Us Transbuddhas don’t often get the chance to meet and interview any big dogs from the business. So a month ago, when I offered the chance to interview Rian Johnson, director of 2006’s much-loved teenage noir mystery Brick, and the just-now-hitting-theaters con-man-comedy The Brothers Bloom, I jumped at the chance. Johnson’s a talent who’s just getting started on what I’m sure will be a great collection of films. He’s also a super nice dude and a lot of fun to interview. Read on for proof!
You’ve written some great and hilarious dialogue in your films. I was wondering if you would comment on the importance that good dialogue holds in a movie.
Well, I think that it’s something that I really enjoy, just because I love language and I love words. But at the same time it’s something that I personally try to do less of. When you write, and you’re just staring at that page full of words, the temptation is to put every single thing into words. The temptation is to say everything. And that’s part of the reason why in Brothers Bloom I wrote the character of Bang Bang as without talking but she’s still an intricate character to it, and that forced me to think of the visual aspects of a scene. And more and more I tend to admire writing where the less said the better, the economy in terms of dialogue.
Getting Brick funded and made took a long time from what I’ve heard from various Internet stuff.
Could you talk for just a minute about that process, and how did it compare to The Brothers Bloom?
Oh, it was night and day. Brick took, what was it, six years or seven before we finally did it. Brothers Bloom was a few years but we were constantly moving forward with the process. The casting took a while on the Brothers Bloom just because we had a certain budget to make it which meant we had to find a certain level of star power in the main roles, and that’s tricky when you have that element to work with where it ‘s tricky to do that and get really lucky and find the best people for the part, which luckily we somehow managed to still.
But no, it was a very different process with Brick and Bloom. It seemed like with Brick to convince people to please give us a shot at this. With Bloom that was a little easier, we found people who were willing to give it shot, it was just a matter of getting all the logistical pieces together to actually get the thing made
What was the budget on Brothers Bloom, just curious?
It was, I don’t think I’m actually allowed to say, but it was less than 20 million
Did Summit just pick it up, or did they. . .
They just picked it up. A company called Endgame Entertainment financed it. Summit picked it up over post-production.
What’s it like working with a brand new studio like Summit?
Oh, theyâ€™re cool. It’s funny, when they first picked us up, it was over a year ago, so it’s been really interesting to see them make a name for themselves with Twilight and The Hurt Locker coming out, which I’ve heard is fantastic. They’re starting to build up a reputation, which is great, because I like all the guys over there
It seems like there are few genres as fun as the con movie. Are there any specific movies you looked at while writing The Brothers Bloom?
With Brick it was really specific, it was Dashiell Hammet novels, and that’s really where that came from. Now with this, there was nothing specific like that; but I grew up loving con man movies, and I’d say if anything, Paper Moon might be the closest thing to a film that directly led to a lot of the stuff in Brothers Bloom, because Paper Moon was one of the first con man movies where the emotional level of it was really front and forward of this father daughter type relationship that’s in the movie. Umm, have you –
I have not seen it.
You gotta see it, it’s like a perfect movie, it really is incredible, you gotta check it out.
Well, coming from Rian Johnson, it’s moving to the top of my Netflix queue.
Oh no, yeah, put it up there, it’s really great and really fun. So yeah, that was probably the . . . but no, when I was actually writing it I was watching The Man Who Would Be King for some reason, over and over again which isn’t a con man –
[Johnson notices of total lack of recognition in my face at mention of movie]
– Add it to your Netflix queue! [laughs]
It isn’t a con man movie, but it’s that kind of a traveling adventure, and it’s got two rascals in it, and it’s basically Michael Caine and Sean Connery as these two neâ€™er-do-wells that make their way through the world. So you end up watching weird stuff that doesn’t seem like it has a lot to do with what you’re writing, but in a strange way it does.
Did you see the effects in the final product of the Brothers Bloom?
Umm, I don’t know. I mean I canâ€™t, I don’t think they’re very apparent. When you finally finish a film it’s kind of a surprise, kind of bizarre what people say. “Oh, it’s just like that” and I go, “Okay, whatever floats your boat, I guess, but that’s not what I was thinking when I made it.â€
One of the most prevalent ideas in the Brothers Bloom is the connection between stories and a con. In that sense, are movies the same thing as a con?
Yeah, luckily you only get conned out of 12 bucks when you go to the movies. But yeah, I mean it’s essentially the same thing. You go into a film explicitly with the expectation to be fooled a certain way. I think no matter what the genre is, even a Romantic Comedy, you go in and part of the pleasure is when these two people first meet they usually hate each other, and then it’s going to be twisted around by the end of the film. That reversal is essentially what we love about narrative, I think, probably because that’s what keeps life interesting, because that actually reflects the way things work, and our expectations are constantly flipped over our heads.
And with the story telling element of Bloom, which was one of the key things about it for me, I’m a big believer in story telling and narrative being a essential part of the way that we, as humans, deal with the world around us. I think we’re taking in all this absurd raw information from the outside world, and our job is to be good story tellers in terms of parsing that and telling it back to our selves as some sort of cohesive narrative, and our outlook on the world essentially depends on how we filter everything that comes in, it kind of depends on our story telling skills. So, for me, Bloom was a way of working through those ideas, and where story telling and life intersect.
Your first first two films have been a hard-broiled high school flick and a chummy con man movie, and from what I understand your heading towards a dystopic sci-fi film for your next one?
So that’s a well-rounded collection of film styles.
[Laughs] I should just stop while I’m ahead.
But is there any general shape you’re trying to get to with your whole filmography? Is there any direction you’re going, or is it just a gamut of whatever?
No, it’s just you do your best with each step forward. I mean, I just feel incredibly lucky with each one of these I’ve been able to pull off. I’m not looking much further than “God, will I be able to make the next one great?” But in that context though, it’s all about whatever grabs you, whatever pulls you forward. And the odd thing is, at least for me, is how little control you seem to have over what that idea will be, that comes out of nowhere, pulls you on the journey. All the sudden it’s just kind of there, and you’re moving on it, and you just have to follow it sometimes
You have to follow it?
Yeah, you know whether it’s something that’s worth pursuing because if it’s not, at least for me, I’m so fundamentally lazy, I will never do the amount of work required to actually write it and make it into a movie if it isn’t something powerful enough to really compel me to pursue it.
Yeah, and if you’re like me you’re just too lazy to do anything at all.
But kind of on that note, as a dude who’s trying to come up with a decent script, do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters?
This is going to sound like the most clichÃ©d nonsense possible, but experience as much as possible, keep your eyes open. And also, watch great movies, read great literature, go to the Opera, and you are what you eat – I think that applies to creativity as well. So if you’re ever feeling in a creative dry spell, or wondering what to pursue next, I donâ€™t’ think it’s a problem of output, it’s a problem of input. Go a little crazy with your Netflix queue, take at trip over to Europe.
I just got back from one actually.
Oh you did? For school?
Where did you go?
It was mostly Florence and Paris
Ohhh, I love all those cities, I think Paris is my favorite though. Do you speak French?
I can say “Parlez-vous Anglais?” pretty well.
That’s all you need. That’s all you really need. But that’s great, there’s nothing like that, I mean Paris especially. I actually did the first cut of Bloom in Paris.
Yeah, I was over there for a summer and I cut the first assembly of the thing there.
So how does one get to edit a film wherever they want?
Laptop computers. The magic of Final Cut Pro.
So could you fit all the footage on your laptop?
It is astounding, no, but you can fit it all on a drive about this size of this tape recorder, and it’s amazing. I mean literally, itâ€™s a laptop and a drive about that big, and that’s the movie. Which terrifies my producer, especially traveling around Paris.
Was that the only copy of the footage?
No, we had other copies, but if somebody got a hold of it
Yeah, they could cut a bad version of the movie and put it out Wolverine style, you know.
Although, they’re saying now that that’s the final cut anyway.
It’s just a shitty movie anyway.
Well, what are you gonna do?
Do you do all of your editing on Final Cut?
Yeah, I actually worked with an editor on Bloom, it was really collaborative, a terrific editor that I worked with. But yeah, we’ve done both Bloom and Brick on Final Cut so far. But I also know Avid, I’ve worked on that also. They’re both good systems, just different quirks. Actually, I think stability-wise, Avid might have a bit of a one-upmanship on Final Cut. Alhtough Final Cut is so affordable, it’s hard to pass up.
Especially when you can download it.
Precisely! I didnâ€™t hear that!
Well, that’s all I got, thank you so much.
Good luck with your writing! So, you’re coming up with something right now?
You know, all I’ve got right now is an idea of this character, and Iâ€™ve only got about five pages.
You know, if this makes you feel any better, I spent several years in that phase of coming up with a character and an idea, and letting that grow before you sit down and do any writing. And I think that’s really healthy. I think having a long amount of time with this thing in your head, and kind of like a rock rolling down a hill, it just gathers whatever you go through in those few years. So donâ€™t’ be discouraged if it takes a long time
Oh yeah, I’m not discouraged, I’m excited, it’s just that I have no work ethic.
Me too, me too. In that case I’d say run out of money as quickly as possible.
That’s what I do.