With two acclaimed scripts under his belt, BRICK and THE BROTHERS BLOOM, Rian Johnson explains why he won’t let his soaring status change his very personal writing style and reveals his unique remedy for writer’s block…
You know when Tom Cruise comes calling that you’ve made it. Which is exactly what happened to Rian Johnson when the script for his sophomore feature The Brothers Bloom began to circulate around Hollywood. “I don’t think there was ever any realistic chance of him being in the movie,” smiles the genial Johnson, “but he’d read it, he liked it and wanted to meet.” And they did; a three-hour chat about the film at Cruise’s house. It ultimately led to the writer/ director making several significant changes to the script and thanking the star in the credits.
Having come to prominence with 2005’s cult high school film noir Brick, Johnson doubtless appreciated Cruise’s input-if only because, as the author of his own projects, he knows only too well how “awful” it is facing the blank page. “There’s a great saying,” he says. “It’s ‘I hate writing but I love having written.’” Admitting that it’s gratifying to realise your own story on screen, it’s why the 36-yearold filmmaker is keen to remain an auteur rather than a hack for hire. “That doesn’t really appeal to me, at least right now. And I’m not sure I’d be that good at it!”
Partly, he says, this is because writing his own scripts to direct gives him complete ownership of the idea. “It seems like it would be a much harder job to take an existing piece of material and try and find a way in and also penetrate it that deeply, to where you know it on the level you know your own stuff.” As he puts it, when you write your own script, it gives you “confidence to show up on set and tell people what to do.” But, more importantly than that, it comes from within. “I have such a personal connection to every piece of the material because I’ve been with it from the very beginning, when it was just a seed.”
For Johnson, filmmaking is evidently a deeply internal process. In the case of Brick, it was about “trying to capture the subjective feeling of what high school felt like for me”. But with The Brothers Bloom, a comic con artist romance inspired more by Paper Moon than The Grifters, it was even closer to home. “There’s plenty in there that applies to my family,” he says. “I know it has a real candy coating to it, and the film has the appearance of being light, but it’s actually an incredibly personal film for me. In a lot of ways, a lot more so than Brick. It addresses much more directly a lot of specific issues I’ve dealt with.”
The story follows Stephen Bloom (Mark Ruffalo) and his younger sibling known only by his surname (Adrien Brody), who travel the world masterminding elaborate cons with their near-mute Japanese sidekick Bang Bang (Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi). While Bloom is keen to kick this lifestyle, Stephen talks him into one last con: swindling a lonely New Jersey heiress, Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz). Inevitably, Bloom falls for their mark-which only serves to complicate the job and his already fractious relationship with his brother.
The eldest of three boys, Johnson, who was born in Maryland but raised in California, grew up in a big family. “The general tone of the relationship is very much drawn from my family. That’s what I wanted to capture; what it feels like when you’re hanging out with people and there’s a comfortable kind of chaos.” He also wanted to explore that age-old cliché about family: can’t live with them, can’t live without them. “Adrien’s character wants nothing more than to break apart but doesn’t really know what to do with himself when he’s apart from Stephen. It’s either a deep bond of love or co-dependency, depending on how you define it.”
With the film shot throughout Eastern Europe, you might say the biggest con in the movie is just how little it cost, given some of the elaborate settings and set pieces. Johnson credits his producer, Ram Bergman, for this. “I was asking him, budget wise, ‘What are we going to be able to pull off?’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just write what the story calls for and we’ll figure out a way to do it’. I think that’s smart, even if you write it in the script, and it ends up having to come out-which nothing did on Bloom.”
Part of Johnson’s success comes from playing with genre. “I love genre because a lot of the movies I grew up loving and watching were genre pieces,” he says. “And also I do think it’s nice to have a framework to work in, a framework that’s so well known. Because the audience knows those rules so well, it even gives you more leeway to play with them. And that’s so important as a writer: to have limitations and a template to work with.”
Johnson is currently hard at work refining the script for his third film, a sci-fi effort called Looper. Set in Kansas, it’s based around a group of hit men who are sent their victims from the future. “It’s very serious; tonally it’s a 180-turn from The Brothers Bloom,” he says. “It’s also very different from Brick but it’s dark and deals with a lot of violence. It’s not a huge Star Wars or Star Trek type thing. It’s much more like Blade Runner, character based and set in the near future.”
Talking of the future, could Johnson ever see himself directing a studio blockbuster? “I would love to if the right thing came along. The big thing, though, is if I could find a way to have a degree of control over it. The idea of having that big a sandbox is really appealing to me, but it’s not if it can’t be my film. And you hear so many stories of directors having done a personal film, and then getting hired to do a big job, and just getting raped basically.” At least if he does move in this direction, he can always call on Tom Cruise for help. ♦
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 17 (May/June 2010)
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