Rian Johnson Believes Movies Should “Challenge” Fans, Not Placate Them

     December 17, 2019

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In 2017, filmmaker Rian Johnson released a motion picture titled Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The film, episode eight in the long-running sci-fi saga, was a box office hit and earned lots of critical acclaim — but it also earned a ton of controversy, with fans and actors alike deriding some of the choices and risks Johnson took as a storyteller. Now, in 2019, Johnson has a new, original film called Knives Out in theatres now — alongside J. J. AbramsStar Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the end of the Star Wars saga that Johnson helped create. And while talking about his murder mystery in an interview with the Swings & Mrs. radio program, Johnson got into what he wants from a movie, and what he thinks fans need from a movie, making comments that I’m sure will not provoke any strong opinions from any Star Wars fan either way.

Johnson said that, in general, a filmmaker’s “creative process” should never be guided by what they think fans want, calling it “a mistake that would lead to probably the exact opposite result.” He further clarified his thoughts, filtered through his personal experience as a filmgoer.

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Image via Lionsgate

Even my experience as a fan, you know, if I’m coming into something, even if it’s something that I think I want, if I see exactly what I think I want on the screen, it’s like, ‘Oh, okay,’ it might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards, but that’s not really going to satisfy me… I want to be shocked, I want to be surprised, I want to be thrown off-guard, I want to have things recontextualized, I want to be challenged as a fan when I sit down in the theater… What I’m aiming for every time I sit down in a theater is to have the experience with Empire Strikes Back, something that’s emotionally resonant and feels like it connects up and makes sense and really gets to the heart of what this thing is and in a way that I never could have seen coming.

Dang! I mean, yeah, that sounds like everything I want from a movie, too! Johnson has long been a vocal film fan — as evidenced both by his genre-fueled works and his lovely Twitter shout-outs to films he enjoys — and I so appreciate his “audience first” perspective as a filmmaker being guided by himself as an audience member, not by a “focus group, down the middle” version of a fake “audience member.” I love movies that give me something unpredictable and stick in my craw for awhile after viewing, and I’m glad that Johnson does, too. And, while I’m sure no one would ever draw this conclusion based on what’s going on in the film discourse at the moment, Johnson in no way is meaning this as a dig against Abrams, Rise of Skywalker, or anything Star Wars-related post-The Last Jedi.

For more on Johnson, here’s our Knives Out interview with the man. Plus, our review of the entertaining caper. And here’s what the first crop of viewers are thinking about Rise of Skywalker.

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