(Originally published in OC WEEKLY, March 30, 2006)
Rian Johnson’s debut feature Brick is an old-fashioned, film-noir mystery about kids in a contemporary Orange County high school. It’s a peculiar mix of Chinatown and The O.C. that works much better than it should, and recently Johnson spoke to us about the film’s decade-long journey to theaters.
OC Weekly: When I describe this movie to people, they automatically assume it’s a comedy. I tried to explain it to this one guy, and he said, “Oh, so it’s like Bugsy Malone . . . but played straight!”
Rian Johnson: [Laughs.] I’m really gonna have to see Bugsy Malone again. That movie’s been the bane of my existence; people keep mentioning it regarding my movie.
When you were shopping around the script, did anybody push you to make it more of a comedy?
No. Mostly people didn’t understand it at all, or they said, “I love it, but there’s no way I can go to my boss with this, he won’t get it.” The stylized quality of the dialogue was a big issue. The number one question we got asked was, “Do they have to talk like that?” As hard as it is for people to understand what sort of movie this is now, it was a lot harder to describe it before we made the film, when it was just a script and I was this untested director. After Focus bought it at Sundance, they asked me, “How the heck do we sell this thing?” They’ve been very clever about how they’re going about it, emphasizing that this is a detective story that happens to be set in a high school, and not pitching it as a typical “teen movie” at all.
Was there ever pressure to go in more of an MTV/WB direction, to bring in the Olsen twins or whatever teen stars were hot at the time?
No, but I wish we’d gotten the Olsen twins! That would’ve made it a lot easier to sell. There were ideas that I could’ve volunteered at various times that would’ve gotten the movie made a lot quicker . . . and it would’ve been terrible.
How did you support yourself all those years when you were trying to get the film made?
I had some pretty good day jobs. I produced promos for the Disney Channel. For a while I worked at a preschool for deaf kids in LA. When I’m going around to film schools now, I tell the students to find a comfortable day job. It’s a real struggle to get a film made; it takes forever, and you need a day job that lets you eat. We had a lot of false starts on this movie, where it looked like we were going to get the funding. Finally what we ended up doing was tightening our belts and figuring out the lowest budget we could possibly afford to shoot it in 35mm, and then I passed the hat to my family and friends.
I read an interview where you said some members of your family had “suddenly come into a position to invest,” but you were sort of weird and cryptic about what that meant. Did they win the lottery or something?
Well, my family owns a little business called Halliburton. No, they own a home-building business, and this deal they’d been working on for years came through. Having them as my backers ended up working out great; we were able to make the movie with no editorial or marketing pressure, without a studio looking over my shoulder. I grew up making movies in San Clemente with my friends, and this really felt like an extension of that. I worked with a lot of people I’d known for years, it had a real family feeling. We shot at San Clemente High, where I went to school. Of course, when they agreed to let us film there, I don’t think they knew what they were really in for.
Did they have to reschedule classes around your shoot?
No, but I think they were expecting, like, just a couple of kids to show up with camcorders. We shot a lot on weekends, but it’s amazing how busy a school is on a Saturday. I’d written the script around a lot of specific locations in San Clemente. I knew the area so well that if something went wrong and we lost a location, I could just say, “Well, I know a great place around the corner . . .” I really wanted to get that specific OC look, with those broad streets, and the ocean over your shoulder, and the seagulls everywhere. There ended up being so many seagulls around we started incorporating them into the design of the film, like we put bird statues all over inside the house of the character called the Pin [Lucas Haas].
The Pin is a fascinating character, but watching the film I noticed he’s the only character who seems to have parents. It gives the film a rather surreal quality, with all these kids running around without any visible moms or dads.
That was a conscious decision. We were following the same rationale as Charlie Brown, leaving out the adults so you’re drawn into the world of the kids. When you’re in high school, everything feels very serious, it’s like life and death, and to suddenly have the adult perspective could pull audiences out of that. That’s why the two adults you see, the Pin’s mom and the vice principal, are such specific characters: she’s nuts, and he’s working on the same level the kids are.
That moment with the Pin’s mom is really funny, in such a weird way. You’re caught up in this heavy crime story, and it suddenly reminds you these are kids we’re dealing with.
There’s also a moment in the scene with the vice principal, where he makes reference to a parent/teacher conference. I really worried those things would snap the audience out of the story. But then, when I saw it with an audience, that stuff seemed like a real relief for them. We were finally acknowledging the strangeness at the heart of this film.
How much did the script change during all the years you were shopping it around?
There was one major rewrite, but that was pretty much it. I have storyboards we made in 1997, and I dig them out now and they’re remarkably close to the finished film.
Didn’t you cut about 10 minutes from the film after it screened at Sundance?
Yeah. I was surprised to find out it’d been that much cut, because mostly I just cut lines here and there. Seeing it six or seven times with an audience, I thought the film worked, but I decided to speed it up.
Emelie de Ravin is wonderful in this. Did she do your film before or after she hit it big on Lost?
Just before. She was telling me she was about to leave for Hawaii to be on this crazy show. You know, I have another weird association with Lost. I went to high school with Jorge Garcia, the guy who plays Hurley on that show. You know, the big guy? I knew him; we were in a talent show together.
It must’ve been completely surreal when that show became such a sensation overnight, to have these two people you knew suddenly on the cover of TV Guide and all that.
This whole experience has been surreal, Sundance and the whole thing. It’s still hard for me to believe we finally got the film made, and people are seeing it.