Denver native accepts John Cassavetes Award along with 52 family members
Opening Night of the 42nd Denver Film Festival was highlighted by a red-carpet screening of the new film Knives Out and the presentation of the annual John Cassavetes Award to wriiter and director Rian Johnson, who was raised in Highlands Ranch, attended Deer Creek Elementary School and moved to California in the sixth grade before attaining international fame with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Johnson, who became the first director to open two Denver Film Festivals (following The Brothers Bloom in 2008), brought 52 family members for Thursday night’s raucous screening of Knives Out at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, including his grandparents. He said his grandmother always encouraged him “even after we would steal her best furs to use as costumes.” He added that “My granddad showed me (Federico) Fellini films when I was young and he – along with my father – gave me a deep love of film. He would drag the whole family to the Chez Artiste for the latest foreign film, and the second the lights would go down – he would fall asleep.”
‘When I am on by deathbed, I will not be able to complain about a single thing because I got to work in the Star Wars world.’ – Rian Johnson
Johnson was on the radar of Denver Film Festival Director Britta Erickson from the start. His debut film, Brick, made for just under $500,000, is a crime drama that was debuted at the 2005 Denver Film Festival. Erickson had attended Kent Denver School from seventh to ninth grade with Starck Johnson, Rian’s uncle. Dr. Starck Johnson is now the team ophthalmologist for the Denver Broncos and formerly for the Denver Nuggets. Rian Johnson has subsequently directed Looper, and three episodes of the seminal TV series Breaking Bad.
“I hope to earn it someday,” Johnson, 45, said of receiving the Cassavetes Award on Thursday. He told the DCPA NewsCenter that his favorite Cassavetes film is probably Opening Night (an appropriate choice for the festival’s Opening Night.) That’s the story of an actress, played by Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands, who suffers emotional uproar in her personal life after a fan dies trying to see her.
“I think Rowlands’ performance is through the roof in that,” Johnson said. “I remember seeing that film for the first time and just being bowled over. In fact, one of the script supervisors I worked with on Breaking Bad had worked with Cassavetes, and I would milk her for stories her between takes.”
Knives Out pays comic tribute to Agatha Christie with a modern-day murder mystery where everyone is a suspect. The all-star cast includes Christopher Plummer, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Toni Collette.
“I have wanted to do a whodunnit forever,” Johnson said. “I grew up reading Agatha Christie’s books, and this is a film genre I deeply love. There is something about a good mystery that is like comfort food. It’s so much fun. I had such a great experience doing Star Wars but I thought it would be good to then go into something completely different. That’s what this is.”
Thursday’s post-film discussion was moderated by John Wenzel from The Denver Post. Johnson told Wenzel that growing up in the metro area helped inspire some of his work. “There was always something about looking at those mountains,” he said, comparing his young self to a little Luke Skywalker looking at the distant two suns in the original 1977 Star Wars film. “I’d stare at those mountains and feel like there was adventure out there.”
Working on the Star Wars franchise, he told the DCPA NewsCenter, was a dream. “When I am on by deathbed, I will not be able to complain about a single thing because I got to work in the Star Wars world,” he said.
The Festival, which runs through November 10, offers 250 films and attracts about 40,000 audience members each year.
Photos: 2019 Denver Film Festival
Here are selections from our photo coverage of the 2019 festival. All photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.
Video: The official Knives Out trailer
Director Rian Johnson said Thursday he’s no fan of film trailers – but here is the trailer for his new film ‘Knives Out,’ regardless.