WHEN Rian Johnson set out to make his first movie, film noir beckoned. He'd long been taken with detective fiction, so it seemed natural to follow the impulse. And when he got the idea of setting his noir in a high school, he stepped onto the path that led to "Brick," a quirky little film that opens March 31.
The conventions of noir and teen drama mix and mutate as Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("3rd Rock From the Sun") plays an analytically intelligent teenager who sets out to discover who murdered his ex-girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin). He enlists the help of his nerdy but brilliant best friend, called the Brain, and in the course of his investigation encounters such odd, shadowy figures as the Pin (Lukas Haas), a drug dealer who lives at home with his mother, and a drug-addled punk named Dode.
It took years for Johnson, who graduated from USC's School of Cinema-Television a decade ago, to come up with the financing for "Brick." "It was a little weird script, and the language that the characters use in it is very dense," he explains. "They have this ridiculous slang that never lets up. That is a movie for a specific sort of audience."
Johnson, 32, received a Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at last year's Sundance Film Festival. He was also nominated this year at the Independent Spirit Awards for the John Cassavetes Award, which is given to films made for $500,000 or less.
Though independent films had a great success this year, with so much attention for "Crash," "Capote" and "Brokeback Mountain," I would imagine life isn't easy for most indie filmmakers.
Yeah. The indie experience for me since Sundance has been a wonderful but very bizarre one. Getting "Brick" made was a long process. I wrote it in 1997 right out of film school. I basically spent the next six years doing what most indie filmmakers do -- trying to get money to make the movie. I didn't have any connections, I didn't know anybody coming out of school, my family wasn't in the industry, and I inherently am very bad at putting myself out there hustling.
A lot of independent films never get a distributor.
I am very conscious of the fact that we hit the lottery here in terms of not only getting into Sundance but getting picked up by a great company like Focus Features, having their support behind it. Believe me, I am aware every single day that 99% of indies that get made don't get their shot.
What did you do all of those years for a living?
I had day jobs. I got lucky. I produced promos for the Disney Channel for a few years. I worked at a preschool near USC for deaf children called the John Tracy Clinic. I got to basically make instructional and promotional videos for them.
You must have gotten frustrated.
Yeah. You are spending six years wondering if you are getting this thing done. But at the same time I had a really good group of friends I met in film school, like my cinematographer, Steve Yedlin. We have known each other since freshman year. Having that kind of little community of people to kind of circle the wagons is so necessary.
It has been cool screening "Brick" at colleges and getting to talk to film students and having them come up and ask, "What is the trick?" Which is the thing I always wanted to ask. I would get very frustrated because it seemed like when you would hear filmmakers who made movies talk, it was always very vague. The reason the answers seem to be vague is the details are always different; the only thing that is consistent is sticking it out. That's why the friends are important and the day job is important and patience is important.
When you wrote the film, had you been looking to do a teen movie or a detective movie?
A detective movie. I became obsessed with Dashiell Hammett's books and wanted to make an American detective movie in that world. The whole high school thing really came from me giving it a different set of visual cues. Everyone is so familiar with film noir -- it is one of my favorite genres. The high school twist, I always hope people don't come into it expecting it to be some sort of postmodern deconstruction of the genre or something. It is really just a way to give it a different set of cues.
How did you eventually get it financed?
Well, the answer is we ended up kind of giving up on traditional routes. We figured out the least amount we could make it for on 35mm and went to friends and family and passed the hat.
Considering you were a first-time screenwriter and director, you got a great young cast.
Yeah. Joe is so incredibly mature and so self-possessed. He became a creative partner on the movie. We worked together closely on every aspect of it. I brought him into the editing room. I wanted to get him into the bones of the movie because it is a detective movie and he plays a detective.
Before production began, did you have your cast watch old film noirs?
No. I actually did the opposite. I forbade them to watch any noirs. They were all great actors, but I didn't want even subconscious imitation going on. The thing we were all really conscious of is that we didn't want this to become an imitation of a noir. We didn't want it to become a parody.
But because the language in it is so stylized, we discovered very quickly that we couldn't put it in a modern, natural style of acting. It fell flat. So for that, we had to look at "The Apartment" and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," just because the performance style in "Brick" had to be something from that era.
Have you started working on a new film?
Yeah. It's a globe-trotting con-man movie. I grabbed for the brass ring and wrote every location I ever wanted to visit into the script.
We are at Focus right now. It is a real budget, which will be a totally different experience.