Five years after his debut feature Brick added a fresh spin to the high school movie, writer-director Rian Johnson returns with his follow up, The Brothers Bloom. We grabbed the chance to spend 20 minutes with him on a surprisingly sunny London afternoon to talk Tom Cruise, The Terminator and how long it took for Brick to get made.
And for anyone who doesn’t want to spoil the ending of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, read carefully …
Do you come to London much?
Not a ton, no. Last time I was here was the London Film Festival a year a half ago, the first showing we did of the film here. It’s been a while. It just took a while to find the right people to put it out, I guess..
I was going to ask how it started. Brick was in 2005. Did you start writing this straight after that, or has it been going longer than that?
Yeah, I kinda had the idea for this before Brick, but I didn’t start writing it until after we went to Sundance with Brick. And that was January 2005, so I basically spent the rest of the year writing the script.
It just started with the notion of a con man movie, and what really kicked it into gear was the challenge of doing a character-based con man movie, where it’s not so much about a big plot twist at the end so much as getting the audience to actually care about the characters and then doing an emotional payoff at the end. That seemed like the most unexpected thing to do in a con man movie, to actually end it on a beat of sincerity as opposed to, you know, a cynical one-character-screwing-over-another one.
Because we’ve seen some con movies where it’s been about the trick and nothing else. Like Confidence, which actually had Rachel Weisz in as well. And the Ocean’s films. But you’re taking a con movie and adding to it. There’s quite a fantastical visual style to it.
I hope so. It just seemed like a really interesting challenge to try and do a con man movie that wore its heart on its sleeve. It seemed, for some reason, a scary and unexpected thing to try. It’s not something you see that often.
Paper Moon might be the other example of a film that I’ve seen that really does it. It’s really about a father and daughter relationship, and though it has con elements to it, it’s really about their relationship developing. That was kind of a touchstone, I guess.
And I’ve heard you mention Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
Which is an underrated little film …
It’s great, it’s terrific. And it’s a great con man movie. It’s a really funny comedy, but it’s also, I think, up there in terms of con man movies. And that’s got a similar kind of dynamic of the two guys and the girl, and to a certain extent I think you’re slightly expecting the payoff you got with that movie. Not to spoil Dirty Rotten Scoundrels for anyone, but where one character ends up screwing the other two out of money unexpectedly. And explicitly not doing that at the end of this was an interesting way to go.
And it’s quite a different film from Brick, but there’s still a through-line, with the opening of precocious kids…
That’s interesting, yeah.
You seem to have a penchant for having kids speak a vocabulary that doesn’t belong to them, but still seems quite fitting in the world you’re creating.
Well, that opening sequence, for me narratively, the function it served beyond just setting up the characters was to start in the most constructed sort of storytelling possible. And they don’t feel like real kids at all. It feels like words coming out of their mouths that have been written by an adult.
And the whole movie goes from starting with that little sequence, which is very much encased in storytelling, to the story falling apart completely by the end of it. So, for me, narratively that’s where that came from.
Although one thing that I thought of recently is when I was growing up, I have a really big family that I’m really close to. I’m the oldest of, like, 30 cousins and we’re all really close and we take our vacations together. And on every family vacation we would make a movie, that’s how we’d pass the time. And so, basically, I got all my younger cousins to star in these movies that we would make. And, of course, we wouldn’t make kids movies, we would make Indiana Jones, or a Robin Hood movie, or a spy movie. Except it was all kids playing the parts of these people [laughs], so maybe that’s the origins of it, just continuing the family movies.
You talk about the narrative, but there’s also a really strong visual element in there and these kind of visual puns that you’re capturing on camera. Do you visualise that when you’re writing, or is that something that develops when you’re on set?
No, no, no. I storyboard everything, so after I’ve written the script I’ll go through, I’ll take a couple of months, and it really is like visualising writing the movie. I mean, I can’t draw. At all. I’m a horrible artist but I’ll just make little chicken scratch drawings that are just enough information to remind me of what I’m thinking about shot-wise, and that’s a really important step for me.
Because I know there are really talented directors who can show up on set without any idea and then set up their shots and get everything. For me, it’s incredibly important to have a span of time where there’s not the pressure of 40 people standing around you, where you can just think out and very specifically visually plan out the film. So, that’s where shots like that end up coming together and coming from.
And the nice thing is this film allowed those very referential and theatrical visual touches to exist. Because it very much fit in thematically with the film, and it very much fit in to this idea that this whole thing is a very constructed story that Stephen is making and Bloom feels very trapped in. So, having every frame feel very deliberate, having every composition have almost hidden visual jokes in them, it’s fun, but also it wouldn’t feel right if it didn’t serve the bigger picture of what the movie was about.
And it’s quite a bigger film than Brick in terms of the locations you’re spanning. Was that daunting?
It was. It was dauntingly abstract before we got into making it, just the thought of it, and the numbers on paper of how much bigger the budget was than Brick. Once you actually get into it, when you’re actually dealing with the things that matter and are going to affect what’s on the screen, you’re really back to basics of telling a story with a script, a few actors and a camera.
And everything else kind of disappears. Even the fact that the actor you’re shooting happens to have been on a ton of magazines and won an Academy Award, even that goes away. And it really just boils down to, ‘Is this working, am I feeling something watching this?’. And if not, why not, and how do we fix it?
And so, the actual work has nothing to do with the scale of what’s around you, I think. And that was a really pleasant revelation, that was a really pleasant thing to figure out along the way. So, in many ways it felt very similar to making Brick, just like Brick felt in many ways similar to making movies with friends growing up.
But the financing for Bloom came relatively easy, is that right? And there were rumours of Tom Cruise circling at the time?
I had a bunch of meetings with a bunch of different people. Because you’re trying to get the film going, you’re seeing who’s interested. And I had, like, one meeting with Cruise where he gave actually some really intelligent notes on the script. I don’t think it was ever realistic that he was going to do it, but he liked the script, and so we met and it ended up being fun.
But in that part of the process it really is just meeting with anybody. You don’t know how the whole thing is going to settle and so you have all these possibilities open to you. It really is just exploring all the different options, I guess. But it was very different than Brick.
With Brick it was just a matter of trying to get to anyone who would read it and trying to figure out how we were going to scrape it together. With this, it was a bit more of a whirlwind type of deal, and much easier in many ways.
With Brick then, how hard was it to sell what was essentially a high school film with children who spoke like they’d stepped out of a hard boiled detective story?
I basically spent my twenties trying to get it made. I wrote the script right out of college, so I was like 23 when I wrote the script. And we finished, we wrapped production the day before my thirtieth birthday, so that movie literally defined my twenties trying to get it made.
And yeah, as weird as the movie is on screen, imagine giving it to somebody just in script form and asking them for money. [laughs] And that’s why we ended up making it for so little. We kind of just got together what we could from friends and families and made it for a very, very small amount. And that’s how it ended up coming together.
It got such a reception, critically and commercially. Did things change much after that?
Oh, yeah, hugely.
You look at someone like Marc Webb, recently going from (500) Days Of Summer to Spider-Man. Did those kind of opportunities open up?
Yeah, yeah. There were definitely some offers that came in like that, it was really flattering and really cool.
I had this idea for Bloom, and now coming out of Bloom I have this idea for this next movie. t’s not even so much as a conscious choice of, ‘I’m not going to do that I’m going to do my own stuff’. It’s just that I always seem to have something of my own boiling, which is always the most interesting thing for me.
And so, yeah, some stuff came in after Brick, but I was just totally focused on Bloom at that point and wanted to get that made.
But you didn’t have actors in mind when you were writing it?
No, not really. Because the characters were older, I kind of knew I wasn’t going to be able to work with a lot of the friends I’d made, the actors, on Brick. I knew I was going to be casting from a different group of actors. And because of that, I kind of knew if I wrote with someone specific in mind the chances of actually getting that person were actually pretty remote.
Not necessarily because they would be out of reach, but just because there’s a lot of different factors that go into locking someone down for a role: whether they respond to the script, there’s whether you can financially work a deal, there’s their schedule, there’s making sure the financiers approve them so the movie can get made. There’s all these different factors that go into it, on top of the most important factor which is making sure they’re right for the part. [laughs]
So, I knew when I was writing it that it was probably safer to come out with the characters and then be surprised and open-minded when it came to choosing actors for it.
And one of the surprises is Rachel Weisz. After The Constant Gardener, people may not have thought it would be for her, because it is a very quirky role. But she really pulls it off. She’s this great mix of over-the-top circus performer and touching romance with Adrien Brody.
Well, she was coming out of The Constant Gardener and I think she was looking to do a comedy and I was specifically looking for somebody who would surprise me and who would bring something to it that I wouldn’t necessarily control or imagine myself. And it’s a real testament to her skills as an actor that she pulled that part off. It’s a really tricky part.
You hit it on head. That character is so big and the fact there are so many eccentricities built into that character, to make it believable and make it feel like a living, breathing person on the screen takes a lot of work. And Rachel was just so diligent. I mean the irony is the leg work that she had to do to make this light character really work on the screen probably took a lot more energy than doing a dark, dramatic part. She has to genuinely live every moment and genuinely be in each of these moments, and each of these moments is huge.
And the amount of energy she has to spend, I think it’s a bit like the experiments they do where they have professional footballers follow toddlers around for a day and imitate physically what toddlers do. And they couldn’t do it. They were exhausted halfway through the day. [laughs]
Having that child-like wonder and energy just takes a lot out of an adult. She really worked her butt off to make it work, you know. It’s great.
And you’ve got Ricky Jay in there as well. Are you a fan of David Mamet’s?
Yeah, and of Ricky’s specifically for a long, long time. I do just, in a very amateur, awful way, card tricks. I started doing that when I saw Ricky’s 52 Assistants show back in my twenties, I guess. And I’ve just been a huge, massive fan of Ricky’s for a while.
And then a friend of mine from college was Ricky’s assistant for many years, and so kind of through that and after Brick I got to know Ricky a little bit and then asked him if he would do this. I can’t imagine anything better than getting to work with Ricky Jay on a con man movie.
You mentioned your next film earlier, and that sounds another interesting direction from the early reports. It’s a sci-fi film, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis …
Well, the casting thing they leaked out. We haven’t made any official casting announcements for it yet. But yeah, I’m really excited about it. It’s definitely very different. It’s kind of the polar opposite of Bloom in many ways, it’s very dark and violent. It’s a sci-fi movie, it’s basically a time travel movie. It’s similar to the first Terminator film in that it uses time travel to set up a dramatic situation that then plays itself out.
Time travel isn’t an active element of the plot, so in that way it’s a little contained and hopefully a little tamer than your typical time travel movie. But I’m really excited about it. It takes some chances and takes some risks that are a little scary to me and that’s always kind of exciting. [laughs]
So, is that influenced by 80s sci-fi if you’re referencing The Terminator?
Not directly influenced by any specific type of thing. I came up with a very basic concept for the thing and then just expanded it out based on themes and ideas …I’m giving you the most general stuff in the world here, [laughs] I apologise. It’s not specifically modelled on any specific type of sci-fi movie. It is, I hope, very much its own thing, kind of unique and hopefully something you haven’t quite seen before. We’ll see.
Alan Parker once said that he felt it was mission as a filmmaker to make at least one film in every genre. Do you have that similar feeling, of relishing the challenge of trying different things?
Not consciously. And its weird, because that seems to be how it’s going at this point. [laughs] But it’s not, I don’t have any kind of constant map. And that, for me, is the organic effect from the beginning of the writing to the finish of this part of the process, and it ends up being, what, four years that I spend on any given film. And at the end of four years of having your head inside one world it just feels really good to do something totally different.
It really is just a matter of wanting to keep things exciting for yourself, I guess. It’s hard to conceive of going from working all this time on Bloom to going into another comedy con man movie, for example. It feels much better to swing over to dark, violent sci-fi, you know.
In terms of genre, I don’t know. I love genre, I love the fact that it gives you, both you and the audience, kind of like a set chessboard to work on. And then even when you deviate from it, you and the audience both know that you’re deviating from it and you both know the ways that’s interesting.
There’s something very appealing about that, and it’s almost sets out rules of the game for you that make it much more interesting when you break those rules.
Mr Rian Johnson, thank you very much.
The Brothers Bloom opens in UK cinemas on June 4th.