Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) searches for answers about a girls death in Brick, Rian Johnsons unlikely, high school-based film noir.
Not another (typical) teen movie
By Steven Snyder
When youve spent as much time with a movie as first-time director Rian Johnson has, and faced as many challenges as hes had to face, a sense of detachment starts to set in a numbness that mutes the excitement of seeing your film picked up by a big studio.
You have to understand, its taken six or seven years, Johnson said during an interview last month, when he was in town promoting Brick, his first feature film. I cant tell you how [many times we heard] Thisll never work because people will never follow the story its in high school, but its too smart for high schoolers.
Brick, which opens at the Angelica this Friday, won the Sundance Film Festival special jury prize for originality of vision at last years competition. But the works year-long exodus from film festival to major release is only a brief chapter in its epic saga.
After finishing film school at the University of Southern California, and facing the daunting, uphill climb of building a movie a career without any industry contacts, Johnson started writing the script for his first feature film a project that would follow in the traditions of his favorite noir author, Dashiell Hammett, the author of such hard-boiled books as The Maltese Falcon.
It started with Hammett, Johnson said. But the real motivation came when I realized that people are so familiar with the conventions of film noir that we had to do something different to make it fresh again.
Brick (the title refers to a brick of drugs) starts with a standard noir formula: A dead body, a distraught lover, an ambiguous underworld of thugs and thieves, and a hero with nothing to lose. So far, so familiar, except for the setting. Our hero starts his unorthodox investigation during his lunch breaks. His confrontations are not with the gruff killers one would expect, but with the school bully and an intimidating assistant principal. And his prying leads him to a dramatic, in-your-face meeting with a drug kingpin, who spells it all out while his mother serves the boys orange juice.
Johnson said his intent was to get away from all the conventional images of the noir genre the traditional black-and-white images of fedora-waiting heroes, cast in long shadows, brandishing guns. Instead, he wanted to create a film noir from the ground up, and help people to get lost in a completely new story, rather than comparing it to the ones that came before.
We used high school to give it a different setting, Johnson said. A whole different set of visual cues, which allowed us to make some original creative decisions.
Filmed primarily in and around San Clemente, CA, Brick is one of those classic Sundance stories in which a small-budget film goes on to discover its ideal audience and is launched into big-time success. Made for under a million dollars, Johnson said he raised the majority of the films budget from family and friends before carefully storyboarding the 20-day shoot and editing the film alone in his bedroom with standard, Final Cut Pro software.
It was just like making films in high school, Johnson said.
He said his Sundance experience, from first being accepted to receiving the festivals originality of vision award, was a blur, and he said he was actually happier that his uncles, who helped fund Brick, enjoyed the film when they finally saw it for the first time on a big screen.
Its since been picked up by Focus Features, and being marketed aggressively as a raw, hard-hitting noir thriller meets high school comedy. Reflecting on its sensation, Johnson said it was a surprising mix of both careful planning and the unpredictable that ultimately launched his career.
Whats exciting are the things you dont plan, he said, remembering how many of the films asides including a breathtaking sequence of hundreds of birds taking flight from a high school football field were more the result of being in the right place at the right time than Johnsons detailed storyboards.
Im always fascinated to hear peoples reactions, because there is never the same response, he said. They see a little of everything in Brick, and that means we did our job in drawing them we found a way to approach the genre fresh.