A film noir set at a contemporary high school, "Brick" is a strange, tough little movie, a throwback to the days of Sam Spade that utilizes its young actors to startling effect. In addition to being audaciously entertaining, "Brick" reveals some fundamental truths about the difficulties of the teen years.
Like the film’s hero (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who doggedly pursues the truth in spite of a myriad of obstacles, it hasn’t been easy for director Rian Johnson‘s (Certified Fresh) debut film to get to theaters. In an e-mail interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Johnson discusses the complications in undertaking the project, his love of hard-boiled fiction, and how he and the cast and crew delved into the shadows of film noir.
Q: "Brick" took years to make, and then it screened at Sundance last year. Tell us about some of the difficulties you faced getting the film to this point.
Rian Johnson: I wrote "Brick" back in 1997, and it took six years to get it off the ground. Part of this was because the script was so unusual, and I was a first-time director. Never an easy combination for the money people. But it was just a matter of sticking to our guns, refusing to change the script to make it easier to swallow, and not giving up until it came together. And eventually, it did. We figured out the smallest amount we could shoot it for on 35mm, then begged and borrowed from friends and family. At the end of the day, "Brick" was financed entirely independently for just under $500,000. We then lucked out and got into Sundance, where we doubly lucked out and were picked up by Focus Features.
Q: What is it about film noir that people like so much?
Johnson: For me it has everything to do with the central character, the detective. He’s got wit and charm, but ultimately his biggest asset is his single-minded determination. You can punch him down over and over again, but he’ll just keep getting up and walking towards his goal. In putting this character in high school, I felt it was important to add a very personal element, that of lost love. So our detective is not just doing this because it’s his job (though in ten years or so he’ll probably be at that point) but because it’s the only way he knows how to deal with having his heart broken.
Q: What inspired you to make "Brick?"
Johnson: The original inspiration came from Dashiell Hammett‘s novels. He wrote "The Maltese Falcon," "Red Harvest," and "The Glass Key," and was one of the originators of hard boiled detective fiction. The world of those books struck me as so amazingly vibrant, scary, funny, intriguing, you name it… so I decided I wanted to take a crack at an American detective movie. The decision to set it in high school was, initially at least, just to give it a different set of visual cues, so you couldn’t just take a glimpse at guys in hats and shadowy alleyways and switch your brain into "I know what this is" autopilot mode. I wanted people to experience the genre in an unexpected way. After I started working on it, though, it became much more than that for me, and in many ways became about the emotional experience of being a teenager.
Q: One of the best things about "Brick" is the performances. The actors play everything totally straight, and the audience gets absorbed in the story because the characters really seem to fully inhabit the scenario. If things were off just a little bit, it could have been really campy. How did you coach them?
Johnson: The overall approach, and not just for the actors but also for the designers, the cinematographer, and the whole crew, was to make sure that we were creating a world instead of imitating one. I didn’t want to tie everyone down with specific rules about copying or not copying film noir… I wanted to create an environment where we could just look at the script and make our own fresh creative decisions to honestly bring this world to life. As long as we were staying honest and doing that, I knew we were on the right track.
Q: What’s also interesting about the film is the way it’s a novel approach to exploring the difficulties people face in their teenage years.
Johnson: Absolutely. Especially working with a young cast, I think that’s one of the ways they were able to connect with their characters instead of just seeing them as types. Obviously we weren’t gunning for realism at all, quite the opposite, but our goal was to create a very real subjective world. We always said that "Brick" is not at all how high school actually was, but it’s probably closer to how high school felt than more light, flippant portrayals of teen life.
Q: Some have criticized the film as a stunt, or as something that’s more style than substance. Some also find the plot really confusing. How do you respond?
Johnson: I always cock an eyebrow at that criticism, honestly. "Brick" has quite a bit of substance for me, and I can’t imagine spending nine years of my life on something that was just a stylistic stunt. I suppose a few things are behind that criticism — first and foremost, "Brick" does operate on a level of grand artifice. It’s a totally unreal world, not "realistic" at all, and I suppose when the facade is this big and obvious it’s very easy to react just to the facade and turn a lazy eye to what might lie just behind it. Secondly, I think we’re very used to having a movie’s substance delivered in a certain way. Especially with teen movies, we like to be the grown ups looking down on that silly part of life and drawing neat conclusions and morals from it. "Brick" has none of that. Its substance (for me at least) lies in capturing in a very heightened, bold, and impressionistic way what those teen years felt like when you were in them, not from analyzing them from an adult perspective.
Q: What is your next project?
Johnson: A globe trotting con man movie called "The Brothers Bloom." After the long process of making "Brick", I’m really looking forward to doing something totally different. And I love the con man genre. I can’t wait to take a crack at it.