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May 11, 2009

CU: Rian Johnson

A Filmmaker in Bloom

By Mel Cowan

Rian Johnson, B.A. Production ’96, who seared his way into noir fans’ hearts with his award-winning debut film, Brick, has sought inspiration in a new kind of criminal in his sophomore film, The Brothers Bloom. Starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel Weisz, the film follows the titular brothers, who go from unwanted orphans to being the greatest con men in the world. Along the way, as it often does, love changes things for the brothers.

Bloom (Adrien Brody), Penelope (Rachel Weisz) and Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) plot a series of alternately dangerous and whimsical cons in The Brothers Bloom. Photo by: Slobodan Pikula
Johnson recently spoke with us about mirages, the importance of telling the truth about lying, and the search for an unwritten life.

Brick was inspired by noir authors like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. What was the jumping off point for The Brothers Bloom? It just started with the notion of doing a movie about con men, which is one of my favorite genres. There’s something appealingly terrifying about doing a con man movie because it seems to be one of those things that either really lands or really doesn’t. It’s a risky thing to take a shot at, and that was exciting. It doesn’t seem like there’s much point in spending a few years of your life on something if there’s not the chance that you’ll fall on your face.

Talk about some of the visual and stylistic influences of the film.
Beyond big influences like Mamet’s con movies and Paper Moon, what really spurred me on was to make a film about storytelling, and [Fellini’s] 8 ½ is about a guy who gets lost inside storytelling and is eventually redeemed by it, so there’s a connection there. A movie like [Bertolucci’s] The Conformist is much more of a straight visual reference; it’s one of the most beautiful movies ever made, but I specifically wanted to look at the way Bertolucci shoots environments in that movie and see how he really makes you feel the spaces you’re in.

Dealing with a film where there’s a specialized argot and extensive meta-references could have resulted in it being precious. How did you avoid that trap?
When you’re dealing with tone, subject matter or a conceit that could slip into that territory, the only thing that can keep you from falling into that is honesty. It’s coming at it with nothing besides a motivation to create a real world with real characters that you as a filmmaker care about. No matter what style your film is, whether realistic or sort of heightened like Bloom, that’s the key to making the end product something you can believe in.

From left, Mark Ruffalo, director Rian Johnson, Rachel Weisz and Adrien Brody on the set of The Brothers Bloom. Photo by: Slobodan Pikula
How was it going from shooting Brick in the town you grew up in to shooting Bloom all over Europe?
Having only done shorts growing up, before I made Brick, the idea of shooting a film with real actors and a film camera was scary. Before we started Bloom, I had the same sense of feeling like I was looking at a terrifying mirage, but when it came time to actually start making it, the mirage went away and I saw, no, it’s the same exact road I’ve been on the whole time. It’s just telling the story with a camera and some actors. That sounds like a joke, but I really believe that if you can make a movie with a video camera and your friends from the drama department, you can make a movie with a 35mm camera and Rachel Weisz.

Adrien Brody’s character, Bloom, is searching for “an unwritten life.” What does that phrase mean to you as the filmmaker?
I feel like it’s a trap to search for the unwritten life. I think we’ve all felt like we’re the ones who are faking it, and that everyone else is doing the real thing; we’re inside looking at life through a plate glass window. Bloom misinterprets his situation as he has to get out of this story that his brother’s been telling, and that he has to start living an unwritten life, but what he finds in the end is that he has to start writing his story himself. That’s where the idea of storytelling about storytelling goes beyond being just about writers or directors and becomes about human beings. So much of life is about being a good storyteller; taking in the world around you and telling it back to yourself.

The Brothers Bloom will be released in NY and LA on May 15 and everywhere on May 29.