Looper Prep #3: The Rian Johnson Omnibus

As part of your preparation for the imminent release of Looper, you’ve already thought seriously about time travel in films and inoculated yourself against fried-egg syndrome. Next, we’re going to watch everything writer/director Rian Johnson has ever committed to film or video.


Rian Johnson at TIFF

Yeah, that’s the expression I’d make if I found my high school films on the web, too.

Do NOT click away. Jesus. Relax!

This here post is damn potent medicine. It is the result of committed research and it is, as near as I can tell, the most complete collection/review of Rian Johnson’s work available anywhere (save his living room).

Plus, don’t you fret. We’re going to take care of you. We’re going to help you watch an exceptionally promising writer/director awesome up before your very eyes. This is your lucky goddamned day.

And you don’t have to get through all this stuff in one go. Take your time. Break up your tedious work day by watching a 3 to 10 minute Rian Johnson short every couple of hours.

See isn’t that better?

I thought so.

Now, Rian Johnson may not have the street cred of Wes Anderson (who’s fallen down the tweehole as far as I’m concerned) or the Coen Brothers yet, but he will. And his body of work is still easily managed: two features (which you should watch this week), three episodes of television (which you’ve probably already seen), and a handful of shorts dating back to freakin’ high school (Suck it IMDB, I’ve got you cold.)

Together, we’ll optically gobble up this never-before-assembled cinema and get so eye-fat we’ll have to undo the top button on our eyelids. You can work off the pounds watching Andrei Tarkovsky films, don’t worry.

Without further ado then, we present the (as far as we can tell) complete works of Rian Johnson, with embedded video as available:

The Moos Brothers (1988)

According to Justin:

The Moos Brothers is a claymation adaptation of The Blues Brothers that Rian did for an 8th grade school project. Jake and Elwood were cows and all the rest of the cast were also various animals. Ray Charles, for instance, was a grayish blob of something—perhaps a sloth or a manta ray or a fruitbat. Hard to tell.

Should a copy of this ever arise, we will watch it with all of our orifices. Until then, we can only imagine.

I have been told that Rian did many of his school projects in movie form. This is only one memorable example.

Ninja Ko a.k.a. the Origami Master (1990)

Rian Johnson made this movie in high school. Frickin’ high school! Yes, it’s a mess, but did you make any movies in high school? I did. Mine was called “The Ham Rampage.” It was pretty awesome for a film about a plastic ham—but it was not this good.

What we see here is the work of someone who’s been watching and assimilating film faster than a one-hour photomat. We’ve got nods to chop-socky. We’ve got primitive but effective special effects. (We call that effective budgeting.) We’ve got an instinct for timing, camera placement, and the good sense not to push a gag too far.

Set up your joke, put it through its paces, then drive off in a Volvo drinking a cocktail. Good thinking, Rian.

This was shot on VHS, if you’re old enough to remember what that is. Each tape of the stuff was about 20x the size of your iPhone and the reception on it sucked.

I tried to make some origami cranes once. They did not get me out of prison.

Hey, Lady You Dropped Your Wallet (1991?)

This one isn’t available online, but it isn’t hard to get your hands on. Just buy/rent The Brothers Bloom DVD or Blu-ray and find it hidden on there as an easter egg.

This is a cute but largely missable early effort by Rian and Steve Yedlin, his go-to Director of Photography. It’s introduced by Rian as “in the style of Buster Keaton” and it was shot in San Francisco one weekend for a laugh. While it shows more technical skill than Ninja Ko, it’s not as original. One thing that I’m learning from watching all these Rian Johnson shorts is that at least 50% of what I appreciate about him is his skill as a writer. He’s great at composing story both before and after the camera comes into play.

This, like some of his later TV directing, suffers from not feeling fully his. Still, it’s a few minutes of wacky face-palm gags and you should check it out if you’re watching Bloom, which you are doing. I just watched Brothers Bloom last night for the second time and I almost immediately wanted to watch it again. And read the script and then watch it again. Go put it on the top of your Netflix queue now. That is an order.

Evil Demon Golfball From Hell (1996)

First off, how awesome a title is that? This is exactly the sort of student film we should demand students make before they’re allowed to have sex or get high or whatever it is students do these days to make me feel old.

I declare this short to be engaging, funny, not sickeningly arty or self-important, and, what’s more, it shows flashes of real creative vision.

Rian Johnson wasn’t wasting his time in film school.

Sure, it’s not super polished or particularly meaningful, but for a student film, it’s aces. It’s two aces.

Rian, by the way, attended USC. This was shot on 16mm film, so it likely looked a lot better projected than in this too-dark telecine transfer. Don’t blame the man for the limits of technology.

There are some particularly nice moments in there, right? The cigarette flying from the thief’s mouth? The flash of the gunshot followed by the handheld move in on the golfball? I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing the influence of Evil Deadera Sam Raimi.

I’m also seeing the start of a style that shows off its chops in Brick.

Ben Boyer and the Phenomenology of Automobile Branding (2001)

This is listed on IMDB and there’s a minimal web trail supporting it, but that’s it. If you believe the hive-mind, this was a $99 Special Slamdance project. What that means is that the 2001 winner of the Short Screenplay competition at Slamdance got their entry produced into a film by the festival. In this case, it sounds like Rian was selected/asked to direct the piece.

That’s extrapolation and conjecture, not fact. I haven’t seen the film or found anyone who has.

The plot of the picture is described thusly by IMDB:

While sitting on the toilet one November morning, Ben Boyer receives a Jungian lesson on archetypal marketing.

Ben Boyer is thanked in the credits to Brick, but why is a mystery to me. He is a personal friend of Rian’s and a musician.

The Psychology of Dream Analysis (2002)

There’s something very wistful about this story. It brings Mark Ruffalo‘s character in The Brothers Bloom to mind.

There’s also a fable-like quality saturating this short. It’s not quite magical realism. It feels more like how life is when you revisit it in your memory. Keep this aesthetic in mind when you watch Brick and Bloom as it comes into play in both pieces.

I also see Rian-the-writer exploring emotions here that he’ll deal with more expansively in later work. Wanting and loss; these are powerful playing pieces.

Which elements of Dream Analysis will rear their heads in Looper? Good question! There are a few potential vectors for overlap, what with the odd manner of displacement-travel and dealing with a self that’s outside of yourself. Can you just kill what threatens you, even if it is you?

We get a hint of how Rian may deal with such issues in Looper from this short.

The ending here also sets just the right tone—comic and light but lingering. Again, this is something I see Rian Johnson getting right time and again.

Brick (2005)

Rian’s first feature film, Brick is the film that made me love him. First viewing. In love. Serious swoon.

It’s currently streaming on Netflix, so do yourself a favor, huh? I just did. Watched it for at least the 4th time and I still love it.

In case you’re not familiar with Brick, it’s a neo-noir set in high school; like Dashiell Hammett if he had to take the PSATs.

See, Rian Johnson wasn’t trying to make a film like Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon, steeped in shadows. He took the source material films like those drew on, internalized it, and then ran with his own take. The story is vintage Hammett & Chandler, but the setting and style aren’t.

Brick was filmed around the high school in San Clemente, California where Johnson served his own time (and made Ninja Ko!). It isn’t autobiographical or anything, but it is exactly the kind of mind-movie I’d have screened in my head if I was stuck in Chemistry class. I suspect Rian would say the same, and that’s from whence this story springs.

I will also point out that Rian specifically calls out Miller’s Crossing in the above video. That’s my favorite film and I’m not surprised the writer of Brick sees the same genius in it that I do. There are also more than a few points of contact between the two films. Similar source material accounts for some, but other bits must be Johnson tipping his hat. (Miller’s Crossing is based on “The Glass Key” by Dashiell Hammett.)

When you watch Brick, keep your eye out for the flying cigarette from Demon Golfball and consider queueing up Miller’s Crossing as a double bill.

Woke Up New (2006)

John Darnielle, chief member of the Mountain Goats, noticed that in Brick one of the songs was credited to “The Hospital Bombers Experience.” That struck him funny since in his song “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” the “top three contenders (for the name of the titular band), after weeks of debate, were satan’s fingers, and the killers, and the hospital bombers.

Rian Johnson, it turned out, loves the Mountain Goats. That credit was his little inside joke. When John asked, Rian was eager to make a video for their song, “Woke Up New.”

As Rian says on his Vimeo page:

We shot this in an apartment I had in New York in the middle of a heat wave, summer of 2006. My AC broke on the first day of shooting.

This is how we did it: I diagrammed out 8 layers of video on a timeline. We shot the first layer (of John’s face on the tv screen sitting on the floor) then took that tape and played it back on my TV, and shot the second layer. Then we took that tape and played it back, and shot the third. Basically we built it layer by layer, live, and by the end of the two day shoot we had our finished video.

Sharp eyes will notice a few wonky match-dissolves. We discovered that once we were 8 layers deep (that is, shooting off a tv screen off a tv screen off a tv screen 8 times) the deepest layer was too muddy to see what was going on. So we used only 7 layers at the start, and transitioned to layer 8 when we needed it.

Clever, right? Not expensive. Not flashy. Just intricate and satisfyingly so.

I’d surmise that the kind of brain that can plot this out would be swift enough to handle time travel logistics. Rian certainly isn’t shying away from complication with projects like this.

That’s another thing I appreciate about Rian’s work. He cuts off a big piece and dares himself to finish it. He’s aiming high and that’s leagues better than most directors working today. There are layers of meaning in his scripts and films; after multiple viewings, I’m still learning.

Escargots (2006-7?)

This is not a film by Rian Johnson so if you’re feeling antsy, skip it. Rian shot the footage of Joseph Gordon-Levitt here, but it’s Joe’s work. JGL dreamed it up, acted in it, did the voiceover (in French), and did the editing, too. The text is from Jacque Prévert‘s poem “Chanson des escargots qui vont à l’enterrement,” which of course translates to “The song of snails who are going to a funeral.”

I’m pegging this one at around 2007, but I don’t know for sure. I just picture Rian and Joe slumming in Paris, feeling the itch to make a poetic film about snails. As one does. It’s a bit arty, but I like it. I can appreciate how much fun they had making it.

In case you’re curious and your French is as lousy as mine, here’s the full text of the poem in English.

Page 439 (2009)

This one is bloody weird. I can’t find a ton of info about it, but the gist is that there was a meme going around about reading page 439 of your favorite book. Rian, in response (to a challenge, maybe?) made a film out of page 439 of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce.

Now, I haven’t read Finnegan’s Wake, but based on this short I think I might need to take some mescaline and do so. The film is almost entirely composed of stock footage, stills, and the excellent voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The one shot of Rian editing is obviously new, and the footage of the woman at the end came from his friend Ronen.

What I see from this, besides oodles of insane creative energy, is how much life JGL’s reading gives a text. He may be making some films I’m less thrilled about (Premium Rush?), but when he puts his shoulder in, he’s most definitely worth watching. Have you seen The Lookout? Cool heist variation, that.

Perhaps we’ll have time to do a Joseph Gordon-Levitt watch-a-thon before Looper. I’d like that. And so would you. Maybe you could even make a movie with him?

The Brothers Bloom (2008)

I first saw the The Brothers Bloom when I lived in Melbourne, Australia. Rian Johnson was touring with the film, doing publicity, and I caught it at a Q&A screening with him at the Cinema Nova in Carlton.

In my memory, when I first saw the film, I wasn’t sure if it all quite held together. Watching it again, I feel like an idiot. This film is amazing. Not only have I just added it to our must-watch list, but I’ll be watching it again tonight with the commentary on after reading the script.

I’ll write much more about Bloom soon, but for now, check out this pre-production animatic—an animated storyboard illustrating how the film’s opening scenes play out.

You can also watch the same scenes from the finished film. These are the first seven minutes of the movie—the prelude—so if you won’t spoil anything for yourself plot-wise when you watch the whole film SOMETIME THIS WEEK.

Terriers: Manifest Destiny (2010)

I watched a few episodes of Terriers on Netflix streaming a few months back. I thought it was a decent show, but didn’t get hooked. That’s good, since it only lasted a season.

That’s also bad, though, because I stopped before watching before I got to Manifest Destiny, the fifth episode of the season, directed by Rian Johnson. Hold on. I’ll watch it now.

Well. I sure watched that. Just now, even.

Look. As far as I can recall, it meshes perfectly with the Terriers look and feel. The characters behaved in character. The episode was as entertaining as any of the others I saw.

I can’t say I saw much of Rian Johnson in this, though. There was one scene, in the attorney’s office, that stood out. For a moment I thought, “oooh! this is going to get interesting.” But it didn’t really.

Perhaps there just wasn’t enough room for him to move with this script? On a purely textual level, I didn’t love the writing. Some of the dialogue was borderline and some of the scenes just seemed silly. It was his first go at episodic television, so perhaps he was just playing it cautious and cool.

Breaking Bad: Fly (2010) & Fifty-One (2012)

If you haven’t been watching Breaking Bad I have fantastic news for you. The best goddamned television show ever made is just sitting there, waiting for you to watch it. It’s waiting to grab you by the venae cavae and hold you so close you can feel its addict’s breath on your eyeballs.

There are moments in Breaking Bad that will shatter you into a billion tiny pieces of blue crystal methamphetamine and then snort you off the blade of an untarnished steel axe wielded by a psychopathic cartel enforcer.

This is a good thing.

Rian Johnson has directed two episodes of Breaking Bad: Fly and Fifity-One.

Fly is one of my favorite episodes from season 3. More than any other, it brings me inside the head of protagonist Walter White. It’s insidious and maddening and funny and horrible and gut-wrenchingly sad. But, because Breaking Bad is so amazingly good, I will not spoil any surprises here. Either you’ve seen it and you know how deft Fly is, or you should be watching it right now.

I will point out that some of the camera work—chasing the fly—seems straight out of Evil Demon Golfball from Hell.

Fifity-One is from this latest season, the last (if you don’t count the fact that they’re showing half of it next year). This is also an episode that pulls you deep into the world of the characters. While many episodes are more action-packed, few are as personally intense. Skyler’s dip in the pool will stand out in your memory, if you’ve seen it.

From these two episodes, one really gets the sense that Rian Johnson isn’t afraid to crawl around inside his character’s heads, like a twisted spelunker. He didn’t write these eps, of course, but he did bring the pages to life, along with the stunningly good cast.

I can still picture Skyler walking into the water. I can feel it. It feels cray-cray-crazy! Deep breath, down we go into the deadly crystal blue…

Also, if you are watching Breaking Bad, you’ll have noticed the callout to Fly in the mid-season cliffhanger episode that just aired. Right? Right.

Looper (2012)

Yeah. That’s right. Looper. It’s coming out in less than a month. Keep reading Stand By For Mind Control and you’ll be ready.

Stay tuned for our discussion of Brick and The Brothers Bloom in the near future. If you haven’t seen them both yet, better get on that for your own good.

Looper Prep #1

Looper Prep #2

Looper Prep #4

(And… what did we think of Looper now that it’s out?)

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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