Rian Johnson: How I went from Brick to Brothers Bloom

Californian writer and film director Rian Johnson achieved critical acclaim in 2005 for a low budget neo-noir murder mystery movie inspired by Dashiell Hammett detective novels called ‘Brick.’ His second film, ‘Brothers Bloom,’ which hits cinemas in the UK tomorrow, is an intense departure from the edginess and careful stylisation of Johnson’s debut. It is instead a light-hearted conman movie, filled with slapstick capers and cons within cons, which might miss the mark for early converts to Johnson’s initial Wes Anderson-alike style, but which possesses a kooky, if self-aware, charm.

In the film, orphaned brothers Stephen and Bloom (Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, pictured above) are gentlemen criminals, who dress in anachronistic Blues Brothers suits and hats. They’re a clever pair, whose fraudulent antics began almost from birth. Following a well worn storyline, Bloom vows to go straight but is persuaded by Stephen to partake in once last con, thus finding himself embroiled in an attempt to bankrupt the beautiful, but totally cuckoo heiress Penelope Stamp (a convincingly dippy Rachel Weisz). Various complicated plotlines send the characters across the globe in pursuit of a fortune, with one of the brothers inevitably falling for the guileless heiress. Robbie Coltrane makes an amusing cameo as cartoonish Maximillen “The Curator” Melvile. And Rinko Kikuchi is a fabulous, if mute, foil to the brothers’ criminal activities starring as their sexy sidekick (and explosives expert) Bang Bang.

So how did Johnson make the transition from Brick to Brothers Bloom? The Independent Online caught up with him in London to find out.

How did you get into writing/directing films?

I grew up making movies really. As teenager I went everywhere with a camera in my hand. I studied at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and wrote the script for Brick virtually straight out of college. I then spent most of my twenties trying to get the film made.

Was it difficult getting studios interested in Brick?

Yes. It is a very weird script. It’s basically a Dashiell Hammett story set in a high school. The story is a murder story about a guy whose ex-girlfriend is found dead. I don’t really know how to describe it actually, as it’s a difficult movie to describe and make it sound good. [Laughs] It was eventually filmed in my old high school, actually, although it was nothing like my school really.

Because of the weird script I had a hard time getting money for it. So I got a series of day jobs. In my opinion the only difference between people who make it those who don’t, is that the former have greater persistence. We got funding for the movie the day before I turned 30 and I felt very lucky.

Trailer: Brothers Bloom

What happened once filming was over?

Well, it was quite a slow process actually to gauge the response. It cost $500,000 to make and we filmed it in 20 days. It wasn’t a great commercial or financial success initially, but it was distributed by Focus Features and then amazingly it got picked up at Sundance. [Brick was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005].

How did writing and making Brick compare with Bloom?

There were obvious practical differences in that Brick was done on a much tighter budget. So when I was writing the script for Bloom I could write things like ‘and then the castle blows up…’ without worrying about whether or not we could execute it. But the creative process for both was basically the same once you got into the actual day-to-day work of filming.

So, what’s next?

I’m working on a new project called ‘Looper.’ It’s a science fiction film. It will be very different from Bloom or Brick, but hopefully still fun. It is a bit weird I suppose, that I’ve gone from high school to cons to sc-fi.

You’re still at the casting stage for Looper. I understand you’re in talks with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who played the lead in Brick) about the film?

Nothing’s been confirmed yet. My producer is probably listening outside and will come in here and shoot me if I say anything I shouldn’t. All I can say is: we want someone good.

Bloom was released in the US last year. What’s the response been like?

People seem to like it. It has divided opinion among some. I’m always surprised at how much rage movies can inspire, especially when they’re supposed to be fun. I guess some people were expecting the next movie to be in the same vein as Brick and because it wasn’t I can understand why they might get upset. But I’ve also had some really great feedback about it.

As a writer and director, would you consider directing other people’s scripts or writing for other directors?

I won’t say that I’d never direct something somebody else had written, but I see the two disciplines as intrinsically linked. For now I don’t see myself doing it, but that’s not to say I won’t one day.

What do think of the problem of illegal downloads versus DVD sales?

I really hope that what happened to the music industry won’t happen to the movie industry. It’s tough because the switchover from DVD to the internet hasn’t really happened yet, even though DVDs are probably dying. There are a few places where you can by streaming links online and there are a few people being creative with online offerings. But the industry is still reliant on companies which sell DVDs so the innovation in this area seems to be driven by the directors. I recently recorded a commentary for Bloom which people can download onto their iPods and listen to while they watch the movie. It would be great if there could be a more creative approach to sales and merchandising based on download codes or streaming links.

Have you got anything in the pipeline for after Looper?

God you’re insatiable! What else do you want from me, my life? No, seriously. I haven’t told anyone this yet, but I was thinking last night it would be great to do an old fashioned murder mystery. Like an Agatha Christie, I love her! It’s a genre which is so popular in fiction but is really difficult to translate onto screen. Yep, no more Dashiell Hammetts, Agatha Christie is next.

The Brothers Bloom hits cinemas UK-wide from 4th June 2010

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