Sunday, May 21, 2006

transcript: Rian Johnson

Rian Johnson made Brick, a nifty "neo-noir" flick that actually kicked a lot of ass. I had about 15 minutes with Johnson in late February when he was in town doing press. Chill, laid back dude who was fiddling with his newfound Treo when I came into the room. I had just come from doing poorly in a freshman-level math course. Printed article is here.
As a note, I originally wrote that Brick won the Sundance Grand Jury prize in 2005. Brick was nominated for the Grand Jury, but did not win. Instead, it took the Special Jury prize. The real winner of the Grand Jury was Why We Fight. I've since corrected that.
also, a lot of my stuff is written in short bursts. this was just so I could speed through my transcript. the full article has the actual questions, these were just placeholders so I knew where I was at.

If you want to read the "Pig Poem" or see "Demon Golfball," they're all on his personal website. At least, they were back when I checked.

ISO:What was the black tarp?
Rian Johnson: the black plastic? Did it freak you out? Awesome. We needed a way to do a bunch of dream-like transitions because the main character’s always passing out or getting sick. Because we had no money at all I wanted to figure out like a Sam Raimi type way of doing it all in-camera. So I came up with this weird idea of using black, plastic trash bags to create like, you know, also because there’s a body in the movie and [the titular “brick”] wrapped in black plastic. So I decided, all right, we’ll see if we can get away with it being an arty motif.

ISO: There were a lot of detailed camera shots.

You mean like [makes motion of the scene where JGL gets punched in slow-motion]…? You want to know details, like how we actually did the shot? The movie’s basically an old-school, hard boiled detective story and the plot is very dense and the language is very dense. It was important to me to have entire moments, entire sequences like that, where there’s no language at all and it’s purely visceral, it kind of jump-startles you, wakes you up and gets your blood pumping. To make this movie an exciting ride as well as this twisty, intricate mystery.

ISO: Huge amount of slang, patois. How long’d it take to get use in this setting?
You mean with audiences or making the movie?
It was tough. Luckily I had a long period, three months with Joe to work before the movie and we were able to figure out how we were going to approach the language. The first thing we tried was a very naturalistic approach to it. Just saying lines as a modern actor would say them, and they just fell totally flat. They didn’t work. We realized if you’re going to have this kind of language, you have to go back to the old-school method of performance. We looked at a bunch of Billy Wilder movies. We looked at older movies, we studied the way—it was a totally different style of performance back then. Strangely, Joseph actually reached back and found some stuff from “Third Rock” that he used to use just because of the elevated style of sitcom performance has that snappyness to it. Obviously it’s a completely different performance in “Brick.”

ISO: Very scripted.
Completely. We had a strict 20-day schedule.


ISO: I found your website…dog umbrella photo?
[Laughs] We had this beautiful dog umbrella that actually broke at the wrap party. I was carrying it around all during the [filming.] We got incredibly blessed with the weather on our shoot. Because we shot it in San Clemente, which is this little beach town in southern Orange County, which is where I grew up and we shot it at my high school. The problem I was more worried about was that it would be bright and sunny the entire time. There were lots of sequences in the movie where I wanted it to be overcast and have a darker feel. The weather totally cooperated. there were certain scenes that I was hoping for clouds to show up and there were clouds, there were other things where I was hoping for a sun flare effect and there’s the sun. There’s this great picture [on my website] of Joe lying on the field and there’s five women all around him holding umbrellas to keep [him] dry.

ISO: Blackberry/trio.
I just got this recently man. It’s great.


ISO:Benefit of special jury prize?
Yeah, I’m living the high life now, man. [laughs.]

ISO: [Living in] LA?
I’m actually in the process of trying to move to New York. But it’s hard, the whole business is back in L.A. so I keep getting pulled back for meetings and stuff.

[We talk about The Edge bar and how it sucks now.]


ISO: Into Storytelling…
Sure…ever since I was a kid I’ve been writing. It’s important for me to have some outlet of storytelling that I don’t make a living off of. There’s something vital about that to have something you do non-professionally that’s creative. Whether it’s just goofing around with music or writing something as absurd as a 100-page long poem about a pig that you know you can never make a dime off of but it’s something that means something to you personally.

ISO: Pig poem?
[Laughs] I wrote that from—it’s like a fairy tale about a pig and a boy who go on this quest to steal the moon—and I wrote it from when I was 18 until I was about 23. For me it wasreally kind of a way of making a transition from adolescent into adult hood, and having a story that evolved while I was changing. It’s a really personal thing for me. It’s something I haven’t gone back and read for a while. I’m always happy when people read it and like it.

ISO: Demon golf ball…,
Nice [laughs.]

ISO: contemp. Retelling of old stories

Well, for me, it’s not easy or hard, it’s something that, for some bizarre reason, I’m drawn to. One thing that I always find gets my juices flowing is finding the honest essence of things that are thought of as clichés. Things that are dismissed because evberyone knows so well, and thinking, “you known what, there’s a reason why these things have stuck around for so many years.” Going back to the original source material and seeing what about this is genuinely, honestly meaningful to me. Finding that and then trying to hop over this layer of lacquer that’s been put on this [genre] because everyone’s so familiar with it and make it vibrant today. There’s something about that, at least at the moment, that gets me creatively excited.

ISO: Brick? What came first?
The concept of it. It all started with getting obsessed with Daschel Hammit’s novels, wanting to do a hard-boiled detective story. It’s exactly what I just described, reading those books and feeling something really powerful coming from them. Feeling this rich, dark world this guy created and wanting to vibrantly take a stab at that. The idea to set it in high school was a way to try and hop over all the visual language of film noir that we’re all so familiar with. Some of my favorite movies are film noirs, like “the big sleep,” “the malteese falcoln” and “the long goodbye.” At the same time, today, the instant you see those images, those shadowy alleyways of men in hats, it’s vbery easy to turn part of your brain off instantly. You know where they come from. You know can place them, you file them instantly. I’m always slightly nervous of telling people the concept of “Brick” that they’re going to think that the twist of setting it in high school was some meta, post-modern deconstruction thing. In reality, it’s a set of different visual cues to take a very honest, straight forward approach to telling a detective yarn.


ISO: Hard boiled characters first? Tug? Brain?
The whole world was kind of conceived as a whole. Each of the characters in it have equivalents in the Hammit,in the original source material. The muscle, “Tugger;” “The Brain” is like an oppritive that the detective always has behind the scenes helping him out. At the same time, one of the really essential things for me about making “Brick,” was that no body making it felt like they were playing just a type. No one thought, “okay, I’m playing the Femme Fatale,” or “I’m playing the loner detective.” I wanted them to be coming at the script and the world in the script is a fresh, new thing. And to find something genuine and honest in each of those characters that they can bring to the screen as opposed to just being aware of, “okay, how am I going to do this version of the Femme Fatale after all these other versions of it.” That was very important to me.

ISO: Cast receptive to hard boiled?
Oh, very. I think the fact that they were a young cast probably helped in a way because they weren’t as familiar with the entrenched history of the genre. Maybe they were a little more free and open to embracing it on their own terms, finding something unique to them.

ISO: Story in NYC?
[Laughs] I want to do something in New York just because I want to be here and spend more time here.

ISO: Working on now?
Con man movie. It’s one of my favorite genres. It’s based on wanting to make a character-based “con man” movie,. A con man movie that’s really, one thing that I think the best con man movies do and I think is a pitfall of the genre, is that it’s very easy for the mechanics of the con to overwhelm the characters. The best of them, like “The Sting” for instance, it’s the central relationship that pulls you through the whole thing. The con just kind of goes along with that, and that’s what I’m trying to with this movie.


ISO: For the film kids, thoughts on Michael bay?
I love Michael Bay. I want to have his love child [laughs]. I do kind of wonder what kind of car he drives. I’ve never posted on his forums, I’m sure he has [laughs] Turn your thing off and I’ll tell you what I think.


-for the record, i won't write what he said.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Deep Throat said...

I have a good source who says that you still love the Edge Bar.

6:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this interview was conducted a long time ago, right after the edge raised its prices.
i have since come to terms with the 50 cent increase.
-iso

7:44 PM  

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