Sundance didn't know what hit it in 2005 when Rian Johnson broke onto the indie scene with his sharply scripted teen noir, Brick. Five years on, Johnson returns with his second feature, The Brothers Bloom, which, despite a mixed reception, looks likely to cement Johnson's reputation as one of the brightest filmmaking talents of his generation. Having helmed an episode of the acclaimed US television drama, Breaking Bad, and with his next film, Looper, scheduled to go into production later this year, LWLies discovers that Johnson's not about to rest on his laurels.
LWLies: Is it true that you started working on Brothers Bloom before Brick?
Johnson: Yeah, the basic idea for it took hold when I was back in Sundance in 2003. But I didn’t really start writing until after Brick. I’m a really slow writer so I’ll take a basic idea and I’ll just keep it at the back of my head for a while and let it develop. That can go on for years. But eventually it gets to the point where you’ve just got to sit down and write the thing. Brothers Bloom was an example of that because after a while I just couldn’t focus on anything else, I was like, ‘Okay, I have to make this now.’
So the script fell into place quickly after you started writing?
Did the casting follow suit?
Well, it’s a difference process when you’re working on an indie film, so it’s always a little more work. Basically you’re trying to get actors that are being thrown scripts for huge movies and you’ve got to compete with that. So we’re the lower end of the totem pole. It’s wise not to get your heart set on a particular actor, because often it doesn’t work out. But I didn’t change any character to fit the casting, so in that sense it really worked out well.
The central dynamic is really strong…
Yeah and I feel lucky for that. Rachel [Weisz] was the first to sign on, but everyone seemed enthusiastic about the script so as soon as we got that initial interest it was relatively straight forward.
Is casting a bigger movie more daunting than casting something like Brick? Do you feel an added sense of pressure to get the characters right?
The casting process was quite organic for both, but obviously with Brick we were working with young actors who maybe weren’t so sought after at the time. They were all LA guys and so it made it easy to meet up and discuss different scenes or parts. We hung out a lot. Whereas with Bloom we were after people who are used to working all over the world and have such high profile lives. The first time [the Bloom cast] were all in a room together was just a couple of weeks before the shoot. But there's pressure in the sense that these are big actors and you have to accept that they might not be able to commit because of other projects. It's best not to set your sights on anyone.
How was it shooting on different locations around the world?
It was an adventure in itself really. In many ways making the movie felt like the movie, you know? But it was very natural and everyone had a lot of fun. I guess it was less stressful though because of the financial backing of the film. We had a lot more time and money available to make sure we got it right. But when the cameras start rolling its easy to block out the money and any external pressures. The size of the production is really an abstract thing when you’re trying to make the scene work. That’s the same no matter what the scale.
So many indie directors who break through get one, maybe two chances. After that point it feels like you’re either in or you’re out. If you make a mistake your career might well be over. Was that ever a conscious concern?
It is tough, but thinking on those terms is death. It’s almost like not looking down when you’re on a high wire. If you take that into consideration too much, or you look down, then you loose all artistic risk and I personally think that there’s no point in doing a movie unless you’re totally petrified that you won’t do a good job. The ultimate goal is to make something that people are going to like, and you can only do that by taking a risk on something that might not work and making it work.
Can you talk about some of the visual influences in Brothers Bloom?
Visually I was looking at two really specific things. Every night I would go back to my hotel room and watch 8½ and The Conformist religiously. 8½ is visually very stylised and theatrical and to an extent I borrowed from that in terms of an overall style. So the visual approach and influences were extremely important: the whole thing was to create this film where everything you see is deliberate, and obviously deliberate. It’s funny because I’ve actually seen a lot of comparisons drawn with Wes Anderson movies.
It’s easy for critics to lump a film with a certain visual aesthetic in with something contemporary like that…
Yeah, and I can see that. Looking at it, it makes sense, but I hope people will pick up on the actual influences.
Brick really seemed to resonate with a certain generation, perhaps a younger generation. Who do you see Bloom being for?
The standard reply of ‘make films for yourself’ is true to a certain extent, but I think you’re always conscious of the audience. Making films for yourself implies this insular thing that ignores being entertaining, or at least caring about being entertaining. And obviously that’s not what I set out to be. Essentially I want to make films for people to enjoy and take something from – whether that’s being excited, or scared, or whatever. But in terms of an audience for Bloom, I don’t know. I guess with everything I don’t set out to make films specifically for certain people, and in many ways I’m still learning a lot about what films I want to make.
Do you feel like you’re still at the start of your journey?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean I’m still figuring a lot out, but right now it’s about not holding back. It’s weird how little control you have over the thing that takes you o the next part of your journey. And it’s weird how it really finds you. Like, even if I could think of who I wanted to make something for, that’s so not how the process works. So every step right now is a huge learning process for me. It’s weirdly organic though; kind of primal, even.
From what we’ve read Looper sounds closer to Brick than Bloom – Joseph [Gordon-Levitt] is reportedly attached…
It’s weird; in some ways it is much closer to Brick, but it’s also very different to anything I’ve done. It’s a science fiction movie about time travel and it goes to a lot more places than Brick, which was all small scale. So it’s more like Bloom in terms of where it takes you as an audience. There are lots of elements to it, but at the moment it feels like I’m tightening up the sails. It’s pulled back into a more disciplined and narrow place.
And you’ve just finished pre-production?
Yeah, we’re going to starting shooting at the end of year. Just to clear it up though we don't have anyone officially attached yet.
Would you feel good about working with Joseph again?
Yeah, we’ve been great friends since Brick and he’s a great actor. I know that I want to be making movies with people like that, so that would really be great. We’ll see though.