After securing an audience with a stark high school noir film named Brick, writer/director Rian Johnson professed his loving perspective of his viewers by framing himself in his next movie as a con man. In The Brothers Bloom, Mark Ruffalo played Stephen, a fabulist who concocts his cons like fantastical narratives, while treating marks as members of an audience whose happiness is integral to a trick’s ultimate success. This marvelous film is devoted to a classic quality within Johnson’s storytelling, which Stephen calls “the perfect con”: when everyone involved gets just the thing they wanted.
Having written and directed three films (and doing some work on “Breaking Bad”) Johnson has now been chosen to create Star Wars: Episode VIII, allotting him a galaxy’s congregation of viewers, who will answer a question he asked himself while touring for his 2012 sci-fi film Looper: “Can we do what we do, and reach an even broader audience? Can we make a big summer movie that is going to have that kind of impact that surprises and thrills and engages an audience?” It is a profound feeling for a film lover living in an age of a new Star Wars trilogy that the only disappointment to be found in this news is that the project marks his first adapted film. But of course, there’s sweetness in the mix. This moment is not just a victory for anyone hoping that the dedicated writer/director would get some funding for a fourth film, but a recognition of his mutually beneficial relationship with his audience as a filmmaker. Always on a quest for “the perfect con,” Johnson is a director who not only writes foremost for an audience of which he seeks symbiosis, but one who shows his connection to his kindred moviegoers by working to shake them from the lull of looped genre storytelling.
Many directors can be categorized in their treatment of the audience in two ways. Some filmmakers make one-way streets, starting at their personal expression and leading outward to whatever the audience projects on it, without the director worrying about connecting back to the audience watching their film. Conversely, there are others who too readily play into the satiation of their audience, inhabiting a more direct definition of hoping to entertain viewers. These latter directors often continue the myth that genre is an unchanging precedent of which stories can always be directly organized with, or a repetitious cycle.
Johnson is of the dreamy ilk who is emblematically jazzed by the idea of an audience interacting with his storytelling, but whose creative stamina is geared towards nourishing his viewers with the awe-inspiring and sometimes scary experience of that which is unexpected. (Appearing on January 2013 on Kevin Smith’s SModcast, Johnson states flat-out that he thinks viewers most of all want to be surprised.) His rigorous original stories, Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper, are pilgrimages guided by his philosophy that go past the barriers that try to stifle genre’s expanse. The focus remains the same for these stories, written for the audience as much as they are for Johnson — “Be new!” as stated by Jeff Daniels’ character Abe in Looper, after he tells Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Young Joe that “the movies you’re dressing like are just copying other movies.” This is a mentality that birthed a high school drama with young adults prattling like Raymond Chandler creations (Brick), energized the con-within-a-con meta storytelling of The Brothers Bloom, and motivated the stark shift of Blade Runner to Witness within Looper, a midwestern time travel thriller that only starts as just that.
As the creation of stories is a very personal act for a homegrown filmmaker like Johnson, the urges that push the limits of his films becomes a grand motivation for the experience of his plots themselves. Johnson shares his excitement for the new by placing the audience within stories where life within the loop is unenlightened, its easy repetitiousness only leading towards corruption and death. Especially after Brick, Johnson’s stories have become specifically about liberation from these cycles. Within these films Johnson expresses to his audience the harm of settling for genre as a loop by making his characters victims of a cycle’s destructive side effects. Bloom (Adrien Brody) is trapped within the continuous cons created by his brother Stephen, unable to escape into reality; in Looper Young Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is in a career circle that will in due time lead to the demise of himself and a woman he comes to love. Changing the cycle is an act of salvation that leads to redemption, love, and truth; it makes people’s lives better. Johnson’s films are not just about their unique genre mixings, but the viewer’s own experiences with film, with his stories yearning to present the beneficial aspect of seeing art beyond a complacent understanding.
Johnson’s films express a fanatical optimism in the engaged moviegoer. Viewers invest their time and money to explore stories, and will stick with the stimulation of a narrative so long as the route seems interesting and genuine. To intrigue these sensibilities, Johnson composes puzzles for his audience from his parallel position of filmmaker, with stories that treat plot twists not as direction turns, but entire calculated shifts to different tonal territories. Foreshadowing, slang, irony, symmetry, and double meanings, (plus “Thematic arcs, symbolism and shit,” as muttered by Bloom about Stephen’s creations) are all organic tricks of Johnson’s trade within his rich text, ready for the audience to explore further if they so choose. As a stylistic storyteller, he then actualizes these notions with low-rent filmmaking tools (the brilliant usage of a simple jump-cut to indicate time travel in Looper!), creating a congenial aesthetic presence; a filmmaker whose spectacle is in his specifically filmic craft itself.
Regarding the audience’s perspective as they put their trust into a new story, Johnson showcases an exhilarating demeanor. With regards to his viewer’s emotions, he acknowledges that grave chapters like Bruce Willis’ act of cold-blooded murder in Looper must be gradually prepared to handle such lugubrious weight. Grievous moments with flesh-and-blood characters are not bought, they are earned from an audience over time, with an effect that lasts long after the act itself.
At the same time, Johnson believes in the viewer as independent from the filmmaker, in which the audience travels a course that’s been devised by the isolated storyteller; the methodical fabulist is the only one who needs a sound understanding of the story. In a statement made by Rachel Weisz’s Penelope to Brody’s questioning Bloom, in the midst of him conning her, “You’ve got to stop thinking so much. I mean, enjoy the ride, man!” It is a playful yet staunch predication that despite having the answers a storyteller need not supply all of them, while the audience can divorce themselves from critical neuroses (such as judging movies by the completion of their logic, or viewing them with a checklist) and allow the film experience to happen in a coexistence of audience/filmmaker confidence.
This symbiosis that Johnson has established with his audience through his films is due to expand spectacularly, so long as he is employed to do what he does best for this upcoming Star Wars project. With regards to his creative promise, there is great hope to be found in his professed belief about the power of persistence (as discussed in his October 2013 appearance on Episode #115 of the ScriptNotes podcast). It is the electrifying creedo for a storyteller who doesn’t see the essential element of genre as a bookend, but one of many diverse tones, with the potential for invention. As Johnson escalates to the colossal heights of a surely earned career pinnacle, one can trust that the experience of his audience will be tethered to him throughout, and his excitement for this galaxy’s viewership will be displayed in presenting us a new take on a franchise that has become a genre itself. Most definitively, a Rian Johnson bazillion dollar blockbuster is bound to honor the painstaking yet personal experience of his smaller stories before it, or more specifically, the moment in which Johnson expresses to his viewers through Stephen, after he pulls off the perfect con solely on his brother Bloom. “I wish you had a bigger audience,” Bloom states. To which Stephen replies, “You’re the only audience I ever needed.”