Rian Johnson, The Brothers Bloom
When his first film was released in 2005, Rian Johnson became an overnight sensation; but, as is so often the case, that “overnight” success took many years of work to achieve. Johnson was born in 1973 in Silver Spring, Maryland, and grew up in Denver, Colorado, and San Clemente, California. He came from a family of film lovers and by the time he was in seventh grade he was making movies, taking his Super 8 camera with him whenever he could. When he graduated from high school in 1992, he had made close to 100 shorts. Johnson went to university at USC, first attending as a general studies major then transferring to its prestigious School of Cinema-Television. During his time there, he made a number of shorts including the comedy horror Evil Demon Golfball From Hell!!!, which he wrote and directed in 1996, the year of his graduation. Though he is now acknowledged as one of the most exciting filmmakers to emerge recently, it took Johnson fully nine years to make his first feature, during time which he kept himself afloat making promos for kids’ TV shows and instructional videos for deaf children, as well as working as an editor. His patience and persistence paid off, however, when he finally directed his self-penned Brick (2005), a brilliant neo-noir which reimagined a contemporary high school as the setting for a hardboiled Dashiell Hammett-style mystery. The movie, which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt and was shot at Johnson’s old high school in San Clemente, won a Special Jury Prize for Originality at Sundance and was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year.
Johnson’s new film, The Brothers Bloom, adds another entry to the con movie canon as it tells the tale of swindling siblings Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody). Since their childhood, the brothers have gotten by as partners in deception, however, after the introspective Bloom decides he wants to retire, Stephen brings him back for one more job. The “mark” is the pretty but reclusive New Jersey heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz), who the conflicted Bloom must draw into an international art scam despite his growing attraction to her. On the surface, The Brothers Bloom is a colorful, lighthearted caper in the mold of the classic con movie (The Sting, for example), with a starry cast and an enjoyably tricksy plot. In terms of entertainment value, Johnson certainly delivers, but beyond the surface playfulness he examines the role and nature of storytelling, with everything from the film’s intricate cons within cons to the enjoyably anachronistic setting pointing out to us that everything is artifice – yet an emotionally engaging artifice which we desperately want to be true.
Filmmaker spoke to Johnson about his playful directorial style, his nerves about following up Brick, and his prominent online identity.
Filmmaker: When did you first start thinking about this movie? Are you someone who has a lot of scripts already written and ready to go?
Johnson: [laughs] I wish, oh I desperately wish! I would love to be that guy. That would mean that it wouldn’t be four years in between movies, which would be a wonderful thing, but I’m barely scraping the next one together after I finish one. I’m living the equivalent of hand to mouth with scripts. I wish I had a drawer full of them, but I’m way too lazy.
Filmmaker: So you started writing The Brothers Bloom right after Brick?
Johnson: Well, I had been planning it for a while. I’m really, really lucky to be a writer-director because I’d never make a living just as a professional writer, because I generally plan it out for four years. I came up with the idea years and years ago, before I even made Brick and it was there in the back of my head for a long, long while. It very, very slowly percolated and then at a certain point I had to actually sit down and hammer it out. So it was right after we showed Brick at Sundance in ’05 that I wrote the script. It actually wasn’t that long until we were shooting it – it felt like it came together fairly fast – but then postproduction ended up being a while. And then after postproduction we premiered it in Toronto and now we’re coming out. It’s been a long process. [laughs]
Filmmaker: What were your influences on this film?
Johnson: It started not with a very specific inspiration other than wanting to take a crack at a con man movie. The first film I did, Brick, had something very specific – Dashiell Hammett’s novels – as the place I was coming from, but with this it was just the notion of doing a con man movie. And then the real hook, the real thing that got me started, was using that to explore the connection between storytelling and real life. Not as it applies to people who tell stories for a living, but for human beings in general. I got very into the idea that being a good storyteller was a part of living a good life for anybody: we as humans is take in this ridiculous, huge amount of raw information from the outside world and then we make sense of it by telling it back to ourselves, in a way, as a story. I think narrative is very much a part of the way that we build our sense of the world, our sense of ourself, so becoming good at that is essential to living a good life. I was coming at it more as a fable, as the con man as a storyteller.
Filmmaker: You use Ricky Jay as the narrator, which is seemingly a nod to David Mamet. However you go beyond Mamet’s twist-driven plots to explore, as you said, ideas of storytelling and also the way in which we get emotionally involved despite knowing something is artifice.
Johnson: You still get hooked into it, absolutely. I’m happy that’s there in the finished product. It’s funny, because you engage with a lot of that stuff when you’re writing and then you just pray to God that it ends up being there at the end of the process, that it filters through. I think that aspect of the mark looking to be conned also very much does apply to movies: every time you sit down to see a movie, you’re giving up the price of a ticket and hoping to have the wool pulled over your eyes. [laughs] It’s actually a real phenomenon that happens in the con game of marks being taken for a ton of money and then cut loose in such a way that they don’t realize that it was all a con, and the marks coming back and seeking out the con men. That happens over and over and over again in some instances. I think there is a human instinct to place yourself in the arms of a good storyteller, and the healthier and much more affordable way to do that is to go and see a movie.
Filmmaker: I assume based on your two films so far that you like playing with genre.
Johnson: Well, I guess I do. I like working in genre. I don’t see it as playing with genre, I don’t see it as messing with genre or subverting genre, I see it more as just getting to play in the sandbox of that specific genre. Inevitably every time someone takes a crack at a genre, it ends up being it’s own thing, so it’s probably more a reflection of how I write stories. You should take this with a huge grain of salt considering that the thing I’m writing now is a science fiction film, but I feel like the fact that all the movies I’ve been able to make so far have been genre pieces, it’s definitely not a conscious choice. In a weird way, these things just happen to grab me. Maybe I’ll get to make a few more genres and then you’ll never hear from me again.
Filmmaker: You strike me as a cinephile, somebody who’s steeped in movie history.
Johnson: Yeah, my family are mostly in the home building business, but they’re huge film buffs. When I was growing up, my grandfather got me into Fellini movies and my dad got me into Scorsese and there was always this reverence for movies in my family. I also went to film school and basically spent four years watching everything I could. This is less about film literacy, but when I was growing up I was one of those annoying kids who always had a video camera and was always shooting stuff. It’s been fun for me to actually get to do this for a living, to get my family involved in it.
Filmmaker: Who would you say you align yourself with in a cinematic sense? Who do you feel some kinship with as a filmmaker? In this film, you have music from Fellini’s 8½.
Johnson: I love Fellini’s films and 8½ in particular. If I had to have a favorite movie, that would probably be it. There’s just so much about it: Fellini has that ability to stylistically blow everything up bigger than life and yet it hit, for me anyway, on a very real and personal emotional level. My favorite filmmakers are people who can go for something that seems like the antithesis of realism and yet it’s all focused down to this one singular point that strikes at a very real place. And then when you can pull that off, having this huge, stylized machine coming down to that one point makes it all the more powerful and really drives it home. In terms of aligning myself with anybody, all the filmmakers I love seem more interesting people than I could ever be. [laughs] I admire their films and am in awe of them as these grand personalities who made these ridiculously huge movies. I’m happy to keep my head down, keep my nose to the grindstone and just keep trying to get better at this stuff.
Filmmaker: Let’s go back to 2005, right after the release of Brick. How did you feel about following that film, particularly as The Brothers Bloom is a bigger movie?
Johnson: I was terrified, really terrified. I was mostly terrified because Brick had been on such a small scale in terms of production and it didn’t feel that much different than the way I’d shorts up until then. With this – with the scale of the production and the fact that it was bigger movie stars and all this stuff – my fear was, “Will it still feel like group of friends getting together to make a movie?” But the old adage is that the scariest part of a rollercoaster is waiting in line, and that really applies: once you start actually doing the work, all the nonsense goes away, it just vanishes, and it’s exactly the same thing as making Brick or making short films with your friends. It’s the same tools and you’re trying to achieve the same basic thing. I got lucky that we had a great crew and cast who were there to make the best movie. But I’m not sure if I’ve learned anything, I’m sure I’ll be terrified going into the next one for totally different reasons. [laughs] I guess it’s a healthy thing.
Filmmaker: Talking of Brick, Nora Zehetner has a cameo in Bloom and I swore I saw Joseph Gordon Levitt in the party scene at the start of the movie also.
Johnson: Yeah, he came out to visit us in Belgrade for a few weeks and we snuck him in that scene. And Noah Segan, who plays Dode in Brick, is the guy at the table with Mark Ruffalo. The vague idea was that this was supposed to be like the wrap party for the previous con, so I put all the Brick people in there, basically. It was fun to have a place to fit them all in. [laughs]
Filmmaker: That’s one of the reasons I see you as a playful director.
Johnson: I do love planting stuff in there that no one will probably ever get. [laughs] This is the kind of thing you have to be careful about when you’re talking about because you can come off like a real horse’s ass, but I do definitely layer in – really just for myself – a thread of symbolism, whether it’s connecting to another story, connecting to a myth, connecting to a visual idea, and then weave that into the deep, deep background of all the scenes. There’s lot of tiny hidden things in Bloom. I think as long as the main throughline of the movie is emotionally honest, I really enjoy being playful with the stuff in the periphery. I love Terry Gilliam’s films, for example, and I love that you can watch them over and over and they are kind of like puzzles. 8½ is definitely the same way: every time I see that movie I pick out something different, I see a different gear grinding that I didn’t see the last time.
Filmmaker: I wanted to talk about the “I collect hobbies” montage. It’s only about a minute of screen time, but I presume it must have been very lengthy to both prep and shoot.
Johnson: That’s a very perceptive comment. [laughs] It felt like forever. I remember when we finally did the final shot of the hobby montage it felt like we could all take a breath and we had completed the movie.
Filmmaker: Did you have a hobby montage wrap party?
Johnson: No, we should have. But that’s what it felt like, it really did. Though it’s such a quick little thing, Rachel actually learned the proper fingering for how to play each of those instruments and then the logistics of getting the wirework up on the thing… Rachel really dove into it and it was important to her to get those things down. No fakin’. We actually shot the interior stuff in one location in Serbia and the exterior stuff of the mansion in Romania, so it was spread out over a long period of the shoot. [laughs]
Filmmaker: I really enjoyed how you blurred the time period of the movie and embraced anachronisms or inconsistencies.
Johnson: In general, the time period isn’t anything I’m ever really worried about. The focus, in terms of the style of the thing, was mainly coming from the place where we have to believe that everything we’re seeing was created by Stephen; essentially, we have to believe we’re encased in this story that Stephen’s telling. To that end, it makes sense to have everything be a little anachronistic and bigger than life and not quite feel like the real world and feel a little inflated. You get this sense that, along with Bloom, your head is encased in this other world, Stephen’s world. In terms of the time setting, I like that it’s ambiguous and that it’s a mashup. I look at fashion or design trends today, and everything is a mashup, everything is anachronistic. It’s a little more inflated in this movie, but it’s something that I see around us everyday.
Filmmaker: One of the reasons that I said you weren’t lazy before was that I’ve been on your website, I follow your Twitter stream, and you have a blog, a tumblr, a forum.
Johnson: That’s all wasting time on the internet. That’s the procrastination stuff. [laughs]
Filmmaker: But it’s becoming increasingly important for directors – as well as their films – to have a web presence. How integral or important do you feel your online visibility is to your identity as a filmmaker, and also to your continuing success?
Johnson: It seems like there’s lots of filmmakers who are much more successful than me who aren’t on the internet the way that I am. I don’t think it’s something that adds to – and I hope it’s not something that takes away from – my career. It’s something I think I would be doing if I wasn’t doing this for a living, it’s something I just enjoy engaging with. If this were something that was foisted on a filmmaker to do that was like a job to work, it would be a real pain in the ass. [laughs]
Filmmaker: There may be more famous filmmakers who are not on the internet, but this gives people a sense of intimacy and connection with you which makes going to see The Brothers Bloom like supporting a friend’s movie.
Johnson: I can see that element. When I was growing up in San Clemente making movies, I would have loved to have felt like I had some kind of feedback from the filmmakers that I enjoyed watching. But I get quite a lot out of it myself: it feels really good. We spend so much time making these movies – the writing, the production, the editing – that when you finally get them out there, to have direct connections with people who are seeing them and enjoying them is really food for the soul. To have one-on-one from moviegoers is pretty invaluable, so I feel like I get as much out of it as anybody else.
Filmmaker: What’s the thing you keep on forgetting to do?
Johnson: The thing I consistently keep forgetting to do is to buy a set of thank you cards and a packet of stamps and get in the habit of writing thank you letters to people. Every time I’m at something nice, I think, “I’m going to do it this time. I’m going get those thank you cards and those stamps and the rest of my life I’ll be the guy that sends the thank you card.”
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Johnson: The first film I can remember seeing is The Wizard of Oz on TV at our neighbor’s house. I remember it being a very primal, very magical thing. It wasn’t like watching a movie or reading a storybook, it felt like this window into this world that existed.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you burst into tears on set?
Johnson: On set?! I’ve never burst into tears on set, I’m ridiculously calm. That’s a questions for actors and actresses. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Finally, what matters more to you, that a film is successful, or that you’re happy with the finished product?
Johnson: Happy with the finished product. I would love to meet the person who answers otherwise on that question. [laughs]