Rian Johnson: Film Director and Dodgers Fan

by Amy Goodwin on February 6, 2014

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Rian Johnson is a LA Dodgers fan. If you go to Dodger Stadium, you might find him sitting in the stands. As one of the best film directors working today, he’s probably looking to blend in; wherever he goes he’s got rock star status; games would be much easier if he were a lawyer or an accountant. But take a closer look for his tell-tale signs: his pen, his camera, and his cellular phone. And have a listen. If you sit nearby and you hear a man making smart, well-observed comments, putting a fresh spin on baseball; saying it like you’ve never heard before…it’s likely Johnson. He does it in baseball like he does it in film; it seems to come natural to him.

“You look at baseball-the clean geometric layout and precision of it…it looks like something that you should be able to impose a mathematical order on,” he says from a sofa at the Austin Film Festival. “I think that’s very intriguing idea. But what’s even more intriguing is the gap between the perception that you should be able to impose an order on it and the true fuzziness of it. As storytellers that’s what we’re constantly trying to do-impose some sort of order on our experiences in life and define them, and the slipperiness comes with not quite ever being able to do that. For all the stats you come up with in your head-there can always be a surprise when someone comes up to bat.”

Karina Longworth, noted film critic and Johnson’s girlfriend, is sitting beside Johnson on the sofa. Johnson hasn’t always been a fan. His relationship with the Dodgers coincides with development of he and Longworth’s relationship. “Karina is a huge Dodgers fan. When we started dating she mentioned she was a big Dodgers fan, and I was like ‘Oh yeah, I love the Dodgers too.’ I took her to a game and I was trying to act like I knew what was going on. They call the first batter up, and I said, ‘Who is this guy?’ And she looks at me and says, ‘That’s Matt Kemp.’ So it became obvious really quickly I had no idea.”

But Rian Johnson is a quick study, and one of his all-time favorite movies is The Natural. “Baseball is such a visually beautiful, inherently dramatic sport. It lends itself so well to exploring characters. The truth is, when you dive into any subject, it’s less about being an expert; it’s more about having a passionate curiosity about something and then doing the research and discovering it through making a movie about it.”

Johnson’s passionate curiosity so far has lead him to action-packed, muscled films; Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper, plus he directed three episodes of Breaking Bad. He’s captivated audiences by turning genres on their ends, giving viewers something they’ve never seen before. Baseball fans dare to dream of Johnson making a baseball movie with his signature marks.

“I would love to make a baseball movie someday. So few baseball movies are made; it’s got the same problem that the American Western has in terms of it being such a specific genre. But sometimes you just do it against your better judgment.”

While Johnson’s answer gives hope to the combination movie goer/ baseball fans, baseball critics are skeptical. They think, he’ll never make a baseball movie; the game is too boring. Johnson argues to the contrary. “Tension in filmmaking doesn’t come from the moment the guy gets stabbed. It comes from the three minute sequence before that where you know the killer is sneaking up behind him. I think the pace of baseball is incredibly dramatic. I love basketball, but I find it much less stressful to watch; the ball is constantly in motion; there’s a constant release of adrenaline. With baseball, that pause when the pitcher is waiting for the sign and then he winds up. Just at that moment of tension, especially when you’re in the playoffs and every pitch matters, it can just become unbearable.”

All this is coming from a man who just started following the Dodgers last year. (The “Frank McCourt years,” he calls him.) While baseball fans can maintain a healthy dose of optimism for Johnson’s baseball movie, a tiny voice in their heads may be crying, “Bandwagon fan,” questioning Johnson’s commitment to the game. What if it’s a passing phase? Johnson acknowledges that fear. “One of the things that is comforting about watching baseball is the inherent unfickleness of it. It’s the length of the season, the amount of games, the fact that there’s always tomorrow. No matter how down you feel about a player…there’s always the chance that something ridiculously amazing is going to happen.”

Put him to the test, and cut to Game 6 and ask him about the Cardinals, Dodgers 9-0 shutout and Johnson gets a long face and shakes his head. “As a filmmaker there was something cathartic about that last game. If we’re going down, we’re going down. The Viking ship is burning into the sea. I did not enjoy that last game at all, but I could appreciate that tragedy on a Greek level.”

The quote in Moneyball is true.

It’s hard to not get romantic about baseball.

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