Johnson knew who I was when we sat down for a one on one interview about his debut film, Brick.
Whenever someone knows who I am I always flash through my mind trying
to think what I have written about them, and whether the revelation
that they know me is about to be followed with a fist to the face. The
one thing I had written about Brick was that its concept – a noir set in a high school – sounded like Veronica Mars to me. Turns out I was wrong, since Brick is
infinitely more accomplished than any TV show. it’s a stunning debut,
and it really marks Johnson as a major talent right out the gate. And
I’m not saying that because he reads CHUD.

Brick was
a long time in the making; Johnson and his friends (who became his
crew) spent six years trying to get it made. They would go out and take
location photos long before they had secured a dime of funding. When it
finally did get made, Brick
got accepted to Sundance where it won a special jury prize for
Originality of Vision, and I can’t think of a more fitting award. Brick is
a film that takes some very familiar concepts and elements and
synthesizes them into something that’s exhilaratingly fresh. I spent
most of the running time of Brick
with a grin on my face – not because the film’s funny but because
Johnson had the audacity to try what he did, and the talent and skill
to succeed so completely.

Brick hits
this Friday in the lucky cities. If you want to find out when this
excellent film is coming to a theater near you, check out the Brick forums at Rian’s website by clicking here.

Q: This has been a long process for you – this played at Sundance last year.

Johnson: A long process. And even longer than that – I wrote the script right out of film school.

The movie you worked on forever, but this part, where the movie’s done
but people can’t see it, has been going on for over a year and change.

We made the thing totally independently and Focus bought it at Sundance
and then immediately slotted it into their schedule a year later. At
first, personally being impatient I was frustrated with it, but
eventually I realized it’s a good thing, because they have been very
good at putting it out there in terms of screenings and showing it at
festivals. Particularly for this film I think word of mouth is really
the only advertising that means anything. I know people have been
responding well to the trailer, which is encouraging, but at the same
time the central conceit of the movie is so weird you really need
someone to sell it.

Q: I
walked in and didn’t know what the film was about, and took me a couple
of minutes to get my bearings. At first it seems kind of funny –
they’re talking funny – and then you realize it really works.

Johnson: At
the same time it’s really tricky because if you just tell people that
this is a hard-boiled detective movie set in a high school, that
doesn’t communicate that it works. And if it doesn’t work, it could be
the worst concept ever.

That’s the thing – I kept expecting it to be a comedy, that the concept
of them being hard boiled would be played for laughs, but it never is.

Absolutely not. It’s real important that we stuck very true to the
detective roots of it. The origin of it, where it came from, is my love
of Dashiell Hammett’s novels, and just wanting to make a straight up
American detective movie. The whole twist of setting it in this high
school world for me had nothing to do with being post-modern or meta or
or any of that bullshit, it was really just because the visual cues of
film noir are so ingrained in our culture now that it’s hard to see
them without turning a piece of your brain off and filing it as film
noir. That was really the origin of putting it in this high school
world, giving it a different set of visual cues, so we could do a much
more straightforward take on a genre movie.

Q: How hard was it to get your cast to get that patter, that rapid fire dialogue?

We worked a lot on it. With Joseph in particular we had a three month
period where we got together constantly and watched movies, talked
about movies and worked out exactly how we would make this weird
language work. The first thing we tried was to forget about this
formalized dialogue and do it completely naturally. That didn’t work,
it fell flat, and we realized if you’re going to have this kind of
language you have to take the bull by the horns. We went back and
watched a bunch of Billy Wilder movies. We watched Treasure of the
Sierra Madre and we had to kind of study that style of performance,
which isn’t done today.

Q: That style died out when Marlon Brando showed up, but do you think that such stylized dialogue could come back?

Johnson: I
don’t know. If so it would be a sea change that would happen a century
from now. People get used to a certain thing. But then again, you look
at the modern day sitcom –

Q: Which has a lot of those elements.

Johnson: Absolutely.
Two centuries from now people will look at our sitcoms from today and
think it’s the weirdest, most alien thing in the world. It’s kind of
the frog in the pot of water having the heat turned up – there are a
bunch of conventions of the genre that we’ve gotten used to since the

Q: As a writer is it fun to write like that?

It’s a blast. It’s a blast because you never get to do it. For the
actors I think that’s one of the things they responded to, what other
opportunity are they going to have to try this kind of thing?

When you spend so long working on a film, planning it out for months
and years before the first frame is shot, how does that effect the

Johnson: That’s
interesting. The editing is always a process, I think, of in a way
being able to let go of the conceptions you had at the beginning. So
the fact that I had so long to conceive of this at the beginning made
it inherently more difficult. The fact that I had the luxury to take so
long on the editing, mostly because we financed it independently and
because I was cutting it on a Mac in my bedroom, I had all the time in
the world to play with it. When I was planning the film out I was
watching a lot of Sergio Leone westerns, and I shot it in that style –
which works for the framings, but I shot it in these long single takes.
Then I got to the editing phase of it and I kind of realized that I
shot it in this particular way, but the Hammett, the stuff that it’s
based on, is very percussive. It’s very short and it’s very abrupt,
it’s all about saying the most in the least amount of words possible.
When I put the first cut together I realized the pace was off and it
was way too long, but because we had shot so quickly I didn’t have
coverage. So what I did was I just went into the shots and cut out the
boring parts of the shots. Now there are these jump cuts that happen
throughout the movie, that’s where those came from.

Q: Necessity is the mother of invention.

Johnson: Absolutely. But it ended up creating this other cool kind of little style thing that works with it.

Q: What’s next for you? I assume that the time between Sundance and now has given you the chance to think about it.

I have had a con man movie percolating for the last couple of years and
I wrote it this summer. We’re in the thick of trying to get it made
now, and as proud as I am of Brick and the work everyone did and what a
great experience it was, I did write this when I was in my early 20s.
It feels really good to be working on something I wrote this year and
is about stuff that I’m about now in my life.

Q: Is the con man film going to be a genre mash up as well?

Johnson: A bit. I think it’s more straight ahead, but at the same time it’s very much in its own world. It’s a con man movie, a very character based con man movie about two brothers. It’s kind of the same thing as Brick
in that it’s character based and I hope the main relationship is what
takes you through it, but it was important to me not to sublimate the
con man elements of it, to make it work with the characters.

I would imagine that after your first film wins a special jury prize
for originality of vision at Sundance it would be easier to get your
second film off the ground.

Johnson: Your
lips to God’s ears. So far. But again those six years of trying to get
funding taught me that you’re not making a movie until the film is
rolling through the camera.

Q: Do you have people coming to you and saying they want to be in your next film?

Yeah, and that’s nice. It’s nice to have something that does a bit of
the talking for you, because I’m bad at selling myself. Now I just show
them the movie.

Q: How much of a difference does it make having a couple of names in your film versus having nobody at all?

Johnson: You mean in terms of getting into Sundance?

Actually in and then getting noticed at the festival. Because it seems
like every year there are more and more movies filled with names we
recognize and with budgets over 10 million dollars that are not
necessarily what we think of as Sundance films. You’re on the lower end
of the budget, but you still have names in your film.

In terms of how Sundance works, I couldn’t say. But I do have to hold
on to the idealistic hope that if you do have somebody or nobody in it,
if you make a good and interesting movie, people are dying for that.
Especially up at Sundance – everybody’s just incredibly thirsty for
something interesting to see and get excited about. When it happens,
again maybe it’s naïve, but I like to believe it isn’t about who’s in
the movie.

Q: It’s about the film itself.

So what are you watching these days?

Johnson: I just discovered Bergman, which sounds really weird because I went to film school. In film school I watched The Seventh Seal and I kind of idiotically felt I had Bergman pegged but then I recently watched Fanny and Alexander for the first time and it blew my mind. So now I’m going through and rewatching Scenes from a Marriage – it’s all a revelation to me.

Q: You mentioned you were watching Leone films and they affected how you approached Brick; does that often happen to you? Do you find that what you’re works its way into your stuff?

Johnson: Absolutely.
Not that it has necessarily had much to do with how the final product
comes out. It’s kind of like the music you’re listening to when you
write a script; it’s important that you personally apply that directly
to the script because it’s what you’re excited about and passionate
about in the moment, and it’s going to feed what you’re working on at
the moment. Then inevitably a year later when you’re cutting the movie
together you try putting that music in and it doesn’t fit. But no, I
think that’s what feeds you, whatever you’re excited about in the

Q: Bergman’s
what made Woody Allen stop being funny, so we’ll see what happens with
you. Is the next film going to be really dour?

Johsnon: I’m making Interiors 2, actually.

How does that happen that you get back into Bergman? It doesn’t seem
like you would go to Blockbuster on the weekend and not find anything
else to rent.

Netflix. I hate to be an adman here, and I’m not getting a free
subscription, but I am such a Netflix addict. I’ve got something that
most people don’t even have – I have the eight discs at once option.

Q: Holy shit.

Johnson: But
I don’t have cable, that’s how I justify it! That’s all I do. I’m
hooked on it. I burn through them, I try to watch as movie as I can.

My problem with Netflix is that I’ll set up my queue months in advance
and then whatever I felt like watching months ago, when it comes to my
mailbox, I am just not in the mood to watch it anymore. But you’re able
to just power through?

Johnson: You
know what the trick is to Netflix? And I tell this to all new Netflix
people, the trick is that if it’s sitting on your coffee table for a
couple of days and it’s a chore, send it back. Don’t think twice, just
send it back.

Q: You can always get it again.

Johnson: Exactly. It doesn’t matter if it’s something you think you should see, just ship it back.

Q: So what are the guilty pleasures on your queue right now?

Johnson: A friend of mine, Noah Segan who plays Dode in the movie, is a huge fan of 60s cinema, so I got that movie Candy, and I haven’t watched it yet.

Q: That movie is a little bit awesome.

Johnson: Is it weird?

Q: It’s really weird.

Johnson: And I watched that Peter O’Toole movie, The Ruling Class. Which I guess isn’t a guilty pleasure, but it’s out of nowhere. That whole freaked out 60s cinema.

They have a weird thing on Netflix – not to make the whole interview about Netflix – where you can have your friends see your list. I got excited about it, and then I signed my mom up for it. And now I realize –

Q: If you want to put something really creepy on the queue, your mom can see it.

Johnson: Yeah. So I’m censoring myself.

Q: Who are the current working directors that you consider the best? The ones you look up to.

I’m a huge fan of a couple. Wes Anderson, I love him. Paul Thomas
Anderson, I’m really excited about the new one that he’s working on.

Q: There was just a script review for that.

Johnson: I read it. The guy was ecstatic but he didn’t give much information.

Q: The guy was psyched, but he didn’t know it was based on a book already.

I know! He suggested they novelize it! [laughs] That’s a little
curious. Although that reminds me of one of the funniest things I’ve
seen in a bookstore, which was the novelization of the Gwyneth version
Great Expectations. It was a novelization of that movie.

Q: What about a novelization of Brick?

You know what’s funky is that during the writing process my first step
was that I wrote it as a novella. I imitated Hammett’s writing style,
which is very distinct. When people think of detective fiction they
think of Chandler, with those long flowing metaphors about the city at
night. But Hammett is much more like Hemingway.

Q: It’s punchy and snappy.

Johnson: So
I wrote it in prose and imitated his style and that helped shape the
story and the dialogue. I took those hundred pages and transcribed them
into screenplay form. So I’ve got a novel version. We might publish it.

Q: That’s cool. But why screenwriting and filmmaking? Why not novels?

The most exciting stuff about it for me is the stuff that doesn’t come
from me. It’s the stuff that’s accidental, or that the actors bring. As
meticulously planned out as
was, and I planned every single shot in the movie and knew how it was
going to cut, but at the same time the reason I can still sit down and
watch it after having seen it 500 times, is the stuff the actors bring,
that I had nothing to do with.

The common perception of directors is that they have these big egos,
but a part of being a good director is letting go of that ego and
letting people add to your vision.

Johnson: Absolutely,
and taking it as a collaboration. But at the same time on the side I
write stuff just for myself, I goof around with recording musical
things I never play for anyone. It’s important to have both things, but
those specific things about filmmaking are what excite me.

Q: Also I imagine hotter girls in filmmaking than in literature. This is what I read.

Q: Literary groupies are not as hot.

Johnson: I have yet to…

Q: But you got a prize at Sundance!

You know something, man, I don’t know where this myth about getting all
these hot chicks comes from. Maybe it’s just me, maybe not a “playa.”
I’m not dating Rachel Weisz yet.

Q: When they write the sequel to Raging Bulls, Easy Riders for this generation, you have to have something good in there.

Johnson: I have to work on it. Either that or make a lot of shit up and have pay people to agree with it.

When you’re working on this film for years and years, going out and
taking location photos long before you get the funding, what is it that
convinces you that all this work will one day culminate in a movie?

Johnson: You
just have to go on blind faith. You have to set it in your head like a
rock that you’re not going to go away until you’ve made this movie. I
used to get very frustrated during that time hearing from filmmakers
who had made films and wanting to hear details about how did you do
this – how did you go from a script to the movie, how do you get movies
made. They would always be infuriatingly vague, they would be like, “I
met this person and it came together.” But now I realize that the
answer is really you have to be vague. The details are different for
every single film. The common thread is that somebody stuck to their
guns and didn’t go away until they made their movie. That sounds very
general and vague, but it’s true. If you write something you care about
and want to make and you don’t go away until it’s made… it’ll get made.