Matt Johnson's first feature, The Dirties, (Slamdance Best Narrative Feature winner) is gaining the kind of buzz that every film student dreams of. But more about film school later. Unapologetically confronting issues of high school bullying with a distinct visual style and pathos, and just the right balance of humor, this film will certainly provoke a discourse about accountability and violence.
I sat down with Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson at the Locarno Film Festival where his film was included in the Concorso Cineasti del presente, to talk about the making of The Dirties, his filmmaking background, and more.
The Dirties Synopsis: Two best friends, Matt and Owen, a pair of misfit high-school students who love making and talking about movies, are the victims of systematic bullying at the hands of The Dirties, a group of classmates who constantly humiliate them. As the two boys start fantasizing about revenge, the film becomes a richly layered portrait of friendship confronted by school violence in all of its terrible permutations.
Directed by Matt Johnson. Written by Matt Johnson and Evan Morgan. Story by Josh Boles. Produced by Matthew Miller, Matt Johnson, Evan Morgan, and Jared Raab. Edited by Matt Johnson and Evan Morgan. Cinematography: Jared Raab.
Susan Kouguell: How did you get the idea for this movie?
Matt Johnson: The idea was to make a fake documentary. Like the psychopath in Man Bites Dog. It was my co-writer's idea -- me playing a crazy guy and how that could be funny. As it evolved, we put in things from our real lives -- myself and Evan -- many things from our childhood experiences, what we've seen, from our memories.
The big idea about doing a character-driven story about a violent young person came from Josh Boles, my friend, and he was kind of building from our web show, Nirvana the Band the Show, which is a lot like The Dirties but it's a purely comedic treatment example of the same type of stoner comedy show. In the fake documentary -- filming everything you do -- I like that cinematic grammar; I wanted to do that in a serious film.
SK: Bullying is finally being addressed more in the media. Why do you think others writing about this film call this movie “controversial”?
MJ: Subject matter and treatment of this subject matter. We made the film in late 2011. For us, no one was talking about it; school violence is not a pulpy subject as it is. We were dealing with feelings of Columbine when we were kids. The film is thought to be controversial because it’s a humanizing portrait that North Americans like to villainize. In the news coverage about school shootings -- the North American media takes over and gives you that version, to give you the first 200 pages of that person's life as opposed to just the cover story.
We live in a culture where someone who behaves that way, no one would take seriously. We don't talk about that isolation; that type of pain. That's what's compelling with that type of character. You can't believe that he's being sincere. That was the impetus for making the film -- that tension of someone so open and so blind to the social fallout of doing something like this would put audiences in such an interesting place. You never think it could happen. You don't know in his mind if this is real or not.
What was your budget?
MJ: We were just out of film school. We had no money. The production budget was $10,000, including the ending where four of us flew to a small town in Canada. We only spent money on food and sometimes rented props, but we never paid for location or permits. It was not a union shoot. After the film was done and we won Park City we had to clear music rights and this was another $45,000 -- almost five times the budget.
How did you raise the money?
MJ: Out of pocket. We owned all the cameras from Nirvana The Band The Show. It was important to have total control, not just from a creative point of view and technical point of view, but owning the cameras and not having to rent and scramble, then you can relax on those issues.
SK: The Dirties has a distinct and often seamless editing style.
MJ: I learned this from Nirvana The Band The Show, which I edited it in my bedroom. Because of the shooting format -- one camera on me, one on Owen -- and everything being filmed constantly, there was so much freedom going inside and outside scenes. Because of the grammar of documentary format -- not abiding by master shots, the format lets you jump out of moments. You know right away if it's not working.
SK: There's a specific point of view of the camera in the 'present' narrative storyline.
How we shot it -- two cameramen become obsessed with Matt and think Matt is a genius. If you understand that it’s Matt's movie, he's controlling
everything; that's where the footage is coming from.
SK: Filmmakers attempting to make a film within a film about the making of a film is often unsuccessful. Were you conscious of this when making the movie? How did you avoid this?
MJ: It's a trap many young filmmakers fall into. I don't know if we were conscious of that; we made our characters obsessed with movies and it was a thematic decision rather than a narrative one. We could still have film references and deal with movie as culture without having it drive the plot.
SK: A common question many aspiring screenwriters ask is: How many screenplay drafts did you write?
MJ: We wrote the script in one day. The ideas for scenes were on cue cards, and those ideas would change with what was happening. There was no dialogue ever except the last line I say to Owen: 'Owen, it’s me.' We tried to get in the moment as much as we could. The scenes we shot at the high schools, we could do what we could, we had no control, we were 'students' being filmed.
SK: How much was ad lib?
MJ: The writing we do -- Josh, Evan, and myself -- is not a formal sitting down, talking about what the movie is going to be about, it's more what the nest is going to be. It’s a risky way of shooting and you can wind up with nothing.
SK: Your characters' names in the film are Matt and Owen. Why did you decide to use your real names?
MJ: It's very difficult in a scene to constantly remember someone's character's name other than what their name is. The movie has to be as close to your own reality as possible so you can use as many lucky things as you can. Like with my mom in the film. My mom didn't know we were filming her. She’s a mental health professional; she talked to me about victimization and sympathy my entire life, I knew she would talk to me. It’s her.
SK: In the beginning of the film there are two boys making a film, which offered a powerful parallel to Matt and Owen's narrative. How did you find these boys?
MJ: The boys didn't know they were being filmed. (Before and after that moment I've never seen them again. Our producer took screen shots of them and went to public schools to find them and got releases. Their film is going to be on our DVD.) I was out there in the field and we had to test our microphone. It just so happened I saw these kids moving around with a video camera. When he saw me see him, I knew if I just bumped into him, he would want to put on a show. The kids do come off quite well. They're real, very much like Matt is.
Some people ask me the ethical question (especially when filming someone without their knowing) 'What’s it being used for?' raises some problems and I agree. We have no intention -- it's our philosophy -- we have no intention to embarrass anyone. We want people to be the best version of themselves. I personally never felt guilt for having the kids in the film.
SK: What’s your reaction to Werner Herzog stating in the Master Class (at the Locarno Festival) ‘You should gain experience in life and I would advise everyone don’t spend time in film schools. If you travel by foot for four months, it’s better than four years in film school. Read. Read. It gives you different perspectives.’
MJ: I'm in grad school at Toronto’s York University. I enrolled with Matt Miller because I like film school, and film students. This is an anti-film school movie. We do the things you shouldn't like using licensed music. Don't do that; it's a terrible idea. We actively went out and did those things and in that there is something.
He's right in terms of film school not giving you the experience you need to make films. He's talking about having a life, about having a voice. Everyone is struggling to find a voice. What you do get in film school is like-minded young people with a passion to do something; it's a struggle and everyone is trying to be a famous filmmaker. The friendships you make are invaluable. I agree with Herzog that you need to live a life. As an undergrad I learned by making and doing and figuring out what inspired me.
The true answer is -- you want both. I say go to film school and then walk for four months.
SK What’s your next project?
MJ: Operation Avalanche is our next movie about guys assigned to the Apollo moon mission in the 1960s. It's The Dirties except much bigger. It’s like Forrest Gump meets The Dirties. Kind of.
The Dirties will be released by Phase 4 and the Kevin Smith Movie Club in October.