Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter goes back to Rian Johnson’s beginnings for the commentary for Brick.
Rian Johnson is a filmmaker you’ve probably heard of thanks to a filmography that includes The Brothers Bloom (2008), Looper (2012), and this year’s Knives Out. He also made a space-set adventure movie, but that one never really gets talked about. His very first feature film, Brick (2005), remains a memorable debut thanks to its teen-centric riff on the noir formula brought to life with smarts, sincerity, and a sharp cast & crew. The film is new to Blu-ray from the fine folks at Kino Lorber and well worth a pick-up. So I did just that, and after giving it a re-watch I also checked out the special features.
Keep reading to see what I heard on Rian Johnson’s commentary track for…
Commentators: Rian Johnson (director/writer), Nora Zehetner (actor), Jodie Tillen (production designer), Michele Posch (costume designer), Noah Segan (actor), Ram Bergman (producer)
1. Johnson credits the novels of Dashiell Hammett and the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing as inspirations. The latter led to the former as an interview with the Coens saw them referencing Hammett’s work. “I picked up the Hammett and didn’t put it down for the next several months.”
2. The decision to set his noir in the world of teens came from a desire to give his film “a different set of visual cues.”
3. He wrote the script in 1997, “right out of film school.”
4. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin had been Johnson’s friend for years and had the advantage of working on actual film sets after school. Yedlin would bring copies of the script to the various sets, “and if there was a cool producer on the set he would slip him the script.” It worked as the script made its way from reader to reader until someone finally responded with the desire to get the film made.
5. Budget was still an issue, though, so after a number of false starts they sat down and figured out the lowest amount they could make the film for, and then they went to everyone they knew to scrape the money together. “We were able to just go off with absolutely no grownups looking over our shoulder.”
6. They shot the film in San Clemente, CA, and they actually filmed at his high school. He says it was cathartic returning to school to film your movie there.
7. He first saw Nora Zehetner in Lucky McKee’s May (2002), on which he was an editor, and that was enough to bring her to mind for the role of Laura here.
8. Zehetner broke Johnson’s guitar. She bought one for herself, but Johnson took it as payment.
9. Johnson worked with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as well as the rest of the crew and cast to ensure the film never leaned into its absurdity. “We never winked, even when the situations got to the point where you saw the absurdity of it, that’s especially the times when it was it important that we were just completely honestly creating a real world and creating real people.”
10. “There are several abstract transitions in the movie,” including the one with the trash bag exiting the sewer tunnel at 23:41, “where he [Brendan, played by Gordon-Levitt] goes in and out of consciousness or he has a vision.” He knew they had no money for post-production effects, so for this one they came up with this “surreal, practical” effect involving the trash bag that moves towards and over the camera. They shot it backwards and then just played the scene in reverse.
11. Production designer Jodie Tillen recalls local authorities telling them that while they could film at/in the tunnel they couldn’t guarantee their safety. It was a runoff tunnel, prone to rushing water, but the filmmakers persevered. “It’ll just add to the tension of the scenes,” adds Johnson.
12. Johnson asked Tillen to “do something illegal,” and she complied. Hollywood types, am I right? Also, it was just stealing a shopping cart for use in a scene.
13. Regarding the punch at 41:43… “It’s a hidden cut where we had the camera back on the dolly track and a long lens for the beginning of it and we slowly backed up, and then when Tugger (Noah Fleiss) walked up to him and pulled back for the punch, we had them freeze. We cut the camera, cranked it down to about six frames per second, and then backed up on the dolly track, then started rolling again, rolled the camera forward, exactly when we passed the apot that we were at on the dolly we cued them, and Tugger started doing the punch and Joe started doing it with him in slow motion. That probably made no sense at all.”
14. Per costume designer Michelle Posch, Gordon-Levitt doesn’t like to wear new clothes.
15. The smoke that comes out the back of Dode’s (Noah Segan) head when he’s shot at 1:19:33 was a mistake. It’s the compressed air from the device used to shoot the blood. The two birds flying out of the tunnel also screwed up. They refused to fly, so the shot is actually a split-screen of sorts — top and bottom — so they appear to fly out immediately after the gun shot.
16. Composer Nathan Johnson is Rian’s cousin, and he gave him reference scores/soundtracks/composers including Ennio Morricone, Tom Waits, and The Third Man.
17. Producer Ram Bergman read the script, loved it, and met with Johnson at Mel’s Diner on Sunset Blvd. in LA, but it wasn’t until months after shooting that they realized they had a prior connection. Back when Johnson was still in film school a friend gave him a list of producers and their phone numbers. Johnson never called any of them, but when he came across the notebook page with the names and numbers while filming reshoots he was surprised to see Bergman at the bottom of the page.
18. The foot chase through campus was filmed on the very first day of production.
19. Johnson’s hand cameos at 1:34:10.
20. “Brick is to high school as Gotham City is to New York City,” says Johnson in reference to how he saw the film’s placement as a teen movie in a heightened world.
21. To that end, he references Miller’s Crossing, Glengarry Glen Ross, and A Clockwork Orange as “films that have an aspect of them, whether it’s language or anything else, that kind of hits the ground running and doesn’t really look over its shoulder to see if you’re catching up with it.” That’s a great way of putting it, and I wish we saw more of that.
22. He and Gordon-Levitt agreed that “Brick isn’t the way high school was, but maybe it’s a little closer to the way high school felt.” It’s mirrored once again in Dashiell Hammett, a writer who once worked as a detective, and when he was asked if Sam Spade was based on any real detective he knew Hammett replied that he’s based on what real detectives wish they were.
23. Gordon-Levitt became a real partner on the production and put his “heart and soul” into the character and film. “I wanted him to feel ownership over this entire movie because he had to be. He had to be infused in the whole thing, and the whole thing is from his character’s perspective.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“That was kind of the starting point for this whole thing, was just to do a straight up American detective movie.”
“I had no connections in the industry, I had no family in the industry, I wasn’t particularly good at getting out there and playing the Hollywood game, and talking to people was not my strong suit.”
“We’re doing this commentary track kind of talk show style as opposed to tossing everyone in a room and kind of all throwing stuff at each other.”
“None of the girls got to act together in this.”
“I don’t think anyone could confuse Noah Fleiss for a girl. Maybe Noah Segan, but not Noah Fleiss.”
“This is not scene specific commentary by the way.”
“This is the scene here that I was required to steal for.”
“This is the part where he ate the cereal.”
“The only way Rian hires is through hot factors.”
“It’s hot in here, so let’s take off all our clothes.”
“If I see one kid ever dressed as Dode on Halloween, I’ll never act again.”
“I’m not sure what I’m doing here exactly.”
Johnson’s commentary offers some insight into the production as well as his working relationship with collaborators, and it’s a good listen for fans. The format, while unique, isn’t quite as successful — he welcomes in the others for a few minutes at a time each, and it typically leaves them unable to comment on various relevant scenes that arrive before or after they do. Johnson himself seems to go silent periodically too, presumably while they plan who’ll hop on next. Still, there’s enough here to make a listen worthwhile as Johnson’s talk as an indie filmmaker reveals plenty about him as a blockbuster director.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.