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The Brothers Bloom - Rian Johnson interview

Rian Johnson

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RIAN Johnson talks to us about the making of con-man movie The Brothers Bloom and why he wanted to give it an emotional, character-driven edge.

He also talks about working with Rachel Weisz, staying independent when it comes to realising his visions, and why sci-fi will be the genre he tackles next…

Q. I gather the seeds for The Brothers Bloom were sewn before Brick?
Rian Johnson: A bit, yeah. I’d been wanting to do a conman movie for a long time, so that was the initial thing. But it wasn’t until around the time we were shooting Brick, and right after that, that it started coming together about these two brothers and a woman. The real seed of it was the challenge of doing a conman movie with an emotional, character-based pay-off, as opposed to with a plot twist. That seemed like a really interesting challenge because it goes against the grain of what audiences are kind of trained to expect from a con-man movie. It seemed like a frightening and terrifying thing to try, so therefore right to give it a shot.

Q. And how easy was it to pull off?
Rian Johnson: [Laughs] It’s nice to know we did pull it off for you! It was quite difficult… but fun. But I think there’s no point in doing something if it’s not incredibly difficult. Essentially, it was a matter of figuring out how to get audiences past the emotional stiff-arming that you have with characters in a con-man movie… because you know that somebody’s going to end up screwing somebody over, so you don’t trust anyone in the movie and you don’t emotionally invest in anyone in the movie. That’s the tricky thing. So, the approach that I took was kind of two-fold.

First of all, it was taking a main character and making that explicitly his issue – you know, saying he doesn’t trust in anyone and believes he can’t invest in anyone either because he things everyone is just screwing each other and it’s all just a big, highly stylised movie that his brother is making. The other was just making them brothers… that decision to have them be family, for me, automatically earns you some emotional connection between them. But it was a tricky tap-dance.

Q. And then weaving in the importance of storytelling in people’s lives?
Rian Johnson: Absolutely… and that was really, for me, something that was on my mind quite a bit at the time. It was a way to think about it and work through a bunch of stuff with that. It’s the importance of storytelling in all of our lives… as the process of taking in the world around you and deciding how you’re going to tell it back to yourself and how you’re going to perceive the world around you… and in a real way.

Q. It also helps to create a heightened sense of reality for yourself as well… which the brothers put into practice as a way of living their lives…
Rian Johnson: Totally. First of all, I’m definitely a big believer in the notion that a heightened style can get you closer to an authentic human experience than so-called realism on film. There are films I love that have kind of a muted or realistic style, but for me on any given day I have more moments during the course of a day that feel like a Fellini movie than I do a Cassavettes movie.

Right now, I feel that maybe we’re in a swing in terms of the cultural trends… filmmaking trends right now are in this swing towards a more austere, kind of realistic style of filmmaking. There’s some really great stuff being done in that style. But I tend to really love movies that go for the throat style-wise, and aren’t afraid to get a little operatic, I guess. And it made sense to do that with this movie because it’s very much about a guy who feels trapped inside storytelling and trapped inside this heightened world. So, I had quite a bit of fun being able to bring the style out.

Rachel Weisz in The Brothers Bloom

Q. You also have an amazing cast but did you ever expect that Rachel Weisz would be quite so dedicated in learning to play the violin, the accordion, break-dancing, skateboarding, karate and what not?
Rian Johnson: [Laughs] God no.. she was just so into it. With that one hobby montage sequence we did, I had no idea how much she was going to dive into it and really go for it. She actually learned a little bit of how to play each of those instruments and would practise every night to get the finger movements right. And that’s for something in the film that goes by like that [clicks his fingers]. But in general, though, that was a really tricky part. There’s a life to it on the page but the gap between the page and the screen is a very dangerous place for that part because it’s so full of eccentricity, there’s such a danger of it just becoming a big pile of quirks and eccentricity.

It took a lot of work to take a character who’s that big and make them feel real and make them feel like somebody that is living and breathing on the screen. If it had been an actor in that part that was less talented than Rachel, it would have been very easy for that part to go wrong. To her eternal credit, she just worked her butt off and really kept it honest in terms of making sure she was really living and experiencing each one of these big ridiculous moments, so that it worked on screen.

Q. And Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody… I gather Mark was originally a first choice for Bloom?
Rian Johnson: Yeah, when I first met with Mark it was about Bloom. But when I sat down with him… in real life he’s much closer to Stephen. He’s actually like this big, warm personality that’s like a storyteller. He’ll hug everybody in the room… in person he’s much more like Stephen than he is, in my opinion, the roles that he usually plays… these darker roles. He’s a much happier guy in real life, so that made sense to me.

Q. One of the producers in the film’s production notes says that it was important for them to keep your film away from studios so that your vision could be fully realised. Is that something that’s important to you?
Rian Johnson: Well, so far it’s yielded two really amazing experiences just in terms of making the movies. I hadn’t worked in the studio system before. I’m sure there would be good stuff about it. But my background as a director is really just someone who grew up making movies with their friends… that was really my training ground, as opposed to some sort of professional environment. So, a) I’m used to it being a really cool, fun and relaxed atmosphere on the set; b) I’m used to having complete and total control over the process and, by extension, that allows you to be a lot more collaborative with everybody.

If you can relax and don’t have to be protective over freaking out that decisions will get made that aren’t yours, you can totally relax and then bring everybody in, and they can give you ideas. Knowing that you have your hands firmly on the wheel helps you to be more collaborative, I think. So, that’s just a mode of filmmaking that I’ve got and I’ve been really blessed that it’s happened twice. I’m not sure if that could happen in the studio system. Right now, we have a way of making it happen in the independent world, so as long as I can keep going with that, I’m happy.

The Brothers Bloom

Q. But does the success of Brick and The Brothers Bloom make it harder for you to stay out there? Do you find you’re more in demand?
Rian Johnson: There’s plenty of talented directors who like studio stuff. It’s not like my door is being banged down. It’s always flattering when you get approached for stuff like that, but ultimately right now nothing’s quite as interesting to me as coming up with my own stories and getting them up on screen. It just seems like a very unique and wonderful place to be in, that I can do that, so I want to take advantage of it for as long as I can – and who knows how long it will be….

Q. So will Looper, your next film, be done the same way?
Rian Johnson: I think so. At this point, yes. We’re still putting it together.

Q. Where did the idea of Looper – about time-travelling assassins – come from?
Rian Johnson: It started with a basic concept… because it’s a time travel movie and so it has a hook concept. I actually wrote that as a short film, which I never ended up filming. But it was a little two-page short that I wrote to get the seed of that idea down on paper. But that sat in the drawer forever, until we were finishing up Bloom and I started thinking about it and it started attaching itself to some bigger ideas that I had. So, it expanded out into a feature. It’s a time-travel movie but kind of a contained time-travel movie. It all takes place in one time zone… there’s not a lot of jumping around. It’s very character based.

Q. And you have Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead roles?
Rian Johnson: Actually, we don’t have any… I know stories have been leaked in the press but we don’t have any official casting announcements yet. We haven’t completely signed anybody on… so we’ll see what happens.

Q. So, what is it about the sci-fi genre that made you choose it next?
Rian Johnson: I think all of us who grew up watching the movies.. you’ve got Star Wars… It’s weird, the genre feels like it grew up with our generation, starting with Star Wars when we were kids, and then Blade Runner, the Alien movies, Predator… it just seems like this stepping stone train of great sci-fi movies that took us up through adulthood pretty much. It’s fun now to see, with movies like Moon, a resurgence of smart sci-fi. To see it now being used to a different end is really exciting to see. I love sci-fi… it also lets you do grand, mythical concepts with this thin layer of pseudo-science on them so that a modern audience will swallow them. But essentially, you’re doing magic basically! There’s nothing scientific about time-travel actually. It might as well be winged horses, but it lets you operate on that type of level of storytelling.

The Brothers Bloom

Q. Have you picked Gordon’s brain about Inception?
Rian Johnson: No… I’ve been really sorely tempted, but at the same time I don’t want to know. [Christopher] Nolan.. that guy knows how to – I think he’s one of my favourite filmmakers working right now. I love his movies. He is so good at doing these… and the fact that we don’t know much about Inception, that we know exactly what he wants us to know [laughs]… that’s pretty exciting and a weird thing at this point.

Q. How much did it mean to you to have Joseph Gordon-Levitt [from Brick] cameo at the start of The Brothers Bloom?
Rian Johnson: Oh that was awesome. We really stayed good friends since Brick and he was just out in Serbia hanging out with us while we were shooting. So, we just put a hat on him and put him in the scene! The idea was that the scene was the wrap party for the previous con, so we tried to get as many Brick people in there as possible! It was a Brick reunion.

Q. What do you like about working with Joseph?
Rian Johnson: I think he’s an incredible actor, first of all. And he’s a genuinely creative spirit. He’s constantly making stuff, whether it’s acting in a movie or playing music, or… he has this website called HitRecord.org. It’s pretty damn cool. It’s a big collaborative website where people can upload and download stuff and contribute to each other’s work. He’s not just like a working actor, he’s genuinely engaged with the work for personal, creative reasons. He’s a genuinely creative guy and that’s invigorating for an old fart like me [laughs]! I can hitch my wagon to that kind of energy.

Q. But you have a musical background as well… as a folk singer?
Rian Johnson: [Laughs] That’s right! We were playing Carnegie Hall and I just looked around and said: “You know, I don’t want to be an ageing rock star for the rest of my life!” No… every time that my cousin is in town… I do very poorly play the banjo and I can barely hold a tune. But my cousin and I, every time he’s in town, will pick up a microphone and write a song together. I feel like it’s important to have something creative that you do in your life that has nothing to do with making a living… some outlet that you’re kind of bad at, but that you really enjoy. Music is definitely that for me!

Q. And folk music is the genre of choice?
Rian Johnson: Yeah, there’s something about folk music that has always… I don’t know, I had a bunch of old Pete Seger records when I was young. There’s just something about them… the storytelling element of it.

Mark Ruffalo in The Brothers Bloom

Q. I read once that you weren’t interested in directing somebody else’s screenplay, but you’ve since directed an episode of Breaking Bad
Rian Johnson: Yes! It’s so good. I was just such a big fan of that show. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with that cast. It’s weird, too, because when you’re a fan of a movie, you’ll never get the opportunity to walk on the set of that movie and see the actors in costume – it’s done and everyone’s moved on. But with a TV show… it’s a very weird experience to be a fan of a TV show and then walk onto the set of Walt’s bedroom and then in through the door comes Bryan Cranston dressed as Walt, looking exactly like the character. I’m a fan and it was a weird experience that was cool to have. But the writing on that show is so good. I just had a great time doing that.

Q. The episode’s called The Fly and there has been a lot of buzz about it…
Rian Johnson: [Laughs aloud] There you go! It’s a very weird episode… very strange. It’s very different from the rest of the season in many ways. It got very well reviewed but if you read the [fan] comments, it really split people. They’re either saying it was the best episode of the season, or the worst. It was that kind of thing, which is exciting. But I had no control over which script they handed me to direct – they just happened to give me a weird one, I guess.

Q. But did they allow you to bring your vision to it?
Rian Johnson: Well, I didn’t really try… that’s the weird thing. I really just tried to execute what was in the script and stay close to that. I wasn’t coming and trying to put some stamp on it; I was coming in as a fan of the show who wanted to do a really great Breaking Bad episode. My goal was to do right by the show.

Q. Would you do it again?
Rian Johnson: In a heartbeat, yes! That show, definitely. TV, in general… I think generally directing TV is not such a… my impression is that TV is very much a writer and producer’s medium. I think Breaking Bad was a really wonderful and maybe a unique experience in the amount of creative leeway I was given. But I had a great time doing it.

Q. You mentioned making films when you were young… so how does it feel to have come so far? Did you ever imagine it could happen?
Rian Johnson: Oh, it’s kind of ridiculous that I’m allowed to do this. But there’s a weird continuity, too. It doesn’t feel that different from the way it felt just making movies with friends when I was young. My composer is Nathan Johnson, my cousin, and we’ve been making movies since we were 10-years-old. My cinematographer is my best friend who I met freshman year in the dorms. So, there’s a continuity that I’ve tried to build up and hopefully Joseph [Gordon-Levitt] is part of that now, too. It’s about finding people that you love working with and building this kind of little family around you. I think that leads to the best work. And even if it doesn’t, at least it’s the best kind of experience – and why wouldn’t you want to have that if you’re lucky enough to be able to make movies. But we’ll see how long we can keep going [touches wood].

Read our review of The Brothers Bloom