Brick: Rian Johnson’s Feature Debut is Inspired by the "Weirdly Poetic" Worlds of Dashiell Hammett

A favorite actor, a respected director or screenwriter, beautiful cinematography… there are so many reasons why we go to the movies.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the moviegoing experience comes when we discover a truly original new creative voice. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It and Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape are all debut movies that had the power to excite. Each proved the power and versatility of the medium all over again.

As the winner of last year’s Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision, writer-director Rian Johnson’s feature film debut, Brick, can easily be added to that lofty list. As he gears up for his March 24 release, MM spoke with Johnson about the language of film, the Sundance experience, and being happy that his film is not for everyone.

Lily Percy, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Brick has been described as a “film noir set in high school.” Was this a conscious choice for you? Did you go into the making of the film with that idea in mind?

Rian Johnson (RJ): The origin of Brick was actually not so much “film noir in high school” as “detective story in high school.” That might seem like splitting hairs, but my original inspiration was not from movies, but Dashiell Hammett’s novels. Hammett was one of the originators of hardboiled detective fiction, and his books (Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon) are sparse, brutal and weirdly poetic. After blowing through all his novels in about a month, I decided I wanted to make an American detective movie.

The irony is that, as much as I love it, the genre of film noir then became an obstacle. People are so familiar with its visual conventions (fedoras, shadowy alleyways), that it’s difficult to do it without it seeming like pure homage or worse—parody. That’s where the decision to set ours in high school came from, not to deconstruct the genre or put some clever post modern spin on it, but just to give it a different set of visual cues so we could take a straightforward approach to the detective genre.

MM: One of the most striking aspects of  Brick is its spitfire dialogue, which, as you said, harkens back to the films of Howard Hawks and the writing of Dashiell Hammett. Why was the language of the film so important to you?

RJ: Besides being ridiculously fun to write, the real narrative purpose of the language was a practical one. Because the high school movie is such an established genre, and one that people come into with certain expectations, I felt it was important to put a huge blinking ‘This is not a teen movie’ sign on Brick’s forehead. The language was a quick way to do that, and to let people know that they’re in a unique, stylized world. Plus, it gives another layer for audiences to dig into.

I’m a big fan of films that take a little work to unravel, especially with their language. I knew when I was writing it that meant Brick would not be a film for everyone, but that’s fine. I’m also a big fan of films that are not for everyone.

MM: Brick won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. What has winning this award done for you and your film? 

RJ: Mainly it was just a real honor—and a big boost of validation for our whole team right at the time when we all needed it the most. Our cast and crew were like a small family and we had made this weird little movie that we weren’t sure if anyone would understand, let alone like. Getting that kind of tip of the hat just as we were putting our movie out on the public chopping block for the first time, was a great feeling.

MM: The film has a very distinct look to it. It is filled with shots that both disorient and captivate and ultimately add to the suspense that the film inherently provides. Yet, unlike most first-time directors today, you chose not to shoot the film on digital. Why did you decide to go the film route?

RJ: Even though our budget was relatively small (just under $500,000), it was very important to me to shoot on film. The central conceit of the movie asks for such a leap of faith from an audience, I felt we needed to create a rich visual world to help draw people in. HD has come a long way—and ultimately I do believe that good filmmaking and storytelling make the format vanish—but I just personally love the look of film.

MM: Brick is a film six years in the making. How did the financing, production, sets, etc. finally come together? I know that your family was a big help financially, but do you have any advice for first-time moviemakers on the process?

RJ: Because the script for Brick was so odd, and because I was a first-time director, getting money to make it through typical Hollywood channels just wasn’t going to happen. Like any indie project, we have heartbreaking stories about it nearly happening then totally falling apart—plenty of war stories and disappointments.

It took six years, but we didn’t go away. Eventually we met the right people, got a great casting director, got some fantastic producers, found the right actors and got a break when some members of my family suddenly found themselves in a position to invest. I know that sounds infuriatingly vague and easy, and when I was trying to get Brick made I would read interviews like this and want to shake somebody upside down and scream something like ‘Gimme details, you vague indie bastard!’ But the truth is the only consistent element of every indie success story is that the filmmakers stuck to their guns, kept pushing with whatever resources they had access to and didn’t go away.

MM: As a film school graduate, and now as a first-time feature film director, do you feel that your education was beneficial when it came time to get on the set and direct your film? Would you recommend film school to all aspiring moviemakers?

RJ: I went through USC’s undergraduate film production program and I had a good time doing it. I met all my best friends there, including my cinematographer, Steve Yedlin. I’m glad I went.

That having been said, at the end of the day, you’re not going to learn how to make movies in a classroom. and having a film degree—even from a good school—doesn’t open doors or entitle you to anything in the professional world. There’s no secret handshake, or if there was I didn’t learn it. But if you’re motivated to make your own films and watch every movie you can get your hands on, it is nice to have good resources and a safe alcove to do it in for four years.

MM: One of the film’s greatest strengths lies in its incredible cast, particularly in your lead actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who really came to embody the role of Brendan (and was wonderfully reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart). How hard was it to find a cast of young actors willing and able to take on the challenges of your film, let alone deliver your lines? 

RJ: I used up all my good luck many times over finding our cast. It was incredibly hard finding young actors who had the chops to attack this very odd style of dialogue, and also were interested in attempting it. I’m still amazed that, without exception, every member of our cast was so passionate about the project and was able to nail their role.

Casting the character of Brendan was especially frightening; the character is in every scene of the film. If we didn’t find the perfect person for that role, the movie would suck eggs. We lucked out. Joe’s not only one talented sonofabitch, he’s also incredibly smart and very committed to his work. He ended up becoming a friend and real creative partner on the film.

MM: You’ve been making short films since you were 12 years old, so it goes without saying that moviemaking has been a lifelong passion of yours. Now that you’ve made your first feature and have been exposed to the “business” of making movies, what has been the most surprising lesson that you have learned thus far? 

RJ: I keep coming back to the word ‘lucky’ in describing my experiences from Brick onward. I feel like such a wimp, I need to get (or make up) some harrowing war stories to tell. But the truth is that Focus Features bought Brick at Sundance, and they’re just a great company. Meeting the people there, you can see where their movies come from. I’ve also got a great producer, Ram Bergman, who has had my back through the entire process. So I’ve felt very protected.

I think the one important thing is just to know the lay of the land; that is, to know it is a business and try and learn as quickly as possible what everyone’s role is, so you can understand their motivations. If you can do that, it’s easier to not react emotionally to the business side of it and keep a level head.

MM: As a writer-director, what comes first for you in the moviemaking process? Do you consider yourself to be more of a writer than a director or do they go hand in hand?

RJ: What I mainly enjoy about being a writer-director (and editor) is how it lets you smooth those three roles into one continuous process. It’s not about the words or the shots or the cutting, it’s about the storytelling.

MM: What can we look forward to next from you? 

RJ: I’ve written a con man movie, which I’m very excited about. Hopefully I’ll be making it soon. (I just took a good 20 seconds finding some wood in this room so I could knock on it.) MM

Brick will be released by Focus Features on March 24, 2006. Visit www.brickmovie.net for more information. Photograph by Steve Yedlin, courtesy of Focus Features.

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