The Legitimizor: Rian Johnson Fakes It for The Brothers Bloom


There’s a machine which, in the back of my mind, I always assumed existed. It’s called “The Legitimizor.” Housed in a lead casing, tangled in rubberized wiring and tesla coils askew, kept in the basement of an unassuming restaurant in New York, The Legitimizor hums with a solid low-range frequency and waits for its one purpose. Each year, sometime after Sundance, a new crop of moviemakers is invited by a mysterious engraved postcard to this restaurant. They are met by (for some reason) Peter Bogdanovich, who makes small talk over drinks, then leads them downstairs and feeds them, one by one, into The Legitimizor.

Jim Jarmusch. Steven Soderbergh. Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher. Check behind their right ears and you’ll find the telltale quarter-inch scar, the one physical trace left by The Legitimizor.

For a do-it-yourself moviemaker who cut his teeth making goofy shorts with his friends and a borrowed camcorder, the gap between what I was doing and what real moviemakers did seemed unfathomable. Even Brick, my first feature, had the comfort of being insanely low-budget. Though I had an amazing cast, most of whom had a decade of experience in film acting under their belts, they were young, which gave me the warm illusion of it being “just another weekend project with some friends.”

But when the unthinkable happened and I was somehow allowed to make a second movie, there was nothing to hide behind. With a budget well over 30 times that of Brick, a cast of actors who were routinely on magazine covers and a 60-day shoot (Sixty?? For one movie? What the fuck am I going to do for 60 days?) spread across exotic locales in Europe, there was no fooling myself. This was a Movie, big ‘M,’ and I could only assume that my engraved invitation was lost in the mail, or that my name had somehow fallen through the cracks of Mr. Bogdanovich’s outdated filing system. Because our start date was fast approaching and I was still the same old schmoe.

So I did what we all do in these situations: I faked it.

To quote Rudyard Kipling via John Huston by way of Michael Caine, “We bluff it out. Polish our buttons, stuff ramrods up our jacksies and look bold.” From the first meeting with our financiers, who somehow looked at the script and my face and decided to trust me with enough money to fill a swimming pool with (large) bills, to the first rehearsal, in which a couple Academy Award-winning actors settled into their chairs and looked up at my dull gaze with terrifying expectation, to the first day of shooting and beyond. Take a breath, put on a smile and do your best to act as if this is the way it’s done.

Once I adopted this dubious tactic, some amazing things occurred. First and foremost, I realized that this was what our movie was about. The Brothers Bloom is a con man movie about two brothers, played by Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, who pull their final job on an eccentric millionaire recluse, the lovely Rachel Weisz. Brody, the younger brother, has hit a wall and feels that he’s been living his life through these cons, playing the role of the dashing hero, but always in a fiction. He wants to get out of the con, to actually be the man he’s always just pretended to be. He wants, in other words, to be put through The Legitimizor. His big realization (thematic subtextual spoiler alert!) is that embracing life means not shying away from telling your own story the way you want it told, or more to the point: Life is bluffing it out.

So, secondly and by extension, I found that there was little difference between pretending I knew how to direct a Movie and actually directing one. I’d take it one step further, actually: There really isn’t much of a difference between making a “movie” and making a “Movie.” Heavier equipment, more people and a magical table with an endless supply of cookies and soda; that’s all the upper-case “M” buys you. If you can tell a story with a group of people and a camera, you can just as easily do it with $10 or a swimming pool full of hundreds. (On a side note though, I can’t imagine any film you could finance using a swimming pool full of hundreds being be more entertaining than actually filming someone jumping into a swimming pool full of hundreds.)

Reading back over this, I’m not sure whether the big lesson is to follow your dreams or to lie, deceive and fake so well (or so much) that you fool everyone—including yourself. Instead of trying to resolve it, I think the easiest thing to do is watch F for Fake a few times and convince myself that there’s a romanticism in the ambiguity. In any case, the practical upshot of it all was this: The actors were suddenly collaborators, the investors were on our side and it was all back to feeling like a group of friends getting together to make a goofy short with a borrowed camcorder over a weekend.

No Legitimizor required.

(Although, if Peter Bogdanovich is reading this, e-mail is actually the best way to get in touch with me. The mail is a little funky at my apartment.)

Summit Entertainment will release The Brothers Bloom on Friday, May 15th.

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