Brick, Rian Johnson's high-school noir movie, was one of my favorite films of the past few years. He was in town promoting his new con-man romance, The Brothers Bloom, and we got the chance to ask him about his planned third movie, a time-travel thriller called Looper. And he explained why you are probably trapped in a genre. Looper: Asked about Looper, Johnson said he's still writing the script. "I've mentioned it like in a couple of interviews, and it's very weird for me to read on the Internet about something I'm right in the middle of writing. It's like, 'Oh crap. I guess I actually have to finish this.' But I'm really excited about it."
He described it as "a darker science fiction story that has time travel in it, but it uses time travel sparingly. It uses it very much the way the first Terminator used it: as a basis for the plot, as opposed to an active element in the plot. And yeah, it's completely different than The Brothers Bloom. It's almost a complete 180 tonally from The Brothers Bloom." He really likes the idea of switching tone and genre completely between movies, sort of like sitting in a hot tub for a while and then jumping into a cool pool. I have genre A.D.D.," he said. He sees Children Of Men as an example of the sort of adult, reality-based science fiction story he'd like to do.
The state of science fiction: "Science fiction is such a broad thing," Johnson added. "Saying you're a fan of science fiction is sort of like saying you're a fan of comedy." But for his generation, a lot of the things that got people interested in movies were science fiction films. But Johnson probably won't ever do a superhero film. "The most overworked genre right now is the superhero genre, which I love. Which I've plugged my brain away a little bit to find out if there's something I would want to do with it. It's so difficult to find a personal way into it." The superhero genre is already being done well, and subverted, a lot in film right now. It's more interesting, for Johnson, to focus on genres that are more off the beaten track — like noir, or the con-man story, for example. What is genre? Even though Johnson's new movie, and his first movie, aren't science fiction, they're both very much about nature of genre, which makes it interesting to talk about them here. His first film, Brick, used the language and ideas of noir to talk about high-school alienation and the pain of losing someone you love.
Brothers Bloom is even more explicit about genre: the brothers are con men, and their schemes involve telling a story with their "mark" as a main character. The perfect con, like the perfect story, should be so emotionally satisfying that the mark doesn't even care that they've been ripped off. The older brother, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), is a sort of Prospero figure who concocts cons that are almost like fables, with his younger brother Bloom (Adrien Brody) as the lead actor. But Bloom wants to escape from always playing a role. He wants "an unwritten life," in which he's not acting out anyone's scenario.
With both Brick and Bloom, Johnson picked a genre he wanted to do, and then he tried to find a personal connection with it. In Bloom, Brody's character wants to escape from being in a con-man movie, and meanwhile he's falling in love with their latest mark, played by Rachel Weisz. The most that Brody's character can ever achieve is to escape from a con-man movie into a romantic comedy. Bloom's tragedy is that he's trapped in a series of roles he didn't create for himself, which is something we've all experienced, Johnson said. Like, for example, if you've been trapped in a job you hate, or stuck in a relationship that isn't working. But just as you've probably experienced the feeling of being trapped in a genre in real life, you've probably also used genre to describe something you were experiencing.
That's maybe part of the reason that genres exist: we recognize them from our lives. You're walking home late at night down a dark street, and all of a sudden your mind turns it into a thriller. You get nervous about who's walking behind you. Or you meet someone and you're falling in love, and all of a sudden, all the cliches, like "it feels like a movie," all of the cliches come [true]. Or you're camping and it feels like a nature movie. You could analyze that quite a bit in terms of chicken and the egg, whether our minds are imitating genre or whether genre imitates these modes that we find ourselves in. I'd like to believe that film imitates life... and the things that ring true enough to be established as genres have seeds in human experience.