Growing up in the beach town of San Clemente, California, an hour and a half's drive from L.A., a teenage Rian Johnson began plotting his journey to Hollywood. "I remember reading a book about George Lucas that talked about his time at USC," he recalls, "and that made it click, like, 'Oh, there's a pathway from me here in San Clemente to maybe doing this for a living."
Making movies was "all I ever wanted to do," Johnson says. "But I never thought of it in terms of having a career as a director. Then, getting to USC and meeting a lot of people who are still my friends and gelling this notion of, 'We're going to attack this together and see if we can make this our lives,' that was the next big step."
The writer-director cut his teeth on short films with titles like Ninja Ko, the Origami Master and Evil Demon Golf Ball from Hell!!!, before making his feature debut with 2005's neo-noir thriller, Brick. Johnson went on to put his spin on the sci-fi action flick with 2012's Looper, directed several lauded episodes of Breaking Bad, and then, showed what he could do with the Skywalker Saga in 2017's Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Returning from that galaxy far, far away, Johnson looked to another genre he'd loved as a kid: The whodunit.
Knives Out introduced moviegoers to Daniel Craig's Detective Benoit Blanc and earned Johnson an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Taking a page from Agatha Christie's book, Johnson saw franchise potential in the P.I.'s caseload and began concocting Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, featuring a starry new cast, a murderous new mystery, yet Johnson's same love of moviemaking.
"I learned how to make movies just by making movies with my friends growing up. It's how we hung out together," he reflects. "That's still how I want to be. I want to show up on set and we should all be having a good time. We love making movies, that's why we're all doing it."
Below, Johnson shares with A.frame five of the films he loves the most, and that continue to inspire and confound him in equal parts.
Directed and written by: John Huston
This is my grandfather's favorite movie. It's a movie that I've maybe seen as many times as any other movie in my life, and it's a movie I know like the back of my hands. I love the performances in it, I love the feel of it, I love everything about it. Walter Huston is just so hard to beat in this movie. It's widely regarded as maybe Bogart's best dramatic role, but Walter Huston in this movie is such a joy. The whole thing is so tight, it's so impactful, and it's got so much human truth in it. I just keep coming back to this movie.
Directed by: Terry Gilliam | Written by: Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown
I discovered Brazil in college. Terry Gilliam's filmmaking has been a massive influence on me — the joy of visual invention in his movies and just the endless inventiveness — and Brazil was the one that I really latched onto, although I remember going to see The Fisher King four times in the theater with my dad. And Time Bandits was a huge movie for me when I was a kid. That movie blew my mind. But, when I got to film school, Brazil was the one that I studied over and over, and the visual storytelling and the inventiveness, to this day, it puts most stuff that I see or I feel like I could ever do to shame.
Directed by: Jacques Tati | Written by: Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet
This is another one I found in film school, and I love Jacques Tati. Most people probably point to Playtime or some more formally daring movies that he's made, but I love Monsieur Hulot's Holiday. I love the vibe of it. I love the music. To me, it feels like this beautiful, hazy mixture of Chaplin and Fellini. Like all of Tati's stuff, the visual, almost architectural humor in the compositions is amazing. But this one also has a hazy warmth and nostalgia to it that I know, when I discovered it in college, I immediately connected with. Also, I love it because Daniel Craig, on his own, very much came to Tati as a reference point for his costume, and his style, and performance as Blanc in Glass Onion.
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer | Written by: Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer
Under The Skin is, I think, a modern masterpiece. It's a movie that reveals new layers every time I see it. It's a movie that can be mistaken for being almost improvisational and loose, then the more you watch it — and I've watched it many, many times — the more you realize it's constructed with the precision of a diamond, and every single shot advances the story. Scarlett Johansson is incredible in it, and it's some of the most entrancing filmmaking this side of Kubrick's films.
Directed and written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
I got obsessed with Barton Fink in college, and it's a movie that I can still come back to and find inspiration. It was a film that I watched over and over. In a way, like Under the Skin. I guess I'm beguiled by movies that are formally crafted in a beautiful way, and yet, they have something undefinable about them. They have an element to them that does mesmerize you and that you can't quite figure it. With Barton Fink, you can't exactly figure it out. I can't look at it like a carpenter and say, 'Oh, it's doing this for this purpose.' And yet, it completely entrances me and pulls me in every single time.