In the past few years, a handful of young American film directors have made debut features that can justifiably be called masterpieces. Of these films, the most compelling is Rian Johnson's Brick.
A witty, convoluted, breathlessly exciting variation on film noir set in a modern-day California high school, Brick boasts a terrific ensemble cast led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan Frye, a courageous teenage gumshoe out to solve the drug-related murder of his ex-girlfriend.
Everything about Brick is striking and distinctive, including Johnson's own stylish editing; the camera work of Steve Yedlin and production design of Jodie Tillen, turning the concrete school hallways and crumbling tract houses of San Clemente into the meanest streets this side of Boyz n the Hood; and the strange, Carl Orff-like score by Johnson's cousin Nathan Johnson, with Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" thrown in for dessert. Perhaps the best thing about the movie is the cryptic yet jazzy dialogue in Johnson's screenplay, the characters speaking an in-group argot half Maltese Falcon, half Veronica Mars. "Maybe I'll just stand here and bleed at you," a badly beaten Brendan says to The Pin, a criminal mastermind played by Lukas Haas. Just as cheeky is Brendan's remark to the Barton McLane-like assistant vice principal played by Richard Roundtree, concerning a previous yegg he'd ratted on: "I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed."
Few film awards have ever been more deserved than the Special Jury Prize for "Originality of Vision" that Johnson and Brick won at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. (A few weeks ago, Johnson also won the Best Original Screenplay award from the San Francisco Film Critics.) Johnson has parlayed the critical success of Brick into The Brothers Bloom, a film set to begin shooting in March 2007 on a budget 40 to 50 times the $500,000 it cost to make Brick. Rachel Weisz has been cast as the female lead; at this writing, there is no word on who will play the eponymous brothers. "We're getting very close to a few more (casting) coups," Johnson said. "Keep your fingers crossed for us."
Rian Johnson's story is one to make Horatio Alger proud, a reaffirmation of the virtues of hard work, perseverance, and loyalty to friends. It began Dec. 17, 1973, in Silver Spring, Md. (now fittingly the home of the Silver Theatre, the American Film Institute's new flagship theater). When Rian was still a small child, his family left first for Colorado, then for San Clemente, where he grew up. "I swear to God you could see Nixon's compound from the beach at my house, looming like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, a big foreboding mass of palm trees and imagined electrified razor wire," Johnson said of his childhood home.
Young Rian fell in early with a group of starstruck schoolmates; one of them was Jorge Garcia, now seen on TV every week as Hurley, the most lovable of Lost's castaways. "I would love to work with Jorge one day," Johnson said of his former classmate. "We were not only friends at San Clemente High, we did a comedy routine together and won the school talent show. He might still have the trophy."
Johnson made his first short film at age 12, and, by his own estimation, had made about 80 by the time he graduated from San Clemente High. He listed them all on his application to the University of Southern California film school, but his diligence failed at first to impress the admissions officials. "I was rejected five times from the film school before, more exasperated with my persistence than impressed by my prolificness, they let me in," he said.
One of those short films, Origami Master, is the Easter egg on the Brick DVD; Brendan Koelber and Derol Frye, two of Johnson's collaborators on the short, gave Brendan Frye his name. (Mrs. Kasprzyk, the "tough but fair" English teacher Brendan mentions in the movie, is a real teacher who encouraged Johnson's early attempts at writing.) None of Johnson's high-school friends worked on Brick, he said, though the movie's release did have the benefit of their getting back in touch with Johnson.
Johnson's experiences in film school illuminate Edward Gibbon's admonition that instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except when it is almost superfluous.
"Film school is great for meeting people, but really the only way you learn how to make films are by watching them and making them," he said. "I got what I know largely from watching and re-watching the usual suspects: Scorsese, Fellini, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Lynch, Spielberg, and so on," he said. "You see something like the editing in GoodFellas, the way he pops into those quick tracking shots, and the next time you're making a short with your friends you try a crude version of it. Trial and error."
Johnson was motivated by the Coen Brothers' neo-noir, Miller's Crossing, to investigate the books of Dashiell Hammett, as well as John Huston's classic exploration of Hammett, The Maltese Falcon.
"The Maltese Falcon is, for me, one of the most entertaining films ever made," Johnson told The Onion A.V. Club. "But when I hit those books and experienced that world, there was something about it that was just so vibrant and alive."
In developing the script for Brick, Johnson at first was motivated simply by the idea of placing a film noir in a high-school setting, as a way of re-examining the elements of the genre. But, as he worked on it, the idea took on a life of its own, a life based on how Johnson felt about his own high-school experiences.
"Teen movies often have an unspoken underlying premise in which high school is seen as less serious than the adult world," Johnson said in a quote posted on the Internet Movie Database. "But when your head is immersed in that microcosm, it's the most serious time of your life."
Indeed, what raises Brick above a mere genre-bending stunt is its subtext of teenage angst—the feeling that everything that happens is destiny, and everything you say or do is for keeps—and how perfectly it marries with the traditional noir aura of doom. Your heart melts for Brendan Frye, who beneath his flip Sam Spade attitude is achingly sad and lonely. Even the villains—such as the caped, clubfooted Pin, who runs his mini-crime empire from his mother's plywood-paneled basement, and his murderous goon Tug—have their vulnerable moments.
"I think that's a big part of why I'm so attracted to genre movies," Johnson said. "I'm a fan of the idea that a certain amount of artifice can offer a more direct window into an issue than a more traditional approach. That's just where my head is at now. Someday I might get sick of genre and do a kitchen-sink drama—although I guess that's a genre with its own rules and constructions as well."
Because the concept for Brick was so unusual, the script was rejected by all of the many studios and production companies Johnson approached. Six years passed between finishing the script and beginning principal shooting, which finally was funded by his savings plus loans from friends and family.
During those years, he supported himself however he could, but the period as he described it was far from unpleasant. "I got lucky and had some really nice day jobs," he said. "I did some random assistant editing work, worked at a preschool for deaf children for a few years, then produced promos for the Disney Channel." He had no industry mentors to speak of, but his USC friends formed a mutual support group. "When my friend Lucky McKee got his film May made, we all worked on it," Johnson said. "That was a real galvanizing shot in the arm—just seeing that it could happen, it was possible for one of us to jump that seemingly uncrossable gap and make a feature."
From all accounts, Johnson created an extremely close-knit set on Brick; Joseph Gordon-Levitt even reported that Johnson cooked dinner for the cast and crew most nights during the three-week shoot. ("He's not a bad cook," Gordon-Levitt opined.) The closeness of the Brick collaborators is underlined by the DVD commentary, in which a relaxed, jokey Johnson trades anecdotes about the film's production with Tillen, actors Nora Zehetner and Noah Segan, producer Ram Bergman, and costume designer Michele Posch. It's fifty percent commentary, fifty percent Kaffeeklatsch.
So is Johnson creating a Rian Johnson Stock Company, a la John Ford or Ingmar Bergman? "Unfortunately, the age of the characters in (The Brothers) Bloom doesn't fit the Brick cast, but I'm already thinking of the future," he said. "I'd consider myself very lucky if I could keep working with actors like Joe and the rest of the Brick crew. As to the vibe on Brothers, I'm going to sure try to capture that same feeling. How much more difficult that will be with a bigger, more expensive production, I don't know. All I can do is keep reminding myself that we're still just a group of people having fun and making a movie, and try to create the most nurturing and enjoyable environment I can."
Similarly, Johnson has created an extremely strong and loyal fan base through his Web site. Over the past two years he has posted more than twelve hundred messages to "Rian's Brick Forum," engaging in friendly conversation with the more than nine hundred fans who to date have contacted him. Many of them, not incidentally, are film students, film writers and budding filmmakers themselves. (For the sake of full disclosure, the author of this article has posted eighty-two messages on the Brick Forum.)
"As a writer-director, it's such a long process from idea to screen, I can't imagine not wanting to have a line of communication to people that enjoy the finished product," Johnson said of the forum. "It's a priority of mine to keep that going, and I feel privileged to have it. God bless the Internet."
Regarding The Brothers Bloom, which Johnson described as "a con-man movie," he said, "It's hard to describe it in relation to other movies. It's very different. Tone-wise, I guess The Sting is the closest; it has a lighter tone to it, definitely much lighter than The Grifters or House of Games. There's also an element of globe-trotting glamour to it. The log line that's been circulating is basically, `Two con men brothers pull their last job on an eccentric and beautiful millionaire (that's Rachel Weisz) who turns the tables on them.' This is very, very misleading, and makes it sound like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which it isn't. But seeing as it's a con-man movie, I guess it's never too early for us to mislead."
Johnson is already planning his next project after The Brothers Bloom—a sci-fi movie called Looper. He also thinks that sci-fi wouldn't be a bad way to go when he receives the inevitable call from some producer somewhere—if he hasn't received it already—asking him to direct American Pie 5, or some similar teen mindlessness.
"If they'd let me put it in space, I'm in," he said. "There comes a time in every franchise's life when you've gotta take it to space, man. It's Pie's time."