Written by Dylan Callaghan
Aside from some minor disparities, Rian Johnson's story is kind of like Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. He's barely into his 30s, there's no fishing involved, and his ending is a happy one, but he has spent nearly all of the last decade trying to wrestle one particular script onto the screen. That script is Brick, which he penned right after graduating from the USC School of Cinema-Television in 1997 and which, thanks to his inordinate doggedness, hits theaters today.
The movie is his debut as both scripter and helmer. Its story is an inimitable hybrid of detective fiction and high school drama, two genres Johnson sees as surprisingly well matched. He finally made the film on his own with money borrowed from friends and family, and with a crew and cast, including actors Richard Roundtree, Lukas Haas, and Emilie De Ravin from ABC's Lost, who were won over by the script. He finally got the big fish into the boat whole when Focus Features purchased it at last year's Sundance Film Festival. Johnson spoke with the Writers Guild of America, west Web site about why he fought so hard for Brick, why he had to lose the noir to do a detective story, and how high school really isn't that far from Hammett.
How did you arrive at this strange hybrid of teen movie and detective story?
It started with the detective aspect of it, with the novels of Dashiell Hammett. I went through a phase in film school where I fell in love with his books and just immersed myself in the world that he created with the few novels that he wrote. I came out of it really wanting to do a new American detective movie. Once I made that decision, in a way film noir became a problem because everyone is so familiar with it at this point, it's been done so well and so often. How do you do a period noir, with guys in hats and shadowy alleyways and not feel a dim echo of older, better films?
So you realized you had to take the detective story out of the noir environment?
Yeah, that was the initial thing, just giving it a different set of visual cues. Once I started working with it, it was fun to see how the world of detective fiction slipped, eerily and neatly, over the world of high school. For me it was a very odd way of revisiting what high school felt like.
So the conversion went smoothly?
Photo: Steve Yedlin
Emilie de Ravin (left) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick.
Incredibly smoothly. If you think about it, it kind of makes sense because the world of Hammett is kind of shadowy and set off from the rest of society, like its own microcosm, and so is high school. It's very much split by social order and where you fit in.
As a guy out of nowhere with this oddball idea, how did you accomplish this film?
Very slowly. Coming out of school, I didn't know anyone. I didn't have any hook-ups. It was a very slow process getting it around to anyone who would read it. Over time, we just very slowly - like a rock rolling down a hill accumulating, you know, whatever a rock rolling down a hill accumulates.
Momentum, I think.
I shouldn't have used that metaphor. But we accumulated people who dug the script and wanted to help make it. We got a casting director, and then we found a producer, and then I got an agent. It was all from people just reading the script and passing it to other people.
At the end of the day though, getting funding through traditional means proved virtually impossible with this script. We ended up figuring out the lowest amount we could shoot it for on 35mm and then passing the hat to friends and family. That's how we scraped together our tiny budget. Then we took it to Sundance, and that's where Focus picked it up.
You must have had an enormously strong feeling about this script to stick to it that long and take that amount of risk.
Yeah, I did. It's fun for me to go back and look at the original script and see how little most of it changed from the page to the screen. Part of the reason I was so driven to stick with this story is because I saw it so clearly in my head. In a lot of ways, the fact that it was so hard to communicate to people what was going to be cool about this movie just made me want to make it even more. I wanted to make it and show it to them.
Having been through this and seen it to fruition, did that thing you saw so clearly in your head wind up happening?
Yes and no. To a degree yes [because] the film was so meticulously preconceived visually, mostly for practical reasons because we were shooting so fast. But for me, why I make films instead of writing novels is that the exciting parts are the ones that changed from what was in my head, the things the actors brought that I never would have thought of, or the cinematographer or production designer, all the artists that worked on it. I saw the movie in my head, [but] it was more exciting to see the one that came about from this weird alchemy of throwing a bunch of talented people together.