The Brothers Bloom: A Conversation with Director Rian Johnson
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On a sunny September morning, while most Toronto International Film Festival attendees were either still sleeping off the previous night’s bash or lining up to buy last-minute ticket’s for the day’s movies, I was hiking through the city’s already sweltering streets, headed for the stunning Fairmont Royal York Hotel, where I was scheduled to meet up with the stars and director of The Brothers Bloom for a roundtable discussion.

Before the interviews began, the press gathered in the elegant check-in area, enjoying the rather lavish breakfast spread while flipping through the press package that had been handed out at the previous day’s press screening. Then, with a few minutes remaining, we split up, wandering off to our separate roundtable rooms (each of which held about a dozen of us), where we grabbed some refreshments, took our seats, and fiddled with our various voice recorders.

  
 
While we were still fiddling, a couple of people walked into the room. One was a boyish-looking blonde man in a white shirt and tie—who, upon walking in the door, greeted us with a cheerful, “Hi, guys.”

Like most of my colleagues, I was still making some last-minute notes and messing with my recorder, so I barely looked up. We just said quiet hellos as we continued to set up.

Then he continued: “I’m Rian.”

And, with that, we all dropped what we were doing, hit Record on our various devices, tossed them out onto the table, and got down to business. Because The Brothers Bloom director Rian Johnson was in the room—and the clock was ticking.

Over the next 20 minutes or so, the easy-going and engaging young director discussed his career, his inspiration, his adventures in making his latest feature, and, of course, his spectacular cast. Here are some (spoiler-free) highlights from the discussion.


Q: [In the press notes] You talked about how you were inspired by The Sting and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

RJ: Yeah, I think there’s something kind of…classic about two con men doing their last job—and there’s a rich millionairess…and are they going to fall in love with her? That’s kind of one of the classic things about the genre. But…my whole idea with it—and what got me excited about doing it—was taking things in the genre that…are expected by the audience and…going in with that in mind and saying, Okay, if, as a storyteller, I’m kind of aware of those things, can I use those expectations to maybe do a couple of things that you don’t expect so much—like making it more about the characters a little bit and making it a little more about the love story….

Q: Can you talk about casting Rinko [Kikuchi] in the part? And was the part always silent?

RJ: It was always silent, yeah…. I was meeting all these Chinese actresses, and then I met Rinko. I just knew her from Babel, but she actually cut her teeth in Japan doing comedy, so she actually has really strong comedy chops. And…it’s kind of cool. It’s a whole other movie if you watch it and just watch Rinko through the whole thing. ‘Cuz she’s actually giving a really tight and really well-orchestrated performance through the whole thing.

We had a script translated for her, and she had a translator on set the whole time. Her English was okay, though. It was the type of thing where if she got a couple drinks in her, her English got significantly better [laughs]. So I think she understood more than she usually spoke. But, yeah…it was always written as mute—or mostly mute.

Q: Was she able to improv, though?

RJ: Yeah, well, with the background business…we would play. I would give her little things to do, and she’d come up with other little things to do. And we’d start trying to top each other a little—some of which makes it in, some of which doesn’t.

When we were shooting, I was totally afraid that she was going to steal the show. And then, while I was editing, I was completely afraid that she was going to sink to the background. And I’m kind of happy that, at least when I watch it, it feels like there’s a good balance. It feels like she’s one of the characters.

In a way, it’s one of my favorite things, just because the kind of the Harpo Marx of the thing. And it was also exciting meeting Rinko and having her be excited about that, as opposed to, “Why don’t I have any lines in this?” Having an actor that was excited by the idea of creating a completely non-verbal performance that was still a performance—and still as strong a performance as anything else in the movie. There’s the argument that that’s really pure acting. And…it was fun.

Q: Who was the funnest character for you to write?

RJ: Um…Bang Bang [Kikuchi’s character]. It was the easiest [laughs]. Bloom [Adrien Brody’s character] was kind of the easiest for me to write. Stephen [Mark Ruffalo’s character] was a lot of fun ‘cuz he’s kind of the way I wish I could be. Penelope [Rachel Weisz’s character] I maybe have, weirdly, the most personal connection to, but she was also the most difficult to find. For a long while, I was trying to find the thing about her that fleshed her out for me—that made her feel real for me and not just kind of the sum of all these quirks. And, actually, I was writing in New York, and I was wandering around the park, and I wandered into the Met, and they were having a Diane Arbus exhibit. I’d never seen her work…. And that instantly put it in my mind: Okay, Stephen sculpts the hedge maze, and Penelope smells the flowers on the hedges. That’s the contrast. And the joy in that—just taking immediate joy in whatever’s beautiful right around you…. In a way, that was like the coolest experience in terms of writing one of the characters for me, I guess.

Q: How did you write the montage with Rachel [in which her character, the reclusive heiress, shows Bloom her plethora of random hobbies]? It just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Did you just sit around with a bottle one night and just keep going?

RJ: Several bottles, yes [laughs]. I always do…. And then Rachel tossed a couple things into it, too. Although she didn’t do it, she came up with the flipping over and over thing [back flips]….

But my favorite thing to shoot was the unicycle thing. ‘Cuz we had her strung up on wires at some point. It’s just those moments when you step back, and you’re in the middle of Romania, with Rachel Weisz strung up on wires, pretending to juggle chainsaws, and you’re just, “What are we doing for a living? What are we actually getting paid real money to do? It’s just ridiculous.”

Q: This movie is so different, as far as overall tone goes, from your previous effort [Brick]. For you, did it feel the same, as far as being a director and walking through this experience? Because your job is essentially the same—you’re directing actors, you’re looking at production design, etc. But as far as just the emotional tone for you, when you walked away from this film…

RJ: Obviously, you’re right. It’s going for a very different thing. But, yeah, it was very similar in the essential part of it…. It was similar to Brick in that it has this very…heightened surface. But, for me and for the actors, it was all about being completely sincere and honest and true to the emotional stuff that was behind it—and never losing sight of that with all the craziness that goes on in it. And hopefully then the people who connect with it will feel that at the tail end of it. And hopefully then, also, you can raise these other things up and head up to a ridiculous level and still keep some people with you through the whole movie, just if they sense that you genuinely care about this, and you’re not just kind of having a laugh with it. And so that, I think, was essentially the thing that I felt was similar to Brick.

And in terms of the experience of making it, I mean, it was kind of terrifying for me going into it—‘cuz Brick was so tiny, budget-wise and schedule-wise and everything-wise. Brick felt like going to summer camp a little bit—you know, making it. And with this, we had big-name actors. And it wasn’t a big budget by any means, but it was a lot bigger than Brick—and we were traveling around. But one of the pleasant things for me to discover was also…that it was very similar to Brick in terms of the experience. Once you actually get your hands in the dirt, it’s the same tools, it’s the same thing, it’s just, you know, you’re trying to honestly tell this story as best you can….

Q: Was the dynamic between the two brothers [Stephen and Bloom] based at all on your experience with siblings?

RJ: Yes…not like directly, thank God. But, more so, the dynamic between them and just kind of the feel of the whole movie is based on how it feels when I hang out with my family, I guess. My family has like a highly articulate but really goofball sort of humor…and the back-and-forth and the dialogue and just the style of humor in the movie, for me, is very much what it feels like when I’m out at the family barbecue—which may be horrifying—without, um, drunk camels, you know. But, for me, it was just kind of trying to capture this tone of what I love about hanging out with my family.

And in terms of the specific relationship with the brother, besides the fact that I love my brother very much, with the brothers, there’s nothing really about the dynamic that’s exactly the same, really. It’s more…the whole dynamic between Stephen and Bloom was, for me, more about just kind of the different sides of living a life through storytelling.

Q: Do you know what you’re doing next?

RJ: Yeah, I’ve started writing a science-fiction movie—which is very, very, very different than this…and Brick, actually. It’s really dark and really, um, very violent—and completely different in tone. And I’m so excited.

Q: Independent, or for a studio?

RJ: It’ll probably be independent, I would guess. Then I’ll finish the script and we’ll see who wants to make it [laughs].

Q: Is there a sort of release to sort of having that darkness? Did you feel that you sort of were compelled to find light in this story—that you had a tendency to go darker?

RJ: If there was, it wasn’t a conscious choice. I’d been planning this one for a few years, and it’s kind of the thing that took me. But, having said that, there is something…it’s that feeling of if you’ve been in a hot tub for a few hours, it feels good to jump in an icy-cold pool. But it wasn’t like I consciously sought out…Well, now I have to do something dark. This just happened to be the thing that kind of hooked me.

Q: What caught your interest about Robbie Coltrane [who plays a small part in the brothers’ con]?

RJ: Oh, we cast him, actually, kind of late in the process. We were looking for someone for that role. I mean, he’s awesome, you know? He’s got kind of that showman-like energy that just kind of blows you away. And he would be up drinking with the crew every night and almost got us all kicked out of the hotel for insisting on playing the piano in the lobby. He’s that guy—which is the Curator [his character in the movie]. And he’s Hagrid, you know? He’s just a pretty amazing guy—and he has that presence…. That part, you know, there’s not actually a lot to that part, so you need someone who’s got the presence, who can come in and instantly make an impression and fill it out. And the same thing with Maximilian Schell [who has another small role in the film]. It’s the same sort of thing for both of those little character parts. It was really important to have someone who—boom—you know, they’re right there when they come in.

Q: As far as this time period… At first, I couldn’t tell what period the movie was set in. Was that expressed…?

RJ: Yeah. It’s something that I never really worried about. I mean, it was definitely brought up, but…my take on it is it’s set completely within this world that Stephen’s creating. And the only rules of that world are that it’s cool…or that it’s got a lot of style. I’ve talked to people who have seen it, and, I guess for some people, they can butt up against that, and that can be kind of a blockage—kind of logically trying to figure out what period it’s in. But I think it’s something…I don’t know…something you just kind of have to flow with a little and just kind of go with it, I guess.


And with that, the rep arrived to escort Johnson to his next interview—and we were left to finish scribbling our notes, check our recorders, get a refill on our drinks, and wait for the first of the three cast members to arrive.

Come back later this week for part two of The Brothers Bloom interviews.

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