The Motion/Captured Interview: Rian Johnson, director of ‘The Brothers Bloom’

05.18.09 8 years ago

AP Photo/Peter Kramer

I quite liked Rian Johnson’s “Brick” when it was released, and when I saw an early edit of “The Brothers Bloom,”, I found it to be a step forward for this very promising writer/director, enough so that it found a spot on my runners-up list for 2008.  I must admit that I’m puzzled by the cold reception many critics gave it at Toronto last year, because this is a film that just plain charms.

Rian actually came to Butt-Numb-A-Thon this year as a civilian, just to watch movies and hang out, and the more I’ve talked to him, the more I like him as a film geek.  There was a press day recently where several people drove to talk to him at the offices of his PR firm, but I was unable to make it into Hollywood that afternoon.  Instead, I called him, and we talked for a half-hour that flew by like five minutes.  Check it out.  I particularly the love the way the transcript starts and stop mid-stream.

MOTION/CAPTURED:  Hey, what’s up, señor?

RIAN JOHNSON:  … cheeseburgers, yes, yes.  Sorry.  I was doing my mixing.  How’re you doing, man?

[more after the jump]

M/C:  Good.  How are you?

RJ:  Oh, I’m excellent, excellent.  Where are you at these days?

M/C:  Right now?  (laughs)  I’m at home in Northridge with one of the kids sleeping and…

RJ:  Oh, nice, seriously.  Very cool.  Yeah, man, how have you been?

M/C:  Excellent man. I just got the Ashby biography. Made me think of you.  Have you picked it up yet?

RJ:  No.  No.  What’s it called?  It’s just called…

M/C:  It’s called “Being Hal Ashby”.

RJ:  “Being Hal Ashby”.

M/C:  A guy named Nick Dawson wrote it. He’s been working on it forever.  Talked to everybody and of course because it’s Ashby everybody talked to him.  Like Beatty did a huge sit and Julie Christy and, you know, people that never do interviews sat down and said, “Absolutely.  It’s Hal Ashby.  I’ll talk about him.”

RJ:  I really want to pick that up because that dude had a really fascinating… fascinating…

M/C:  And they’ve already… like, just the first three or four chapters, they’re just exploding some of the studio myths about his background and about where…

RJ:  Really?

M/C:  Yeah, like there’s a lot of publicity stuff that they made up about him that became accepted fact.

RJ:  No shit.

M/C:  Yeah.  Nonsense.  I bring it up only because there’s a lot of film makers who are 2, maybe 3 films into their careers right now, who I think have moved past the point where they do homage, moved past the point where they are specifically pointing to a single reference and are simply making films that… the way I put it is they speak the language of film-geek.  And I would absolutely say that “The Brothers Bloom” and “Brick” are both examples of that.

RJ:  Um, right, right.

M/C:  You’re a guy who… I mean, I’ve seen you at film events.  I know you go see movies just because you love movies.

RJ:  Right.

M/C:  But it seems like so many influences are sort of colliding in you that you don’t set out to pay homage to any one thing.  It all just kind of comes out in the way you approach film.  Can you talk about sort of how you absorbed movies as a kid?

RJ:  Yeah.  I mean, that makes sense to me.  That’s not the way that… you know, I think, like, a lot of all of us in our generation, I mean, we’re all probably steeped in the same culture of movies.  There’s kind of an arc where you start with, obviously, “Raiders” and “Star Wars,” and that hooks you in and then you get into film school years and start digging into Scorsese and Kurosawa, and it seems like there’s a kind of shared film grammar that we all kind of have.  And for me, I like how you put it… not specifically doing homages because I’d never ever think of the films I create in the term of a homage.  I can’t imagine spending however many years of my life creating something if the purpose of creating it was to say, “Hey, have you seen this film?”  For me, it’s inconceivable that such a long involved and personal process could start with anything but a very personal motivation for telling a story that means quite a lot to me.  So for me, it’s entirely about — and the focus of the entire thing — is entirely being honest to that.  Being true to the story I’m trying to get across.  Being true to these emotional truths I’m trying to get a better handle on myself through telling them in these narratives.  And I think that is actually really a good way of putting what happens, because I’m communicating these things in a language of film.  You know, I just end up… the things that have influenced me and then built up my idea of what films are.  I think the language — because we kind of all have a similar language — it’s easy to look at a paragraph and then pick out a certain word from that and say, “Oh, that word came from here,” you know?  Whereas for me, it’s much more about what the paragraph as a whole says and what the meaning of the book as a whole is… to completely belabor the analogy, I guess.

M/C:  It’s like…. I’ve heard people talk about their reactions to, say, Wes Anderson’s work and the fact that they… their very strong reactions to his aesthetic, and people either reject it or they embrace it, and I think it’s because Wes has made a choice about this is how he sees things.  This is how he views the world, and I think Quentin’s movies… one of the reasons I look forward to them is I know that Quentin has a particular voice, and he’s going to… it doesn’t matter what anybody else is doing.  It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks is hot at the moment.  It doesn’t matter what’s demographically acceptable.  I know that when Quentin makes a movie, it comes from a place of “this is what is on his mind right now.”

RJ:  Right, right.

M/C:  When you are then communicating that idea — that driving aesthetic — especially in a film as stylized as “Bloom” — to a cast, what’s the beginning of that?  How do you communicate to them what that final sort of synthesis of everything is supposed to be to you? Because I mean you’ve got to get them on-board for that particular sensibility.

RJ:  Well, I mean, honestly, that… hopefully 99% of that happens through the script, you know?  And so it all comes back to just the very first stage of creating this thing, and it comes back to the fundamentals of where it came from and the place it came from and hopefully that’s clear as day when you read it on the page.  Yeah, if the actor’s getting involved, and if more than 1% of my sitting in a room and talking to them… if that accounted for more than 1% of the influence of whether they signed onto the movie, I’d probably be in trouble.  I think a large amount of the decision is made from what’s on the page, and then they sit down with me and make sure I’m not wearing a tin foil hat.

M/C:  When they meet you and you are wearing one, are they ever disappointed?

RJ:  No, they can get over it because they figure, “Oh, well, you know, he’s crazy but he’s… you know…”

M/C:  He’s one of those directors.

RJ:  Those directors.  Yeah.  Exactly.

M/C:  Speaking of the script, I’ve got to tell you… it wasn’t until the 3rd time that I watched the prologue when it showed up on Hulu recently that I realized, and I feel like a dummy for having missed it, but the entire opening is told in verse.

RJ:  Yeah.  It’s actually really strictly metered and rhymed.

M/C:  Dude, that’s crazy.

RJ:  Yeah, down to the syllable.

M/C:  Never caught it the first time.

RJ:  That’s great.

M/C:  I caught some of it the second time, but I thought it was just some sort of a sing-songy thing.

RJ:  Oh, that’s great.  No, I like that.  I’ve had people read the script, actually, and not catch how completely it works.  And it was interesting and it was something that was important to me when we were editing that sequence, because you end up taking lines out, you end up abbreviating things, and there’s always the temptation to cheat the meter of the verse and I really made a conscious decision just to stick to it. There was something about it.  But again, it stems from… it all comes back to something that can be seen as like a overly precious decision, but to me it comes directly from wanting to start out in a place of arch storytelling.  That’s what the whole film is about… is Bloom starting out encased in this story and his journey of getting from this little fairy book opening that’s told in verse by a narrator and it has this perfect little story arc to it and it’s kind of encased to the end of it where we have no idea what’s going on with the story really, and we’re in the burned out shell of a theatre and he’s got to kind of make his way without the aid of that and write his own… you know, so it’s beyond just being kind of something that was really fun to do.  It had a really definite place in terms of the impact on the whole for me.

M/C:  Well, what I loved about the opening also is, aside from how mind-boggling that is once you get what you’re doing and you go back and look at it and how, like, Ricky leads into dialogue leads into… it’s pretty amazing.  But if the film as a whole is a con or a bit of a slight of hand, that opening is like a Penn & Teller trick where you’re basically saying, “All right, look.  This is what I’m going to do.  I’m going to hide the cigarette and move it over here and I’m going to flip the thing and you’re going to go ‘Oh my God.’  Okay?  Ready.”  And then they do it and you totally fall for it anyway.

RJ:  Right.  You know what’s funny?  And this is going wildly off-topic maybe, but I actually have just recently been re-watching the 1970’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and that’s actually one of my favorite… I remember watching it when I was younger and it just having the most uncanny creepy effect on me.  I don’t know if you remember, but the beginning of it starts with this hippy actor troupe driving a truck out into the middle of the desert…

M/C:  Oh yeah.

RJ:  … and taking all the props off of it and all the costumes and you see them all getting into character and you see them constructing this thing, and then once they’re in character, even though it’s this goofy theatrical thing…

M/C:  You buy it, like the world clicks in.

RJ:  I remember how much of an impact that… I remember just being kind of, you know, strangely terrified by that.

M/C:  Yeah, it’s a neat conceit by Jewison.

RJ:  Yeah, yeah, yeah exactly.

M/C:  But I mean, you even have Ricky Jay as the narrator, and Ricky is one of those venerable figures of magic and con games and things like that, so there’s something about it.  It really fits into a tradition of that.

RJ:  Yeah, it makes sense having… it makes sense to me, and it wasn’t my original idea to have Ricky narrate it.  Actually I originally wrote the part of The Curator for Ricky to play, but that didn’t work out, and we were lucky enough to get Robbie Coltrane for it, but no Ricky… and when it came time to do the opening, it just made a lot of sense to have Ricky do it, you know?  Just for that reason.

M/C:  I’ve got to talk to you about Rachel.

RJ:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

M/C:  I’ve watched her work when I visited onset while she was… like, “The Fountain,” which was so heavy and so… I mean such a focused piece of work, and then to see her turn around and do something like “Bloom”… it kind of changes the way you view her as an actress.  I think Rachel had gotten to a place where you sort of thought of her as she would do the more serious stuff, the heavy lifting, and you set her free in the movie.

RJ:  Well, she… I had very little to do with it.  She was definitely seeking out something like that.  I think that’s part of the reason I was lucky enough to get her on board for this, was she was looking for something comedic to do.  And for me, it was a godsend because… specifically because the character has so much absurdity to it… for lack of a better word, “quirk” or what have you.  Because the character gets so large in those terms, it became especially essential to have an actor who could ground the piece and play the comedy but at the same time could connect on a human level, and that was the very first conversation that Rachel and I had, and that was the thing that we spent most of the shoot keeping our eye on, was making sure that every decision we made was about keeping this woman very — you know, even though it’s in these grand inflated terms — keeping her very real, you know?

M/C:  I think a lot of the big daffy sort of comedy moments with her, like the hobbies and sort of her enthusiasm for the adventure they’re on, all, to me, reveal vulnerability.

RJ:  Yeah, absolutely.  I hope so.  That’s what’s good and all of that stuff was, I don’t know, every single thing that she does in it was… that was a wonderful thing about working with someone who delves into the role as deeply as Rachel.  I knew that that wasn’t going to get lost.  I knew that was probably going to end up being expressed in what she was doing in ways that I never would have thought of, you know?  And I knew that that would come across at the end of the day, and I think that’s the only way you can get away with having a character juggle chain saws on a unicycle, is if the actor is taking it as seriously as if they were dying of cancer in “The Fountain”.

M/C:  Every single thing that you see her do in the movie, you understand what the loneliness led to and how it all feeds into her embracing all these things.

RJ:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Absolutely.   And it’s something that I… not to make it too specific, but I mean, that’s something that I actually do in my life.  I collect hobbies in that way.  It’s something that I specifically… I will learn stuff from the books and kind of get good enough at it to where I can entertain myself and then… there’s a lot in her character that I know I can really personally relate to in terms of using bizarre diversions.  Using bizarre diversions as ways of dealing with that essential feeling of isolation, I guess.

M/C:  It’s funny, my writing partner just recently realized that he never learned how to solve the Rubic’s cube in the 80’s and decided he was going to learn how to conquer it.

RJ:  I did that.  I did that.  I got a book and actually I figured out how to do it without taking it apart.  You can do it in a few days actually.

M/C:  Yeah.  It’s just hilarious to me that it’s something that nagged at him for that long.

RJ:  Absolutely.  No, absolutely, and there’s a sense of kind of slaying a dragon, a childhood beast, when you actually can do it yourself.  It’s bizarre.

M/C:  He and I worked with Mark Ruffalo way back in the 90’s in a theatre festival when he was still really young, and I remember because his play came after ours in the evening and we’d hang out so we’d watch Mark’s performance every night, because it was different every night, and even then people called him Baby Brando.

RJ:  Right, right, right.

M/C:  And there was this thing that he had that was… he’s just magnetic, and he’s very rough hewn, but at the same time he’s a small guy.  He’s a compact guy, and so there’s something about him where that rough doesn’t come across as threatening.  It’s more… he’s just a guy.

RJ:  Right, right, right, right.

M/C:  I love the chemistry between he and Adrien in the movie.  Now, did you cast one before the other or did you specifically…?

RJ:  I think actually Mark ended up being locked into place before Adrien did, and what’s interesting for me about Mark is that he tends to be cast or be thought of in these… you mentioned Brando… in these kind of darker brooding… not necessarily brooding, but kind of darker roles I think.  And what struck me when I sat down with him and met him is how in real life he’s kind of exactly the opposite of that.  He’s kind of an Italian poppa.  He’s a hug-everybody-in-the-room type of guy, and he’s a family man, and I saw a lot of Steven in him when I sat down and met him.  I don’t want to talk out of turn about him but that’s what I saw.  And so again, it was kind of like Rachel.  I knew from his body of work that he can do the serious stuff, and it was much more interesting for me to put someone who you wouldn’t think of as a big boisterous showman.  To put someone like Mark in a role that you might expect like a George Clooney to be in and to put Mark, who like you said, has vulnerability to him and isn’t a master of the universe, and to see him playing that part… I don’t know… that’s the kind of casting decision that really excites me.  To do something where, you know, you throw an unknown… you kind of hedge your bet a little, and then you throw an unknown into the mix and you see what ends up happening with it.

M/C:  Yeah.  I just really find their chemistry as brothers to be… I’m raising brothers now.  I didn’t have one but I’m raising brothers, and I’m already seeing the dynamic assert itself, and it’s so universal that if we’re going to buy Adrien and Mark as brothers, they have to really buy it.

RJ:  It’s interesting, and I think we’re probably aided in that by being on the location shoot, you know?  And being in, to a certain extent, you become like a traveling carnival.  You become like these traveling gypsies picking up your stakes every night and moving on.  And the fact that you’re isolated with this group of people in Belgrade and in the middle of Romania and on the road with them, everybody kind of fuses together a little more tightly than if they were all in L.A. and going back to their families at the end of the day.  And Mark and Adrien, not that I don’t necessarily think that it’s completely necessary for real life relationships for actors to be there for chemistry… to actually be there between two people in real life or to be there on the screen.  I think they’re great actors.  That’s the majority of what’s on the screen, because they’re great actors, but it was nice that, especially for that brother relationship, that they were able to kind of fuse together in that way.

M/C:  Adrien had just done it as well in “Darjeeling Limited,” and in that one, I felt like he really clicked.  I don’t even know if Adrien has a brother or not, but there’s something he really nails about the give and take in those relationships.

RJ:  Yeah, he really patched into it, and I don’t know to what extent having just been through “Darjeeling” helped him kind of key into that immediately, but he definitely got it immediately.  And it’s interesting also, visually, how Mark and Adrien are completely different as brothers, and I was never really concerned about that because I knew… the brother who’s closest in age to me that I have… my younger brother looks very little like me.

M/C:  Oh, yeah. My two boys look nothing alike.

RJ:  Really?

M/C:  Yeah.

RJ:  That’s funny.

M/C:  No, one’s very much the Latino side of the family and one’s very much the Gringo side.

RJ:  That’s funny, man.  That’s funny.  Yeah, my brother got all the Italian genes, I got all the Swedish genes.

M/C:  That’s funny.  So… Rinko.

RJ:  Yeah?

M/C:  Crazy woman?  She’s awesome on film.

RJ:  Yeah, she is from the Planet Cool.  She is from another planet. She’s like, you know, it really was like… I don’t know.  I feel like the cheese ball cliché director when I say things like this, but it’s really true that everybody was in love with her by the end of the shoot.

M/C:  It just seems like one of those things where at any point in the movie, you could just cut to her and whatever she’s doing, you know it’s going to be gold.

RJ:  Absolutely, yeah, yeah.   Well, Rinko, you know the fact that she was… from the very first meeting I had with her… so completely trusting and on board with creating this non-verbal character.  Because when you look at the script, it doesn’t look like there’s a character there, you know?

M/C:  Yeah.  That’s scary.

RJ:  Obviously, no one writes all the stuff that the character is going to be doing in the background without a 300 page script.  So to a certain extent, Rinko just had to sit down with me, and I kind of assured her that this was going to be as strong a character as any of the other leads.  And the fact that she pulled it off, but she’s… it’s kind of like a similar thing again to the others where I think people mostly know her from her dramatic work in “Babel,” but she started out doing comedies in Japan.  That was kind of what she cut her teeth on, so I think that’s where the comic timing in there comes from.

M/C:  Well, she feels like… and it’s funny, any one of these characters, and I think this is the mark of a really strong writer, is any one of these characters feel like in their own movie, they could be the lead.

RJ:  Right, right, right.

M/C:  And I could easily go watch a movie about just what she does away from them, how she ended up with them.  Any of that would be interesting.

RJ:  There it is.  The Bang-Bang sequel.  That’s going to happen.

M/C:  And that’s great, because it’s never like your audience gets worn out with the basic situation.  When something is very premise-driven or very high concept, I always feel like you get worn out by the end, and just the last 30 minutes you’re like, okay, run to the airport and kiss the girl and, you know, be done.

RJ:  Just, bang, and blow this thing up, and let’s do this, yeah, yeah.

M/C:  But when you’re just engaged with the characters, you’ll watch them pretty much go anywhere.  I find it’s not that you ever are concerned about whether or not the plot wraps up a certain way.

RJ:  Right.  I hope so.  I mean, and for me in terms of writing, I know especially with “Bloom” in particular, it was the characters that I was focusing on.  Almost specifically.  I knew that the place it went at the end, it wasn’t going to be a traditional payoff in terms of a con man plot, you know, that it was all going to hinge at the end of the day on caring about these characters and caring about what happened to them.

M/C:  Well, Rian, thanks, man, and I’m looking forward to… I’m going to take my wife to it to see it when it opens.

RJ:  Oh, awesome.  Very cool, man.

M/C:  Yeah, because she has not had the chance yet, and I think she’d really like it.

RJ:  I hope she digs it.  I know how big an effort that is what you’ve got two kids.

M/C:  Yeah, I’m picking and choosing a little for her.  I kind of… yeah, I try and tailor it more to what she’ll really love.

RJ:  I’m really digging the work that you’re doing on HitFix, man.  It’s really…

M/C:  Thanks.

RJ:  Yeah, it’s really…

(end of audio)

My thanks to Rian, and believe me… if you get a chance to see “The Brothers Bloom” in the theater in the weeks ahead, do it.  It’s really.

Kidding.  It’s a total alternative to anything else out there right now, and the cast couldn’t be any more enjoyable.  It’s a special little movie that will have a huge DVD life, but wouldn’t you like to know you saw it on the bigscreen while you could?

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