If you’re not convinced more Star Wars movies is a good idea, then the news that Rian Johnson will be writing and directing Star Wars Episode VIII should win you over. Johnson knows structure, action, comedy and character, making him the ideal filmmaker to make Star Wars fresh and exciting again. Not only do his talents make him the right filmmaker for the job, but so does his thematic interests.
Looper and Johnson’s second picture, The Brothers Bloom, are about how much control someone has over their own narrative. Bloom (Adrien Brody) feels like he’s living a story written by his brother Stepehen (Mark Ruffalo), while Old Joe (Bruce Willis) and Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) battle over the course of their shared, separate life. In short, a franchise focused on creating your own destiny is right up Johnson’s alley.
Out of Johnson’s three films so far, The Brothers Bloom is the one that’s probably talked about the least. It was met with a lukewarm response from critics, and it kind of got lost in the shuffle back in 2009, but it’s a richly structured flim flam movie full of heart. It’s as much about brothers as it is the con. The relationship between Bloom and Stephen lives beyond the movie; Brody and Ruffalo let us learn these characters so thoroughly that it’s easy to imagine other adventures they’d gone on.
We revisited the film with the commentary track on. Here’s what we learned.
The Brothers Bloom (2009)
Commentators: Rian Johnson (writer/director) and Ram Bergman (producer)
1. The opening sequence chronicling the brothers’ history was the very first thing Johnson wrote, but the last thing he shot. The challenge there was to give Belgrade, Serbia the feel of small town America.
2. Both Brick and The Brothers Bloom feature Johnson’s sister sweeping. Johnson’s father also appears as a fruit salesman in Bloom.
3. The part of The Curator (Robbie Coltrane) was written for Ricky Jay, but Jay wasn’t available to travel. Ultimately Jay provided narration for the film’s opening, despite Johnson’s dream of having Bob Dylan do the narration.
4. Musical clearances are ridiculously expensive, and a song is more costly if it’s used for the opening credits.
5. Any shot without the main actors is generally shot with second unit. Johnson learned this on The Brothers Bloom.
6. The only major set built for the film was the theater at the end. Logistically the film was challenging because no location repeats itself.
7. Rian’s cousin, Zach Johnson, created the chapter headings. They were a late addition meant to clarify the con.
8. Johnson believes he leans on dialogue too much, so he wrote a character with almost zero lines: Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi).
9. Rachel Weisz was the first actor to sign on, which Johnson says is scary for an actor because all they have at that point to go off of is the script and the director. Getting the whole cast together took a year.
10. Penelope’s big boots helped Weisz find the essence of the character: awkward, but comfortable in her own skin.
11. Because the budget wasn’t huge it forced Johnson and company to shoot on locations. While writing the script, Johnson worried they wouldn’t be able to shoot all across Europe, but Bergman told him to just write the script without worrying about it.
12. Trains are logistical nightmares. Johnson was initially opposed to doing a green screen comp, but conceded that it’d be more convenient to shoot using green screen for when Bloom and Penelope are on the train.
13. They didn’t realize how many hats were in the movie until halfway through shooting. There are a lot.
14. Johnson was the most nervous about working with Maximilian Schell. Shell worried Diamond Dog’s costume might’ve been too goofy, so he walked the streets of Prague with Johnson while wearing the costume, to see how people would react to him. The costume worked.
15. When Diamond Dog talks with Bloom at the bar, it was originally planned as a far more sinister encounter. The scene initially hinted that Bloom was sexually abused by Diamond Dog, but Johnson decided it was a little too dark.
16. Johnson thought Bang Bang would hate the notion of Barbie Dolls and would take any chance she could get to blow one up.
17. Don’t worry, people of Prague, they didn’t blow up Prague Castle. They built a 30-foot-tall chunk of it to destroy. Bergman added that if Prague knew they were going to blow up Prague Castle in the film they wouldn’t have been permitted to film in Prague.
18. To keep himself visually connected to what they were making, every night Johnson would watch The Conformist and 8 1/2. A lot of critics compared The Brothers Bloom to Wes Anderson, but in no direct way did Anderson influence Johnson’s film.
19. Originally, Penelope was meant to be fooled by Stephen being shot, but because of how Weisz played Penelope and the character’s progression, Johnson felt Penelope wouldn’t believe the trick.
20. There’s a red and white theme in the film, which is a reference to a line Diamond Dog has: “Stephen, still the grand architect with your symbols. Red for temptation, white for salvation.”
21. Ruffalo first met with Johnson to discuss the role of Bloom. Johnson found him so charming he decided to have Ruffalo bring that energy to Stephen.
22. Towards the end, the artwork/graffiti is meant to make us think we’re still in Stephen’s story.
23. Stephen doing a phony death scene at the end was an idea Ruffalo and Johnson came up with on the set. Of course a man couldn’t do a somersault after being shot, but it was necessary to convince Bloom that Stephen wasn’t faking. If it were obvious Stephen was shot, you’d turn against Bloom, as Johnson says, thinking, “Bloom’s a real idiot.”
Best in Commentary
- Johnson: “There’s a one legged cat. I don’t know what I can add to that with commentary.”
- Johnson: “When you write the script you have a notion of what the movie is, how it’s going to feel, and what it’s going to be. When you get into the editing room, to a certain extent, you have to let that go. You have to find what the material wants to be now, because all these incredibly talented people have come in and done their own thing with it. What you originally had in mind can’t be the be-all and end-all. Sometimes that means you lose a lot of stuff you like.”
- Berman: “Only in Serbia you’re going to get good camels.”
- Johnson: “Penelope is the sun. Stephen is kind of underground, so his environments are underground, like, the bar [from the first act]. His environments are dark and underground. With Penelope it’s bright, green, orange, and the sun.”
- Berman: “Robbie Coltraine knows everything.”
- Johnson: “There’s a version of the movie that could’ve ended with the kiss, like, with a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels kind of twist at the end of the movie. You expect that from a con man with the tone of what you’ve seen up until this point. I decided to play out the last part of the movie where it gets a little darker. The point is the plot completely falls apart, to the point where the plot almost disintegrates and goes away.”
Johnson acknowledges what often makes for tedious commentaries: a director often saying “I like the way that door opens.” In this commentary, Johnson explains why the door opens. He also avoids other commentary pitfalls — such as often exclaiming “this is my favorite scene” or describing exactly what’s happening on screen — and delivers a consistently fun and informative commentary.
It’s a shame none of the cast was a part of the commentary, because listening to Johnson with Emily Blunt and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the Looper commentary was a real treat. Ram Bergman, whose rare anecdotes are entertaining, lets Johnson do all the talking. That’s fine, because Johnson never runs out of stories to share.
Correction: In an earlier version of this post, we referred to Belgrade, Serbia as Belgrade, Siberia which — as far as we can tell — isn’t a real place. Our apologies.