Last week, the world got its first official look at The Brothers Bloom when the trailer came online and hit theaters. Following up his critically-acclaimed Brick, writer/director Rian Johnson is set to take the same snappy dialogue and inventive humor to entirely new heights with a comedy about two traveling con men, Stephen and Bloom (Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, respectively).
Stepping into his edit bay, you get a sense of Rian’s world, emanating out from his where he sits, smiling, behind the Final Cut screen. There are posters on the walls, including a large, framed print of the cover to Ricky Jay’s “Cards as Weapons.” Scattered around the walls are hand-drawn and colored pictures of the film’s brothers, as though they had been sent in by a kindergarten class.
Rian grins at everyone and wants to know — before any discussion of his film can begin — if anyone else caught the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight” and what they thought. He’s a film geek at heart and that makes it all the more enjoyable to see how finely he goes about his craft.
“It’s got a lot of comedy to it,” says Rian of his new film, “It’s got romance. It’s kind of got the ‘Lady Eve’ type thing going on. They’re traveling around on steamer ships. It’s got that kind of, almost old-school feel to it.”
To start, Rian shows off the opening sequence which sets up the brothers as orphaned children, working their way through a number of foster homes and pulling off cons as they go. Narrated by the inimitable Ricky Jay, the opening sets up the offbeat humor perfectly and reminds the audience that the best cons have layers and layers. It’s consistently surprising and really, really funny against Jay’s questionably deadpan facts. As soon as the con has fully played out, the scene flashes onto the title done up in giant yellow lights and triumphant music blares. It’s so different, tonally, from Brick and yet its not hard to understand it coming from the same well.
The final bit of production and one containing none of the principal actors, the intro was shot in Serbia and impressively stretches the last bits of a modest budget to some very expensive-looking proportions. Rian likened the final week to pulling together the crew for an entirely separate short film.
“[Originally,] I heard the budget and I was like, ‘what we going to do with all that money?!’ says Rian, “but then you put these big actors into it and you do it internationally and you’re traveling and you’re on the road… It was also the scale of the movie. It was pretty huge, actually, for what we made it for. In some ways, it was more ambitious to make this movie for this budget than to make ‘Brick’ for that budget.”
Joking that they had to do the last week for, “Five dollars and a hand-job,” he and his crew pulled Serbian extras for the all non-speaking adult roles and mined a nearby diplomat school for English-speaking children.
Like Brick, the score is composed by Rian’s cousin, Nathan Johnson but is joined this time by some carefully-selected pop songs. In one scene, we get Bob Dylan’s “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You” and, in one part Rian only mentioned, there’s a song by Cat Stevens. My guess is that he’ll join Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson as a director known for must-buy soundtracks.
After the opening, Rian jumped ahead a bit to a scene where Brody’s character, Bloom, has decided to give up the life of a con man. His brother Stephen has followed him (accompanied by the stunningly gorgeous Rinko Kikuchi as Bang Bang, played almost completely silently). Trying to get him in for one final con, Stephen shows off his plan to con a lonely, eccentric heiress, Penelope (Rachel Weisz).
As great as the casting is all around, Weisz is the one who impressed me the most with her character. She has down the perfect blend of strange, funny, cute and sexy with this tremendous innocence. If Brick was about the intensity of youth, The Brothers Bloom feels like the reverse; the childish astonishment of real life, perfectly summed up in Penelope’s character.
“She’s really fun to watch,” says Rian of Rachel, “…It’s a really difficult character because… the character has, for lack of a better work, quirk to it… What Rachel really pulls off is actually getting beyond that, grounding it.”
“She showed her ass!” Rian laughs of one scene where Rachel stands in a backless hospital gown, “That was the first day of shooting! And Darren Aronofsky was on-set! I wasn’t terrified at all.”
Still, the biggest challenge for the film, Rian says, was having the characters be people you could identify with despite the fact that, in most con men movies, you can’t really trust anyone: “As much as I wanted to do a character-based con man movie, I didn’t want to do that by sweeping the con under the rug. I wanted it to have a big, fun con that kind of goes somewhere. Although, I feel I should put out there, the place it goes at the end isn’t where a traditional con man movie goes. It definitely has some big cons in it but it also veers off the road a little bit.”
He also promises that the ending will pull one over on the audience as well; “It’s sand beneath your feet the whole time as opposed to rock,” he says, “…I’m really curious to see how people react to seeing it a second time as a totally different movie but one that I hope will almost be more interesting.”
As fantastically deliberate as Rian seems with this film in particular, his philosophy of creating in general is something to be admired. In comparing Brick to The Brothers Bloom, Rian says:
“[Genres are] kind of the seed that everything has started with for both of those. It starts sounding kind of effete and arty when you start talking about it, but you don’t really control that seed or that thing that really grabs you and says, ‘oh, yeah.’ When it starts rolling, it’s kind of weird how little control you’ve got and what starts getting you excited. For some reason, it was the Dashiell Hammett stuff with ‘Brick’ but this one it was con man movies. Although that’s only an initial thought and doesn’t really start rolling until you find something else you care about that attaches itself to that. With ‘Brick’ it was actually the high school aspect of it and attaching a lot of the feelings and real subjective memories of high school to these dark, noir archetypes that kind of got me going inside. With this it was storytelling. It was something I had been thinking a lot about in my life about how we use storytelling in our lives. Kind of taking the con man genre and taking the more romanticized, almost fairy-tale aspects of the con man’s life as opposed to the gritter side of it and then using that as an engine to explore how we use storytelling. How we hide behind it and how we need it. How we’re all kind of telling the story of our lives. That’s kind of Bloom’s whole thing through the whole movie. He has this notion which I think we all have at different points that you’re faking it and everyone else right outside the window is leading a real life, sort of. That the real world is kind of right outside your grasp and you’re kind of just getting by. I don’t know how to boil it down to something that would fit on a motivational poster. It’s about realizing that we’re all faking it and that life is faking it. It’s writing your own life and deciding how you’re going to take the world and tell it back to yourself.”
There are, of course, ideas that change throughout the course of creating anything. Sometimes they’re unavoidable, as was the case in having to change the title from the script’s original Penelope because of another film by that name. In other cases, Rian was careful not to second-guess himself; He mentioned that, originally, he was hesitant about having Ricky Jay do the opening narration because Jay had done the same thing in Magnolia. “The Ricky thing got me started,” says Rian, “but the conclusion I came to is that it’s a really unhealthy thing to think in those terms. I think the ultimate litmus test at the end of the day is just that it comes from you.”
Rian’s already looking toward his next project and is currently working on a script called Looper. “It’s sci-fi,” he says, “but it’s very much — well, I think people toss out Philip Dick sci-fi when they mean ‘small, dark’ sci-fi. Although, when I think of Philip Dick’s books, I think of something very different. I think people are confusing it with the movie ‘Blade Runner.’ To me, it’s a lot more like the first ‘Terminator.’ It’s very sci-fi but it’s also very character-based… It’s like the first ‘Terminator’ in that it involves time travel… It’s actually really different [from ‘Bloom’]. It’s really violent and dark.”
Whatever comes along, Rian will probably be sticking with original scripts for the foreseeable future.”[I]t’s more interesting to start from scratch,” he says, “The whole adaptation thing, for me — When I read a book that I love or a graphic novel that I love — my instinct isn’t ‘lets turn this into a movie.’ There’s a disconnect there for me. It’s almost like finding a pair of boots that you love and wanting to knit a sweater out of them. To me it me it makes much more sense just to find things that you love and then whatever they inspire within you to come up with something on your own.”
Sadly, Rian put (hopefully temporarily) hold on the persistent rumors that Brick may get a Criterion DVD release that started when the company contacted him earlier this year to write a top-ten list for their website. “God, I wish,” he said, “Don’t even put that in my headspace!” First, he’s got his sights set on getting the film to screen at L.A.’s famous revival theater: “I’m just waiting for it to play at the New Beverly,” he laughs, “That would be like my favorite thing in the world.”
Slated for an October 24 release, The Brothers Bloom is only a few months away. Though happy with last week’s trailer, Rian is far more excited about (and has been far more involved with) the website, TheBrothersBloom.com, which should go fully interactive any day now and promises to be its own immersive new media experience.