With Brick, Rian Johnson established himself as a filmmaker to watch. An audacious debut, it set a classic film noir plotline within a contemporary high school setting, and helped establish Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a leading man. Now, Johnson’s back with The Brothers Bloom, a globe-trotting con man movie starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel Weisz that hits theaters this week. In an interview with RT, Johnson decided to select his five favorite con man movies of all time. He also talked about the script of his sci-fi project Looper, and explained why filmmakers are often con men themselves.
I’m a film school nerd, so I’ve got about a hundred favorite movies. I’d feel like I was cheating on all of them if I narrowed it down to five movies. But con man movies I can do. In no particular order, I guess the first one I’d name is Paper Moon, which, for me, is just a perfect film. It’s also one of the first con man movies I saw that was less about the mechanics of plot and more about the relationships between the characters, and this father-daughter relationship, which is really beautiful. Just a pretty wonderful movie.
RT: At that point in his career, Peter Bogdanovich seemed to be toying with some classical cinematic forms. Obviously, Brick tweaked the noirs of the 1940s, and now you’ve made a con man movie. Do you think that you’re operating along similar lines?
I guess so, yeah. That’s the interesting thing about Paper Moon. It’s one of the things I admire about it so much, is that there is this kind of formalism to it, in terms of it mimicking the style, or… Not mimicking; mimicking is the wrong word. That sounds like I’m… Mimicking doesn’t do it justice, but … Absorbing. Using the style of previous films. However, what I admire about it so much is how emotionally authentic it still is. I’m a sucker for anything that can reach for big things stylistically and still connect on a human emotional level, and that’s what that film does so well. You know, they’re doing this crackerjack dialogue, and in some ways it’s very arch, but at the same time it feels completely real.
Okay, how about House of Games as kind of the David Mamet representation? You need him in there if you’re gonna talk about con man movies. It’s a movie I love more and more every time I see it. I just think it’s beautifully constructed, and it also really has something on its mind in terms of this kind of dark, sticky psychology of the con and of our human fascination with the con. It’s just a terrific film, and it’s also a lot of fun. I mean, the opening card game scene. That’s got Ricky Jay in it, Joe Mantegna, you know. “I’m from the United States of kiss my a–.” [laughs] It’s one of the all-time great card table scenes in all of cinema, I think.
RT: I’ve probably seen that one, at least in bits and pieces, about three times, and it seems like every time I’ve see it, I’m still sort of like, “Okay, what’s going on here?”
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. No, it has a strange… And the whole movie has this very dreamlike quality to it, you know?
RT: Everyone’s getting conned.
Yeah, absolutely. The most mysterious thing about the film is what’s going on in [Lindsay Crouse’s] head. That’s the real mystery for it. Where’s this woman coming from? And that’s what the very last shot of the film kind of, you know… That’s why the very last shot of the film — that great close-up of her face at the end is the true payoff to the whole thing. For me, at least, that’s the true mystery of the movie.
You know, I’m gonna put this one in because it is actually one of my favorite films of all time, although technically it’s probably not a con man movie. The Man Who Would Be King. I did a Festival of Fakery. I did a little mini film festival which I kind of curated at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, and this was one of the movies that I showed. It’s about these two characters who do kind of go to pull off this con of pretending to be, you know, one of them pretends to be a god so that they can rule this small territory, basically. But as I watched it, it does actually, I don’t know, to me it does kind of play like a con man movie and also has the essential buddy relationship. The two rascals, I guess, standing back to back and fooling the world, which is reflected also in another one of the films in my list. This particular dynamic is probably my favorite.
RT: Are you particularly a John Huston fan as well?
Oh yeah. I love John Huston. Big, big John Huston fan. Even though this movie is dearly in need of a DVD update — I think the one that I have is still double-sided, actually. I don’t know if they’ve released a proper DVD of this, but he does have this beautiful vintage behind-the-scenes piece that’s got Huston out there on set [mimics John Huston’s voice] “talking about how this is a grand adventure in the true nature of the word. A grand adventure in every way.” It’s fantastic. They really don’t make ’em like they used to when it comes to John Huston. One for the ages.
And then, I guess, The Sting is the next one I gotta say. This was for me, and probably for a lot of people, at least of our generation, our first exposure to con men movies was from The Sting. It really holds up. Like a lot of the movies on this list, it holds up because of the central relationship, because of the Newman-Redford thing. Watching those two guys together, even though at this point, plotwise, I would be fairly… Well, I don’t know. I wonder, if someone saw The Sting clean for the first time today, now with all the movies that have imitated it in the years since, whether anyone would actually kind of say “Oh my God” at the end of it. I don’t know, but I don’t know that it would matter, because I think the fun of the film is in the game playing, and specifically in the way that these two guys play off of each other. It seems like something that’s particularly vulnerable, just because of the twist, the nature of the end. But like I said, that’s not really what makes the movie tick, oddly enough. It holds up just as a really fun ride.
I got four, and there’s one more. It’s a biggie. And again, this is one that’s maybe a little bit of a stretch in terms of it being a con man movie, but I actually don’t think so. It’s F for Fake. If I was numbering these, this might be number one. It’s a movie that’s really hard to define. It’s pretty commonly termed a filmic essay by Orson Welles on the subject of fakery, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s so many things. I don’t even know how to start talking about it. At its essence, it is about what we were just talking about. It’s about the charlatans and fakery and the notion of fake versus real, and the notion of the con versus legitimacy, I guess. And he just digs into that pretty deeply. And also in a way that’s so incredibly entertaining. The way that the movie’s cut, also, you would think that, today with our shorter and shorter attention spans and our notions of fast cutting, you would think that the way that Orson Welles, the style in which he cuts this film, would be easily absorbed by us. But I actually… You know, I have friends of mine who are much, much younger than me. You know, it actually took a second viewing to kind of absorb the film. I mean, it really is still pretty insane, the abstract way that Welles cut this whole thing together and made the whole together work. I feel like he’s absolutely self-aware; that’s part of the act. That’s what’s fun. And that’s why that opening sequence in the train station, you see him putting on that character and very much doing the… You know, I think he’s aware of it. I think he’s also aware that it’s kind of funny, that that’s part of the gag, you know, is pretending to be somebody you’re not, putting that on. Putting on that big cape and that big hat, and being that guy. And, you know, if you’re Orson Welles, you can pull it off.
Next: Rian Johnson explains why filmmakers are like con men.
RT: You said there are hundreds of other movies you love. What are some of the others?
RJ: That’s really tough. My mind is like blazing through a thousand right now. Well, I guess, you know, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of my all-time favorites. Also kind of a sentimental favorite of mine because it’s a movie I’ve been watching since I was a kid. It’s one of my dad’s favorites. 8 ½, which probably could have fit in with this list, actually, is another one of those films that I… I don’t have the film contained in my head. I can’t sit down and analyze it. I can’t pull it apart. It’s an experience that completely absorbs every time I watch it. There’s so many of them, though. Pick any Scorsese movie, pick any Kubrick movie, you know? The Coen Brothers’ stuff. We’d be here for an hour. [laughs]
RT: What’s up with your next project, Looper?
RJ: It’s kind of a science fiction movie, and it’s almost the exact opposite of Bloom. It’s kind of dark and violent. I’m having a really good time doing something 100 percent different than what I just did. But I’m writing it right now, so I’ll get the script done and we’ll see if we can con somebody into letting us make it.
RT: So what is it about con men that you like? I mean, obviously there’s a certain likability there and there’s a camaraderie there, but is that basically what draws you in to that sort of thing?
RJ: Well, no, it’s a lot of different things. I mean, I think that there’s an appeal. One of the appeals for me is that the con man, in pulling off these ruses, is basically a storyteller. You know, the things that con men do in order to take a mark are the same things that a storyteller does in order to take in an audience. So that’s very interesting. But also I think there’s an appeal to the idea of the gentleman thief, which is something that the con man has always been. He’s the aristocrat of criminals.
RT: You have to be smart and bad.
RJ: Exactly. Actually, you have to be much more smart than bad. That’s one of the badges of honor, being a con man, because you don’t use violence. You’re not a common thug. You’re much more of a gentleman when you steal people’s money. [laughs]
RT: You’ve described several filmmakers as con men. Do you think that’s part of the deal?
RJ: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Isn’t it? I mean, that’s the appeal of it. When you go into a movie, you can have the thrill of being conned and only lose $10. [laughs] I think that’s kind of why we go to the theater. I know that’s why I do it. I sit down hoping to be completely fleeced, you know? Hoping to be taken for a ride and turned on my head, and confused, and then not confused. All the same things that a con man does, a filmmaker does, I guess. The filmmaker just lets you off a little bit easier in terms of your wallet.
RT: But only a little.
RJ: Only a little. With today’s theater prices, my God.