Who did you want to be in high school? How about Brendan Frye, who eludes a knife-wielding thug, beats up a football player and walks out on the hottest girl in school? Brick, a film noir set in high school, follows this teenage Bogart as he tries to figure out who killed his ex-girlfriend. An encounter with an intimidating bruiser named Tug leads him to a drug ring masterminded by the Pin, a mysterious twenty-something who operates out of his mother's basement. Brick takes an enormous gamble with its genre-bending conceit, yet tight plotting manages to make this film as engaging as it is unique. What kind of mad genius could pull off such an eccentric film? Nerve spoke with director Rian Johnson to find out. — Peter Smith
What was the initial spark of inspiration for your unique premise?
It all started with Dashiell Hammett's novels. Miller's Crossing was one of my favorite films, and that was what led me to Hammett. I read an interview with the Coens and they referenced him. I love detective movies, but once I got into those books, it was like hitting an unexpected spring, finding the source of the river, where the water is much purer. It's so economical and so brutal. But also, there's so much humor in it. That's one of the things that I didn't want to be afraid of in making this movie, which was tricky, because we were all really conscious of the way this movie could've gone really bad. If it had become just a spoof. But at the same time, I didn't want us to be so frightened that we were afraid of making it fun, of putting humor in. Instead of thinking of this in terms of how it reflects on noir or on previous movies, we tried to clear our minds out, take a look at the script with fresh eyes and say, How do we create this world? What are the choices that we're going to make to create this world, to make it feel real? I wrote it first as a novella, in prose, copying Hammett's writing style, to get me into the mode of that storytelling.
Is that ever going to see the light of day?
I think it will. We're going to work on publishing the screenplay and I think we'll package in the hundred-page novella.
A lot of people have compared Brick to Donnie Darko. Does that comparison irritate you?
Not at all. I went to film school with Rich [Kelly, director of Donnie Darko]. We were in the same class where you made Super-8 movies. We didn't hang out much, but we saw each others' movies and remembered each other. Even though they're very different films, the common thread between the two of them, for me at least — and this is why I take it as a big complement — is that they both take the world of high school very seriously, and on its own terms. With all the best teen movies, Heathers or Rumble Fish or The Outsiders, that's the one thing that links them all: approaching high school on the level of a teenager, not from an adult perspective looking in. It's so safe for me to stick to the line of talking about the detective movie tradition. Of course, there's the detective tradition, but there's no way I could've spent this big chunk of my life making this movie if it didn't have resonance for me. Obviously it's not like I was solving mysteries and finding dead girlfriends in high school. But raising the stakes to the absurd level of detective fiction let me show how high school feels almost mythic. Our experiences are so sharp and felt so deeply. Which is the same thing with Donnie Darko; by bringing in the sci-fi/fantasy element, it does the same thing.
I remember literally feeling like I was running for my life at various times in high school, and this really brought that back.
Yeah! Exactly. And so much of what we see of high school in the media, even stuff that I like, is from the perspective of an adult. It's from the perspective of "this is kind of a silly time in your life, you'll grow out of it." But you don't have that perspective when you're there.
People seem to either love Brick or hate it. I saw it twice, and the second time I saw it, a woman stormed out halfway through and said, loudly, "Life is too short." And I felt like as a journalist I should've gone to find out why she was so upset, but I didn't want to miss any of the movie.
It's interesting, I was waiting to do a screening and a woman stormed out and said, "That's the worst movie I've ever seen in my life." The thing is, all my favorite movies are somebody's least favorite movies. Have you seen Rex Reed's review? He calls for the movie to be burned. And for me, that's like…
Yeah, exactly! I don't want to sound like I'm just getting off on pissing people off, because I'm not at all. I don't take any particular pleasure in making cinema that's rubbing a dead rat in someone's face or something. But for me that's a sign that the movie's doing something. I love hearing both sides. And I would've been really curious to hear that woman explain.
Do you have any sense of what people's negative reactions are about?
It's all over the map. When you're watching the film, there's a fifteen or twenty minute buffer in the beginning when you're figuring out what it is, and then once you do, you decide whether you're going to get on board with it, or whether you're going to step back and not. And the different reasons why people step back and don't, I don't know. I don't want to speak for people's reactions to it, but one of the main ways that people can get really angry about the film is by misunderstanding maybe where it's coming from or what it's trying to do. Bringing their own expectations in terms of it being a high school movie or a detective movie. It's a movie that you very much have to take on its own terms. There are people who love it and hate it across all ages, but the most enthusiastic reactions have come from young people, and sometimes very young people, like high-schoolers. My half-formed take on that is that maybe they feel less of an obligation to intellectualize and contextualize the movie. They're more willing to just jump into it. That's exactly why we put it in high school to begin with.
There's a lot of physical wit in Brick. I love the scene where Brendan is about to smash the window of Tug's car and then sees Tug marching towards him across the parking lot. Tug's presence is both terrifying and hilarious there. Something about Noah Fleiss' puffed-up upper body.
He's doing Popeye. And it's funny, because if you look at his performance, especially in that role, it's really a comic performance, which I think really works. It's something unexpected and it can be kind of off-putting for some people, but I find it hilarious, and so many of Hammett's villains did have a very comic element to them. He always undercut them in some way. I'm always happy when that performance pops out to people, because it is one of the more extreme performances in the movie. I love that Fleiss was able to create this character who I think at the end of the day also has a lot of pathos with him. He has a degree of sadness. I really kind of feel for him by the end of the movie.
That may also be a hallmark of noir, some compassion for the villains.
Yeah. You look at Kasper Gutman's reaction when he finds the falcon is fake, and you feel his pain there.
I understand there was a sex scene in the Sundance version that was excised.
Yeah. We're going to put it in the deleted scenes on the DVD, but it's nothing to get too excited about. It's not even a sex scene really. What happened originally was after Brendan and Laura kiss on the bed and it goes to black, we faded up and Laura was sitting on the edge of the bed with her back to us and her shirt off. She looks over and puts on her shirt and then we cut into the next scene. But it happened to land in a certain section of the movie that I really wanted to speed up. So it had to go.
The one criticism that might be leveled at Brick is that it's very clever but not more than that. The Onion AV Club basically gave it a rave review, but one line was "Brick doesn't necessarily amount to more than ingenuity for its own sake." How you would answer that? What you think the soul of the movie is?
On its deepest level for me it's about the experience of high school. I'm not going to mount an argument against people's reactions to the film, but for me it's much more about trying to tap into the primal feelings of what it felt like to be a kid at that age, as opposed to providing commentary on them. If you come to the movie looking for some kind of statement or obvious message about high school, you're going to be disappointed. We don't feed you that. Maybe some of that criticism comes from wanting that adult perspective, wanting to be able to look at the world and draw some conclusion from it, now that we're older and wiser. Brick doesn't do that, its goal is to just encase you in that world and make you feel it. And at the same time, if people don't get that level of it but still enjoy the movie, I'm still happy. Part of the fun of this side of the process is taking joy in how different people react as opposed to becoming defensive about it.
I actually thought of Peanuts, which also never reveals the parents.
If there were an adult perspective, you'd want to grab onto that and see this world from that perspective. You'd almost be compelled to. It was important that that wasn't there.
It's hard for me to imagine what you could possibly do to follow this.
I'm working on a con-man movie, one of my favorite genres. I've been planning this for the past few years. I just wrote it last summer, and hopefully we're going to be shooting it this year. I am just incredibly excited about it. As proud as I am of Brick, it's been a nine year process for me since I first wrote it. It feels good to be diving into the next thing.
©2006 Peter Smith and Nerve.com