Rian Johnson Reveals How He Took First Feature 'Brick' from Script to Screen
If you saw the Internet in passing last week, you just might have caught wind of a small story about Rian Johnson joining a modestly successful sci-fi franchise to write and direct a future episode. For his sake, I certainly hope the first movie in the announced trilogy doesn't tank, or Johnson may be out of a job. As I read that story, I was reminded of the Austin Film Festival Script-to-Screen panel I moderated with Johnson this past October to discuss his first feature film, the high school film noir Brick. Now only days away from principal photography on my first feature film, this feels like the perfect time to revisit our conversation to learn from Johnson and his experiences making this original take on the film noir genre.
If you haven't seen Brick, or it has been a while, here's the trailer for Johnson's debut feature film, which won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2005 for Originality of Vision:
The Origins of a High School Film Noir: From Novella to the Big Screen
When Brick hit at Sundance then came out theatrically later in 2005, the film flipped audience's expectations about what both high school dramas and film noir could be. Creating such an original combination of two familiar genres did not mean making this film was an easy task for Johnson -- far from it. Instead, Johnson has said that he wrote the original screenplay when he was 23 and made the film when he was 30, spending his 20s trying to make it happen.
At the beginning of the panel discussion, Johnson shared his film noir influences and his process to bring the film noir genre into a high school setting:
I got into Dashiell Hammett’s novels from an interview with the Coen Brothers talking about MILLER'S CROSSING, which is one of my favorite movies, and they said they Dashiell Hammett was their main influence. So I went back and read the books, and they hit me in the middle of the head, like it was this amazing world that they called up inside me. And so, the initial intent with BRICK, taking a detective story and setting it inside a high school, was to try and get that world that I felt reading those books on to the screen.
The main obstacle I saw was actually film noir, more specifically the visual elements that we associate with film noir. I love [film noir], but the second you do a modern movie that has men in hats and alleyways and venetian blinds shadows -- it’s not that it can’t be good, it can be terrific, but you know instantly where you are. You can categorize it in your head. And part of what blew me away when I read Hammett’s novels was having an experience I wasn’t expecting. So the initial motivation of setting BRICK in high school was the thought, “OK, let’s do a straight detective story, but let’s set it in an environment where the audience can't lean on their preconception of the genre at all.” So they parse every element of the traditional detective story and take it anew. It might be kind of goof, but let’s roll the dice on it and see if we can make it work.
So anyway, this is all just to say that it was all based on Dashiell Hammett's writing, and it was really important keystone for the whole thing. I first wrote it as a prose novella, really aping Hammett’s writing style with the thought that writing prose in his writing style for the first pass would somehow shape the dialogue and maybe the pace of the storytelling in some weird way.
It wasn’t like the script was an adaptation of the novella, and the novella wasn’t developed for any other purpose. It was really just a treatment. Instead of writing an outline, I wrote a novella.
How to Introduce Your Audience to Heightened Dialogue
When I think of Brick, the first thing that comes to mind is the dialogue. Not only is the dialogue specific to film noir, the slang is specific to Brick itself. In fact, the slang is so specific, even the film's protagonist Brendan has to run new slang terms by his intelligence counterpart (aptly named The Brain) to figure out what they mean. With such heightened dialogue, Johnson certainly ran the risk of alienating his audience. At the AFF panel, we screened the first dialogue scene of the film when Brendan takes a distressed phone call from Emily at a pay phone. I then asked Johnson to walk us through this scene and how he used it to introduce both the story and his stylized dialogue:
This is the first dialogue scene in the movie, and it eases you into it. There are little words here and there that indicate this is going to be a kind of heightened language they’re talking in, but I think it made sense to set up peril so that you’re invested in knowing what’s wrong with this girl, and you sense his worry and you become emotionally hooked. You’re leaning forward a little bit wanting to know what this situation is, and only then we really hit you with that run of dialogue of the pin and the tug and the brick and the stuff that makes no sense at all, hopefully with the intention at that point you’ll then be intrigued enough to want to know what it means as opposed to, “These guys are talking nonsense. Click.” So I think that was kind of the way of maybe easing you a little bit into the language.
The language, by the way, was a big choice that was made, a.) because it was fun to do; but b.) in my mind, it was really important for the audience to know, coming into it, that they were in a heightened version of a high school movie, and we couldn’t do that with production design, we couldn’t do that with money to do that crazy design that was just going to look like a high school movie. When we made this, there were tons of high school movies coming out, so the language was a way for me, without any money, to just make the audience instantly have to say, “Oh, this isn’t the real world. I have to adjust to this. This is sort of the equivalent of a comic book reality.”
How the Editing Process Makes You a Better Screenwriter
At the AFF Script-to-Screen panel, we spent a lot of time talking to Johnson about the shooting script, the decisions he made on set to translate the script to film, and the editing process to shape the final film. To illustrate the changes that take place from script to shoot to edit, we screened the scene after Brendan talks to the femme fatale Laura at her house party, and Brendan sneaks around the house in the dark to catch Tug talking to a shadowy figure in a car before driving off. In the shooting script, Johnson wrote a more deliberate yet still murky initial encounter between Brendan and the yet-to-be seen boss The Pin.
Johnson described the importance of editing to the writing process, using this particular scene as a prime example of less is more:
Editing is so useful in terms of improving your writing. It’s just the process of putting it together, then paring it down and getting the story down to the bare bones. It’s just an incredibly instructive process. This is an example of that, where we had a much longer dialogue scene that we shot, and when you get it up on the screen, you have it in front of an audience, there’s a sudden urgency and this do or die. You’re burning time. The whole movie is served by having each scene be as economic as possible. So the gloves come off and you really get into it in a way that is really hard to do when you’re putting it on the page.
For this particular scene, we cut it down to exactly what we needed for the story. When Brendan was running, he initially heard a match strike, and he stopped and turned. There was this whole sequence where we push into the darkness to see who’s there, and then Brendan finds one of the Pin’s cigarettes right on the ground. It was giving more attention to the whole cigarette business -- the notion of Brendan looking at everybody’s cigarettes -- which I didn’t think Brendan was really tracking at this point in the film, except for the blue arrow. I didn’t think that was tracking enough to spend the time doing it, and so it’s just another example of cutting away everything except what’s absolutely necessary to the spine of the story.
Rian Johnson was very generous sharing his experiences making Brick during the panel discussion, even bringing along his small notebook with his story ideas, mini storyboards, and casting thoughts over the years of trying to get the movie made. Not surprisingly then, Johnson has posted the Brick shooting script with footnotes, the original novella with illustrations and an introduction online for you to download for free. You can even download all three files as one giant PDF, if you please.
Our thanks once again to the Austin Film Festival for giving No Film School permission to share part of the transcript from the Script-to-Screen panel with our readers. For NFS readers, AFF has also extended an exclusive 25% discount on Conference Badges to the 21st Austin Film Festival & Conference, Oct. 23-30, 2014. Go to Austin Film Festival's website through this specific link and use promo code No Film School to get the discount. Confirmed conference panelists so far include Matthew Weiner, Jim Sheridan, Lawrence Kasdan, Terry George, John Patrick Shanley, Neil LaBute, Michelle Ashford, Whit Stillman, Richard Kelly, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Noah Hawley, Mark Johnson, William Broyles, Kelly Marcel, and Randall Wallace.
Have you written a screenplay with very particular dialogue specific to your story's world? How do you find the balance between telling your story and building a world through characters' dialogue? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.