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Getting to Know... Rian Johnson

May 6, 2009  |  8:00am
Getting to Know... Rian Johnson
Emergent director Rian Johnson's highly regarded 2005 debut feature, the satisfyingly odd Brick, applied the tropes of a 1930s detective novel to messy high-school politics. His second film, The Brothers Bloom, stars Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo as a pair of sibling con men about to pull one last con on a rich heiress played by Rachel Weisz. On paper, the new film is larger by almost every measure than its predecessor: its excellent cast includes a couple of Academy Award winners and another nominee, it was shot in four different countries, and it had a budget that, while modest by Hollywood standards, offered Johnson a significantly larger tool chest than he had for his debut. But Brick and Bloom share at least one important feature: their creator's deep love of language, which drew him to filmmaking to begin with. Paste caught up with Johnson in Chicago to chat about his literary approach to film and about his experience in the sandbox of big(ger)-budget movie-making.

Paste: One of my favorite things about The Brothers Bloom is that it really feels like a writer's movie. They're con-men, but Stephen, Mark Ruffalo’s character, is almost creating a novel, you know.
Rian Johnson: Yeah. Yeah, it's about storytelling. I mean, for me that was kind of the thing that got me going, because I had thought a lot about doing a con man movie, but the way I was able to find a way into it myself—so that it was personal and meant something to me—was this whole idea of romanticizing the con man and really looking at him as a storyteller and using that to explore how we all use storytelling in our lives. And not just writers or directors or actors or people who do it professionally, but everybody. Just day to day. Living a good life is taking in the world around you and telling it back to yourself as a good story, you know?

Paste: Yeah, I think it's true. In the film we sometimes ask ourselves, “Well, is this created or not?” At one point Adrien Brody’s character mentions that maybe Penelope [Rachel Weisz] is a creation of his brother—not the girl of his dreams, but an actress. But in some ways it doesn't really matter, because everything is sort of filtered through this creation process.
Johnson: That's kind of, yeah, the notion of the unwritten life being a fallacy, that everybody is writing their own life, it's just writing a good one. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Paste: Is writing a screenplay a little bit like being a con man?
Johnson: Oh yeah. Well, not as much as getting a movie financed is like being a con man. [Laughs] I mean, being a con man is theatrics, it's misdirection, it's dazzling with one hand while you're slipping the wallet out of their back pocket with the other, and very much so in terms of just narrative storytelling. I mean, that’s what you're doing, trying to keep the audience off-guard for the reversals, but trying to plant the information so it feels like a good payoff. But, yeah, you could go on and on about the various things that are analogous to being a con man, I guess [laughing], in any career that you choose... And for me that was part of the appeal of it, just that in some ways there is kind of a universal application. But you have to remove it from the criminal element. [Laughs] You have to romanticize it and take it to this place where it is more about telling somebody a story, rather than robbing them.

Paste: Which your movie does. We never care too much that they're ripping someone off.
Johnson: Yeah, she [Penelope] doesn't really care. I mean, I love con man movies that explore that darker side, like Mamet's films, and there are so many films that have done that well, using it as a kind of window into the larceny in people's souls, you know, but this was just something different.

Paste: Penelope does this amazing card trick, casually, while she's having a conversation, and it's not even commented on in the film. Is there a little movie magic going on there or was she really doing that?
Johnson: No, that's straight up. That's her. Yeah, yeah, it was, I think, take eleven when we finally got everything [laughing], between the camera movement and her doing the trick and everything. But no, that's completely untouched. That's her doing it. And she's doing the monologue while she's doing the trick, which is what amazes me.

Paste: Is this something [Weisz] knew from her days as a subway grifter? Or something that she had to learn—
Johnson: [Laughs] No, she didn't bring that to the table. No, she worked her ass off. I mean, between that and all the stuff with the hobbies, too, actually, because the hobby montage is only like ten seconds of screen time, but it feels like it took 50% of the work in pre-production. Because she actually, she learned—I mean, bless her heart, she was so into it—each of those instruments that she plays for like half a second, she learned a phrase of music on each of those, like, accurately. Like, she studied the fingerings. And she studied jugglers to see how they move their hands, and she, you know—

Paste: But surely not with chain saws and unicycles.
Johnson: No, no, n,o no, although she was up on that unicycle. At some point, you know, we're in the middle of Romania up on wires on this twenty foot tall unicycle, and I'm just like, "What are we doing for a living? We get paid for this. This is crazy."

Paste: I always assume that filmmakers are inspired by other films, but are you also inspired by novels at all?
Johnson: Oh yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, my first film, Brick, really entirely came from Dashiell Hammet's novels. I mean, obviously the correlation most people drew was to film noir, but actually the core inspiration for it was the books. And with Bloom, I had kind of been a fan of con man movies my whole life, but it was less about drawing from a specific source. I read The Big Con by David Maurer which is the book that The Sting was based on. It's not a novel, it's actually an amazing piece of, I guess it's journalism. So that was something I re-read. It wasn't drawn from a specific source, but yeah, as a screenwriter I think you steal from anything that works. You know, anything. Back of a cereal box, take it, grab it.

Paste: Your movies just seem to have a real love of language, Brick especially, but also here.
Johnson: Oh, that's one thing I really love playing with, is words. But I would say, one of the things I had the most fun with was Bang Bang's character [the brothers’ assistant who speaks only a handful of words in the entire movie], because I think there is a temptation with a writer to say everything, to want to put everything into words, you know, especially when you're working at the writing stage. It was a deliberate exercise on my part to have a character who has no words and to have to think about it. It kind of forces you to think about the visual element of the scene while you're writing it, it forces your brain into that other part of it, you know, and that was something that was just exciting for me as a challenge. And luckily we found Rinko [Kikuchi, who plays Bang Bang] and it was exciting for her too, and she kind of ran with it.

Paste: The budget for this film was much larger than you’ve worked with before. Does that give you more room? Does it change anything fundamental about how you're working?
Johnson: Well, I expected it to, but it was kind of a pleasant surprise that it didn't, really. It's weird. You're still pressed for time. This had a much bigger budget than Brick, but by Hollywood standards it was a relatively small, small-medium-ish budget, you know, and for the scale of this film in many ways it might have been more of a stretch, actually, to do this movie for this budget than it was to do Brick for that budget. But this is what was cool for me. I had insecurities coming into it because we shot [Brick] for just under $500,000, and I thought, “God, is it going to be a whole different game, with all this new stuff and with these actors who have, you know, won Academy Awards?” And the nice thing was that it wasn't. The nice thing was once you start working it really is the same. You know, you're telling a story with—you're pulling a con [laughs], you know, with these people and a camera.

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