In the spring of 2008, when “Looper” was still a glint in the eye of director Rian Johnson, the filmmaker and I sat down to coffee at a Hollywood restaurant. Actually, “glint in the eye” is the wrong phrase, since, although he had secured no actor nor studio commitments yet, his mind was churning with ideas.
Over the several hours and many gentle journalistic inquests that followed, Johnson gleefully went through the narrative possibilities of a film that would combine the time-travel, dystopia and hit-man genres, at one point even taking out a napkin (and then a second and a third) to illustrate some stickier story points.
The moment occurred to me Friday when Johnson was revealed to be the writer and director of “Star Wars: Episode VIII,” the follow-up to the grand reboot J.J. Abrams is currently shooting (and not just because, with screenwriters and directors moving in and out for various films, there seems to be a certain napkin-drawing quality to the franchise’s long-term plans). Johnson conveyed the excitement of many Hollywood creative types that day we met, but it was more than that. There was a fan’s exuberance to his actions, something that suggested he had seen many time-travel and hit-man movies and was now eager to jump into the pool himself.
Even though he had already directed an indie darling (“Brick”) and had just made a major sale for his latest film (the Mark Ruffalo-Adrien Brody con-man movie “The Brothers Bloom”), there he was, emoting to a reporter the way your high-school buddy did the first time he discovered “The Godfather.” (Johnson also has a down-to-earth Twitter persona, often chirpingly interacting with users well outside the Hollywood elite.)
Johnson was a child — just 4 — when the first “Star Wars” movie came out, and 10 when the last of that first trilogy, “Return of the Jedi,” hit theaters. We can only assume that, like many children of his generation, he was a rabid fan of all things Luke and Darth. But more to the point, he was a fan of film, and not afraid to tell you about it, even long after he started making movies and had ascended to the ranks of someone who’s supposed to be a little cooler about it all. If he wasn’t directing these movies you get the genuine sense he’d be lining up at midnight to buy tickets to them. (Two basic contemporaries, Edgar Wright and Matt Reeves, fall in this category as well.)
Shortly after the “Star Wars” news broke on the Hollywood trades Friday, Johnson tweeted a clip from “The Right Stuff” in which the astronaut Alan Shepard is being strapped in for a pioneering launch and saying, basically, “I hope I don’t mess this up.” This has been a theme in Johnson’s public persona; when “Looper” opened the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, he took a similar tack, telling the audience before the screening he was “terrified” (and looking like he meant it).
There will be much speculation about how Johnson will bring his genre-subverting style to this franchise, and how an indie director known for inventing offbeat characters will mesh with some of the most established characters in this galaxy and others. (More on that in an upcoming post.)
But more than any specific style or story choice, the very idea that Johnson has been tapped to make a “Star Wars” movie says something about him and, even, where Hollywood’s hive-mind is at when it comes to new franchises. (The hot anticipation for Reeves’ “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and the collective disappointment to Wright stepping off “Ant-Man” speak to this as well.) Basically, the guy you’d love to dish about “Star Wars” with is now directing “Star Wars.” If you run into him after he finishes, he’s as likely to get as talkatively excited about it as you are. Just make sure you have a few napkins around.