Rian Johnson Q&A: The Brothers Bloom

It’s been 4 years since Rian Johnson’s excellent debut Brick was in British cinemas, and his unique high-school noir has gathered a devoted following on these shores since then. His new film The Brothers Bloom was completed over a year ago, and was released in the States in the summer of 2009, so it’s arrival this weekend in UK cinemas is well overdue. Thankfully the film is worth the wait, being a delightful and hilarious take on the con man genre, and is further evidence that Johnson is a filmmaker worth following. We spoke to him about stepping up from Brick to Bloom, as well as getting a few tasty tidbits on his next, the time-travelling sci-fi Looper…

The Brothers Bloom has taken a while to get to the UK…

I know! I’m really happy that it’s got here and it’s finally getting in front of folks. It’s a bit odd, when it was nearly a year ago that I did it in the States, but I’m just very relieved that it’s out and people are getting to see it.

Has that extended process affected how you feel about the film?

Yeah, your feelings about the film evolve, and it’s also very much informed right now by the fact that I’m one step into making – as I knock on wood here – my next one. In one way it’s very nice to come back and revisit Bloom with a new audience, while I’m already making the next one, because when you’re first revealing a film to audiences, like the first time we premiered Bloom in Toronto, you’re kind of punch drunk, and you’re very raw and sensitive to how people are going to react to it. And I think maybe it’s a much healthier place to be in when the film has had time to settle a little bit in your head. I’ve had time to digest it and figure out what it really means to me, how it’s valuable to me. So now I can just relax and let people take it how they will.

From a filmmaking perspective, do you usually think about the longer life of your movie?

Well yeah, although you can drive yourself nuts if you start thinking about it too much. You don’t think about it so much as rely on it, to smooth out the shocks and jolts of the short term elements. For instance, there’s something comforting in the knowledge that it will be available and the people who are meant to see it will find a way to see it. That’s very much how Brick found its audience, most people found it on DVD, and so I’m a big believer in just concentrating on making the film you want to make, and once it’s out there, like water running down, it will hopefully find its way to the right spot.

How did the process of making Brothers Bloom differ from Brick? Was it quite a step up?

In some ways it was, but in some ways it was very similar. We were very lucky with Bloom in that we were financed by an independent company who had a lot of faith in us, and so it was similar to Brick in that once we had got all the elements together we were allowed to just go off and make the movie. We didn’t have anyone looking over our shoulders much, so in that regard it felt just like a bigger version of the same thing. I was working with my best friend who’s my cinematographer, so that relationship didn’t change; we were together on Brick and also on Bloom. My cousin is also my composer, so I managed to keep some of the same people around. And the environment on set, even though we were hopping around Eastern Europe and it was kind of thrilling in that regard, it didn’t feel that different. At the end of the day it’s still just making a movie! It’s the same basic elements if you’re doing it with Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz in the middle of Montenegro or doing it in your back yard with a video camera and some friends. You’re just telling a story with a camera and some actors.

Did you find that the travelling aspect of the shoot brought new challenges for you as a filmmaker?

As a filmmaker you’re very lucky because you kind of have the easiest job in terms of all that stuff, the logistics of actually getting cameras across Romanian borders. That falls on the shoulders of people who are much better at it than me! That’s the real work of all that travel, and as the director you really do just get to show up. It does nothing but make it more fun! But for the poor production people that was the big challenge. One thing that was nice was because it’s a travelling movie we were actually on the road, and very much felt like a travelling circus. Making the movie felt like [being in] the movie.

A lot of the jokes in the film are very visual. Were you intentionally harking back to silent movies?

I guess it does hark back to the slightly more theatrical world of silent and classic Hollywood cinema. That feeds into one of the things that’s going on throughout the course of the movie, where Bloom is feeling trapped in this hyper-real storytelling that his brother has surrounded him with. So it felt very right to stylistically elevate everything up to this absurd degree, to make the audience feel like their heads are encased in this same world that Bloom wants to escape from. So a lot of the heightened style elements, from the costumes to the very theatrical way it was shot, fed into that. The first thing I think of with the silent film reference though is Rinko Kikuchi’s [dialogue-free] character Bang Bang. That came about because I’m a big fan of silent cinema, and even in sound cinema the directors I tend to admire are generally ones who are very visual storytellers. For a writer the temptation is always to put everything into words, so I wanted to have one character in there who couldn’t use words at all. So as a writer, when you’re just staring at that page, and the temptation strikes to put everything into dialogue, just to have that character in there, and to have to see the scene from their perspective with no words involved at all, it just makes your mind turn over into the visual element in the writing phase. It was very useful, actually.

So did you write out quite detailed action for her then?

No, I gave a lot of thought to it, but I didn’t write it out or the script would have been 300 pages long! I talked through it all with Rinko and she really got it. She’d done a lot of comedy in Japan actually, even though she’s mostly known here for Babel, that very dramatic role. But she’s a really talented physical comedian, and there’s kind of a whole other movie going on if you just watch Rinko in the background all the time.

Both your films seem to be ideally cast, and I’m interested in how you go about filling the roles in your movies?

Well it’s a combination of diligence and luck. For me, because I’ve written the films, and I’m a very slow writer, by the time I get to the phase of the production where I’m actually casting I’ve had the movie and the characters in my head for quite a long time. So at that point it feels really nice to cast people who are going to surprise me, and maybe not be the obvious take on the characters but bring something to it that is going to be fresh and invigorating. Even though the movie doesn’t exist yet, it exists in my brain, so it’s almost in defiance of that that a lot of the choices get made; I’m just trying to shake it up. I guess the most obvious example of that here would be casting Mark Ruffalo for Stephen. Mark’s more well-known for darker roles, and putting him in this big, fun, showman-like part just seemed really appealing and weird, and kinda scary! But it made sense on a weird, strange level too. So that’s where a lot of the choices come from – do they make sense in a way that surprises me?

And as both writer and director, do you have a very precise idea in your head of exactly what you want your actors to do?

No, it’s a little counter-intuitive, because I guess as the writer I should be more precious about the words but, maybe because of the exact same reason as with the casting, because I’ve had it in my head for a while, I tend to always try to find actors that I can be very collaborative with. And yes, a lot of thought has gone into the words on the page, so we don’t tend to do a lot of improvising, but when you’re in the thick of it and trying to make a scene work, the writer becomes a different person. You have to separate yourself from the person who slaved over every sentence, and you have to be the director saying ‘okay, when we put this on its feet this and that isn’t working, so let’s tear this apart and figure out why’. There’s a weird schizophrenic split that has to happen in order for it to really work, I think.

This film sits in a long tradition of con man movies. What were your reference points and intentions when you began writing?

I had been a fan of con man movies ever since I saw The Sting when I was a kid, and I think it tends to be a really favourite genre for a lot of filmmakers, because it makes explicit the trick that any movie is playing with an audience. I mean, misdirection, and all the stuff that makes drama, is essentially the same thing that con men are doing to their marks. So there’s something very appealing for a storyteller to that. But the thing that really got me going with it was the notion of doing a character-based con man movie, and doing a con man film where it wasn’t so much about the twist, but more about what these people were going through. So you have this guy who’s trying to escape from this world where everything is another twist and you can’t trust anybody, and that’s kind of emotionally stunted him, and he tries to break out of that. So it’s almost a con man movie about a con man trying to escape a con man movie! And that’s what really made it interesting to me. I mean, I adore con man movies but, maybe because of that, it would seem bizarre to me to think that I could do just a straightforward one any better than the greats, like David Mamet. So that was my unique way into it.

I loved that at the end of this film it was the sad, emotional touch that stayed with you. Did you have that in mind from the start?

Yeah, that was where I was getting to from the very beginning. And again, there are probably certain expectations that you have as an audience going into it – that there’s going to be a big ‘gotcha’ twist or that Rachel’s character is going to end up screwing them both over and getting away with all the money – and one of the things I’m very proud of with the film is that it ends up doing something different than you expect.

You recently directed an episode of Breaking Bad – how did it compare working in TV as opposed to movies?

Well Breaking Bad is a brilliant brilliant show, I’m just a huge fan, and the experience was fantastic, but I’m hesitant to extend that experience into TV in general. I’ve a feeling it was a very unique and wonderful one-off thing. But I hope the show makes it over to the UK, because it’s just fantastic and really well written, and I was so excited as a fan to get to work on it. They had seen Brick and they just gave me a call and asked if I wanted to do it, so it was very cool.

Finally, I’m very excited about the prospect of Looper, your next film. Have I read correctly that it will feature Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis playing the same character?

(Laughs) Well we haven’t made any casting announcements yet, so I can’t confirm any casting at all! But, that’s essentially the premise, along with some other stuff. It’s time travel, but it uses it the way the first Terminator used it, to set up a situation, so it’s not like we’re zapping back and forth through time constantly. I cringe a little whenever tiny snippets of the plot come out, because they’re just the basic fundamental building blocks, and it makes it sound a bit like a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie! But I think it does something a bit different and takes it all in a direction you wouldn’t quite expect. If all goes well we we’ll be shooting it at the end of the year, and I can’t wait to get started. I’m currently touching any piece of wood I can find, as it’s a little miracle any time a movie gets made at all, but right now we’re holding our breath and it’s looking good. And hopefully it won’t take as long to come out in the UK, and in another year we’ll be talking about it!

The Brothers Bloom is released on 4th June.

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