Editors Note: Nick Allen interviewed Rian Johnson back in November 2008, because The Brothers Bloom was originally set to release in December 2008. Rian Johnson is my friend. Considering my interview skills were a bit rusty, (the last "celebrity" I interviewed was the keyboardist of Harry Potter rock group, Harry and the Potters), I was a bit intimidated by the idea of asking Rian Johnson questions. He is the writer-director behind indie-classic Brick and has now worked with Oscar nominated and winning actors/actresses in The Brothers Bloom. However, the ego I assumed he would (rightfully) have was nonexistent. The dialogue between the us was natural, somewhat professional, and at times egregiously nerdy. He fielded my odd questions and welcomed me into the world of The Brothers Bloom like a friend. In fact, Johnson's amicability made my shy wave to critic Michael Philips (who had interviewed him before me) more of a celebrity-like scenario.
I sat down with writer-director Johnson in a cozy lounge at The James Hotel in Chicago. Within twenty minutes, I was able to unearth the true film nerd that Johnson hides behind his professionalism, especially when talking to interviewees of much more experience. I had brought out his inner film kid, discussing Brick, Bloom, even his student short Evil Demon Golfball From Hell!!!, and at the end we both participated in doing poor impersonations of Sean Connery's lines from The Rock.
Compared to Brick, what was it like working with actors of a higher caliber?
Coming into it it was terrifying. It was exactly what you think. There's the notion that it's going to be something different because they're movie stars - they're on magazine covers, they've got the Oscars. But then again, it was terrifying coming into Brick, because I had never worked with professional actors before.
Only that golf ball (from DEMON GOLFBALL FROM HELL!!!)
Yeah, only the golf ball. That was just my friend Todd, you know, he was my roommate. I grew up making movies, I was very comfortable with filmmaking, but working with actors was a mysterious part of the process. With Brick the nice thing was - it ended up being my favorite part of the process - then, with this, I was terrified again. Once you actually start working, once you actually start getting your hands on, and start working with them, it's exactly the same thing. There's no secret language. You're just trying to tell a story together. I was lucky enough to have a group of really cool people in that they didn't have big egos, and they were there to do the work and they were all cool, so I didn't have to deal with any bullsh*t.
Nora Zehetner and Noah Segan from Brick are in the party at the beginning of The Brothers Bloom. Why?
Well, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is actually in that scene too. He's in the crowd. He just came out to visit us, and we stuck him in that scene. Well, the notion for me was - first, I love those guys, and any chance to put them in there I'll take - but it's also kind of fun, the notion that that scene was that party for the previous con, which is why the cast of Brick is there. If I could use Nora in every movie I would.
In the film, Rachel Weisz's character Penelope has a clumsy affinity for destroying cars. Did you use only one Lambroghini?
They gave us two. We didn't get to keep them, but they brought them out to the middle of Romania and we just crashed them into styrofoam walls for a few weeks. And the poor Italians who came out - it was like we were killing somebody's baby. We'd see these guys just cringing and dying. And we were afraid we'd have to buy replica Lambroghinis. And the fact that Lambroghini worked with us and brought two out there was pretty awesome.
Penelope is a very colorful character. Where did she come from? Was she inspired by somebody?
No, not by somebody. There's a lot of...there's a lot of me in there, though she's a lot prettier than me.
Are there any characters in Bloom that are similar...?
Well, when you bring in anything you pull from you have to personally connect to it yourself. So there's going to be something in everybody. I mean, Steven creating these worlds, as the showman I think is something that everyone that writes likes to romanticize. And then Bloom, he's the one that thematically really hinges on it for me. The obvious analogy was being an actor and playing different roles but not living your own life but for me the more interesting thing was, and I think this is how it connects more to my life, and to people I know who aren't in the entertainment business is I think we've all been in situations where we're all playing a part that we're not happy with. And we're continuing with the part because the idea of the unknown is a little scarier than playing this part or job we don't like or situation that you're in and keep living out. So for me, that was more of a personal connection with Bloom, I guess. And then [character] Bang-Bang - I love blowing stuff up. Bang-Bang was more of a wanting to do a Harpo Marx.
Were there any particular films that influenced The Brothers Bloom?
[Federico Fellini's] 8 1/2 has always been a big influence on me, in terms of the carnival atmosphere - there's some thematic thing about getting lost in this notion of storytelling. That both being the way to live out the fantasy and becoming a nightmare when you're trapped in it. Also, visually that is something that I looked at quite a bit for the film. And the films that inspired me were not the one's you'd expect - Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman. If you watch the scene where - it's more thematically than anything else - where the father is telling the story about the magic chair to the children, which I think is only in the longer version, is kind of an embarassing-ly succinct wrapping up of everything that Bloom is about. So you draw from...I hope this doesn't sound pretentious at all -
You're very far from that.
(Laughs) The things that you end up drawing from are in a way, the farther they are from they actual thing you're creating, it's very appealing, the idea of drawing from sources far and wide. And hopefully that's something that makes what you are creating a little bit more personal.
Saying that, who would your director heroes be?
I grew up as a film kid, so its Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Gilliam: it's the usual suspects. Kubrick obviously, Kurosawa, I could keep rattling on. John Huston also. Actually, when I was writing [Bloom], I was watching The Man Who Would Be King over and over, that kind of romantic adventure. And even though it's from Kipling there's something weirdly American about it.
You have this tiny film like Brick and now this big budget Bloom. Do you prefer one or the other, concerning budget and responsibility and so forth?
No. I was a little more comfortable with Bloom just because we had a little bit more space to breathe in. Nicer craft service. But at the end of the day, really, this is one of the nice things about the experience of Bloom. Having kind of insecurities and fears coming into it, and then when you actually start doing it, it's really kind of similar to the experience of Brick. When you're actually working and focusing on it, the fundamentals are the same. You're telling these stories and using these tools, it's all kind of the same stuff even if it's a little bigger. And that's something, when I talk to younger filmmakers, someone who grew up making movies with friends and a video camera, if you can tell a story with a video camera and your friends and tell a story with a Panavision camera and Rachel Weisz, it's exactly the same set of tools I think. Just using the materials that you have at hand to just make stuff and keep creating and hone your skills. Get rid of any notion that there's any type of gap between that and this. At the end of the day it's weird to think about it but there isn't any difference.
So that's how you went from Golfball from Hell!!! to Brick to this.
It's just kind of pulling yourself into taking the leap. But it's not so much of a leap, I guess.
Hypothetically, I'm a producer and I've got 500 million dollars. And you can make a blockbuster that would make Michael Bay cower up and die.
What movie would you make?
Uh...I would take all that money and tell you your shoelace was untied, and when you looked down and looked back up, I would be gone.
The ultimate con.
(Laughs) Exactly. It's...I'm trying to think of a way to answer it well. I don't have like a multi-million dollar dream project like I would make this or that. For me, it's just the boring or true answer: it's just about writing whatever the next thing is.
And what is the next thing?
A science fiction thing I'm writing right now. But it's not going to be a threat to Michael Bay at all. It's very character based. I'm sorry...I'm sorry. I love the Bayster! I love Michael Bay.
What's your favorite Michael Bay movie?
Let me think about that. The Rock, I think there's a special place in my heart just because I can recite Michael Caine's lines from it -
You mean Sean Connery.
Did I say Michael Caine? I'm still in The Man Who Would Be King mode. (In grand Connery voice) Welcome to The Rock.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning? The world's runniest omelet
Last CD you bought? Richard and Linda Thompson
Who would you be for 24 hours? Can't think of a clever answer
Favorite Summer Movie of all time? The ultimate movie is RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
Age of first kiss? Horrifyingly early. Sixth grade.
Super Power? Flight.
Worst Habit? Drinking way too much coffee