Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Greg Iwinski

Promotional poster for GLASS ONION

Host Greg Iwinski talks to Rian Johnson about his latest project, the rich tradition of destination vacation murder mysteries, the joys of the theatrical experience, and the value of a good notebook.

Rian Johnson is a writer and director who made his feature film debut with the 2005 neo-noir mystery BRICK. He went on to write and direct several critically acclaimed films, including the caper dramedy THE BROTHERS BLOOM in 2008, the sci-fi thriller LOOPER in 2012, and STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI in 2017. In 2019 he returned to the mystery genre with KNIVES OUT (2019), which earned him Academy and Writers Guild Award nominations for Original Screenplay.

His latest writing-directing credit is GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT STORY. In this sequel to the 2019 film, famed detective Benoit Blanc travels to Greece to peel back the layers of a mystery surrounding a tech billionaire and his eclectic crew of friends.

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT STORY was released in theaters in November 2022 and on Netflix in December 2022, and is currently available to stream on Netflix.

Greg Iwinski is an Emmy-winning comedy writer and no-award-winning performer whose writing includes LAST WEEK TONIGHT and THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT. He recently finished writing the first season of GAME THEORY WITH BOMANI JONES on HBO, and can be found on Twitter @garyjackson (external – opens in a new window)

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OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. The series was created and produced by Jason Gordon. Associate Producer & Designer is Molly Beer. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Speaker 1: Hello, you’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from the writers of your favorite films and television series. They’ll take you behind the scenes, go deep into the writing and production process, and explain how they got their project from the page to the screen.

Greg Iwinski: Hi, I’m Greg Iwinski, a comedy writer Guild member and host of this episode of On Writing. Today I’m excited to speak with Rian Johnson, writer and director of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the latest film in the Knives Out franchise. It’s now streaming on Netflix. Rian’s also the writer and director of Brick, Looper and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Please note this episode does contain spoilers. I know that it’s the first week of January, so hopefully you’ve already seen it, but there are spoilers for Glass onion in this, so let’s get into it. Hi, Rian. Thank you for coming on the show.

Rian Johnson: Hey, Greg, thanks for having me.

Greg Iwinski: So this movie, so many things to talk about, but it opens in an extremely pandemic moment, spring of 2020, and a very fixed point in time, and I think it might be the first movie I’ve seen that has me, not nostalgic, but remembering the pandemic was far enough ago that now it can be in a movie and I can go back to it. What was the writing process like in choosing that moment for the film, considering that it’s three years ago, but for a lot of us feels like 30 years ago?

Rian Johnson: Yeah, the simple answer is it’s when I was writing the script, I was writing it during lockdown in 2020, and so it was a really specific moment. It was part of the marching orders for these movies are to set them in the here and now, to ignore the idea of being timeless and just say, nope, we’re going to set them right now. We’re going to talk about whatever anyone’s talking about in the moment. And so with that understanding, I was like, well, okay, this is this massive thing we’re all going through right now. It’s a very serious thing, and these are not serious movies, so we’re going to treat it with a light touch, but it felt like I should probably put it in there. Yeah, and I pegged it to that exact date just because I had no idea what was going to happen next with this. I couldn’t predict the future, so I just wrote it in the moment that I was writing in.

Greg Iwinski: And there’s kind of a big cameo moment on the pier that comes up and kind of goes like, okay, COVID is not a thing for the rest of this movie. And so what was the decision like to go, okay, now you know when it is, you know what kind of people these are, you understand the archetypes, but now they’re not going to be sanitizing their hands and wearing masks for the rest of the movie.

Rian Johnson: Yeah, nobody wants to see that, I guess. That was the thing, even especially maybe being in the thick of it, the last thing I wanted is to have the audience thinking about it the whole time. And also you wonder, you’re reflecting the reality of the characters and the reality of their reality is they get to escape that world for it. That’s part of the appeal of going to the island. That’s part of what kind of makes it exciting and that’s the allure of Miles Bron, I guess, so I want the audience to feel that too.

And that kind of relief of when Ethan Hawke shows up with that spray, the kind of same relief of, oh, thank God for rich people that everyone has in that moment. Hopefully the audience kind of has that too in terms of, oh, thank God there’s this magical thing where we don’t have to be watching hand sanitizer and everyone be talking through masks the whole movie. So it gets you inside the kind of sick appeal of Miles Bron.

Greg Iwinski: Well, it does put you in that time and a place of when we’re all… It’s crazy to talk about this historical thing that’s just happened with us, but once the vaccine was being made and there were monoclonal antibodies and you’re thinking, well, if you’re president, you’re going to get that. If you’re like a king, you’re going to get it.

Rian Johnson: Has a vaccine spray in a weird looking gun that they use with their friends. Yeah, I mean that joke came out exactly that, all of us just kind of sitting at home thinking, well, I’m sure there are different rules for somebody out there.

Greg Iwinski: And the island is, I’ve seen some interviews that you did, I saw the film last night, and in talking about the film, I know the island is such a different setting than the first movie and lets you do a lot of different things. In writing a sequel where you know, have some leeway and some budget, is there a party of you that’s like, do I want to hang out in Greece, beautiful Greece, for a couple weeks? Is there a reason you’re not setting it in the Arctic Circle and it’s in these amazing places?

Rian Johnson: Well, yeah. Like I said, I was writing this in the middle of lockdown. It was like fade-in, Greek Island, let’s see if this works. But I mean as much as there’s a tradition of, with the first movie of the cozy Mansion murder, there’s very much a rich tradition of the destination vacation murder, Evil under the Sun, Death on the Nile, the Last of Sheila. There’s a surprising amount of the movies I grew up watching were kind of big, glamorous sun and beach getaway vacation murder mysteries. So to play to that felt good. And like you said, I haven’t talked about this before, but I also wanted to plant a big obvious flag for the audience that this was going to be a whole new deal and that this wasn’t going to be a continuation of the first and going just to the polar opposite, not literally polar, but going to the tropical opposite felt like a way to do that.

Greg Iwinski: And you have talked a lot about loving Agatha Christie and loving this genre, and it’s one of those things where you know it, so it’s so clear that the genre so well, and there’s a love there. It seems like they are timeless ideas, like the detective story, the murder mystery, even a lot of network television is, can the detectives in one hour solve this mystery, the Law and Order thing. What do you think makes solving a murder such a universal and lasting story device?

Rian Johnson: I think there’s been a lot of analysis of why this genre is so popular. There’s kind of the theory that it has the most basically satisfying arc you can imagine, where chaos is created by a crime, the paternal detective steps in and sets everything right by the end. And that feels really good to see.

I mean, I think it’s just a hell of a lot of fun. I think it’s the very nature of it. I think we all love the notion of a mystery, and then you have a group of suspects and you have backstabbing, and you have everyone accusing each other, you have all the great character dynamics, but all in the context of a defined game board, unlike just a drama which could go anywhere, this has kind of rules to it that the audience knows. I think that’s very satisfying.

Ultimately though, I feel like… I don’t know, a big part of my approach to writing these movies is to never let myself think that the clue gathering, the puzzle aspect of it, the mystery of it, is going to hold the audience’s attention. And I think ultimately it’s kind of an illusion, the notion that these are puzzles that the audience can solve and that that’s the game of them. I think the reality is after 20 minutes, you kind of give up imagining that you can guess who’d done it, and you’re just waiting for the detective to solve it and at the end. So what that means is you need an actual story. You need something that makes you lean forward and engage as opposed to leaning back and trying to figure it out. So that’s really the living heart of all of these things is the story, that’s not who done it, but what do I care about and why am I wondering what’s going to happen next?

Greg Iwinski: I think the thing about these movies, when you’re talking about that payoff, and I know my wife writes murder novels, and so there’s a lot of that whodunit murder stuff in my house. And so watching the first Knives Out, I remember the moment that she popped off the couch right before the reveal, it was like, ah. And I was like, don’t tell me. Let me just watch it. Let me just have it happen in the movie. Please don’t tell me what happened. But when you’re plotting and thinking about and writing that movie, is there a part of you that knows, okay, so everyone is going to snap and figure it out here, because you’ve told them the big reveal is here, and that means emotionally the audience is right here, and that does have any impact on what happens in that aftermath?

Rian Johnson: You mean in terms of me tracking when the audience is going to be onto or realize this or that, or what have you, you mean?

Greg Iwinski: Well, I would say Ana De Armas vomiting. And then at that point at you’re like, oh, they know and so emotionally there is a satisfaction and oh, we all got it. Is that in your head as you’re putting those together?

Rian Johnson: Yeah, very much. But in the context of what you’re talking about, absolutely. And the context of, which is very similar to working in any other drama or in any other genre and trying to calibrate an emotionally satisfying ending, the notion of the old chestnut of surprising, but inevitable is what you’re going for. And I think that’s the same in any genres, especially the case in this one where the ideal ending, it’s an emotional revelation, it’s combined, hopefully, like the beat you described with Marta, with Ana’s character, it is a revelation of, oh, this is how we caught him. It’s also a victory for this character that we’ve been rooting for the entire movie. And so it’s hopefully many things packaged together that all converge on one moment, and many things that have been planted since the very beginning of the film that end up feeling like they connect. But again, in describing that, I feel like I’m just describing the mechanics of a good ending in any genre.

Greg Iwinski: Well, I’m also a late night writer who has recently broken into scripted, so all this story stuff, I’m like, oh, so interesting to me, who normally just cranks out a hundred jokes. When you’re talking about seeding stuff, this movie has what I thought was a flashback and then essentially is the second half of the movie, and you talked a little bit last night about the structure and the challenge of a fugue state structure like that. When you got to the second half where we know about the sister and we know kind of more of where the malice is coming from, how did that affect, once you had that going back and writing or rewriting the first half?

Rian Johnson: Well, I work structurally, I spend the first 90% of the process, I have it right here because I’m working on the next one, writing in little notebooks like this, just a little moleskin notebooks. And so…

Greg Iwinski: That’s an incredibly valuable notebook.

Rian Johnson: I don’t know if you can read my penmanship, it would be, but I don’t think anyone would think… People would, oh, a six-year-old lost their notebook if they found this, actually. But no, if I spend nine months writing a script, eight of those months will be spent just writing in these things. And it’s sketching scenes longhand, but mostly what it is working on the structure of it. I draw arcs and then I can do little cross hatches and I break it down in terms of the structure of the whole thing and the sequences. I kind of start very zoomed out and then slowly zoom in. So it’s not about working forward or backwards, it’s about working on the shape of the whole thing.

And in fact, the fugue structure that you’re describing for Glass Onion, that was the first step of cracking the movie. That was the first thing that got me excited is, huh, could you pull off this type of structure and keep an audience entertained in the back half? And then the idea of that structure created the character of Andi and Helen, because my play to engage that second half in a way where it wouldn’t just feel like a repeat, was to basically introduce the equivalent of our Marta character from the first movie, in that second half realize you’ve been watching her the whole time, but now it’s not just an intellectual thing that we’re seeing her through a different lens, we’re actually seeing the world through her eyes and we’re invested in wanting her to win, and that emotional hook pulling us through that back half with the knowledge that we see her get shot at the end of it. So that informed the entire structure. And yeah, I kind of work in that zoomed out way that typing the script is the very, very, very last thing I do. It’s the very final step.

Greg Iwinski: That makes sense. Yeah. I will say in terms of somebody to root for that is in the first half you are kind of thinking, is Benoit who we’re rooting for? Is Whiskey the one? I was like, is she going to be the Marta? Because she’s kind of pushed off to the side and you’re searching for who this sympathetic person is, and then yes, when it’s given to you, you’re happy to run over the road again because now you know there’s a person you care about, obviously.

I want to talk about the people we don’t care about in this movie, or that we dislike, the villains. I will say the idea that the villain is stupid, as someone who professionally had to listen to every word, literally, the president said from 2018 to 2020, that it’s burned into my brain. The idea that you can be very powerful and evil and also just dumb, it’s very true, and it made it so satisfying to see, because for me, I’m like, ah, yes, I’ve had to tie this in. But for you, when did you land on that as maybe a central part of who Miles was?

Rian Johnson: That was very early, and it also, it clicked in terms of Blanc kind of having this Achilles heel. And that came from exactly what you’re describing, just kind of seeing the idiocy of the past six years that feels so blatant, but myself, I think so many people were just got into this notion of analyzing it and figuring out what kind of 3D chess are these people playing? What’s the real game? What’s the game under the game here? There must be some intelligent design and then holy shit, no, these are just a bunch of fucking idiots who are telling big, obvious, dumb lies, and those lies are being supported because they benefit a group of people. That’s it. As simple and dumb as that. And that’s the encapsulation of the entire movie right there, that informed Miles, that informed Blanc, that informed the revelation at the end. That just ended up being the whole thing, is the whole thing is really just kind of a primal scream at the dumbness of the past six years, really.

Greg Iwinski: I mean, it’s such an incredible villain because, yes, it feels real in a way that reminds us that our reality is almost satirical. The time we’re living in is…

Rian Johnson: Well, that’s why, just to veer into talking about tone, that’s why the tone of the movie ended up being kind of what it is, which is a much more inflated, almost like strange love, ridiculous tone, much more humorous than the first one. And that was entirely just because of what you said. It was, once I put that character at the center of it and tried to reflect all of our collective experience over the past six years, it’s impossible to do that in a tamped down, subdued way. It feels dishonest. You have to go over the top, you have to blow it, you have to make it this Carnival Fellini esque, nightmarish type, topping itself thing, because every time you turn on the news, that’s exactly what happens.

Greg Iwinski: I thought what was so interesting about those, Miles and the whole kind of crew of villains is that they are so of this time, because tying it back to the president and all that is, they’re all products almost of the internet online, always news culture, and then we take them to an island where there’s no phones. But could any of them have gotten famous or successful without the internet?

Rian Johnson: Oh no, absolutely not, no. And it’s not like this is some kind of high [inaudible 00:16:18] criticism of the internet or something, it’s just those are the waters that we swim in right now. I mean, we couldn’t be doing this interview without the internet. It just frames everything in life at this point. But yeah, it’s very true. All of them are very modern kind of…

Greg Iwinski: I want to talk a little bit more about the movie outside of just writing and creating it, but this came out in theaters for a limited window and then is on Netflix now, and you’ve talked a little bit about hoping that the next one is in theaters a little bit more. My first nice apartment in New York, I picked because it was across from the AMC 72nd theater, so that I could walk over and see movies as much as I wanted. I love theaters, but theaters also give us hard objective feedback, because a person has to go get a ticket, pay money, sit in a seat and do that. And I think streaming kind of can feel, even for in writing late night and that stuff, you can throw it into the ocean of streaming and here it did well or there was… But a box office receipt in a Monday morning is like, this is how popular it was versus this, versus this. And that also, I think, as an artist helps you know what you made that people liked or maybe didn’t like.

Rian Johnson: Yeah, maybe. I mean, I get it, I guess. But then, you get numbers, I guess increasingly the reporting like hours viewed or whatever numbers, and there are metrics, and the hard cold reality is just that exponentially more people, even with the first movie that had a full theatrical release, exponentially more people saw it, discovered it on streaming than they did in the theaters.

I mean, that having been said, I’m a massive booster of theaters, of the theatrical little experience. And for me, there is definitely the… it’s the benchmark that I grew up with. And there’s also an element of the ego thing with it. The big thing though for me is, with these movies specifically, they’re made very much to be experienced with a crowd. It’s not even about all that other stuff. It’s about sitting in the theater and it’s made with that Hitchcock thing, playing the audience a piano. They’re meant to take the audience on a ride together. And it’s been really incredible to be standing in the back of theaters during that week and in the couple screenings we’ve done since then, Guild screenings and stuff, and feeling the reaction and hearing the laughter. I mean that’s… I don’t know, man, it’s really energizing. And I know that lots of people discover at home, I think they’ll have a great experience watching it at home. But that theatrical element is something I feel like it’s just really important.

Greg Iwinski: Well, I think there’s a communal nature, like you said, of seeing that. I remember in high school, I was lucky enough, I was in high school when the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings were coming out, so it would be like every twice a year you’d get 40 of your friends and go physically buy tickets in cash and then we’d try to save a row at AMC and all this. But that communal experience of all seeing it and yelling at the screen together when Yoda pulls the lightsaber out is so valuable. Do you think there’s also something to your captive audience a little more in a theater?

Rian Johnson: Yeah, I mean, my wife and I go to see a lot of movies. We don’t tend to go see huge movies in the theater. We go to see slower movies, art house movies, foreign films. We go to see things where if we saw them at home, we’d probably be more tempted to pick up the phone and check, refresh the Instagram feed during it. I think there is something about the focus. But I mean, that’s a different type of benefit I would say for something like our movie, like Glass Onion, it’s more about having the experience of the people around you reacting to the film along with you.

Greg Iwinski: Yeah, I mean, I can remember it is one of the big ones, but I think with Avengers End game, seeing it in New York City on opening night, and the screaming, people are crying.

Rian Johnson: I bet.

Greg Iwinski: It enriches it so much versus if I just watched it by myself.

Rian Johnson: Yeah, exactly.

Greg Iwinski: So again, we’re big fans of movie theaters here. There’s kind of a thought I had about, you’ve worked in making some smaller movies, making Brick, and then you’re working on Last Jedi, which is a huge studio movie, part of a bigger piece. And then with this, which is on a streamer and it’s Netflix, which is a different philosophy creatively maybe than a traditional temple studio. How have the notes you’ve gotten during your writing process changed in your career?

Rian Johnson: The bizarre thing is they really haven’t, I think I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been very lucky and, or, sheltered by my producer. Even with the Star Wars movie. It wasn’t like there were corporate overlords who were handing down Draconian notes. It was a very free creative process of personal discovery, writing that script. And the people at Lucas Film, who were the story group, it was folks like Kiri Hart and Pablo Hidalgo and Leland Chee. And it was people who I felt close to and they were, if anything, just supporting me and facilitating me, finding my way through what this thing should be.

And with Netflix, Netflix have been fantastic. The script was finished when we made the deal with Netflix, so it’s not like I wrote it with feedback from them at all. It was already set what it was going to be when I found out we were making it with… or when decided we’d make it with them.

Yeah. And also, I’ve never really worked as a studio screenwriter. I’ve never had to swim in those waters of navigating notes, I’ve always been a writer director. And one thing that my producer set our rudder early on with is I’ve always written on spec, with the exception of Star Wars, I’ve never written a script for a studio or had it set up somewhere or taken an overall deal. And that’s meant that I can write exactly what I want and then we can figure out who wants to make exactly what I want to make and then we can say about making it. So, I don’t know, maybe because of that I’ve always had kind of nice freedom.

Greg Iwinski: That’s very cool. And I mean, some of those people you mentioned, Leland Chee great. Or super, super nice. It was nice enough to gave me a tour of Lucas Film once. It was very nice.

Rian Johnson: All the cries [inaudible 00:22:56].

Greg Iwinski: Yep. As I just gawked at everything and said, whoa, that’s from a movie. From a movie that’s from…

Rian Johnson: I don’t know if they still share an office, but yeah, Pablo and Leland always shared in office and I would always poke my head in whenever ever I would get bored, what you guys working on? And it would always be an amazing, the visual dictionary of, Ewoks or something. It would just be fantastic. Yeah.

Greg Iwinski: I have a couple more questions about Glass Onion, layers and layers. The characters in this are of a moment, they are so dead, you’ve got men’s rights activists and truth telling, former actresses and tech bros and all this stuff. As you’re structurally putting together, how many archetypes are you putting up against the wall and then whittling it down to these? Are they based out of what Benoit needs and what Andi needs? Or are you starting just with what is in current society and I’ll pick from that list.

Rian Johnson: I definitely sketched out more than I needed and then whittled it down based on how many would fit in it. And generally I come up with a story first, and then the story encompasses the main characters, the protagonist, who’s Helen, Andi, and then Blanc is the detective in his role in it, the antagonist who is Miles. And so I come up with those main pieces and then I brainstorm the different characters, figure out how they would fit and then fit them in and specifically mold them to the needs of the story. It’s like the characters are, don’t want to sound very romantic, but the characters really are gears within the machinery of the story, they serve a specific function in it. So I find kind of shaping them to that as opposed to vice versa to be the way that makes sense to me.

Greg Iwinski: The Mona Lisa is in this movie, obviously, I hope not the real Mona Lisa. I haven’t been to the Louvre recently, so I’m not sure.

Rian Johnson: The one in the Louvre looks great.

Greg Iwinski: Now in this film, it’s like this transformational thing that Miles saw as a kid that inspired him to become this billionaire idiot. But it set off his whole journey of who he was. Is there a piece of art for you, maybe not a painting, but that you think about as a child, was this kind of load star that you go back to as kicking off your journey?

Rian Johnson: I mean, Star Wars, honestly. The first Star Wars. That’s why it meant so much to me kind of engaging in that world. And I know it’s so true that it’s kind of a cliché for guys around my age, but it really is true. I mean that first Star Wars was like the mythology that my childhood was based on. The notion of being inspired by a story all kind of started with that. Not just the movie, but the toys and the play involved in it. And it was the first thing that also invited you to… I think that’s why so many people have such a fierce sense of ownership over their own vision of what Star Wars is and isn’t, is because that’s part of the power of it, it invited you into with the toys into creating your own version of its world. Yeah, I mean, as clichéd as it is, it probably goes back to that.

Greg Iwinski: I love Star Wars. That’s a great answer. I think when you talk about the fierce protection too, I always say that to a lot of Star Wars fans, it’s not fiction, it’s history. And so there’s a discussion about it where it’s like, well of course this happened or couldn’t have, because we’re talking about something, this is all history, this is all what happened. And the world is more real for that having happened because it’s all built on that in your mind.

Rian Johnson: Absolutely.

Greg Iwinski: I want to talk to you a little bit about Star Wars. I mean, I want to talk to you about Star Wars for hours and hours in a limited series interview show, but I’ll mercifully make it short, Last Jedi came out, I saw it twice in 12 hours, saw it at midnight, then saw it at 10:00 AM with my friend because the first time I’m watching it to see what happens, and the second time I’m watching it to see the movie.

And so the first I walked out and said, wow. And then the second time I saw it and was like, oh man, I love that so much. So for me, it’s in my top three, which I’m sure endlessly people are telling you what they think of it, but for me, it is one of the best Star Wars movies.

But it did unfortunately get sucked into this weird internet hole of representing so much more than being a Star Wars movie. And so I don’t want to rehash all that, but I do want to ask you as a writer and a director who’s making your art, the stuff you want to make, what happens when at Star Wars celebration, I was there this year and there’s people who wear shirts that say, written by Rian Johnson. And that is a political statement because generally that talks about what kind of fan they are, what they believe about what Star Wars is, who it’s for. All of these things are then represented, and your name is now, without you deciding, has become this lynch point of all of these other social things that are playing out inside of a fandom. How do you process that when it’s also your fandom and you love it and now it’s become somebody walking into a convention with your name on a shirt is them saying, well I think this.

Rian Johnson: Yeah.

Greg Iwinski: How do you process that?

Rian Johnson: I don’t know if it would be healthy to really process. I think you got to kind of… But I guess the way I process it is just, I love the fact that I grew up in the fandom and the fact that I grew up as such a fan and experienced all. You’re talking about, I was in my twenties when the prequels came out, and so the notion of fierce, almost political level arguments between people that you care about over the merits of these movies being a new phenomenon seems slightly ridiculous to me. I remember the fights we were having over the prequels and the love and the hate and the vitriol and all of it. I mean, twas was always thus, I guess.

And so I guess I’ll just say though, that helps me…. it might be my name on the shirts, but it’s not about me. It helps me contextualize it in terms of this is about this bigger story and about these stories and how they land with people has so much to do with all of these factors that go into how they absorb all of this stuff and their lives and their own histories and their own relationships with their parents. There’s so much involved in it. Yeah, I mean, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was surreal, but at the same time, I think you have to have a healthy perspective on it and just remember it’s not about you at all. It’s what makes the thing powerful now to people is the same thing that made it powerful when I was growing up.

Greg Iwinski: And you brought such a passion to it and a fandom, I know that I think at some point during it being out, you posted a part of a book that talked about force projection that I think was from the mid-nineties. When you are a fan of the EU and of all this other stuff, not just like you liked three movies that came out and then three other movies that came out. What was the process of whittling that down into the film when you know that there’s a million bells and whistles that you love that you could try to cram in?

Rian Johnson: Well, there wasn’t though because, and I don’t know if you remember, shortly before they started the sequel trilogy, they made an announcement saying, look, the EU, I forget exactly how they phrased it, but they…

Greg Iwinski: They retired it. Oh, it’s legends.

Rian Johnson: It’s legends. Yeah, exactly. So my assignment, my marching orders were the only canon are the films are the movies.

Greg Iwinski: Oh, okay. See, with retrospect it feels different because now so much stuff’s getting pulled in.

Rian Johnson: Which is awesome, which is great. But no, the assignment on the table was the canon, the only canon that we have to… Because it kind of had to be that way, because as much as I love all that stuff, he actually tried to track all of the, sometimes crisscrossing.

Greg Iwinski: You weren’t going to have Mara Jade show up in the middle of… like save everybody.

Rian Johnson: Exactly. Well, yeah. I actually, as much as I love all that stuff, it was, I think, a really necessary thing that they did in saying, okay, for this trilogy, the assignment is this is the canon or the movies. So that’s what I just kind of narrowed my focus on and then it was just a matter of trying to just internalize and really draw in the Force Awakens, JJ’s movie, which I had the script for and they were shooting when I was writing, and watching what the actors were doing in that and just trying to make emotional connections to it and feel out really honestly how can I get everything that I love about Star Wars into one movie and how can I, in a way that feels honest and challenging, the way that the Empire Strikes Back felt challenging to me when I was a kid. How can I actually push this thing forward in a meaningful way?

Greg Iwinski: I will say, especially as a Brown Star Wars fan, a movie that to me has part of the message that you don’t have to be one certain person to be the hero, and that the hero doesn’t always just run off and save the day is incredibly powerful and is something that I hope is a foundational thought for people watching it making Star Wars moving on.

I want to ask, so the original movie is so clear, is hero’s journey, Campbell, 77, it comes out, it popularizes hero’s journey as a process, like Luke on that series. And again, this might be me reading into it, it might not, but is Last Jedi hero’s journey or is it a commentary on the hero’s journey? Because to me, I look at Poe’s arc and I’m like, this is example of how the hero’s journey doesn’t work. Because if he does the hero’s journey, he’s going to blow it and Leia’s whole job is to stop him. But is that a reading in or is that…

Rian Johnson: I don’t know about that. First of all, I think that possibly an unfortunate side effect of the phrase, the hero’s journey entering in the lexicon via people’s understanding of it through Star Wars, is it got codified as a very simplified and dogmatically strict version of what it actually is.

And all to say, I guess I wasn’t really thinking in terms of repeating the exact beats of the original, as for many people defined what the hero’s journey is. I was thinking of going back to the source of what the myth behind the hero’s journey is about, which is a transition between major phases in your life, which is the death of childhood and growing into adolescence, which is the loss of innocence and the finding of a new ethos that you’re going to carry forward into adulthood, which is not just becoming a hero, but also the failing and also losing and also growing out of that. And your hero’s disappointing you and your father’s dying, and you’re losing the people who were your foundations or realizing that you can’t depend on them and suddenly everything not making sense and you having to defined your way out of the forest.

I mean, all of that is what is the myths that Star Wars was born out of. That’s the essence of them to me. And to me, The Last Jedi is not commenting on them, trying to embody them in a way that was powerful.

Greg Iwinski: That is maybe the most thoughtful hero’s journey answer I’ve ever heard. Thank you for that. Let me clear the pallet with one dumb Last Jedi question, which is, did you always call them the crystal critters? Because we say that line is used with my friends and I nonstop. Where’d the crystal critters go?

Rian Johnson: Yeah, yeah. I think Pablo came up with a proper name for them, but I was always calling the crystal dude, or the fish nuns on the island. I think they have a Pablo-ized name.

Greg Iwinski: In the time we have left, let me ask you a little bit about some directing stuff and some future projects. I’m a writer/performer, so a lot of times when I’m writing with other people, I have to stop and go, oh, not everyone is a performer, I need to translate this or do this. What are some things that writers could learn from writer/directors in terms of how we inform our writing, how we write more cleanly? Or what would a director want us to know?

Rian Johnson: Well, I think it’s hard because, there’s a part of my brain [inaudible 00:35:59] after I finished the writing process and turned into the director where the writer almost feels like it was a different person when I’m directing. I guess the benefit of the perspective of then directing the material is, although this is hard because this is a really tough thing to gauge on the page. There’s just this alchemy that happens when you put the stuff on its feet.

And more than that, I think, when you get into the edit room, because the edit room is almost the completion and the way that I work, it’s really kind of the completion of the writing process. And I guess there’s a ruthlessness that ends up entering into the process that you try to have as a writer and you think you’ve been absolutely ruthless with yourself and you’ve cut it down to the bone. You’ve got it down to its bare intent. Or at least I should just speak for myself. I should just say I, because I think there are writers who write screenplays that are like cut diamonds, that they’re perfect, I’m sure.

I find that I think that I have, and then I go through the process of making it, showing it to people and I guess just kind of the ruthlessness of staying on story, the ruthlessness of action advancing, of what an audience is actually interested in and what’s actually going to engage them. Which I find that as a writer I tend to be more indulgent. And then once I actually make the movie and put it in front of people and they’re getting bored, all indulgence.

Greg Iwinski: Then director you comes in with the ax.

Rian Johnson: I should say though, I should really define this as me though. I think that if I were a professional, if I only wrote and I was a professional writer, I’m sure that element of it, I’m sure I would take myself out of the category of real writer. And that, for me, writing is the first step of a process I know I’m going to see through to the end, but I know it’s the job of the screenwriter to be as focused on that as possible. I want to imply that they’re not.

Greg Iwinski: And speaking of those writing experiences, there’s series that you’re jumping in on, Poker Face, that’s coming out. Was that a co-write? Were there multiple people on that? What was that like for you to, who’s used to on spec, doing your own thing, coming in and writing with other people?

Rian Johnson: Well, I wrote the pilot for that just on spec, on my own, and I wrote the finale of it on my own. But then we had a really talented writer’s room and more than that, we had two very talented, experienced showrunners, Lilla and Nora Zuckerman who came in and kind of showed me the ropes in terms of putting a room together.

Greg Iwinski: They’re incredible.

Rian Johnson: They’re so good, man. Yeah, so in terms of running the room… But having been said, I was in the room every single day, all day long. For me, it was an educational process in terms of how to use this incredible resource of these talented writers as sort of a collective to get what I wanted out of each one of the scripts. Very interesting. Very different process than what I’m used to with my features. I didn’t enjoy it, I don’t think I could ever write a feature that way, and it was also just I learned a lot from that group, from our team of writers. It’s just a very talented group of folks.

Greg Iwinski: Yeah, it’s coming from late night. It’s 14 people in a room all racing to get something done because the show is soon.

Rian Johnson: How do you like the other side? How do you like going to sitting alone in the room writing?

Greg Iwinski: It feels like you have so much time. It’s very weird.

Rian Johnson: And yet…

Greg Iwinski: I will say this. I still have to feel the clock a little bit. I’ve got to feel it, and that spurs you on, because nothing gets you writing like a host coming in and going, you have 45 minutes and then walks out.

Rian Johnson: Yeah, I don’t get anything done until I’m in trouble.

Greg Iwinski: My last question is, it’s a question about race, the trap question, don’t worry, but it’s a little bit complex. You are producing Erasure. It’s an adaptation of a 2001 novel. It’s about a black author who’s perceived as not black enough and then writes a satirical novel. I have a white ass name. My name is Greg Iwinski and in high school started going by online Gary Jackson because it sounded blacker, and that’s actually my Twitter handle, is Gary Jackson.

And Cord Jefferson is writing this, I love him. I’m a huge fan. Maybe the only other biracial Arizonan who wrote late night, me and him. So I am so excited for this movie because I feel like it’s for me, I mean Jeffrey Wright’s in it and it’s so good. I think there might be a lot of well-meaning even white people who are intimidated by being attached to a project that is so clearly not just black, but it’s inside the lines of what does it mean to be black. What was the process like for you to hear about it, to come on board? What are you excited to jump in and contribute? What brought you to this project?

Rian Johnson: Well, this is going to be, it’ll be a quick answer because the reality is it’s Cord’s project. It’s entirely his. We’re facilitating it and we have a couple of producers at our company who are working on it, and Cord is, he’s currently at our office editing it, so I see him every single day. And the reality is, creatively, I’m dealing with all the stuff you said by just staying completely out of it. It’s his deal, it’s his movie. I’m so excited about it. But it’s his thing, and I’m creatively I don’t have a hand in the soup at all.

Greg Iwinski: Okay. So we’re not just going to see a random white character in there, that’s like, ah, I’m here for here to make people feel comfortable.

Rian Johnson: If you do, it wasn’t…

Greg Iwinski: That’s on chord. That’s not on you.

Rian Johnson: No. I’m so excited about it though, man. I’m really, really excited about it.

Greg Iwinski: I mean, I’ll say as somebody who grew up loving things like Star Wars, but only having one black person to be in Star Wars, to now get to a point where there is storytelling about what does it mean to be black enough, it is a breath of fresh air for me. But Rian, thank you so much for coming on the show, for talking to us. All the best with Poker Face coming out this month. And also you can watch Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery on Netflix right now. Thank you.

Rian Johnson: Great conversation. Thanks, Greg.

Speaker 1: On Writing is a production of The Writer’s Guild of America East. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer. Tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw and Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writer’s Guild of America East online at You can follow the Guild on all social media platforms @WGAEast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening and write on.

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