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LAist Interview: Rian Johnson, director, The Brothers Bloom

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Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo | Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Rian Johnson burst into prominence with his sterling debut, Brick. A teenage murder mystery, it was told more in the style of a Dashiell Hammett novel than a thematically similar (and more conventional) film like Bully. His latest film, The Brothers Bloom, is almost a complete 180 in terms of tone -- daffy and convulated where Brick was brooding and fatalistic. What's still present, though, is Johnson's daring as a filmmaker. You may not like his movies, but there is no doubt that he is offering a very specific vision to audiences. LAist had a chance to speak with Rian this week. The Brothers Bloom goes into wider release today across L.A.


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LAist: So Brothers Bloom. Let's talk about The Brothers Bloom.

Rian: Okay.

LAist: It took awhile for The Brothers Bloom to get into theaters. I remember hearing about it awhile ago. What was the hold-up? What happened with the distributor?

Rian: We premiered at Toronto and originally the plan was to come out in the fall right after Toronto. And basically what happened is Summit took a look at the lay of the land and realized how many Oscar movies were coming out in that lead-up to the end of the year. Oscar movies with much bigger marketing budgets than ours, I guess (laughs). So they decided to push it forward. And May has its trade-offs -- there's all the big summer movies coming out, but I think we're in a nice spot to be. Another option for people after they've seen the big tent pole stuff. So I'm actually feeling pretty good about where we landed.

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Rian Johnson | Photo courtesy of Film School Rejects

LAist: Right. Let's talk about the film. I think the first thing the audience notices when they see it is the dress of the two boys. It's a really specific choice. Clearly it was an important choice that you made as the writer and the director. Why did you think that was such an important distinction to draw for these guys right away and essentially preserve throughout the movie?

Rian: Well, I guess it's part of the style of the whole thing. The costumes and the production design and way it's shot -- the whole thing has this very elevated style to it. Where that came from is just wanting to give the audience the sense that we were -- from Bloom's perspective -- trapped inside this story that Stephen was writing. This whole world is being created as he's scribbling in his notebooks. And I think the movie starts to an extreme degree. That's why the childhood sequence is even in rhyming verse. It's kind of the archest form of storytelling possible. (laughs) And then when you meet the brothers there's all this craziness going on, all this eccentricity -- it feels like a Kusturica movie, you know? It's wild and it's nuts and in a way that was done to kind of make you feel like Bloom. To make you feel like your head is encased in this very heightened storytelling of Stephen's. And make you kind of thirst -- like Bloom -- for everything to calm down a little.

LAist: Some normalcy to slip through. And it's funny because it does. The ending -- when you compare it to the beginning -- I don't know if "traditional" is the word --

Rian: Yeah, absolutely. I hope so. That was kind of the original intent of the structure of the whole thing. To start on one side of the scale and end on the other. Literally, in the burnt-out shell of a theater.

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LAist: What was the genesis of the script? Did you decide, "I want to make a con-man movie and this is how I do it?" Or did you decide, "I want to do a movie in this style and I'll choose this genre to make it happen?" How did you put all these pieces together?

Rian: Well, the first thing was generally to do a con-man movie. It's a genre that I really love, and I thought it would be fun to take a crack at it. I was giving a lot of thought to storytelling and how storytelling is a part of our everyday lives. And not just as a professional storyteller. That's kind of the least interesting aspect of that. But just as a human being and how all of us go through our lives. We take in all this information from the outside world and kind of our job as human beings is to tell it back to ourselves. And that's how we shape our world. Not in a hippy-dippy "create your own reality" way. But just in the way that we build the interior narrative of our lives. But anyway, I'd been thinking a lot about that. And if you're going to talk about storytelling, it seems that the most exciting way to do that is to use the con man. That's always implicit in con man movies. This sense of theater that the con artist is creating and the reality that he's creating in order to bilk this person.

LAist: It also challenges the viewer. Because in every con man movie you have to weigh, "Is what I'm seeing real or is this part of the con?" And when it's done well and with elegance, it's great. Even though you know it's coming, you're still surprised by it.

Rian: Precisely. The fact that it's actually part of the text of the thing -- of what's real and what isn't -- is a nice starting point to be at in terms of audience expectations. The other thing that kind of drove the whole process for me was the notion of doing a character-based con man movie. Doing a con man movie where the pay off at the end wasn't the twist of the knife. Wasn't a clever mousetrap, but was about an emotional payoff for the characters. About getting the main character where he needed to be by the end. That was an interesting challenge because it's a genre that's not usually a warm, fuzzy genre. (laughs)

LAist: That's funny because I'd read in an interview you did that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a movie that you liked a lot and I don't know to what degree it influenced the movie, but the elements of it are there in terms of the structure: two males, one female -- is she playing them, too? And so you're just waiting and waiting for her to flip at the end of the movie, but she doesn't.

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Rian: Yeah, yeah, for her to be on the beach with a margarita at the end of it! You know that very, very classical form of two guys conning one girl and one of them falls in love -- the fact that that's so recognizable is kind of giving a solid bedrock to the audience so that I could try going someplace completely different by the end. I feel that having that expectation of where the audience thinks it's going to go -- at the very least that lets them know that something different is happening. If that makes any sense at all. Because I knew that if it was paid off like a traditional con man movie like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels -- which I love. I love the payoff of traditional con man movies. There's nothing better than that little zinger. But I knew if we were doing that, the movie would have ended after the sequence in Mexico with a big twist like you were saying. But I always knew that part of what this movie was was taking it one more step where the plot, in a way, completely falls apart and dissolves.

LAist: Did you ever worry about that at all? Because when you are working in that genre there are rules and there are expectations.

Rian: Yeah, absolutely.

LAist: Did you ever think, "Shit! I'm going off the rails here!" Were there moments where you doubted whether you should do this?

Rian: Well, there weren't any moments where I doubted whether I should change it, but I was absolutely aware that we may be losing people. And truth be told, we do end up losing some people. And that happens. I guess the reason that I never doubted the choice was that it was an honest choice. To the point that it would have felt phenomenally dishonest to what the movie really was about to have ended it any other way. So I think it would have been iffier if I had been coming at it from some place of deliberately messing with the genre. Then I probably would have reconsidered. But the fact that this is happening at the end because that's what needed to happen for Bloom. Because that's where the character needed to be.

LAist: Let's talk about the cast a little bit. I thought the cast was perfect. Every little note was perfect. To see Maximilian Schell in that role, to see Robbie Coltrane -- you can go so many different ways with character actors, and I thought those were all just spot-on. I still watch The Freshman just so I can watch Maximilian Schell for those ten minutes where he's on film and where he's so great.

Rian: (laughing) Yeah, yeah, he's great.

LAist: Now Rachel feels like a very -- not an on-the-nose choice -- but I can see that. I can see her as Penelope pretty easily.

Rian: True.

LAist: As for Adrian and Mark -- I think when most people approach the movie they expect those two guys to play the other roles. Because we have this perception of Mark Ruffalo as being this very sensitive actor who holds a lot in. Whereas Brody can be a little more -- he can certainly be that character as he is as Bloom -- but he's also a confident guy. So how did that work for you? How did you decide to go the way you did?

Rian: Well, when I first sat down to meet with Mark it was actually about the part of Bloom. It was about the part that Adrian played. So yeah, that's really perceptive. My preconceptions of Mark were the same as yours. But when I sat down to meet with him, he's -- as a person -- much closer to who Stephen is in this movie. He's not a dark guy at all. He's kind of a really, big friendly Italian papa. He's a hug-everybody-in-the-room kind of guy.

LAist: Right. Let's talk a little bit about getting the movie from the script to the screen since you did do both. There are always going to be things that you have to give up that don't quite work for whatever reason -- be they financial, be they logistical, be they you change your mind at a certain point. What for you were the parts that you felt, "This is something that I can't compromise on" and what were some of the things that you ultimately said, "I would have liked to have done this but for "X" reasons we can't do it."

Rian: Well, we talked about the ending already and that was one of the things. Although, to be fair, that was never seriously called into question during the whole script process. It wasn't something I had to defend but for myself that was a process I went though of really making sure that this was the right thing for the film. In terms of other stuff that actually changed, it wasn't so much at the script phase as it was in the editing phase. I ended up trimming out quite a bit in the editing. For example, there was a beautiful scene that Robbie Coltrane did where -- kind of out of nowhere -- when Adrien and Rachel are at his apartment, Robbie sits them down and tells them the story of his daughter's death. And he was this caricature of a Belgian curator who we'd been having a laugh at, then all of a sudden gives this heartfelt, wrenching story about it being the anniversary of his daughter's death. I loved it precisely because it was completely off. It was something that came out of nowhere. But it was also something that narratively was a complete sideline. It just didn't work. So you have to let go of your ego and let go of what you originally thought as a writer.

LAist: Is that something that you see or something that your editor sees? Do you have to be convinced or is it pretty immediate?

Rian: In this case of this thing, I had to be convinced of it but at the same time -- you know -- you know. (laughs) You have to be convinced of it but deep down you know when something has to go. And even if you dig in your heels a little bit and try to delude yourself a little bit, ultimately in the pit of your stomach you know.

LAist: Sort of, "I've known this for awhile and now I have to confront it?"

Rian: Exactly. You put it off as long as you can. But also I'm -- in the editing room -- I tend to be the opposite of that. I tend to be sometimes too brutal, I think, too fast in terms of cutting. And my instinct is if something isn't working to try it without it right away. And more often than not, the people I have around me who are there to be objective are telling me to put stuff back. I think if anything the danger I've found for me is there's kind of a knee-jerk reaction to killing something if it's limping.

LAist: Rian, how do you think of yourself as a director? Some directors are much more gear-head types. Very technically proficient and know everything about every stock they're using, every tiny little difference. And then you have other guys who are more interested in the storytelling aspect, working with the actors. I guess you try to be as much of both as possible, but where do you feel more comfortable?

Rian: (laughs) I don't think of myself much. I don't give myself too much thought. (laughing) The thing that has to drive the whole thing for me is the storytelling. Ultimately, the storytelling has to be about something that that I care about. That I'm dealing with in my own life. That's the only way that there is a hot enough fire to keep the engine burning for the four years that you're putting this thing together from start to finish. For me at least. And then the whole process -- each part of the process -- has its joys. I do really enjoy the technical side of it, although it's just one element of the process and it's an element of the process that serves the other stuff. Ideally, it serves the story; it serves the performances. For me that stuff -- the technical side of it -- has to serve the master of the storytelling side of it. But that doesn't mean it's not fun.

LAist: Do you take an active hand in choosing things like your films stocks and your lenses and how you want to shoot, or do you more rely on your DP and your various other creative collaborators?

Rian: I take a really active hand in it. My cinematographer is my best friend since college. We have a really close relationship. He and I -- because of the familiarity from having worked together both professionally and not -- we just kind of have a shared taste. The way the process works is that after I've written the script, I'll sit down and visually write the movie. I'll do my storyboards for the whole thing. And then I'll sit down with Steve and in the process of explaining these storyboards Steve will come up with other stuff, and we'll talk about the general look. And he'll figure out how to actually realize that. And then the real collaboration happens on the set when you're dealing with the real space and you're dealing with time constraints.

LAist: Is he the only older, close collaborator or did you bring along a lot of people from when you were coming up as a filmmaker?

Rian: My composer is my cousin, Nathan Johnson. And we've been making movies together since we were ten. His brother Zack does all the artwork in the movie -- the title cards and all the art and Stephen's notebook. Whatever I know about making movies I know from growing up making shorts as a kid. That's kind of how I got through high school -- making movies with friends. It's something I really put a priority on -- building up the people that we're going to work with and have these people feel like friends and family. And having it be a great experience for everybody.

LAist: Let's close with talking about what's next. Are you working on a script now?

Rian: I am. I'm pretty deep into writing a science-fiction type thing. It's called Looper. It's sci-fi, but it's not huge sci-fi. It's more -- just in terms of the scale -- it's closer to Children of Men. It's set in the near future and the main sci-fi element of it is time travel. So that presents all sorts of interesting narrative challenges. It presents a lot of headaches in terms of the writing. It's fun, though. It's very different than Bloom. Having had my head inside Bloom for five years, it feels nice to go someplace different.

LAist: Cool. Well, Rian, I really enjoyed talking with you today. I loved Bloom. I really loved Brick, too. It was so bold. I remember thinking, "What the fuck is he doing?" (Rian laughs) I think some peope will describe your work as arch or twee, and I guess that's sort of the dividing line. Some people like it and some people just pull away from it, and I really just jumped into it. I thought it was great.

Rian: I appreciate that. I really do appreciate it.

LAist: So, Rian, best wishes with Bloom and Looper.

Rian: Thanks a lot, Josh. And thanks for talking about Bloom. I really appreciate it.

LAist: I really hope people go to see it. I think it will do great.


You can download a director's commentary and the first seven minutes of the film here.