Rian Johnson

Originality is an increasingly rare commodity in filmmaking these days. Studios are ever more reluctant to gamble on new talent and, as a result, untried and untested directors seldom get the necessary freedom to take the creative risks that spawn exciting and original cinema. Rian Johnson, however, is a notable exception. In 2005, he took critics and audiences by surprise with his breakthrough hit, Brick, a high school drama told as film noir starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. A fresh new voice had emerged in filmmaking, and this was confirmed when Johnson won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the Sundance Film Festival. Now he’s back with The Brothers Bloom, a joyously inventive con man film with a big budget, bigger stars and a rather more mainstream sensibility. It tells the story of the titular brothers, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody), who embark on one last con, intending to trick Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a lonely millionaire, out of her riches. Needless to say, all does not go according to plan. While this may not seem a particularly original concept, Johnson has somehow resisted the stranglehold of studios and has retained the urgent creativity of his debut feature. He still seems surprised at his luck: ‘We were entirely unrestricted; it was really nice and kind of miraculous. We had just a private, independent financer who really trusted us and left us alone. I’ve been really privileged to have two filmmaking experiences where I haven’t had a lot of overbearing oversight. So touch wood. I hope I can carry that on a lot longer, because it’s pretty nice.’

It’s all the more surprising given that Bloom stars two Oscar winners, Rachel Weisz and Adrien Brody – I remind him of the danger of having such big name actors in his film and the horror stories that have emerged of the stars taking over the production. Rumour has it even Stanley Kubrick’s vision for Eyes Wide Shut suffered under the demands of Tom Cruise. ‘Yeah, that’s just another thing where I feel like I’ve got very very very lucky. With Bloom, we just had a group of people who were not only really talented, but also just really cool. It felt very similar to when I was making movies as a kid. It felt like just a group of people all focused on the right things and having a good time and trying to tell a story.’ Indeed, it’s interesting to note that the script had creative input from the very same Tom Cruise, who is even acknowledged in the credits. It doesn’t get any bigger for a film than having Cruise, but Johnson is quick to dismiss it, laughing, ‘Oh well, I met with him at one point… But I never had him.’

This is typical of his lack of interest in Hollywood and its celebrities; for Johnson, the size of the budget and the wattage of the stars matter little when compared to the story he wants to tell. The budgets of Brick and The Brothers Bloom may differ quite considerably – $450,000 and $20 million respectively – but he regards them as, to a certain extent, much of a muchness: ‘Brick was definitely more insular than The Brothers Bloom by its very nature, because we had a lot less time to shoot it, we had a lot less resources, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing… But with Bloom it was just another set of challenges – I was working with a whole new group of insanely talented people on this much bigger scale. But at its heart, it also felt very similar to Brick in terms of the experience, because at the end of the day it’s just a group of folks trying to tell a story with a camera and a couple of actors. And so no matter what the scale of the endeavour, it’s really doing the same thing with the same basic tools.’

It is perhaps surprising that his films are so original, particularly given that he embraces genres so willingly and overtly. I ask if he feels restricted by genre, but instead he is positively excited by the idea: ‘Yes, it’s restrictive, but that, I think, is really helpful. That’s actually why I love genre: it gives you a chessboard to play on, and it gives the audience certain expectations, so it’s almost like a contract between yourself and the audience. And that’s interesting to try and fulfil that contract in a unique way. It’s also interesting when you decide at certain points to break the contract, because you and the audience both know that you’re doing it… I feel like in some ways having the restrictions of a genre means you can take bigger risks. It definitely is restrictive, but that’s part of what’s fun about it.’ It’s true that much of the uniqueness of both Brick and The Brothers Bloom is the ways in which Johnson upsets our expectations. In general, modern audiences are clued up to the traditions and conventions of a certain genre, and, as a result, Johnson relishes the opportunity to surprise the viewer. The Brothers Bloom might be a con man movie, but it’s anything but predictable: ‘Audiences are so savvy about con man films these days, and so that ultimately led to deciding that the real thrust of the film is not a big plot twist that’s going to fool the audience, but it’s more trying to work towards an emotional payoff with the characters. That was really interesting for me, trying to take this genre of film where, in the con man film, you’re just waiting for the characters to just screw each other over, and then making it more about what these characters end up going through and where they end up. Hopefully it gets the audience to a place where they actually care about these folks.’

To a certain extent – and this might count as a spoiler – the biggest twist of the film is just how emotional and heartfelt it is. Johnson freely admits that this was his plan all along: ‘It seemed weirdly subversive to me to do a con man movie that actually ended on a sincere and emotional note.’ While the cool glamour of Ocean’s Eleven is present and correct (albeit in an unconventional form), Bloom has characters far more memorable and real than the handsomely bland inhabitants of Steven Soderbergh’s Las Vegas heist. For Johnson, con films don’t necessarily have to be soulless. Indeed, much of this emotional weight comes from Rachel Weisz’s expertly judged performance as Penelope, the naïve wealthy orphan who is the intended target of the brothers’ con. Indeed, so central is this character to the film that Johnson had originally intended to have it titled Penelope – unfortunately a Christina Ricci ‘comedy’ got there first.

Still, regardless of the title change, I suggest that the film’s success is due in part to Weisz’s performance, perfectly balancing comedy and pathos, and Johnson agrees. ‘Yeah, oh God, I felt so lucky to get her. And that’s a really tricky character, because there’s so much eccentricity in that character that it really could have so easily been a lifeless pile of quirks, and it takes a lot of work to breathe life into character that outrageous and that big. And Rachel’s just such a talent that she worked her butt off for the whole film to make sure that every moment just felt real and actually lived in, no matter how outrageous it was. I really think the whole movie lives or dies on her performance, and she really pulled it off.’ One of her most impressive scenes arrives fairly early on, wherein she recounts a moving tale of her lonely childhood whilst performing a baffling and complex card trick, and Johnson is quick to point out its authenticity: ‘There are no camera tricks there, she actually learnt that trick and we shot that in just one take with her doing it. And the fact that she’s able to do this fairly complicated sleight of hand trick and also give this monologue during it just amazed me. It was one of those moments on set where everyone applauds at the end. She’s pretty incredible.’

In many ways, The Brothers Bloom is a far more accessible and – to be quite honest – enjoyable film than Brick. I was surprised to find that Johnson agrees wholeheartedly with this assessment: ‘It seems to me that it’s just on a broader scale, and it doesn’t have the weird language that Brick had, so maybe it appeals to a broader base of people. I think all you can do with anything you can make is make something you really care about and put it out there. And I’m optimistic in that I really believe that the people who are going to love it will find it eventually. It’s kind of all you can hope for.’ This is certainly the case with Bloom – when it opened this time last year in the USA (initially in just four cinemas), it recouped less than a fifth of its budget. As such a financial flop, it’s not only gratifying but surprising that it’s being released in the UK at all, and Johnson seems aware of his unusual luck: ‘I’m really happy that it’s getting released here and that people are going to get a chance to see it.’

It’s frustratingly common for talented filmmakers not to have their films seen by enough people, and it often puts an abrupt end to what would have been a dazzling career. Orson Welles never again gained the freedom from studio interference that he had on Citizen Kane, despite being convinced that he could make a better film if he was given the money and then left alone by the studio. Similarly, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford made back only half its budget, despite its high quality, and as a result, the director hasn’t been able to get a film off the ground since. Nonetheless, Johnson remains optimistic about the potential of Dominik’s film to outlive a disappointing box office taking: ‘I loved that movie, it was really beautiful, but I just feel like it did not get its due at all. I just hope it’ll continue to have a life, because it’s such a great film.’ Is it frustrating as a filmmaker to have no control over whether people see your work? ‘Yeah, it’s frustrating, but if you allow yourself to kind of think on that and get frustrated, you’ll do nothing but bang your head against a wall. And I think the great thing about DVDs and now digital distribution is the fact that movies stick around and they are out there. I really do feel, like I said before, that if you make something that’s unique and that’s good, I think that, like water running down a hill, it’s going to find its way eventually to the right people. And I think if you make something good, sooner or later it’ll find its audience and it’ll get recognised, whether it’s now or ten years from now. I just have to believe if you make something that’s truly unique and good, eventually people will find it.’

His optimism is impressive, as is the lack of bitterness that he expresses towards his paymasters and their marketing teams. I remind him that Shia LaBeouf openly criticised Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Transformers 2 respectively at Cannes last month, but he has conflicted feelings about such honesty. ‘It seems like interviews these days tend to be so pasteurised, so part of me was cheering a little bit. But the other part of me was cringing a little bit. I don’t know.’ I ask him if there’s anyone he’d like to take the opportunity to slag off, but he turns it down, laughing, ‘No, I have no slagging to do. I’m not the slagging type.’ Perhaps it’s because he’s been so damn lucky. From writing to directing, he remains the key creative force behind his films, and this creativity has rarely suffered from interference. For the most part, he seems to just be having fun: ‘It’s just like making movies when I was a kid… When we did that it was just telling a story, so in many ways it’s nice to try and maintain that perspective on it.’ Not that his films don’t have a certain amount of complexity; aside from the twists and turns of the plot in The Brothers Bloom, he throws in sly literary and cultural references, from Herman Melville to James Joyce. He grins and admits, ‘filmmakers love to get pretentious and have their symbols hidden throughout the film, so there’s a bunch of that tossed into Bloom. Not like that really even matters for anyone but me, but it’s fun for me to bury hidden meanings in the names and whatnot. It just keeps it interesting.’

Despite the financial failure of The Brothers Bloom, the positive reaction of the critics has clearly had an effect, and Johnson is now preparing his next film, Looper. When I mention it, he’s eager to talk about it. ‘I’m really excited about this film. It looks like we’re putting it together and hopefully we’ll be shooting later this year. Tonally it’s very different from The Brothers Bloom – it’s quite dark and violent, actually. It’s a time traveller movie, but it uses time travel kind of in the way that the first Terminator film used it: time travel sets up a dramatic situation and then gets out of the way. Time travel doesn’t make sense, so it’s all about giving it the appearance of making sense. Tricking an audience into not thinking about it too much basically.’ His enthusiasm is rather infectious, as is his unabashed optimism that his films will find an appreciative, intelligent audience. His supremely skilful ability to surprise and delight is a joy, as is his vast knowledge and love of movies; one can only hope that his audience will find him.

[Originally published by Cherwell online on 20/06/2010: http://www.cherwell.org/content/10559]

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