)

Similar to Ramsay, the Danish Vinterberg is known for his unrelenting dramas. As a co-founder of the dogma 95 movement along side Lars Von Trier, Vinterberg’s early films have a ruggedness and visceral directness that is startling to behold. And while Johansson working him depends largely on her commitment to morally punishing material, it could be another chance for the actress to experience a whole new style of filmmaking. Johansson clearly loves challenging herself by working with directors with unusual methods, such as Glazer’s hidden camera tactics on “Skin” and Woody Allen’s directionless trust on their numerous collaborations, and working with Vinterberg would bring her the opportunity to once again expand her horizons. Even when Vinterberg makes more cinematically polished features such as Cannes favorite “The Hunt,” his dogma sensibilities remain intact thanks to straightforward plotting, morally punishing tones and the use of handheld cameras to create a raw reality. Working with the director would certainly be a dark turn for Johansson, but it would be a chance to expose herself to new acting methods that could expose sides of her we have yet to see.  

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