Exclusive: Rian Johnson on The Brothers Bloom


It’s been a long road to the release of Rian Johnson’s second movie The Brothers Bloom. Originally slated to come out just a few weeks after premiering at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, it was moved a couple of times to find a less busy weekend for release, finally settling on this coming weekend.

Johnson’s first film Brick was one of the standouts at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, winning a Jury Prize for Originality of Vision. When the movie was released a year later, many critics mused that if that was the type of movie Johnson could make for less than $500,000, imagine what he could do with real budget. Thankfully, Johnson got that budget for his follow-up, which involves a much more ambitious vision, a bigger name cast and locations across the globe.

The Brothers Bloom are Stephen and Bloom Bloom, played by Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, two of the most skilled con men in the game who follow Stephen’s intricate cinematic plots to scam unsuspecting marks out of their money. After over 20 years of scams, Bloom wants out, but he’s enticed into one more con when Stephen introduces him to the beautiful but eccentric shut-in Penelope, played by Rachel Weisz, who gives Bloom a way to finally write his own story rather than constantly be the brooding anti-hero of his brother’s plans.

It’s a fun movie that offers as unique a voice to the con game movie as Brick did when it created the “teen crime noir” genre. For instance, the opening scene (which you can watch here) might immediately remind some of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, but over the course of the film, there’s lots of great throwbacks to movies of the past that you don’t necessarily need to be a film archivist to appreciate. (We also just loved Babel co-star Rinko Kikuchi as the silent but deadly Bang Bang, the brothers’ ever-present go-to wing-woman.)

ComingSoon.net had a chance to visit Johnson at the edit bay last year while he was finishing up the film, but at Toronto (nearly eight months ago!), we had a chance to sit down for a full interview with the bright young filmmaker, talking about various aspect of his second film and getting some idea what his third film might be like.

ComingSoon.net: You’re a fairly young guy but all the references in this movie seem to be to movies that were made before you were born. Made me wonder if you ever watch any movies made in the last 30 years.
Rian Johnson: (laughs) I do, but they’re a lot less fun to reference, because they’re inevitably referencing… I dunno. When I was first getting into movies, it was really my father and my grandfather, they were in the home building business, but my family loves movies, so my first amazing memories, movie-wise, was sitting down and watching (Fellini’s) “La Strada” with my grandfather and my Dad showing me “Raging Bull” or “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Besides just having an affinity for older stuff. I think people can get into the mindset of “Where are all the good movies anymore?” I don’t think that’s true at all obviously, but I do think in the same way that sometimes it’s easier to see a truth about yourself or a truth about human nature in a myth about a God that’s completely disconnected from your everyday life, in that same way, sometimes it’s easier to see truths in beauties in movies that are disconnected from your everyday world. Movies that are set in a world that’s older or that doesn’t exist anymore.

CS: I personally don’t watch many older movies, but having seen this a number of times, I can generally watch a scene and know right away what you were going for in terms of the dialogue and the framing. That was the case with “Brick” also.
Johnson: Yeah, definitely, and I guess it’s also important to say that I’m not sitting there when I write with a reference… it’s not something I’m doing consciously. It’s stuff that inevitably seeps in there and a lot of it also, I end up only recognizing myself when the movie is made when people bring it to my attention.

CS: This must have been a very different experience from “Brick,” which was made for dirt cheap. For this one, you have a name cast which probably helps get you more money to work with, so did you approach making this movie very differently?
Johnson: No, we approached it exactly the same, and it was different obviously, but it also wasn’t. In terms of the budget thing, we obviously had a much bigger budget than “Brick” but in a way, doing this movie for the budget we had was almost more ambitious and ridiculous than doing “Brick” for the budget we had for that. For this, we’re traveling around to so many different locations or all these FX and all these big name actors, and our budget seemed huge to me, but our budget is still the cost of a big reshoot on a major Hollywood movie. There’s that element of it, but also I think I did get a little nervous coming into it, because of all the things you said. You look at the names of the actors you’re going to be working with, you see this bigger budget, but once you actually start working with the stuff, once you start doing the actual work, it’s the exact same thing as making videos with friends in high school. It’s working with people and trying to tell a story as well as you possibly can. At the end of the day, that’s all it was, so it was a pleasant discovery for me that it was still something that I knew how to do.

CS: When you watch this movie, you’d assume it is very tightly scripted, but the actors have said that you let them play around with things on the set. Can you talk about how the script evolved while shooting, especially since it’s such a complex plot? (Note: There’s potentially a pretty big spoiler in the next response.)
Johnson: Part of what made that possible was just the fact that as a writer/director, I knew this thing from the very seed of the idea, so I had the thing so ingrained in my head that I could play with it without there being danger, both on set but largely in the editing room also. We did a lot of resculpting of a lot of stuff, there was quite a bit of that, which happened on “Brick” also. For example, in shooting the scene in Mexico, the way it was scripted was they actually pull it off. We were setting up the shot to do that when I got the idea that it would make a lot more sense that she found it, so we shot it both ways actually. Rachel really opened up my sense of play and my sense of letting this thing breathe; I really give her a lot of credit in terms of getting my head into that kind of place. I think a lot of the stuff that’s good in the movie is largely because of that.

CS: Many of the independent filmmakers I’ve spoken to have confessed that there’s always this danger of becoming too precious to your script. Having worked on this one as long as you have, it must be hard to change things.
Johnson: I tend to be the opposite. I tend to be very brutal and if something’s not working, especially in the editing process, if anything I’ll start pulling stuff out and chopping stuff and people around me will be saying “I know it works without it but that’s kind of cool; put it back.”

CS: You find people to work with who you can trust to really keep you on track.
Johnson: That’s the key, but ultimately, at the end of the day, the key is keeping yourself honest. I think that’s all you can do at the end of the day is trust your own instincts.

CS: I’m curious about that since you see filmmakers like Woody Allen, who has been making movies for 40 years, and you wonder if people he works with can’t speak up and tell him when something’s not working or needs to be changed, because who wants to tell Woody Allen how to make movies?
Johnson: That’s the fear. You see that with other filmmakers, too, and it’s something that as a filmmaker, you end up thinking about it: how do you get to that place and how do you avoid getting to that place? How do you keep yourself honest? It’s just a process I guess.

CS: Finding good collaborators must be the key, as you say, and all the actors you have in this movie are generally collaborative. I was curious about getting them together and getting them all to Belgrade to make the movie.
Johnson: Maybe that was a filtration device. If they’re willing to come to Belgrade and Romania, you knew they were going to be game for anything. Having grown up making movies and it coming from me from that context in terms of a process, it’s just as important to find somebody who is genuinely passionate about the thing and is going to be cool and fun to work with. It’s going to bring something to it in terms of not just the finished film, but it being a great experience that we all grow a little bit in doing. So that’s just as much part of the casting process for me as anything. That’s especially difficult when you’re dealing with–and this is the first time I’ve dealt with this–with casting being a part of the actual financing of the film. You have the additional pressure of finding the right people who are like that, who connect with the script or are going to be right in the movie and you’re going to enjoy working with and who they figure foreign value for this person, domestic value for that, and all the numbers add up. Which is horrible, which is terrible! It turns it into the 3-dimensional chess game sort of.

CS: This was still done fairly independently though.
Johnson: Completely independently. It was this company End Game, they’re wonderful people, they financed Todd Haynes’ Dylan movie, so they go out on limbs.

CS: When you were trying to explain the complex cons of the plot, was it hard getting people to understand what you were trying to do?
Johnson: It wasn’t. God, after going through that with “Brick”… it was nowhere near as hard as with “Brick.” After getting people to understand “Brick” at the script stage what the movie was going to be, this was a cakewalk, because I think this was a lot more accessible and open. Yeah, there were discussions, but the people at End Game happened really quickly. They were really anxious to hop on board, and the actors, too. They had questions when they sat down, mostly about what the world was going to feel like, because that’s so much the key of it I think. Maybe my expectations for that fight are… maybe my skin is pretty tough after going through the whole “Brick” process, but it didn’t seem like it.

CS: Mark Ruffalo talked about some of the movies you asked him to watch. What about the other actors, particularly Rachel? There aren’t a lot of characters like Penelope, so I was curious what you wanted her to watch.
Johnson: The first movie Rachel and I talked about was actually one of her very favorite movies I found out, which was “Being There”… both Chauncy Gardner and…

CS: Ahhhhh…
Johnson: You got it? Shirley MacLaine? The bear skin rug scene? Yeah, so that was one of the first things I talked about with her, and then with Adrien, he doesn’t really go off like film references.

CS: His character seems very much like the classical romantic lead from the ’40s or ’50s.
Johnson: Yeah, I think he got it. He came into it knowing how it was going to be, and when I saw what he was doing, it just kind of clicked. But with Rachel, it wasn’t so much modeling it on one particular thing or another particular thing. She’s such a whirlwind of energy and ideas, in a typical conversation with her, a dozen different movies would come up, but also a dozen different books and pieces of music and all this stuff is happening in her head. For me, that was kind of why she was perfect for the part. That was Penelope for me. It was a matter of making sure I didn’t narrow that down, that I didn’t affect that, that I let her bring all that insanity to the screen.

CS: Bang Bang is an amazing character, probably my favorite character in the movie. When Rachel says “I really want to find out more about her,” she kind of is saying what we’re thinking. Can you talk about developing this character? There seems like there’d be so much about her that couldn’t easily be described on the page, besides possibly making reference to Harpo Marx.
Johnson: Yeah, it’s kind of hard to define. We didn’t develop a specific backstory, or at least I didn’t want to, because I was afraid that would pin Rinko down. With Rinko, it was more working on.. when I sat down with Rinko, the main thing I said to her was, “Anytime the audience is confused about how they should feel about a scene, their eyes should go directly to Bang Bang. In a way, she should be the Greek Chorus in the movie, like a silent Greek Chorus, where she knows everything. That was one of the things I did with her, is I would tell her things about what was happening plotwise and character-wise in each scene. That was one of the things in broader sense with all the actors, when they would ask me a question about a scene, I would have to shift my frame of reference and tell them what their character would know or think in that particular scene, because often times what their character thinks is much different than what I as a writer see as the bigger, denser plot aspects of it. But with Bang Bang’s character, with Rinko, I would tell her the big picture. I would tell her what’s happening as a writer almost, and then she would figure out ways… even her just knowing that just seeps through on the screen, that she’s a knowing presence.

I knew it was going to be a good experience from the first meeting with her, because I was excited to find an actor who saw (Bang Bang’s silence) as a positive like I did, who didn’t look at the script and say, “I have no lines, I’m not in this movie” but was genuinely thrilled and excited about creating a non-verbal performance that was still as much a performance as anything else in the film. The Harpo Marx reference, I’m a huge Marx Brothers fan, and I take that very seriously. I think his performances in that film are pure acting and clowning, which is kind of what she’s doing, there was a show that was happening in New York forever called “The Snow Show” which is this band of Russian clowns. Joseph Gordon-Levitt actually got me into it. He’s really tight with those guys. He goes to Russia and hangs out with them, and in Russia, clowning is a serious artform and it’s really well respected, and when you watch it, it’s absolutely beautiful and it can convey so much more information. That was something that genuinely excited me and something not everyone knows about Rinko. Everyone knows her from “Babel” but she actually cut her teeth in Japan having done a ton of comedies, so she’s got chops. Her comic timing is really great.

CS: I was in Prague last year, and I was really impressed with those scenes, first of all, because I know how crowded it is then but in there’s this central plaza with a really prominent building across from it and in one scene, you literally have Mark in the window of that building. How did you manage to get all those very specific locations and be able to capture those areas on film without a huge budget to close everything down?
Johnson: It was literally a year of behind-the-scenes work lobbying, trying to get meetings with government people and getting permission to be in each of these places and getting all our ducks lined up. One of the things that really helped us I think is that there’s quite a bit of production that goes on in Prague, but it’s mostly big Hollywood movies that are coming there because it’s cheap, so inevitably, they’re in Prague shooting it for… you know, making it someplace else. I think the fact that we were in Prague shooting it as Prague and shooting it as a very romanticized, beautiful vision of Prague, I think that bought us access to a lot of these places. The fact that we were going to make it look good on film I think got us in, and that it was going to be Prague in the story was something that appealed to them. Although we didn’t tell them we were going to blow up St. Vitus Cathedral (laughs)… that was a CG model comped in. We didn’t mention that to them, but you know, that’s okay.

CS: I’m not sure if people who haven’t actually been there can actually appreciate it as much as I did.
Johnson: It’s the place, absolutely. And that was some of the more magical days of shooting were being on the Charles Bridge early in the morning and having the run of it or being in Prague Castle or St. Vitus and clearing it out of tourists. That scene where she runs across that empty square, that’s thronging with tourists. We had an A.D. (assistant director) who was a big Viking type guy–he was a Brit but he looks like a Viking–and he was somehow able to clear it, but there’s tourists also. The big scene where the helicopter goes over, that’s all regular tourists on the bridge and they were all really kind and looked in the direction we told them to look.

CS: You actually directed the tourists?
Johnson: Yeah, we went “Look at the castle!”

CS: I want to talk about the subject of cons and how it relates to filmmaking because filmmaking really is a con in a way. Earlier, Rachel mentioned that it was her doing the card trick and you had the mirrors to show her face, but on seeing it a second time, I think I realized how that could have easily been faked. As a filmmaker, do you realize the irony that your job is taking what you need and conning the viewer to believe that’s what’s really happening?
Johnson: (laughs) Oh, completely! That’s totally… and not just in the movie itself, but just in so many different ways, in getting the movie made, you know? (laughs) Yeah, absolutely, and at its heart, that’s what the movie is about. At the same time, I think it’s the immediate thing to go to, drawing the connection with filmmakers and people who tell stories for a living, the thing that is more interesting and more fertile ground to me is just broadly all of us, no matter what we do for a living, use storytelling in our lives and that was really very much on my mind when I wrote the script. That’s where most of the meat that I kind of chewed on while I was writing this thing was just as about human beings, how our lives are a process of storytelling very much. Bloom’s dilemma is something I’ve dealt with people in my life of people looking around at where they are at life and realizing they didn’t tell the story they’re in the middle of, and sometimes making very bad choices out of that.

CS: Right, the movie deals a lot with trying to write your own fate and how that’s impossible, so was that something that came into play?
Johnson: I wasn’t think of that, that’s interesting, I like that. I wasn’t consciously. I mean, fate implies a level of chance which is always that in it, and to some extent, Steven’s decision at the end is to leave things up to fate a little bit, to let the bull loose in the china shop and for him, that’s the perfect end to the story, is to let it be unwritten at the end and see what happens. Thematically, it isn’t so much about fate as it is (for me at least, as an author), it was much more about telling the story of your life well and about that being all we have. The world is not what the world is, the world is what you take in what the world is around you and tell it back to yourself and telling it well is kind of the crux of it.

CS: Going from “Brick” to this and then this science fiction movie you’re developing, “Looper,” do you feel as if you’re going to have to keep working with bigger budgets to get your ideas onto the screen?
Johnson: No, not at all. My philosophy is the budget should be as small as it can be and still tell the story properly. There’s no appeal to me of (doing that) because the problem is that the more money you have, the more money on the back end, but also the more people whose jobs depend on the movie doing well, and so the more people who are anxious about chiming in on your esthetic, which I didn’t have on this film luckily. Working with End Game, they were angels and really supportive, but there are filmmakers who I really admire who do work bigger, like Fincher, and they’re able to work in that bigger budget world and maybe someday I’ll figure out a way to fit into that. For now, no, I feel very comfortable keeping it as small as I can.

CS: Might we see you referencing older movies like from the ’50s and ’60s in “Looper”?
Johnson: No, interestingly about sci-fi is that–classically with the genre, this is something that’s always been true, and this is what’s fun about it–sci-fi has always been used as a kind of shell that’s put on top of other more fundamental story modes. Like “Blade Runner” is noir sci-fi, and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is disaster movie sci-fi. Science fiction is so malleable and can be fitted so many different ways. The particular thing I’m doing with this one is it’s sort of–I’m still in the middle of writing it–but I’m not really working from filmmaking influences so much. If anything, it’s more a Jacobean revenge tragedy. It’s completely different from (“Brothers Bloom”) because it’s completely dark and violent. It’s set in the near future, but it’s more like 30 years from now.

CS: Do you think you’ll end up doing a lot more soundstage stuff in it than you did for this movie?
Johnson: No, no, I love location work. It’s set in Kansas actually in an industrial town on the edge of a farmland in Kansas, so it’s going to be very much grounded in the real world. Actually, Jim Clair, our production designer, did “Children of Men” and that movie (not that this movie is going to be like that) but I think they did a great job making a futuristic world that at the same time felt completely grounded in real, and that’s more what we’ll be going for.

CS: That’s interesting because in sci-fi, we often see big cities but we rarely see the suburbs or rural areas.
Johnson: I know. Well that’s the idea, is that it would be the sort of thing where the technology is more like in the first “Star Wars” where it feels very grimy and lived in. I guess that’s one of the few places that you’ve seen it, is the technology on Tatouine in “Star Wars” and how it would fit into the farming.

CS: So that’s something you’re just going to keep writing and then figure out how to get it made?
Johnson: Yeah, I’m writing it right now and then I’ll finish the script and we’ll see if we can con anyone into making it.

Since that was eight months ago, here’s hoping there’s some word soon on the progress of “Looper.” Here’s some more stuff with Johnson from a roundtable interview done earlier the same day:

CS: What was the first idea that got the movie rolling? Was it the opening with the two brothers?
Johnson: I wrote that and then took a break from it and wrote the rest of the script months later, so that was the very first thing. The genesis of it for me was that I had been thinking a lot about con man movies. I’d been thinking a lot about doing a con story, because it’s one of my favorite genres, but what got me excited was the idea of doing a con man love story and the idea that this was a genre where the audience is trained coming into it to not trust and thus not emotionally invest in anybody. The idea of doing a conman movie where the big twist at the end, rather than being a plot-based gotcha was an emotional payoff and is that possible to where that thing gets to at the end? Especially something where you read the logline “Two guys, last con, rich millionaires…” You can already picture her on the beach with the drink having taken all of their money. (Like “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) Can you turn those expectations around and create something that both I and hopefully the audience will care about in the end? That was the main thing. The other element was storytelling, as opposed to what a lot of my favorite con man movies have done, like “House of Games” and “The Grifters,” looking at the grift of the on and using it as a window into some of the less noble elements of human nature, the idea of looking at a conman as a storyteller and using it to explore how we use stories in our lives and taking a more fairy tale approach to it.

CS: The characters in the film are somewhat clown-like, particularly Rinko’s character who is kind of a mime. Was that something intentional?
Johnson: Sure, she’s the Harpo Marx of the thing, right? Yeah, I guess the biggest clown connection I can think of is that Fellini was a really big keystone thing for me. That’s one of the first things I talked about with Ruffalo actually, when we started talking. I gave Ruffalo a little iPod thing with Nino Rota’s score to “8 1⁄2” on it and anytime he needed to get into character… but that kind of Marx Brothers type logic and anarchy in terms of what can possibly happen on the screen, and at the same time, the casualness about it, just kind of nodding and smiling at the person on the 20-foot unicycle juggling chainsaws.

The Brothers Bloom opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, May 15, with plans to expand into more cities on May 29. If you happen to be in New York this Friday, come down to the Angelika Film Center for a post-screening Q ‘n’ A with Rian Johnson where you can ask him your own questions. (Johnson will be back in L.A. doing Q ‘n’ As for the movie over the rest of the weekend.) Also, look for our interview with Rachel Weisz, also from the Toronto junket, later this week.