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Remembering Rian Johnson’s USC student film at 25

Wesley Stenzel talks to a friend of the “Knives Out” director as he reflects on an early collaboration.

[One-sentence description of what this media is: "A photo of a vaccine site on USC campus" or "Gif of dancing banana". Important for accessibility/people who use screen readers.]

For the 25th anniversary of a wacky student film, cinematographer Todd Somodevilla talks with Wesley Stenzel about the humble beginnings of his friend and collaborator: “Star Wars” director Rian Johnson.

Hollywood director Rian Johnson is on top of the world. He’s directed key episodes of “Breaking Bad,” breathed new life into “Star Wars” with “The Last Jedi,” and launched the “Knives Out” murder mystery trilogy. Before Johnson’s mainstream breakthrough, he was just another kid at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in the mid-’90s.

Todd Somodevilla:  I first met Rian... freshman year, in our dormitory

Cinmatographer Todd Somodevilla was a friend and classmate.

Somodevilla: Rian came up with this amazing project, I think it was his senior year project…he asked me to act in it, and I know I of course said yes.

The project was a short film called “Evil Demon Golfball from Hell,” which is as crazy as it sounds. It’s only eight minutes long and it’s nearly silent. The story is about a thief who’s haunted by a gold ball that won’t stop bouncing.

Somodevilla was an unlikely choice for the lead role.

Somodevilla: I’m not an actor, I was just you know a buddy that Rian wanted to act in this film.

Somodevilla’s lack of performing experience made the ending tough to nail.

Somodevilla: the most difficult scene probably was the final scene when the character...shoots at the ball, misses, and ends up shooting himself, just because there is that moment ...of being hit by the bullet and realizing that I’m shot or something before I collapsed –– it was a very specific something that Rian wanted there. And it took us a while to get there, just because I’m not an actor.

Johnson and his team made the golf ball creepier by making it bounce unpredictably. They used several creative techniques to get this effect:

Somodevilla: there was like trickery like fishing line sometimes, there was just y’know well-timed or well-aimed bounces…the scene where I’m driving and the ball is like bouncing alongside of me, you know the car’s never moving, that’s that’s yknow somebody outside the window, might’ve been Rian *laughs* outside the window like tossing the ball up

Somodevilla insists that the film never gets distracted by the effects.

Somodevilla: There’s always a balance in Rian’s films with the technical aspects of things, but also he never loses sight of the character, the story. Sometimes it’s about the trick, but a lot of the time it’s more about the character’s reaction to the trick. Every scene, every shot is building to something in a Rian Johnson film.

The camaraderie on set made the film a highlight of Somodevilla’s time at USC.

Somodevilla: I loved being part of a team telling a story... it was one of the first times that I felt like I was part of a properly creative team of people. That’s the reason why I am in filmmaking.  I love that collaboration.

After USC, Somodevilla worked as the second unit cinematographer on Johnson’s debut feature, “Brick.” It’s a stylish high school murder mystery. Somodevilla now lives in New York, but he’s still good friends with Johnson.

Somodevilla: It’s more of a social thing and a work-buddy thing, y’know I read all of Rian’s scripts...we’re still very close.

Somodevilla is working on a miniseries about insomnia, and Johnson is wrapping up production on his first “Knives Out” sequel. Their friendship is almost three decades strong, and shows no signs of stopping.