What I Learned From Rian Johnson

Added on by Chris WHITE.

In the spring of 2009, I directed a high school theatre production of BRICK The Play at J.L. Mann High School in Greenville SC USA.

Justin Seay and Reid Cox in BRICK The Play.

Justin Seay and Reid Cox in BRICK The Play.

With the enthusiastic support of writer-director Rian Johnson, I’d adapted his high school film noir for the stage…my stage, my students. The production was a smashing success, and with it, brought a little notoriety to my students and me.

Rian Johnson himself came to see our production (Sunday, 5 April 2012), I was interviewed on a terrific podcast (Filmspotting), and wound up traveling to Australia to see a university production of my script.

Emily and I spent a lot of time with Rian that weekend in Greenville, then later that year with him in Los Angeles. At the time, Rian’s second featured THE BROTHERS BLOOM had just been released. And he was literally finishing the screenplay for LOOPER. So…he was a pretty well known, rising star writer-director. And I was a high school drama teacher.

Here are five things I learned from Rian, that still influence and guide my work…as a would-be rising star writer-director.

1. Say yes.

When I finally found him (via e-mail), Rian said yes to me adapting his script. When I worked up the nerve to invite him to come to South Carolina for the show, Rian said yes. When my students asked him to play hide and seek in the school after a performance, he said yes (please don’t tell anyone we did this, okay?). When I asked him questions about his LOOPER screenplay, he answered them effusively. When I asked if he’d meet up with Em and I in LA, he said yes. When I asked him to call us at the BRICK The Play cast party in Sydney, he said yes. In fact, I can’t remember Rian Johnson ever saying no to us.

I’m pretty sure that he still remembers that crazy trip to Greenville, South Carolina to see his first feature turned into a play. I think that the experience probably enriched his life…at least as much as it did ours. Indeed, people who say yes more than they say no, lead richer lives. Watching Rian keep saying yes…I’ve tried to say yes every time since.

2. Have a camera at the ready. Always.

Every time I’ve seen him, Rian Johnson has been carrying a camera loaded with 35mm film. Not an iPhone, not a video camera…an SLR (can’t remember if it was a Nikon or Canon). The kind of camera that is not convenient. The kind of camera that forces its shooter to look for light, think through composition, find a moment worth snapping.

This struck me as a brilliant habit for a film director. Rian doesn’t shoot his own movies (his longtime friend Steve Yedlin has been DP on all of his films). But he certainly envisions them…imagines them. So much of film directing is imaginative…watching the film in your head before you get to the set to shoot. I believe that taking still pictures…frequently…is a great way to train yourself to see like a director. Especially for a wordsmith like me. Shooting still pictures of my everyday life has opened my eyes to see my films before anyone else. And for that discovery, I credit Rian Johnson.

3. Allow yourself to be amazed.

Rian Johnson loved our play. Not in false or hyperbolic way. He genuinely, honestly loved what our students did with his film, how we solved various screen-to-stage challenges, the life-or-death energy our entire company brought to the endeavor. He never stopped smiling, asking students questions, talking to them, posing for pictures, helping us strike the set…experiencing this life way outside of Hollywood, a life of teenage play-making.

I saw Rian love our ambition and find inspiration in it…and realizing that amazed me, too. Since that time, I’ve looked for, expected things to amaze me. I don’t step into anything with a cynical sneer anymore. I’ve opened myself up. It’s incredible how much amazing you can see when you do that.

Me, Rian, and Justin.

Me, Rian, and Justin.

4. Treat everyone like they’re a movie star.

When Emily and I met Rian Johnson, he was just a few months removed from the set of his second film, THE BROTHERS BLOOM…which had been inhabited by the likes of Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, and Mark Ruffalo. But you would have never known it. He treated both of us like peers, my students like beloved little brothers and sisters, our entire little high school theatre production as sacred as a big important movie studio  sound stage. A few months later at brunch with him in West Hollywood, he was the same guy…unaffected and attentive, as interested in our work as we were in his.

Maybe the key here is not treating anyone like they are better than someone else…as more important or valuable. I got the impression that Rian Johnson understands that everyone is valuable and has something to contribute. I want to believe that too…and on my best days, I do.

5. Be nice.

Reading this, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that Rian Johnson is a super-nice guy. He is.

Being nice works. This idea that to make it in Hollywood, to be a “real” artist or visionary requires toughness, hardness, bitchiness, or some manner of social hardball simply is not true.

By being so nice to Emily and I, Rian inspired us to be nice to others. And hopefully, we will do the same…for you.

Photos from the first production of BRICK The Play.