- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

Rian Johnson is clearly a filmmaker who loves film.

His directorial debut, 2005’s “Brick,” was a film noir with the unlikely setting of a high school. His follow-up film, “The Brothers Bloom,” is a con movie with the requisite twists and turns. Both evince a passion for their predecessors, but without seeming like cheap copies.

It’s no surprise, then, to learn that the 35-year-old writer-director became a film fan at a young age. What’s interesting is how that experience affected how he approached his latest film, which stars Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo as the title siblings and Rachel Weisz as their rich and beautiful mark.

“Bloom” is a grown-up film about becoming your own man, and Mr. Johnson’s dialogue at times can sound a little like that of Quentin Tarantino. “Bloom” is rated PG-13, though — this crime caper has none of the heavy language, sex or violence of many films of the genre.

That’s not quite how it began life, however.

“The script was an R-rated script, just because of the language in it,” Mr. Johnson explained by telephone earlier this week. “What pushed me over the edge at going for PG-13 was actually remembering seeing ‘The Sting.’ I think I saw it for the first time when I was 11 or 12. I remember feeling it was a very grown-up film and feeling that sense of vertigo you feel at the end of the film when the big reveal happens, the curtain is pulled back, and you see the trickery that’s been going on. Usually when that happens, it’s when the lights come on in a theater. At the end of a con-man movie, you see it happens before the end of the thing, it happens when you’re still in the dream.”

He wanted other young people to have that same experience watching his film. “Even though it’s still an adult film, I thought if you didn’t have to be 17 to see it, that would be a good thing.” he says.

“I definitely grew up watching movies,” the filmmaker says. His father and his father’s father, both in the home-building business, were big movie buffs.

“My father was a big Scorsese fan; he got me into Scorsese when I was younger. My grandfather was a big Fellini fan; he showed me ‘La Strada’ when I was a kid. Beyond everything in our generation like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Star Wars’ … it was my family’s love of these other films that gave me the sense it was an art form, something you could dig deeper with.”

It almost seems as if his family was aiming to create a director. His dad bought a video camera when the son was still in grade school. “I made movies instead of writing book reports with my friends,” he says, recalling, among others, a “Hamlet” movie. “Somehow my teachers let us get away with this, which baffled me. Then I went to film school. I’m still kind of baffled and amazed at this point that I’m able to do it for a living.”

Mr. Johnson has many talents — his films are stylish, and his characters can break your heart — but perhaps his most obvious is for dialogue. “With ‘Brick,’ we looked at some older films, just because of the formal nature of the dialogue,” he says.

That didn’t happen for the very different “Bloom,” though. “I didn’t want to put their heads into movies because the level of style and eccentricity in this film was heightened,” he explains. “What I was focusing on with the actors was finding ways to ground it, finding ways to keep these people as real as possible.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Mr. Johnson doesn’t spend a lot of time honing the careful words his characters speak.

“I spend a lot of time before I sit down and write a single word of dialogue. I spend a lot of time thinking about the world, thinking about the characters, outlining the story, letting the characters come alive in my head,” he says, repeating the words “a lot of time” for emphasis. “Sitting down and writing the lines is the last part of the process. By the time you sit down, the characters are so ready to speak, you let them start talking. There’s a certain amount of editing that goes on. For the most part, the dialogue I feel the most proud of is the stuff that does spring out of the mouths of the characters almost spontaneously.”

“Brick” got a lot of attention — it won a Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. That success didn’t lead Mr. Johnson to partner with a big studio for his next film, though. He found a company to finance it and made it on his own. “I’m not sure if a studio had made the film if they would have let me use my cinematographer, who’s my best friend from college,” he says. “I’m not sure they would have let me use Nathan Johnson to score it, who had really only done ‘Brick.’ I’m not sure they would have let me have final cut, and I would rather not make a film than make one without final cut.”

Would he even consider making a big-studio film? “I have no desire right now to do a studio job,” the director says. “Part of what gives me the ability to get out of the car in the morning and step out on the set and take control is that it’s a world that I know from the ground up, it’s a world I know from the first seed of a story. More than that, it’s a world I deeply, personally and profoundly care for. Each of the characters I have a profound love for. I’m not sure that there’s any temptation in the world that could overcome the thrill of that.”

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