Editor’s Introduction: Normally this feature is created by diving into the deep end of interviews, but when Rian Johnson agreed to write an entry himself, it was an opportunity impossible to pass up. With only three features under his belt, Johnson is already a force to be reckoned with. Emerging onto the scene with the inventive high school noir Brick in 2005, he pivoted off its dark tones for the lighter flair of The Brothers Bloom in 2008. He re-teamed with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for this year’s Looper, which has been blazing a trail through fans and sparking a metric ton of conversation.
Part of that is his dialogue, part of it is the look he manages to achieve, but another big part is his personal style that shines through and seems impossible to mimic.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) directly from a man who built his own time machine.
Read Great Stuff That Has Nothing to Do With Anything You’re Writing
I’m in that phase right now where I’m fishing for the next idea, so this is the first tip I thought of. But it’s applicable at all points in the process I think. When I’m looking for inspiration, in addition to looking at sources that line up with my idea I try to cast my net wide and into weird waters. If you’re working on a western, read a biography of Einstein, or if you’re working on a horror movie dig into some Jung, or a history of the French revolution, or some Tolstoy short stories. Anything that sparks your interest, and as far afield from your own idea as possible. Because when you’re reading a book that has nothing to do with your movie and you hit that one paragraph that somehow miraculously has everything to do with your movie, it’s like striking gold.
That’s the kind of unique inspiration that can really start things up.
One of the things I’ve tried to get better at in the whole process is listening. I grew up making short films with friends, and coming into features I was used to controlling every aspect of the process, story boarding everything and dictating the movie I had in my head. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I think you need a movie in your head and having a clear idea of how that movie will work and what to do to get it there is obviously essential. But I’m also learning that my most important job on set is to be present, to be in the moment, and if something new presents itself to be open to that. That sounds really obvious I guess, but I’m a slow learner. So I do my storyboards, I have my plan. But I also show up ready to listen, watch and observe, and to react.
Make As Many Movies As Possible
When I graduated high school I had made about 80 short movies, and 78 of them were unwatchably horrible. Dumb skits with friends, action scenes with GI Joe figurines, fart jokes and tv parodies and half assed videos on “Hamlet” and “Brave New World” to get out of writing book reports. Nothing that will ever see the light of day. But in making those 80 dumb videos I learned more than I did in 4 years of film school.
I was getting used to having a camera in my hands, and with finding shots and forming a (crude) visual language. I was goofing around with editing, with sound, putting things up against each other and testing how malleable everything was. Doing a bunch of it, even if it was bad, was the key to it becoming something I could start refining. The camera in my iPhone is a million times better than the Hi8 camera I lugged around back then, and I would have killed for iMovie. If you’re in high school right now and want to make movies, you should be doing it.
Right now. Stop reading. Go.
This tip is is specific to October 2012, so if you’re reading this in the future, you can probably skip it.
Film is going away. Quickly. We’ve shot all three of our movies on 35mm film, and in film school we made our student shorts on super 8mm and 16mm. I know that it’s expensive, I know it’s a pain in the ass. But it’s something that will be totally gone in 10 years. So I’m saying try it. Shoot it while you can. If you’ve only shot digital, get ahold of a super 8 camera and make at least one short on it. If you’re making a short film with a budget, stretch a little and shoot 16mm.
First off, it looks so much cooler than digital. Second, this is sort of last-days-of-the-dodo time, nobody can say how much longer we’ve got with film, and you owe it to yourself to experience the sewing machine whirr of a camera turning over, the smell of the stock when you load it, and that weird magical thrill when you get it back from the lab and realize you’ve got an image.
Watch The Criterion Collection
Blindly choosing a movie I know nothing about that’s been vouched for by somebody (or by a great DVD label, like Criterion here in the states or Masters of Cinema in the UK) is one of my favorite things to do. Sometimes it leads to muted appreciation, sometimes to flat out boredom, but when something grabs you and engages you it opens up not just a new movie you love but a new director and maybe genre or period you’ve never explored. It’s important to keep discovering.
Don’t Chase the Market
When I was trying to “break into the business” (I’m not sure why I put quotes around that) every once in awhile I’d get frustrated and say “Well, hell, X is really getting lots of attention this year, I should do one of those.” Then I’d make an X, whether it was a parody short or an action screenplay or whatever, and of course it would be derivative and not very good, and I would realize I’d wasted a chunk of time making something that didn’t get me anywhere.
At the end of the day, the movie that got me noticed was something that nobody was asking for – a bizarre high school detective movie – but it was 100% mine. It was my individual voice, and it was something I cared deeply about. I think the biggest “breaking in” (man I did it again) lesson I learned is to not concentrate on breaking in, but to focus inward and just work on your thing. Cultivate what you care about and what’s unique to you. That’s what has the best chance of breaking through the clutter, and even if it doesn’t (because who the hell knows in this business), that’s what you care about and what matters.
Making a short film that you’re proud of and you feel is true and honest that 200 people see on youtube is more fulfilling (and in the long run more productive) than chasing someone else’s dream, on any scale.