The Brothers Bloom Director Rian Johnson: Critics Who Say I’m Too Clever ‘Drive Me Insane’

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Rian Johnson's follow-up to his neo-noir debut Brick opens on May 29. The Brothers Bloom stars Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo as con artists who set their eyes on a phenomenally kooky and wealthy mark, Rachel Weisz (who makes her break-dancing debut). We spoke to Johnson about the film — and why the phrase "too clever for your own good" just "drives me nuts."

People often say of you, “You’re too cute for your own good. You’re trying to be too clever.”
That’s my least favorite phrase. “Too clever for your own good.” It just, it drives me insane. And not even just when people say it about me. They say it about the Coen brothers or Wes Anderson or Terry Gilliam. It’s so dismissive and completely void of any true criticism. It drives me nuts. It means nothing. What is it actually saying?

Especially in your film, which says explicitly, “There’s no such thing as an unwritten life”— that every story is contrived.
I enjoy films that are more “realistic.” But every film, every story that you tell is a construction in the end. I don’t know if it’s the healthiest thing as a filmmaker or as an audience member to get a certain dogma in your head about what makes something valid or true. For me, it’s the stories that have gods coming down from the heavens, it’s the myths that are more interesting than a very really realistic story where nothing really happens, and it looks like what we’ve been trained to think real life is supposed to look like on the screen. I think stuff that elevates the style to the level of myth, when it does strike, strikes deeper and more profoundly and more true than anything else.

You grew up making movies, right?
My Dad loved movies. We bought a Super 8 camera from the mall, and we made an animated Claymation thing called The Moos Brothers, which was Blues Brothers but with cows. My friends and I were genuinely nerds in high school. I think the word “nerd” is abused these days. It’s become cool to become a nerd. Like, when you hear a hot girl say that she’s a real nerd. Look: Watching Lost does not make you a nerd. If you don’t have damage done to your psyche as a result of being a nerd, it doesn’t count. You don’t have the stigmata.

Brick was a small indie. When you cast The Brothers Bloom, did you look at those charts of the numerical value of different stars? Are they as awful as people say?
I’ve seen horrible, horrible pieces of paper that no actor must ever see that are absolutely dreadful. What’s terrifying is, you’ll look and some of your favorite actors, and the number next to their name is like, “You have got to be kidding me." It’s all about how much money their last couple movies made. That’s what determines your “value.” It’s horrifying. And it's so important.

You got so much criticism for the overt stylization of Brick from some quarters, but you didn’t shy away from it here.
It’s been comforting to see how similar the reaction is to both Bloom and Brick. People fall into it, or they have an allergic reaction to it. I just wanted to make a movie that was filled with the things that I love that bring me joy. I wanted that old Hollywood — that kind of snap-style, idiosyncratic humor. The real keystone was my family. When I hang out with my family, it’s kind of like a Marx Brothers–type thing where there’s a real element of chaos but everyone’s completely comfortable and at ease.

You seem to love playing with genre.
The heart of it is treating genre like a mousetrap. Audiences are like the mouse creeping into the hole, expecting the mousetrap. Can you bring audiences in with those expectations and then deliver something that you genuinely care about at the very end of it all? Can you take those expectations and maybe use that distrust in an interesting way? Can you make a con-man movie with a heart?

Actors love playing con men, obviously.
Yes, that’s pretty straightforward. What’s more interesting is how there’s a connection between the con man and everybody — not just in terms of larceny, but in terms of how storytelling is, how we all parse the world around us, how we construct our identity. Being a good storyteller is part and parcel to being a good human being, leading a good life.

And Brody's character feels that common thing: that he's watching his own life unfurl.
At some point, we all feel that we’re sitting behind a picture window looking out at everybody else leading a real life, while we're faking it. Well, we all are faking. It's just about faking it well. Brick was such a small movie, so when this got bigger, I felt like a real faker, like I was pretending to know what I was doing. It’s kind of strange how the process had a direct connection to the theme of the movie. Because once you start doing it on-set you realize, by faking it, I’m doing it. I wouldn’t want my surgeon to take that approach, or a bus driver, but in certain things it’s okay.

Looper is your next film, and it’s sci-fi?
It’s not like an I, Robot–type thing. It’s a very character-based film, and it’s very violent and very dark. It’s set in the near future, and things are very bad in an industrial town in Kansas. The worst crime you can commit 30 years from now is messing with time travel, so the only people who will mess with it are big criminal groups. It’s a weird mixture; it has elements of the first Terminator and Witness, bizarrely enough.