A USC Film School graduate, writer-director Rian Johnson has been making movies since early adolescence, and his striking debut feature Brick has the precocious energy of a film-obsessed youth. Winner of the Special Jury Prize for "Originality Of Vision" at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Brick brings the style of '40s and '50s detective fiction into a contemporary high-school setting. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a junior gumshoe who pokes into an ex-girlfriend's mysterious disappearance, running headlong into multiple femme fatales, a burly henchman, a powerful kingpin, and other classic noir archetypes. Johnson recently spoke to The A.V. Club about first-time filmmaking, the parallels between teenage angst and noir, and how making home movies at age 12 prepared him for a career in movies.
The A.V. Club: How did the concept for this film come about, and how did it develop?
Rian Johnson: It started with the notion of doing a detective movie. And for me, that was really inspired by Dashiell Hammett. I went through a period where I got really into his books, which I initially found through the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing. That was one of my favorite films. And I read an interview with them where they cited him as their main reference. But when I kind of discovered Red Harvest, and read The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, there was this interesting thing where you think you know something, and then you discover its source. You discover it anew in some way. I have obviously grown up watching detective movies and film noir, and some of my favorite films are noirs. Huston's version of The Maltese Falcon is, for me, one of the most entertaining films ever made. But when I hit those books and experienced that world, there was something about it that was so vibrant and so alive. Really, just the world that Hammett created really inspired me and made me think, "God, I want to try and capture some of this. I want to try to do one of these."
The high-school aspect kind of happened in two phases. At first, it was just a decision to put it in a different setting, to try to capture some of that unexpectedness that I experienced reading those books. I think at this point, we're also familiar with the visual cues from film noir. I felt just putting it in a different setting visually might help us to not lean on our preconceptions of the genre so much, and have to re-examine the elements of it, and hopefully get hit by them in an unexpected direction. But then once I started working with it, one of the real joys of it was how, in many strange ways, it ended up becoming very much about the experience of being a teenager for me.
AVC: That's pretty unusual for noir, too. You don't have the concept of noir with characters of this age and in this sort of setting, and yet the themes do seem to connect pretty well with the adolescent experience.
RJ: Oh, absolutely. And for me, that's where the heart and soul of the movie lies, in capturing—in a kind of almost impressionistic way, because it's obviously not realistic—the experience of being a teenager. And the experience of that time in your life where the stakes for things that seem silly to adults really do feel like life and death.
AVC: Was that your impression of high school when you went, of these insidious goings-on?
RJ: Everything in that time just seems heightened. And I think that's maybe part of why high-school stories keep getting retold over and over. I know that's why, for me at least, all the best high-school movies have one thing in common, which is that they take that world very seriously. And they take the experience of being a teenager very seriously. And like with Heathers, Rumble Fish, or The Outsiders, they play up the stakes a bit.
Well, I can probably define it a bit better. Because it's such a concentrated time, because your world is so subjective and so small, your head is encased in this fish bowl, this microcosmic world, for four years. And because you're an adolescent, everything, from pain to joy to love to losing love, everything, you feel so vibrantly and sharply during that time. And so that's how I think, in a strange way, imposing these ridiculous life-or-death stakes of detective fiction onto a high school raises it up to the emotional level.
AVC: Of course, all teenagers think that everything that happens to them is extraordinary. It all resonates in a way that it wouldn't to a more experienced and maybe world-weary adult.
RJ: Maybe because everything was felt so sharply during that time, there's almost a desperate need to condescend to it once you get out of it. To put it in a frame where there's a certain amount of, "Thank God we're older and wiser and better than that now." And that's one of the interesting things, hearing people's reaction to Brick. It seems like a big part of whether people are willing to enjoy it is whether they're willing to put themselves back in that state, as opposed to approaching it at an arms-length adult distance. And I think maybe that's one of the reasons it resonates so strongly with young people. I honestly didn't expect younger people to be as passionate about the movie as they are. I thought maybe older people would be, because they would be more familiar with the traditions of the genre. But it's really been surprising to see how passionate teenagers have gotten about this film. I think maybe because they are more willing to take the world on its own terms.
AVC: As a filmmaker, do you feel you've done better if a movie divides people but has a passionate following, or unites everyone into thinking it's pretty good?
RJ: Definitely the former. All night. And not that I get any distinct pleasure from displeasing people. Not at all. If you make something interesting, inevitably not everybody is going to like it. So in a weird way, that's a very good sign to me. All of my favorite films are somebody else's least-favorite films. I think that actually is a very good sign.
AVC: Brick has gotten its share of critical acclaim, but it seems like it should have been even more well-received.
RJ: It definitely has been very interesting for me, to see how critics and audiences come down. It seems to be pretty consistent in the way it splits people one way or the other. But for me, it's fun to hear both sides. Part of me wishes everyone loved the movie, but it's also fun to hear from people who didn't, to hear their take on it. Strange as that sounds.
AVC: What kind of effort it did it take for a first-time filmmaker to get this film off the ground and make it the way you wanted to make it?
RJ: It was a long, long process. I wrote it in '97, just out of film school, and it basically took six years until we were shooting. That had to do with a few things. First of all, the script was so weird that it was a challenge finding people who got what it was going for. And even people who did get it could see very clearly that if it was mishandled even slightly, it would have been an absolute train-wreck. It could have been kids doing bad Bogart impressions. So because of that, it proved very difficult to get money through production companies or major studios. Couple that with the fact that I'm a first-time director, and that I'm very bad at doing the Hollywood shuffle, and getting myself out there… That ended up taking a while. And eventually, the way we ended up financing it was just figuring out the smallest amount we could make it for, and passing the hat around friends and family.
AVC: Why were you insistent upon film rather than DV or HD?
RJ: It's a weird phenomenon that at this budget level, HD actually doesn't save you much money, because you have to figure in printing film back out at the end of the day. Which, if you do it right, eats up a lot of what you saved in production. But also, it's really important for me to shoot on 35mm. Mostly because I felt like the movie asks a lot from an audience in terms of jumping on board. And as an audience member, you have to completely get on board with this world in order for the movie to work for you. It's such a strange central conceit; I thought it was very important to create as rich a visual world as possible to help people. Like a warm bath, to help ease people in so they're not shocked and stepping into as much. The other slightly sad aspect is seeing digital come up, seeing the technology advance. It becomes very, very obvious that film is going to go the way of the dodo before too long. And I wanted to shoot it as much as possible now.
AVC: What was the shoot like? Did you learn new things? Was it difficult to adjust, or was it smooth going?
RJ: I feel like such a wimp, because it was totally just a blessed shoot. It was such a great experience. I have no horrible war stories or anything. My filmmaking background has really just been making movies with my friends since I was 12 years old. That's how I feel I learned how to tell a story visually, by just going out with a video camera and making movies with my friends and family. Obviously I was really nervous working with a professional crew for the first time, working with a professional cast. And as soon as we started the work, all that nervousness went away and I realized it's the same thing. It's the skill set I learned going out with three friends and a video camera and telling a story. It translates exactly into the skills I needed to tell a story, just with a bigger camera. Maybe it sounds a little goofy, but it's really true. It just snapped into place, and I could really enjoy it. And it felt like I was making a movie with my friends again, and likewise with the actors. I was very nervous working with a professional cast for the first time, but once we started, it's the same thing—all that nervousness just dissolved, and it became a real joy once I realized that I didn't have to learn the language. It's all about trust and storytelling. And it ended up being a really incredible, beautiful experience.
AVC: It seems like over the last couple of years, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been getting a lot of recognition as a great young actor. How much could 3rd Rock From The Sun really tell you about him?
RJ: I think he's going to just keep surprising people. I think he's brilliant. I keep mentioning Johnny Depp's trajectory whenever I talk about Joe, and I think—not to nail him to anything—that comparisons happen anyway. Obviously he's got the leading-man looks, and he's got that kind of charisma, but he's so smart, and he's making such interesting choices in terms of his roles. I hadn't even really seen his TV show when I met with him. I hadn't seen a lot of the teen movies. Mysterious Skin wasn't finished yet. I'd only seen him in a movie he did with Don Cheadle called Manic. It was really just sitting across the table and talking to the guy that sold me. And I knew right away it would be a very bad move not to cast this guy in my movie.
AVC: How did you prepare the actors to perform in such a stylized way?
RJ: We ended up having to go back and watch older movies. And to a large extent, I felt like my job on this movie was to create a working environment where we could make fresh, creative decisions, not basing what we did on noir specifically, but on older films in general, or kind of the history of the detective genre. But at the same time, that was one of the things that we bumped up against, that the dialogue required this older style of performance. So we watched Billy Wilder comedies. We watched The Apartment. We went and watched His Girl Friday, and a lot of older comedies. That's one of the things that we struck upon, the idea that Brick is drama with the timing you normally associate with comedy. And that's actually one of the things that Joe cued into, also. At some point, all his work on 3rd Rock, in a weird way, applied to this performance, just because the performance style of a sitcom is so rhythm-based. It's mapped. It's bing, bing, boom. And there's a very strong element of that in the way he approached the dialog for Brick. We kind of realized the paradox that the way to make stuff sound fresh and natural on the set was to rehearse it ad nauseam before we got there. [Laughs.] The less prepared we were, the more stiff and unnatural it all sounded.
AVC: Do you envision yourself as primarily a genre filmmaker, or will you expand from here?
RJ: I love genre, and it's something that right now, at least, I really enjoy working in. Like the next movie I'm going to do, knock on wood, is a con-man movie that I just wrote. Rather than thinking in terms of a specific genre or specific kind of thing, I hope I can just stay relatively small and keep making my movies. If I can keep writing them and making them, I'll be happy.