Volume 75, Number 45 | March 29 -April 04 2006


Written and directed by: Rian Johnson
Starts Friday at the Angelika Film Center
18 West Houston Street, between Broadway and Mercer
(212.995.2000, www.angelikafilmcenter.com)

Focus Features

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) searches for answers about a girl’s death in “Brick,” Rian Johnson’s unlikely, high school-based film noir.

Not another (typical) teen movie

By Steven Snyder

When you’ve spent as much time with a movie as first-time director Rian Johnson has, and faced as many challenges as he’s 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, it’s taken six or seven years,” Johnson said during an interview last month, when he was in town promoting “Brick,” his first feature film. “I can’t tell you how [many times we heard] ‘This’ll never work because people will never follow the story — it’s in high school, but it’s 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 year’s competition. But the work’s 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 film’s 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 festival’s 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.

It’s 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.

“What’s exciting are the things you don’t plan,” he said, remembering how many of the film’s 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 Johnson’s detailed storyboards.

“I’m always fascinated to hear people’s 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.

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