sundance 2020

Documentarian Kirsten Johnson on Fake-Killing Her Own Dad (Over and Over) in Dick Johnson Is Dead

The documentarian explains how and why she filmed a sob-inducing, wildly funny, preemptive eulogy for her beloved father. Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Within three minutes of sitting down with Kirsten Johnson, the director of Dick Johnson Is Dead, I was crying almost as hard as I did during the screening of her documentary. Johnson, best known for 2016’s autobiographical Cameraperson, does something completely radical with her latest film: She captures her father, Dick, in the early stages of dementia, as he moves from Seattle to her one-bedroom New York apartment. In between scenes of the two grappling with his mental and physical decline, she stages playful, almost uncanny fake deaths for him, which he gleefully participates in. The cumulative effect is staggering — incredibly poignant and incredibly funny all at once, almost redefining the notion of gallows humor.

Dick Johnson is simultaneously a love letter to an especially gentle and generous father, a way for the director to assuage her own profound anxieties about losing him, and a portrait of preemptive grief. The film is unrelentingly personal, with Kirsten Johnson stepping in and out of the frame to coax Dick through his patently absurd “death” scenes (falling down stairs, getting stabbed in the chest by a construction worker’s errant nail), or to sit on his lap and reminisce about her mother, whom they lost a few years ago to Alzheimer’s. Dick and Kirsten’s relationship is both enviable and relatable: Here are two people who love and trust each other so deeply that they’ll joyfully confront death together before it’s even arrived. At one point, Johnson stages a fake funeral for Dick, during which one of his best friends breaks down sobbing giving the eulogy. Dick, a career psychologist who’s clearly more than comfortable with all types of raw emotion, beams as he walks down the aisle, waving at his friends and family.

Johnson’s documentary also has something to say about how film pauses time, about how capturing someone you love in motion is a way of defeating death. Some of the loveliest scenes in the movie, outside of those in which we see Kirsten and Dick engaging sincerely with each other, are those set in “heaven.” Surrounded by clouds and glitter and chocolate cake, Dick dances ecstatically with a young woman wearing a gigantic cardboard cutout of his dead wife’s face. By the film’s deeply affecting end, I understood why Kirsten was so desperate not to let him go. When I met her at the Sundance Film Festival after the movie’s premiere, she greeted me with a hug, wearing a bright-red ski suit with a gigantic giraffe necklace, and was warm and magnanimous as she answered questions about making her beloved dad die over and over again.

I loved this movie. I could not stop crying from start to finish.
Dick Johnson was a psychiatrist for 50 years and he had this thing that he’d say: “When the eyes are dry, the organs cry.” He would cry when I left for college, and he was comfortable with that level of emotion. He and cinema give permission for letting out emotion. That’s one of the great advantages to seeing movies in a theater together. It’s a ritualistic, collective experience, in some weird way, not unlike a funeral! You’re going into something, learning about something, but also mourning it in some ways. I really want this project to be this experiment — this engagement with our deepest metaphysical issues.

Cinema is time. We’re looking at all of these dead people onscreen. When you’re looking at Buster Keaton, you’re looking at a dead person. And yet he’s the most alive person there is. You can be at home and cry, but in some ways seeing the familiarity of your own space around you makes you tap back into your own shame and rules about how you can emote. Whereas in a darkened space hearing other people making sounds, that gives you permission — you can just let it roll.

How much crying did you do while making this movie?
You know, it’s interesting. I cried so much during my mother’s Alzheimer’s. I went to therapy and cried weekly, because I had no familiarity with Alzheimer’s or dementia and I just kept being completely sideswiped by the fact that it has gotten worse again. Just when you’d readjusted, it was, “Oh, wow, she can’t do this or remember this,” and it would knock down another level. The fact that my father was starting to get dementia — I couldn’t bear the idea that I had another decade of crying ahead of me. The intellectual, artistic engagement of working on this project and trying to think of funny things [helped] — I gave myself this ambition of, I really want people to have a belly laugh. How do you do that? What’s the craft of creating a laugh?

And there was a certain point in September when I realized we really needed to have voice-over in the movie. Someone said, “You’re throwing your father under the bus in this movie. You have to throw yourself under the bus.” And I was like, “Oh, I have to speak these feelings.” It happened in a moment when my father’s dementia had advanced. He was starting to come out in the middle of the night looking for patients. Sometimes he thinks he’s on an airplane. To be woken up in the middle of the night by a person convinced they’re in another reality … There was a moment that he came out looking for a patient, and couldn’t be convinced that there wasn’t a patient downstairs. He said, “There’s a desperate, suicidal patient who needs me.” And I said, “Dad, they wouldn’t come at 1 a.m.” And he said, “Of course they would. That’s when they need help most.”

We go downstairs, and he looks around, and he says, “There’s no patient, is there?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “It must be so hard for you to watch your father lose his mind.”

Oh my God.
That was when the emotion broke in me. And I really cried. For the entire month of September. But before that, it had been several years of not crying that much. Clearly the filmmaking was a coping strategy.

When did the idea for it first come to you?
The idea first came to me in a dream. I dreamt there was a man in a casket and he sat up and said, “I’m Dick Johnson and I’m not dead yet.” There’s a scene in Cameraperson where we cut the footage of my mother right after the footage of her box of ashes, so you have this reversing of time — she comes back. That footage was footage I hadn’t looked at since she died. I hadn’t seen it in ten years. It had this effect on me of seeing her come back to life. So I was thinking a lot about, Cinema can do this.

How’d you first pitch it to your dad? What was that conversation like?
[Laughs.] Well, my dad loves Monty Python, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks. He really loves to laugh. And so I said, “Dad, what if we make a movie where we kill you over and over again until you really die?” And he laughed.

What an amazing man.
What an amazing man! That’s what gets me. My dad has lived a beautiful life. But he’s very consistent and reliable and went to work every day and stayed married to the same person and raised his kids. His willingness to let his reputation go — this thing that he’s built, this edifice, was sober and serious. My family was religious. My father eventually became an atheist, which was something we went in and out of putting in the movie. It didn’t make the final cut and now I’m kind of like, “Oh, I wish we kept that in there.” But just for him to say, “I trust you unequivocally. Even if this is a mess. Let’s just do this together.” To be that free with the reputation of your life — that floored me, honestly.

Your relationship with him is so beautiful. Do you think he understood why you needed to do it, from a psychological perspective, or did you explain that part of it to him right away?
He was ahead of me all the time on things like that. We were going through different titles, and I said, “Dad, how would you feel about us calling it Dick Johnson Is Dead?” Because I’d initially thought, Oh, that’s a good title, then woke up the next morning and thought, I can’t do this! Are you kidding me? It’s so sacrilegious. So I said it to him, and he said, “Oh, that’s a great title! Then it allows me to do some reaction formation. I’ll have to stay alive forever in contradiction to the title.”

I know. We’re doing pre-traumatic stress therapy together. You take something and look at it so that it can’t stay locked in you. You release it. You let it go. Like you let the tears go.

What were your biggest fears or concerns about making this?
The idea that this movie is a failure. I can’t stop my father’s dementia, I can’t stop him from dying — I knew that. But I thought, Let me be a fool and fight those things. Can we reassemble him? Can we cut out the repetition and bring him back together? Up until September when I had the deep dive emotionally, I was afraid that I’d started too late. And that I hadn’t captured his essence, because there’s something really abstract about what’s so special about my father. He’s just a guy — there’s nothing so special about him — but there’s something ineffable in his presence. You sense he’s at peace with his own life, he’s interested in you, and he’s not judgmental. And that’s what I’ve experienced all of my life with him.

So I did feel like I was failing in the effort to capture his essence. But then we did a screening in October, and I just sort of sat there incredulous, like, “I think we got it.”

I’m close with my dad, too, and it feels similar — he’s at peace, and a great listener. But I wonder if that would’ve come through with your dad if it weren’t you making the movie. So much is about the exchange between you two. How did you decide how much of yourself to put in the movie?
In creating Cameraperson, I really discovered that I did have a presence behind the camera and you didn’t need to see me in order to know me. Initially, I believed I could do that again. But one of the things I wanted to look at in this film was how cinema constructs realities. So I really wanted to show the mechanisms of cinema — including me behind the scenes. I like this idea of speaking about what’s not normally spoken about and showing what’s not normally shown — to go beyond the edge of the screen and show the filmmaker, show the man who’s tearing down the shelves in his psychiatry office, show the stunt people. I got really interested in stunt people: They’re putting their physical bodies at harm to be invisible in a movie to create escapism for the rest of us. I love the metaphor of that. I wanted to turn things inside out, including my role.

How’d you come up with each of the death sequences? Did you run each past your dad and end up discarding any?
Yeah. What was crazy about this was that because we started working with Netflix, I had a budget ahead of time for the first time in my life, so I could think really big. I imagined we’d travel the globe, put my dad on an ice floe and float him out, go to Hong Kong and have him jump out of a building and catch on fire. Then it just became totally obvious that my dad couldn’t do that. He’s a fragile 86-year-old who doesn’t have toes, who’s in danger of tripping and falling. And I realized: All of that was escapist fantasy. Ground-level falls, in fact, are the most frequent way that elderly people die. It occurred to me that these things that are challenging for my dad in his day-to-day life — “I might fall down some stairs, I might trip” — is where the scary part is. These very banal, small risks. Can I risk letting my dad walk to the other side of the car when the traffic is coming? I’m taking a big risk.

Those scenes — and the whole movie — are very upsetting but also very funny. How and why did you strike that tone?
I think the idea was being irreverent, like, “This is so bad that we have to do something crazy.” And Jackass is an inspiration.

How much do you laugh watching Jackass? That’s what I want. It’s like, “I can’t believe they did that and I’m so horrified by it, but it allows me to release something that normally I have to contain.” So that was always the hope. But the worry was, How do we find the tone of this film? I’d say we found it in the edit process for sure, but we also found it in how we were able to execute certain stunts and create certain spaces.

The idea was always that it would be iterative: We’d learn from what was happening in real life and then imagine what could enter or interrupt that real-life moment in its fantasy form. The idea was to always go back and forth: We shoot documentary, we learn from it, we imagine something invented to place into it.

So you were inventing these deaths on the go?
In the sense of, We’re filming my dad leaving his house in Seattle. What is the death that might happen in this house? And then figuring out how to shoot that, realizing we need to use VFX to make that work, and the VFX is happening at the very end.

Tell me about conceiving heaven. Those scenes are so beautiful and weird.
At some point it was like, “We need to stop killing him.” It was not fun for him. He was bloody and cold and outside and I was like, “Why am I doing this to him?” I wondered, What would be pleasurable to him? To go to heaven. I thought a lot about Freud’s idea of the uncanny — something appears in a new way in a different place. Which is a lot of what dementia is like. So we’d just dismantled our family home we had for 50 years, but [to my apartment] came the carpet and my dad’s bookshelves and his chair. His whole life is now shrunken down to this tiny room, but he’s like, “This is the most beautiful room I’ve ever been in.” So we took those objects and put them in heaven: This is the place he feels safe, where he has pleasure and joy.

How did he react to the dancing woman who wears your mom’s face?
Oh my gosh, he loved that. He was totally flirting with her. He was totally into it. That whole shoot, the fantasy shoot, was insane. Because I was really worried he wouldn’t be able to participate in anything. He’s ashamed of his toes, for example. I didn’t know if he’d take off his socks. Totally did it, loved it, thought it was hilarious. He played clarinet his whole life but can’t recently because of arthritis. But we put him in a tuxedo, put him in the bandstand, and he started swinging. I was going to weep. He doesn’t know where he is, but knew he trusted me.

He totally surrendered to you.
And he engages. Yesterday in the movie theater, at the Q&A, I said, “Dad, do you know where you are?” And he said, “I’m in heaven.” Afterward, there were all these women lined up to hug him, and he was like, “I don’t know why this is happening, but I’m certainly enjoying it.”

I’m crying again.
Right? Someone told me, “This movie has found a way for me not to allow my father to be expendable.” We’ve found a way together to keep him in this life with me. If he were sitting at home alone, or at a nursing home not knowing where he is, that’s a really different thing than him being here, at Sundance, not knowing where he is and engaging with people and hugging people.

Of course, there are ethical questions: Do I bring my father out into the world where he might say something that indicates he doesn’t know where he is? But then it’s like, well, what would be the problem with that?

Right! Why is that “embarrassing”?
Right. Where’s the actual problem? We went to the front of the stage after the premiere and he said, “I have to go to the bathroom.” And I said, “Okay! Walk off the stage, that’s fine!” One of the things I learned making this film was that I don’t need to pretend to know things. As a director, I don’t need to pretend to know what’s going to happen or what’s going to work. Let me be interested in what’s happening in the moment, and nothing can go wrong. My father says he’s in heaven? No problem. That’s interesting and beautiful and fine.

How’d that translate while making this movie?
There were moments I felt like we were right at the edge, where he wasn’t able to distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t. The way in which a person would engage in, “Oh, we’re doing a stunt scene of a bicycle about to hit you, you step into traffic but you stop” — he wouldn’t know to stop but for the illusion of cinema, we’d have to let him do it by himself. Can you do that? It’s right at the edge.

Right. In the last death, he says, “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” Did you feel guilty?
It was one of those things where I was like, I can’t believe this is happening. This whole crew is here, we’ve set up this whole thing, dad thought the whole thing was hilarious. And ten minutes later, he was like, “That was hilarious!” You are putting someone in a position of total confusion and discomfort and anxiety, but my father experiences that even when he’s comfortable in his own home and he’s imagining he’s on an airplane that won’t land. And I can’t control that in that space either. If there was a place where I could be free of all of that anxiety and difficulty, I’d do it. But given that the dementia means that happens everywhere all the time anyway, I felt I’d much rather be engaged with him, trying to make something of this moment.

At the end of the movie, for a moment, you do think he’s dead. But then it’s revealed that he’s alive. Your original plan was to film up until his death. What changed?
You see the ambulance in the film and you think, Of course he’s dead. Originally we wanted the [fake] funeral at the beginning, and his real funeral at the end, but once we did that [fake] funeral, I was like, “Oh, that’s his real funeral. We’re not going to do another one when he dies.” I don’t know what I’m gonna do when he dies, but I’m not going to do a funeral. We’ve done it. I mean, in the making of this film, five people in that audience are already dead. Ray is 91 years old.

The friend who breaks down? Why do you think he had that intense of a reaction?
It’s all real. Everyone in that audience had lived through my mother’s dementia and death and knew my father’s was beginning. So they were truly grieving his loss in that way.

Does it make you emotional to talk about all of this now?
As any people who are caretakers for people with dementia know, it’s your reality all the time. I think that’s why film helps us because it shifts our relationship to time. I’ve worked for years on something I can compress into an hour and a half, but then expands out and gives me the chance to talk to you about it, see it reflected in your eyes, and it rebounds back to me, where I realize, Oh, right. This is hard. That’s what we’re doing: disassociating, associating, empathizing.

I made this out of need. At times, I felt deeply disturbed by the fact that I wasn’t making a political film at this moment in U.S. history, but I really needed to find a way to be with my dad. And this was the only chance I was going to get. But what I’m already discovering is that a lot of us are carrying a lot of emotional difficulty, life difficulty, financial difficulty. And a lot of the caregivers happen to be women, doing a lot of extra work with no acknowledgement. So there are politics in it.

What does your dad think of the film? Does he understand what he’s watching? 
He loves it. He laughs at it. He gets to go back to his home. He gets to see his friends. He does wonder why he’s been put at the center of things: “You really think this is interesting?” Or he’ll say, “I really miss that guy.”

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