Interview: Rian Johnson Talks ‘The Brothers Bloom’

Film School Rejects chats with ‘The Brothers Bloom’ director about his love for con man stories, his unique stylistic vision and working with a cast full of famous people, on a big scale, in Eastern Europe.
By  · Published on May 18th, 2009

Brick, an ambitious amalgamation of the tropes of hard boiled film noir and high school movies, announced the presence of a major new player on the cinematic scene in its first time director Rian Johnson. Faced with the daunting task of following up such a critical and commercial success without succumbing to the dreaded sophomore slump, Johnson refuses to play things safe.

The Brothers Bloom, currently in limited release, chronicles the journey of con men brothers Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) as they try to milk a lonely New Jersey heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz) for all she’s worth. It is, in its own way, as stylized as Brick, combining mid-century costumes and an old-fashioned Hollywood vision of continental Europe with the trappings of modernity. In an exclusive interview Film School Rejects spoke to the writer-director.

The film has a lot to say about the role storytelling plays in daily life. Was that what appealed to you about the con man story?

That’s kind of the place this whole story started for me, using it to explore where storytelling intersects with our lives. It just seemed like a perfect connection to harness that to a con man film, although I guess from the very start I had a desire to divorce the con men in this movie from what con men actually are in real life. The movie definitely is much more kind of like a fairytale or a fable that takes the con man not as a criminal robbing people of their savings but more as a storyteller creating great fictions. For me that was the launching point.

It functions differently than many of its predecessors. The narrative seems more complicated.

For me that was an essential part of it. It’s also tricky because it’s a genre where I think the audience is expecting a very neat and defined twist at the end of it. That’s part of the pleasure of this genre. Who’s going to screw over whom, what’s going to snap together at the close, which I love when that happens in movies, that can be a really satisfying payoff, [but] that’s not what I was going for in this one. You get a little bit of that in the childhood sequence. You get the traditional con payoff of oh they got him this way, but at the end of the film itself it goes some place much different. In a way, the wheels fall off of the car and it’s more about this narrative falling apart and dissolving.

How are you able to surround these characters with such a heightened milieu and not have them be effectively swallowed up by it?

As long as I feel like I’m coming from an honest place in terms of who these people are. As long as my first priority is creating a living, breathing person whose actions I believe, you can then, as long as that’s your fundamental driving force as a writer, then whatever happens in the script no matter how big it gets, if it’s coming from there then hopefully it’s going to fit in with the character and it’s going to work. So in a way it’s almost kind of, if I can make a geek reference, getting the blast shield down.

What appeals to you about making movies that rely on specifically stylized worlds?

One of the films that I was watching over and over when we were in production on this was 8 ½. I would go to Fellini in terms of describing my take on this. I think that the stuff that he hits hardest for me emotionally is the stuff that dares to be the biggest and the most overblown but that still has human truth behind it. If something can stretch the heights of reality, if something can be stylized, be grand, be bigger than life and still be focused on a point of emotional truth, those are the things that pierce the deepest for me, that end up connecting and staying with me, that I end up mining the most truth from in terms of my life. Be it 8 ½ or recently I’d point to Synecdoche, New York, which was probably my favorite film from last year. On some levels you could point to it and say how far it departed from reality and how surreal elements of it were, but at the same time it took that level of grand absurdity and focused it all down to something very, very human. For me there’s nothing better than that.

What was your reasoning behind the anachronistic wardrobes?

For me the aim of that [was that] I wanted the audience to feel from the very start that they were inside the world Stephen was creating and that Stephen could have total control over the world that we were in. So then the audience would identify with Bloom in feeling, to a certain extent, trapped in that. If everybody was just running around in modern day street clothes it might be a little tougher to buy the notion that you’re in this alternate reality. It’s almost a similar motivation for the style of work. It was queuing the audience that we’re not playing, really, in the real world here.

How about the old-fashioned vision of Europe?

For me that definitely came from the fact that I didn’t really have money to travel when I was in my 20s. I didn’t really start traveling until I was nearly 30 so I had a lot of time to sit in crummy apartments and imagine Europe. In thinking about what the Brothers [would use to] seduce Penelope, I was coming from that exact same place. Being in New Jersey and being in this one house in New Jersey her whole life, that’s how I plucked that in there. That’s what would have seduced me.

What was filming in Eastern Europe like?

It was great. I don’t think we could have pulled this movie off for the budget that we had anywhere else. We based ourselves in Belgrade, Serbia and used a lot of local crew there. And then we traveled around to Romania and Montenegro for some of the coastal stuff and then we went to Prague for one week to shoot the Prague sequence. It was nice because in the Balkans we had access to a lot of different types of scenery, a lot of different ways to fake different environments. At the same time, because the western film industry is just starting to edge its nose into that area we were able to keep our costs low. And the people were great, and I ended up just really falling in love with Belgrade.

You’ve said before that you like your film sets to feel spontaneous, as you and your friends in the backyard, making a movie. How do you achieve that when working on this sort of scale?

A big part of it is just the people you choose to work with. Another part is I do think the director sets the tone for the entire crew. So if I show up to work in the morning being stern and browbeating everybody that’s going to set a certain tone. If I show up really happy that we get to spend the day making a movie, enjoying it and feeling like I’m with a group of friends telling this story, it really is going to bleed over into the way the rest of the crew approaches it. It was a concern of mine coming into this, because it was a much bigger production that Brick. We were working with bigger scale, bigger elements, bigger stars and all the rest of it, but it ended up being just as much of a pleasure. It ended up feeling very similar to Brick in terms of the environment on the set, so I was happy.

Can you talk about shaping Penelope, and what Rachel brought to the part?

She was the character I left the most open in my head. I really knew that I wanted to find an actor who could come in and add quite a bit of who they were to that role. When there was the opportunity to have Rachel play the part I just instantly knew that she could do it. It’s a tricky thing to have a character that is that big, that is that stylized and has that much quirk. You’re tightrope walking over a tank of sharks in terms of having the character not fall into being a meaningless jumble of quirkiness. That was the first conversation Rachel and I had. Everything has to be done at the expense of keeping the character grounded, at keeping her anchored, keeping her real. Those were the glasses that we were looking at this whole thing from. From there it was largely just seeing what Rachel made of it. It becomes a balance between letting the actor run with the role and being surprised, being pleasantly surprised by what they bring to it and then as a director keeping your hand firmly on the wheel in terms of where the character has to go to and the bigger picture and everything. It was definitely a big learning curve for me, but it was pretty fantastic to be able to learn from these actors.

What are you doing next?

I’ve got a lot to say [about it], but I’m still writing it. It’s called Looper, it’s definitely much darker than Bloom. It’s sort of a sci-fi thing, set in the near future and it’s got time travel in it. I’m working on the script now. We don’t know when we’re going to shoot it yet, but as soon as I get the script done we’ll hopefully start getting it together and see exactly how tough it is to make a movie today. It’s probably a very different world now then it was three years ago when we put Bloom together. I’ll report back.

The Brothers Bloom is in theaters in New York and Los Angeles now and will be in select markets on May 22nd.

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