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“We Think the Audience is Smarter Than Us”: Kirsten Johnson On Making Another Personal and Original Film With “Dick Johnson is Dead”

Dick Johnson appears in Dick Johnson is Dead by Kirsten Johnson (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

There are few directorial debuts as sui generis as Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. A kind of experimental documentary, its premise was simple: it collected unused fragments from her long and storied career as a cinematographer, mostly for non-fiction works, among them Citizen Four, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Oath, and more. There was no story, there was no clear mission statement or theme, and the viewer was left to intuit meaning between the fragments arranged seemingly at random. And it was a success, quickly ushered into the Criterion Collection and taking her from a name among non-fiction auteurs to a name auteur herself. How do you follow that up? With Dick Johnson is Dead, which is as original as her first. It, too, is simple, and on paper it sounds as heavy as her debut, filled with images of war and suffering and pain: It’s about Johnson’s father, Dick, who is diagnosed with dementia and, it is presumed, not long for this world. But instead of a grieving portrait, she’s made a comedy, in which the two stage ever-absurd death scenes for him, embracing life and mordant humor in the face of literal end times. (Dick Johnson, incidentally, is currently safely stationed in a minimally occupied home for dementia in Maryland.)

Kirsten Johnson was present (or virtual) at IFP Week 2020, participating in an intimate conversation about her new movie, which hits Netflix on October 2, with another director whose work has examined deaths in the family: Yance Ford, whose 2017 film Strong Island, about the murder of his brother, was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Together, they discussed exploring grief on film, trusting your instincts when making something legitimately unique and how these two, very different films related to each other.

“I made Cameraperson out of need. Just a profound need that I didn’t understand and I had to go through,” Johnson said. “When I finished Cameraperson I really didn’t know if anyone else would understand it or relate to it. But I knew I had addressed my own needs.” She was shocked that it actually was received, and warmly. “We had broken something. And I had broken something for myself. I had broken something formally. So I said to myself, ‘I must make what I need to make, and I will only make something if it is pushing boundaries of the form, for myself and for my collaborators.” Cameraperson’s reception gave her that confidence to try something else that was different. “It gave me freedom. I didn’t have to prove anything, I felt, with this film. I can fail. I’ve actually set myself up to fail.” And she means that in more ways than one: In the film she’s trying to make her father immortal, to kill him, again and again, onscreen, while preserving his legacy on film. “I want my father to live forever. That’s what I’m doing. So it is implicitly a movie that will fail. And I’m good with that.”

Dick Johnson is Dead is at heart a film that gave her and her father something big to do together. “We conceived of the film as an experiment together,” she said. They’ve always had a strong relationship, and she says he loves to troll her, to surprise her with an out-of-nowhere joke. “The number of times he completely punked me, where he would be really earnest and serious and staring me in the face, then [make a joke]. It’d be like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ That was really liberating.” In fact, it was those unexpected moments that she was looking for, not something either of the could ever plan. “That was the whole premise of the film, that we were engaged with the unexpected. And the unexpected presents itself in different forms. In documentary we know you just have to keep being there and something will blindside you. Guaranteed.”

But there was something else that made it more prone to the unexpected: Dick’s dementia got worse a lot quicker than was anticipated. “I realized really early on that I may have started too late, that I’m too late. Already he can’t do things,” Johnson said. “But then that tension between me thinking he can no longer do things and then, out of nowhere, he be BOOM! We never accepted his absence, were always fighting for ways in which his presence could manifest itself. I think a lot about how the physical body is present. I would say the body has as story. The body can transform in relation to your own story, and the body, it keeps score. The presence of my father’s body, as a collaborator, that was really something that even when I felt like, ‘Oh, this dementia is taking us too far, he’s too far away from me,’ I would soon realize, “Oh no, he’s still here.’”

Dick Johnson is Dead also emerged from another deep-seated need: Not many people thought Cameraperson was funny, and she — a very funny person — wanted to make one that was. “There was one laugh in [Cameraperson]. I was like, ‘We made an hour and a half long film and there was one laugh?’ So I was really committed to there being humor in this film,” Johnson explained. That emerges from her and her father’s relationship. “I can mess with my father, and he can mess with me. The freedom in that relationship is really liberating.”

Johnson has been able to make two formally daring, deeply personal films partly because she’s learned to trust not only her instincts but trust that there’s an audience for them. When she was discussing the film with Nels Bangerter, the film’s co-writer and editor (who also did the latter on Cameraperson), they knew they shouldn’t dumb it down. “Really early on, Nels and I made this pledge that we think the audience is smarter than us,” she recalled. “When you do that, then it’s okay. You have that freedom. You think, ‘I don’t need to explain anything to anybody. People, either they’ve lost somebody they love, or they’re afraid of that. I don’t have to explain that to anybody.” She trusted that people would be able to connect with her very personal story of looming loss. “You have a person in your life, and it might even be yourself, that you think, ‘I cannot bear for this person to die. It’s not possible, it’s not happening.’ That’s who I was at the beginning of this film. I was like, ‘No, no, no, my father is not dying. You know that is the same for every person on the planet, that it’s different for every single person, and they just have to trust us. You have plenty to work with, so do I, let’s get to work and I’ll share it with you.”

When Johnson began work on Dick Johnson is Dead, it was before the 2016 election. She couldn’t have the world started falling apart. Nor could she imagine it would premiere, at Sundance 2020, two months before a pandemic besieged America, putting death at the forefront of the nation’s minds. She has wrestled with making and then promoting something so small and deeply personal, one could even say deeply insular, at a time of such epic loss. “There were so many times when I thought, ‘How can I make this film now? I can’t make this film, it’s too small” Johnson said. But she realized that another instance, of many, of self-doubt, which she had to overcome. One way to do that was tell herself the world always needs a reason to laugh, especially about things that, at base, aren’t funny. “I know the documentary world, and I know that there aren’t that many funny films,” she said. “We care about so many serious things. But we also like to laugh.”

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