Director Rian Johnson gets Biblical with The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle
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In 2005, director Rian Johnson burst onto the scene with the film noir Brick, which recast the heightened emotions and teenage jargon of high school in the mold of a hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett story—all buoyed by a soulful, sullen performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Then, in 2008, Johnson snagged some serious star-wattage in Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, and Mark Ruffalo for the fleet con-man love story The Brothers Bloom. Reviews weren't as gushy as those for Brick, but if the descriptor "a delightful romp" weren't a hollow blurb churned out by film review algorithms, it would fit the bill. Prior to The Black Cat's Saturday screening of The Life Of The World To Come—a concert film about The Mountain Goats album of the same name—The A.V. Club talked to Johnson about his interest in the band, Breaking Bad, and movie-industry voodoo.
The A.V. Club: How did The Life Of The World To Come get started?
Rian Johnson: [The Mountain Goats' songwriter] John [Darnielle] called me up and asked if I was interested in doing [some performance videos]. He also sent me [The Life Of The World To Come] and I just thought the album was so incredibly beautiful—and also, the album felt whole. It felt like an album that you sit down and listen to from cover to cover. So that's where the idea came from of shooting the entire album back to back. And second, [there was] this notion of doing it with a really lightweight digital camera in a space that was just lit with stage lights, and just shooting the whole thing in one go—just kind of having it feel like you're in the room with John as he plays these songs.
AVC: Is the midnight run to Jakarta in The Brothers Bloom a reference to Darnielle's blog, Last Plane To Jakarta?
RJ: Yeah, it was. Good catch. [Laughs.]
AVC: The Life Of The World To Come is shot at Pomona College where Darnielle performed as an 8-year-old, and you shot Brick at your old high school. How does returning to a place filled with lots of memories affect filming?
RJ: There's a period in the beginning where it's haunting and the place is defined by your memories of it, but your mind adapts. In the case of Brick, it was weird for a few weeks being back in my high school in my home town, but then that kind of wears off and you're just working there. It becomes contextualized in what you're doing now for it.
AVC: Are you interested in shooting more music videos?
RJ: The world of actually, you know, being a music-video director—in terms of making a living at it—is a really tough world right now. More so than in most other places in the industry. It's just something where you're either making a music video for two thousand dollars or you're making a Madonna video. I've been told by my friends who are in that business, just the way it's become. It's also one of the few things you can do that reaches a big pop-culture audience—when it hits—and is really considered a populist thing, and can be really surreal and expressionistic, and people will flow with it. You can do something that's off the wall and weird, and something that would in any other context be in an art installation or something, and because it's set to a Beck song, all of a sudden, it's getting a million hits on YouTube and people are loving it. So yeah, the short answer is I would love to do more of that. If you've got a cool band, hook a brother up. Give me a buzz.
AVC: How did Vince Gilligan approach you about directing the 10th episode of this season of Breaking Bad?
RJ: Vincent Gilligan and Melissa Bernstein called me for the second season, but I was in the middle of making The Brothers Bloom, and so the schedule didn't work out, but luckily they kept my number and they got in touch again for the third season. By that time I had seen the first and second seasons and was just a huge, huge fan of the show. I didn't really know what to expect going into it, but it was an amazing experience. There's this weird thing where you're a fan of a movie—I don't know if you saw this, but the BBC did this promo for The Shining when they were doing this Kubrick marathon. They basically did it as if the camera's walking through the set of The Shining. So you're going backstage, and you're seeing all the props lying around for it, and you're seeing the sets... You know, that's something you'll never have for a movie. You love a movie. That movie is done. The actors have moved on and gotten different haircuts, and the sets are burned or reused. It's a weird thing being a fan of a TV show and then walking onto the set of that TV show, and all the actors are there in costume, and they look exactly like they do in this fictional world that you love. You walk through Walt's bedroom and it's just really weird and fun.
RJ: First of all, I think it's got the strongest ensemble cast. I don't think there's a weak link in the cast, and I think they're all incredible. And the writing is so good; it's got a combination of humor and darkness and soulfulness, and it's got something on its mind. And it digs deep, and it does all this stuff—and at the same time, it's just incredibly entertaining. It's this mixture of high and low, and it also plays this moral shell game—especially with the main character. It's also part of the reason when I describe the show to people [that] it's sometimes a little bit of a push to get them into it. You hear the premise and it sounds so unpleasant, but it's incredibly fun. You kind of also just can't look away, and that was one interesting thing: just getting to talk to the writers about it. They say they're constantly amazed with what the audience lets Walt get away with, and how [the audience] still emotionally sticks with him. I think a lot of that has to do with Bryan Cranston—what he brings to that role [of Walt] is just something that keeps you locked into him I guess.
AVC: You've said that when you write a film, it has to be about some question in your own life that you genuinely don't know the answer to. For The Brothers Bloom, that question was where reality intersects with storytelling. What was the question for Brick?
RJ: When I wrote it I was in my early twenties and in that period where I was still getting past all the drama of high school. I'm in my mid-thirties now, but back then it was much more immediate. And so, in a way, with Brick, it was playing out in this weird, safe world of an elevated detective story, a lot of the terrifying, and frightening, and painful things about adolescence.
AVC: You've said that your next film, Looper, is going to be very dark and violent. Was it a conscious decision to depart from the light, stylish touch you gave The Brothers Bloom?
RJ: It's not like there was a conscious decision to, "Okay, I've done this, and now I should do something like that." It's more just kind of figuring out what the story is next that's going to hold your attention. As these words are coming out of my mouth, it sounds kind of arty and silly and whatever, but I think it really is true that the story that's going to be the next thing finds you—as opposed to you finding it. And in many ways, it's surprising how little control you have over—or at least I feel I have over—choosing whatever the next thing is. But yeah, I'm sure there's some truth to it. It feels good to kind of shake it up. And it is definitely a darker thing. My mom wanted to read the script, and I gave it to her, and she couldn't get through it. It did not get the Mom Seal Of Approval. It's not gross or anything. It's not a horror movie, but it's just got a lot of shooting in it.
AVC: The Brothers Bloom premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Then a December release was planned, and then Summit Entertainment moved the film back to January—and then May. Can you talk a little bit about the difficulties Bloom had getting onto screens?
RJ: Summit was kind of looking for the perfect date to release it on, that was going to be a kind of magic bullet where if we hit this date and it's just right, then the movie will kind of land and work and sell itself. And so that's why we would have it on one date, and of course other movies would move around, and someone would get cold feet and then push it back to another date. But they were trying, they were doing their best to give it the best shot possible out there. And yeah, I don't know. It's such voodoo. I'm a really big believer that a movie finds its audience eventually. It's like water flowing downhill: It's going to get there eventually if it's out there and people can discover it. That's largely what happened with Brick, too. I think most people who are into Brick probably found it on DVD. That's the way it sometimes works. It was a very interesting process and a real education for me, seeing a little bit of how it works. And it's crazy, to see the rain-dance element of people trying to formulate all these numbers of potential—if it opens here, if it opens there. And they'll just look at these charts of numbers and it's really like trying to read tea leaves. I don't know. It was interesting to get a glimpse into it. But it's frustrating at times—and, at the end of the day, I don't think it really matters that much.