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Rian Johnson Talks Screenwriting and What Classic Movies Can Teach Us

Bryan Young talks with screenwriter/director of "Knives Out," Rian Johnson, about creating set-ups and pay-offs, his writing process, and analyzing classic movies.

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Rian Johnson on set of "Knives Out" - Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate

Rian Johnson on set of "Knives Out" - Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate

Rian Johnson is riding high right now. His fourth feature film as a writer/director is the ninth highest grossing film of all time and his brand new film, Knives Out, is a brilliantly written whodunnit that twists and turns in ways that feel both surprising and inevitable. As a screenwriter, his films are complicated and nuanced, diving deep into theme and subtext in a way that feels smarter than might otherwise be possible.

We had the opportunity to speak with him shortly after the release of Knives Out, and he had a lot of great advice to dispense.

Interview is edited for content and clarity.

Script: I want to talk about screenwriting in general and your process. It's been said that you take the nascent idea and then something you want to say and when the two of those click, then you're off and running. I’m wondering what you're looking for in each of those before you depart on a screenplay?

Rian Johnson: For the first part, which is usually in my case a genre or a type of story or something that is sort of a sandbox that I feel like it would be fun to play in, it's really just kind of an emotional connection to it. It's not like I'm looking for any kind of specific ingredients, it really just has to be something that I'm excited about doing. You're a writer, you know, anyone reading this who is a writer understands, it's the thing that kind of makes you lean forward in your chair, and the thing that kind of wakes your senses up and makes you think, "God I really wanna see this."

For example, with Knives Out, it was the whodunnit genre. That's been something that I've been reading since I was a little kid, and I just have a deep love of all of the conventions of that... So it's very emotional. And same with the second thing, it's very similar but a different sort of thing, whether it's a theme, or an idea, or a question that I've been struggling with, or something I'm excited about or angry about, or some personal thing... The main thing is it has to be alive and current for me in that moment that I'm going to start writing. It has to be something that can be fuel for the process.

Script: Talk about theme. It's something that I think a lot of writers, whether they're screenwriters or whether they're prose writers, it's something that they struggle with. It seems a little bit esoteric to the process, but I think you do it really well, particularly with The Last Jedi. Every scene and every character decision was informed by theme. And I'm wondering, what tips you might give to people who are trying to approach theme and what your ingredients to that are?

Rian Johnson: The first thing is making it clear that theme is not a message. Theme is not a sermon or an adage or anything that you can put on an inspirational poster or anything like that. For me, for theme to really fuel a story, it has to be something that is, first off, applicable to my own life. So it's alive for me; it's something that I'm actually struggling with, it's not just a nice thing that I believe, it's something that is complicated and has many different facets. Even when you have it as a statement. That means you'll be able to explore it from many different facets with the characters. It's not illustrating a simplistic thing over and over again, it's taking a look at a complicated thing from many different angles and that allows you to really use it as fuel for your story.

Also though, this is just personally, the way that I approach it, I do need something that I would call a theme that's like that and I do build every single element of the story around it. The goal for me is to have literally everything in the movie be—in some way, shape or form—an exploration of the central theme of the story. I think that’s where it all starts for me. It's not a simplistic moral statement it's quite the opposite. It's a very challenging complicated moral statement that requires investigating and is going to be pushed and pulled and challenged throughout the course of the story.

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Script: Where did you learn screenwriting? Who were the screenwriters that you looked up to? Sometimes it varies for movie to movie, but sometimes I feel like the closest I can pin where I feel like your screenwriting is is a mix between Billy Wilder and Lawrence Kasdan...

Rian Johnson: Those are master screenwriters who obviously influenced me... I mean, Kasdan's work, obviously with Star Wars and with Raiders of the Lost Ark, is deeply embedded in all of our psyches. Anyone who is my age, who grew up then, it's deeply embedded there, but also his non-Lucas film work is great. He's an absolute master at that, similar to Billy Wilder.

But for me, I know people have differing opinions about different screenwriting teachers, but I'll tell you when I was in high school my Dad knew that I was interested in making movies, and my dad was always fascinated with movies too, even though he never worked in them. He took me up to Los Angeles for a weekend to Robert McKee's Storytelling seminar, and I'll tell you, man, everything that I know about story structure, still to this day, I pretty much learned from that weekend... I'm a big defender of McKee. I know that scene in Adaptation where Brian Cox is playing him is quite funny, but I don't know. I feel like what McKee does, or at least what he did for me, because he doesn't teach you formulas, is lay out why certain things work to give you a basic understanding of things. It's not like, "Your first act is thirty pages and then it's this for your second act and then here's your midpoint." But he's good at making you understand the fundamentals of what keeps an audience hooked into a story and why those structural things are one example of many of how to tap into those fundamentals. It took me a while to be able to, even on a rudimentary level, do it, but just having a grasp of the engineering behind storytelling at that age, I think was really useful.

Script: I gotta tell you, one of my best days that I've ever had, because I really love McKee, was when I was doing a whole bunch of analysis about The Last Jedi. I had no idea that he might even know I existed, and someone asked him on Twitter if he'd done any work analyzing The Last Jedi, and he sent people to all my stuff, and I was like, "I feel like ten million dollars."

Rian Johnson: You're kidding. That's amazing. By extension, so do I now, too.

Script: As you're sitting down, what's your process like as far as consuming things in similar genres to what you’re working on? I know you'd been influenced by some of the whodunnits, but did you go through and race through a whole bunch of them again?

Rian Johnson: In this case, maybe I re-watched Death on the Nile, but no. In this specific case, it was because it was something I had just always grown up watching and I continued to watch and read and absorb. I had a very good grounding in it. In this specific case, though, I actually did avoid going back and rereading the books or studying specifics because I think one of the traps of writing a whodunnit is you can start to become in such awe of the cleverness of [Agatha] Christie’s narrative gambits, or of her solutions, that you can start thinking in terms of, "How do I come up with something that's crazier than the twist in Murder on the Orient Express?" Or you start thinking of the solution to the mystery as a super clever mousetrap you have to build or something. And I think that's a trap. That's coming at it from the wrong angle. I think you have to remember that this, even if it's a whodunnit, is first and foremost a movie. I started from the opposite end of building from the ground up with the audience's experience story-wise, going through the entire thing and not beginning with some big crazy mousetrap ending, but starting with, "Okay, what's the narrative tension that's actually gonna drive this thing?" Starting with the story of Marta and the big picture shape of it, and then backing into what the crime was and what the solution is from there... And I think diving into specific things with Christie's books would have maybe encouraged the less helpful first version of that.

Script: One of the reasons I bring up Billy Wilder is that he has this really incredible knack of assigning story weight to what would ordinarily be throw-away objects. I'm thinking the the broken compact in The Apartment. With Knives Out, you did that really well, to a degree, with Marta and the coffee mug. Where you open and close the film with this very interesting symbol that didn't feel like it meant anything until that last shot. Is that something that you're conscious of as you're writing the screenplay? Is that something that comes out in editing? Or is that while you're shooting?

Rian Johnson: No, absolutely. And it's funny that you mentioned the broken compact mirror in The Apartment because that is, for me, one of the ultimate examples of that. There's also the broken banister in It's a Wonderful Life where at various points in the movie that thing of the banister breaks off in George Bailey's hand, but it means completely different things to him emotionally in the course of it. It's his annoyance at the squalid-ness of his life at one point and then by the end it's come around to him being joyous that the thing breaks off and that he's back in what is his home. And it's just a broken banister. I think the compact is the best example, and yes, that's solid gold whenever you can find that. Whenever you can have a major emotional impact come from something that seems incidental when you first introduce it, that's the gold in the hills that you're digging for.

Script: When do you decide that you need to write yourself out of that? I'm specifically thinking of The Last Jedi. The original written opening had that pan down to Finn's medical pod, and it fit the theme really well—this idea that we were seeing something but we didn't realize what we were seeing, and we thought it was one thing and then very quickly realized it's different, that informs the theme across the film. At what point did you decide it wasn't working and you had to go in a different direction for those traps that you're setting yourself as you're writing?

Rian Johnson: Well, that is a great example actually, because, yeah, that thematically encapsulated the whole movie, and it was clever and blah, blah, blah. And then when we cut it together, we were watching it, and pacing-wise, just in terms of an experience for the audience watching it, it didn't work. It was too oblique a way into the story, and we realized it. The lesson over and over when you're making a Star Wars movie is cut to the chase. Cut out the fat, don't be clever, don't be oblique, get right to what's important, and then what's happening, and explain it as clearly as possible. And that was exactly what that opening needed. So, the lesson is all of this thematic and clever—and not even clever because it sounds like I'm putting it down—but the genuinely thematic resonant stuff, none of it is worth a dime if narratively it doesn't work for the audience.

Actually, quite the opposite. It becomes the worst thing in the world if suddenly the audience is bored, and then it starts to stick out like a sore thumb, and it becomes your enemy. So all the thematic stuff at the end of the day... I was going to say you have to make it subservient to the story needs, but the truth is, ultimately, those two things need to serve each other perfectly, and if they're not, if something is out of sync, then you can't say, "Well, sure, this is not a great opening, but it feels great thematically." No, you have to get under the hood, and you have to make it work on both levels.

Script: I call them Swiss-watch movies where I go, "I really wanna watch a movie that's inspiring because the screenwriting is just perfect." What are a few of your Swiss-watch movies?

Rian Johnson: Well, you mentioned The Apartment, and that's top of the list. It's absolutely dazzling what that movie does, how it pays off, how it sets up effortlessly things that seem incidental, and then pays them off. It finds a way to pay them off at the end in ways that are incredibly emotionally resonant. Whether it's a throwaway line, or whether it's an object, or whether it's them playing a game of gin, the fruitcake line... You can pull that movie apart for years and find the intricacies that all line up one way or another. It's hard to top that.

"The Apartment" - Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine

"The Apartment" - Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine

Script: When I talk to people about movies, and The Apartment is one I always mention as, in my view, the second greatest romantic comedy of all time. Do you see that people aren't looking back to those fundamentals from older movies?

Rian Johnson: I'm curious what the first is for you.

Script: Chaplin's City Lights.

Rian Johnson: Oh, yeah. Well, there you go.

Script: Chaplin's City Lights is just perfect.

Rian Johnson: Yeah, yeah, that's fair.

Script: So, to the question, do you find that you're seeing screenwriters that aren't necessarily paying attention to the fundamentals that they can learn from those classic movies?

Rian Johnson: Well, maybe, but I'm always loathe to finger wag and present movies as homework. I think a film is only useful as a reference if that film turns you on. I think only if you are genuinely intrigued by it, inspired by it, and want to figure out how it ticks. And so I don't think there's any value in digging into opening up a watch that you're not interested in the face of. Because that's what inspires you to dig into—what makes you want to fundamentally dig into it—and see how it works, is a love of it. But I do always encourage people to look at older movies and see if they emotionally hook them, but if that's not the case, and you’re hooked by modern movies, do that. I mean, The Matrix is a great example of a Swiss-watch movie. The first Matrix. It's absolutely brilliant in the way it sets up and pays off things. Whether it's that or a more recent film that you find works for you, dig into that and figure out how it works. I think that's the important thing.

Script: Do you read a lot of screenplays?

Rian Johnson: I don't actually... And I feel like I should. I'll read friends' screenplays when they send them to me.

Oh, Casablanca, as I'm now randomly thinking about it, is another all time great Swiss-watch screenplay. Although Casablanca was the movie at that weekend seminar that McKee dissected.

But, anyway, No. I feel like I should read more scripts. It's a very slow, laborious process for me to read the screenplay because I'm making the movie in my head when I'm reading it, so I can't speed-read the screenplay. It takes me half a day to get through a script. So, I think maybe because of that, I don't... What I do do quite a lot is I will watch a movie that I love, and I sit there and pause and unpause it and basically diagram it out, time-wise. I basically make an outline of the film with the time code of when stuff happens and diagram it out that way. But I'll usually do that with a movie and not with the script.

Script: What's the most surprise you've had with a movie you've diagrammed? I do this, too, and I've diagrammed, say, Return of the Jedi and all of the Tatooine stuff happens in like the first 25 minutes of the movie, even though it feels like the first half.

Rian Johnson: That's amazing, yeah. Well, the big one was—and this was way before I worked on The Last Jedi—but I remember way back when diagramming out A New Hope and realizing that Solo doesn't show up until literally 45-minutes into the movie. Which is astounding.

There's a weird clarity that happens. When I was writing Looper, I diagrammed out the movie Witness because that movie has similar structures of what I was trying to do and felt effortless in the way that it sustained the tension of the city stuff when it made this move into the country and kind of split its narrative. It is crazy once you diagram it out and are looking at it, this thing that feels like this impressive magic trick that just works, suddenly. It is like opening the back of a watch, and you can very clearly see, "Oh my god, okay, every 10 minutes, they're checking back in with the city. And the way they check in back with the city is an escalating thing that's all leading up to the guys showing up on the farm.” You can just see the clock work. And it's always fascinating. It's something I highly recommend.

"Looper" - Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt 

"Looper" - Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt 

Script: I think of the magic trick in The Last Jedi with Poe and putting Holdo off sides with the audience and then showing the audience and Poe at the same time that they're wrong about their assessments of her. As you were diagramming out movies as you were looking at writing Last Jedi, what were you looking for? What other movies did you find for inspiration as far as how that particular magic trick works, because I think that's one of the most complicated ones. And I really love how you accomplished it.

Rian Johnson: There are very good examples, actually, in the last act of Casablanca. When it turns over, when Rick gives up Victor Lazslo to the police. It seems that fate has taken a hand. And we think it's possible. Bogart is the anti-hero and our emotions are on the side of us wanting him to be with Bergman. We want that. We want that emotionally. And I think that's the main thing for me and that's what's very interesting to me. It'll never work in terms of your head, you always have to tap into things in terms of the heart when you're doing misdirection. You always have to find something where the audience is going to have—because you have to find it in yourself first—a tendency or bias to feel a certain way about something. And if you can find that in yourself, into leading with emotion where you're leaning one way and then if you can find a revelation where suddenly you gain a new perspective on that, the weight of where your heart was pulling you is suddenly flipped around. 

I tried to do a similar thing in Looper with Bruce Willis' character where you feel this injustice and you want him to make it right, and all of this bile rises up in you that, "Yes, find the evil thing, you kill it." And then you see the real consequences of it, and it turns around. That's the kind of transformative experience I'm always looking for when I sit down in the theater. 

To me, that's maybe the most magical thing cinema can do, is to genuinely involve you and then change your perspective on something.

Script: I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

Rian Johnson: I feel like we gotta do this again. I feel like we could talk for another four hours about this.

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