Newsletter 85: Knowing THEM Back THEN

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one’s from December 2017, about moving to Los Angeles and becoming casual friends with a young student wanna-be filmmaker named Rian Johnson. The trailer for his new film Knives Out looks awesome.

When I moved out to Los Angeles mere days after I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1997, I didn’t know a single soul out there other than Tim Grierson. I’ve written about Grierson’s and my high school friendship before, and obviously we’re still the same Mattoon dorks, as you can tell from the weekly podcast, but it was still a leap to move out there. I went out there for a job at U: The National College Magazine, and my primary objective was to look for apartments for me and my fiancee (who planned on moving out there in two months). Turned out, she quickly became my ex-fiancee, and suddenly I was adrift, sad and in a strange new city in which I only knew one guy, a guy with his own set of new friends.

Because Grierson is a good person, he immediately welcomed me into his circle of pals, all of whom, like him, had just graduated from film school at the University of Southern California. This was terribly exciting for me. USC was the school that had produced George Lucas, and Robert Zemeckis, and Ron Howard, and John Singleton. (And, uh, Bryan Singer.) I thought Grierson was one of the smartest people I’d ever met in my life, and his friends seemed equally smart and impossibly sophisticated for Yokel Leitch; I used to joke that I was the equivalent of Ron Livingston in Swingers, the one out of towner with all the cool kids in LA, only lacking the dignity of dressing up as Goofy like he did. They tolerated me because they all liked Tim, and that was enough, really. I felt more grownup and worldly just hanging out with them.

And all we did when we hung out was watch movies. We saw movies all weekend, every weekend. The ritual was usually to see the big Hollywood studio movie on Friday night, typically at one of the big single-movie houses in Westwood (most of which no longer exist), and then the most buzzed-about independent film on Saturday night. Sundays were for the New Beverly, though I’ll confess, I usually took that day off to watch football. The group of about 10 guys — all guys, obviously — would go see the movie, not say a word about it until we reached a diner afterward, and then have a loud, boisterous, obnoxious conversation about it (and whatever movies it got us thinking about) for a couple of hours afterward. This was every weekend, pretty much the entire year I lived there. It was an excellent way to sweat off a broken engagement and being lost and confused so far from home.

I liked everybody in the group, even the jerks. They were all so smart and alive with ideas. (Or at least they seemed that way when I was 22.) That year right after your graduate college is the last year, really, where you can still act like a college student — staying out all night talking, sleeping in past noon, not putting a lot of thought into whatever is supposed to come next — and we all took full advantage of it, or as much advantage of it as you can without ever talking to any girls. I smile when I think back at that time. Honestly, the fact that I spent my “wild” year talking about movies with endlessly windy film majors is a source of considerable pride.

Back then, I always wondered: Are any of these guys going to be the next Lucas? I always assumed it would be Grierson — he wrote a great script about an all-Beatles radio station that I still think would make a wonderful movie — but I had a hard time being able to guess otherwise. Everyone was so smart and opinionated, and seemed to know so much more about movies than I did. I guess I just sort of assumed they’d all win Oscars someday. I just hoped they’d remember Tim’s dorky friend from Illinois when they did.

We all got old, of course, and learned all the compromises and disappointments that came with it. Many of them have turned out to have successful lives, including Grierson, and many of them remain friends and people whose work I enjoy. But only three of our crew ever ended up making movies. The first was Russell Brown, who has directed four features, most recently Search Engines starring Joely Fisher. The second was Lucky McKee, who didn’t join us often but was Grierson’s freshman year roommate so I should probably include him; to be entirely honest, I don’t particularly like McKee’s movies, but there are many reasonable people who do.

And the third is Rian Johnson. Of Grierson’s friends, I probably knew Tim’s roommate Mark, the aforementioned Russell Brown and Rian the best. Rian stuck out instantly for a simple reason any Midwesterner could appreciate: He was unfailingly, relentlessly nice. It wasn’t a fake Minnesota Nice; Rian spoke softly and somewhat hesitantly, but he had strong opinions while still never having a bad word to say about anybody. He even found kind things to say about movies we all agreed were pretty terrible. (And we all saw Batman & Robin together.) I instantly liked him. He was the sort of person you cheer for.

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I remember, years later, after I’d left Los Angeles and ultimately moved to New York, I’d ask Grierson and sometimes Russell about the old LA crew. They were all winding their way through the system like the rest of us, figuring out what they were gonna do with their lives, what they were willing to sacrifice, how badly they did or didn’t want it. Grierson and Russell made a movie together; I liked it! And then Grierson told me, way back in 2005 — when we were reviewing movies for The Black Table together — that he had some good news: Our old friend Rian (well, my old friend; his current friend) made a movie that had just gotten accepted at Sundance. It was called Brick, and starred the kid from Third Rock From the Sun. I was so happy for him. In retrospect, of course it would be Rian.

The movie was a hit, though I didn’t get to see it for another year. His followup, The Brothers Bloom, was not necessarily my speed, but I was elated to learn that he was directing an episode of “Breaking Bad,” the “Fly” episode that is still considered one of the best of that show. (Later, “Ozymandias,” directed by Johnson, would cause great TV critic Alan Sepinwall to say, “If you were to ask me what is the best hour of dramatic television ever, I would say Breaking Bad’s ‘Ozymandias’ and not think twice about it.”) By that time, Johnson had become a cineaste favorite, not least of which thanks to a social media presence that was both active and accessible, friendly in a typically unfriendly place, very Rian.

Then came Looper. I saw Looper at an early screening and was so blown away by it that I had to email Rian afterward and tell him, frankly, how proud I was of him. This was surely a strange email to receive; Rian and I know each other, but he’s Tim’s friend; I’m just the one guy of our group who smoked back in 1997 and occasionally taunted him online during some Cardinals-Dodgers NLCS games. (Grierson would never write anything like this about Rian because he’s his actual friend; I’m simply friend-adjacent.) But the movie was so good that I just wanted to tell him I was honored that I knew him. Which I was. Which I am.

Obviously, Rian is now on top of the world with The Last Jedi, which I think is magnificent and his best film. I haven’t earned the right to be proud of him; he is an old acquaintance, and really only a friend removed. But I am anyway. I always wondered which one of that group would turn into George Lucas. And here he is, making a Star Wars movie that’s as good as any Lucas ever made. I’m glad it was Rian. Some people get to the top of the world the worst way, exploiting loopholes and whoever they can crush along the way. But some people do it the right way. Some people are good. Rian is good. I’m glad it was him. I couldn’t be happier for him. It gives you a little faith. If the nice people you know do great things, maybe all the people you don’t know who are doing great things are just as nice. It feels good to think that.

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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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