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The Art of Screenwriting: Rian Johnson

Writing a script can be intimidating for any aspiring writer pursuing a career in this field. Crafting an engaging plot with a low probability of success demands substantial time, dedication, and more. Therefore, many individuals may feel hesitant to venture into screenwriting. Fortunately, there are numerous established screenwriters whose works can inspire such individuals, and Rian Johnson is among the most prominent names in the industry.

Johnson made his directorial debut with the neo-noir mystery film Brick in 2005. The film was well-received, earning positive reviews and grossing nearly $4 million despite its modest budget of $450,000. Johnson then moved on to higher-profile productions, gaining mainstream recognition for writing and directing the science-fiction thriller Looper in 2012, which was both a critical and commercial success.

In 2017, he took on his most significant project, writing and directing the space opera Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which grossed over $1 billion. Johnson returned to the mystery genre in 2019 with Knives Out and its sequel Glass Onion in 2022, both of which earned him Academy Award nominations, one for Best Original Screenplay and the other for Best Adapted Screenplay. So, as you can tell, there’s a lot to learn from Johnson. Let’s discuss what that is!

Photo credit: Indiewire

The Process

Rian Johnson had an excellent interview a few years back in Script Mag discussing his writing process. He stated how he’s usually drawn to a specific genre or type of story that he finds appealing or enjoyable. It's not a matter of seeking particular elements but rather an emotional connection that sparks excitement within himself.

As a writer, Johnson believes anyone in the same field can relate to this feeling. The type of sensation makes you lean forward in your chair and ignites your senses, urging you to explore the idea.

For instance, Johnson highlighted that in the case of Knives Out, the whodunnit genre caught his attention. It's a style of storytelling that has captivated him since childhood, and he has a deep appreciation for all the conventions that come with it. This emotional connection to the genre is what fuels his creative process.

Similarly, for the second part of his writing process, he seeks out themes, ideas, questions, or personal experiences that are relevant to him at that moment. It could be something he’s excited about, angry about, or a personal struggle he’s dealing with. The critical factor is that it has to be alive and present, fueling the writing process.

The Importance of a Good Ending

The Brothers Bloom and Looper share a common feature: they both have unexpected third-act twists that feel like natural progressions of the plot. Structurally, both movies can be viewed as leading up to a final punchline that brings together all the story elements and profoundly weaves in the theme.

Although upon a second viewing, viewers may suddenly notice all the foreshadowing that led to the twist, these endings are still surprising due to Rian Johnson's exceptional talent at obscuring these foreshadowing moments. He takes the audience on a thrilling ride that overshadows any traditional ending expectations.

Genre and Expectations

Johnson has bounced around genre-wise throughout his career, primarily escaping genre expectations. Even his most polarizing film, such as The Last Jedi, received much of its criticism from the audience because it felt separate from other Star Wars films.

Another great example is his first film, Brick, which is unique in that its literary design is as captivating as its visual design. The movie encompasses all the essential elements of a hardboiled detective story—crime rings, drug wars, violence, revenge, and love triangles.

However, what sets this film apart is that its characters are all high school students, still living with their parents and attending classes. This twist on the conventional genre emerges periodically, winking at the audience before submerging again and allowing the darker tones of the narrative to take over.

As writers, it’s vital not to stay too true to what the audience expects. Even though a formula might work and can guide your writing, seeing what you can do otherwise almost always pays off. Take a chance and see how it works for your story.

Bold Writing

Johnson is a clear example of a filmmaker who always tries to be bold, even with studio and mainstream constraints with the films he’s currently making. Many novice writers get scared of stepping out of the ordinary, and much of this revolves around bold writing. Do what you can to get the most out of your writing.

Whether you look at the characters in Brick and how they’re high school students in an underworld of drugs and crime or the risks in The Last Jedi, it’s about taking a chance. So, do your best to analyze Johnson’s filmography and see how his scripts and films can influence you.


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