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By Calum Marsh
“This movie’s gonna be so good,” raves a zealous teenaged filmmaker to two young kids at the beginning of The Dirties. “It’s set in the club from Irreversible .” The children are understandably baffled by the reference, and their reaction is genuine—they don’t know they’re acting in a film at all. The teenager is director Matt Johnson, playing a nominally fictional version of himself as a bullied high-school student making a movie about his tormentors. Confronting strangers at random and filming their responses somewhat surreptitiously is typical of Johnson’s approach to filmmaking: though The Dirties is principally a narrative feature, much of what we see is happening for real. A fictional film straining for an illusion of realism is hardly a novel conceit, especially toward what is hopefully the tail end of the faux-found-footage trend. But The Dirties offers a more oblique strategy: it constructs a fiction out of documentary material, sculpting drama out of something real.
This is appropriate for a film whose story necessitates a certain sensitivity to reality. There have been many films about bullying and many more about school shootings, but few have been as interested in or attuned to the ordinary life that precedes the tragedy. The Dirties culminates with an act of startling violence—one that punctures, very suddenly, its otherwise largely comic tone—and the film is likely to be a source of some controversy for precisely this reason. But this is not so much a case study of an unexpected killer as it is a portrait of a teen so immersed in pop culture that he becomes unable to distinguish it from the real world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Johnson shares many of the same pop-cultural predilections as his fictional namesake—which, coupled with the fact that the two sound and act remarkably alike, makes the movie-Matt’s transition from sympathetic victim to unqualified villain all the more compelling.
The Dirties is a first feature, but its accomplished style is the result of Johnson’s extensive experience working on Nirvana The Band The Show, a popular ten-episode web series produced from 2007 to 2009. The project, devised and directed by Johnson with friend and musician Jay McCarroll, starred its creators as exaggerated versions of themselves, chronicling their upstart indie band’s gaffe-plagued quest to land their debut live show at Toronto’s Rivoli nightclub. (It’s a joke only Torontonians would get: the Rivoli is a perfectly unexceptional dive, but these two treat it like Madison Square Garden.) Much like The Dirties, Nirvana The Band was almost entirely improvised by the filmmakers as they interacted with non-actors very rarely in on the joke (including the frequently perplexed and irritated staff at the bar where the action was set), and part of the appeal of the series lay in trying to determine how much of what was happening was staged and how much was real. It was certainly a comedy—much more so than The Dirties, in any case—but in a very particular, idiosyncratic way, as if its punch lines were coded in a private language; as Johnson himself describes it, “It’s the funniest show ever without any jokes.”
What the series did have, however, were references—to everything from The Wire to Castlevania—many of which were so fleeting and so subtly integrated that they may only be there to satisfy Johnson’s obsessive culture-sponge impulses. But despite being so densely layered, Johnson’s work never feels as though it’s demanding the viewer to catch every joke or reference. The overarching sentiment through the series is simple enthusiasm—not only for the movies, TV shows, and video games Johnson loves, but also, and most importantly, for the act of making something new out of his interests.
Johnson, like his onscreen alter ego, is easy to talk to but hard to keep up with, and I should have known that our interview would last hours rather than the 40 minutes we’d arranged. He has a tendency to draw the fellow enthusiast out of everyone he meets, ping-ponging from one reference to the next, blindly hoping that you’re following along. We spoke about the issues the film raises with seriousness, but I couldn’t help but begin with a reference of my own: I had him meet me at the Rivoli.
Cinema Scope: The Dirties deals with a serious subject. What responsibility do you think you have to it?
Matt Johnson: Somebody asked us what we’re going to do when a 16-year-old sees our movie and kills three people at his or her high school. That’s something I thought about quite a bit when I was making the film. In fact, that is literally the point of the film. The movie is about a society in which you can make an excuse: “He saw a violent movie and he went crazy and killed people.” This movie is about how that’s actually never the case. Life is not like that. Child psychology is not like that. To say, “He saw your movie and then he killed people” is to gloss over the entire issue of youth psychology in America. That’s what our movie is trying to address.
I’m hoping to get into more conversations like this in a public space. Morally, that’s why telling the story was important to us, and that’s why I wanted to tell the story like it’s told. The news always tells you the story of the kid starting at the last chapter of his or her life: that kid was a loner, or whatever. Which is really irrelevant to what happened. If you actually wanted to know what happened to the kid, you look at the first 200 pages of his life. You’ll notice that The Dirties cuts out right where the news story would start. We were trying to show what happened beforehand, which nobody ever wants to talk about.
Scope: Do you want the film to suggest that people too saturated in popular culture are in some sense psychotic?
Johnson: Yes and no. I think that, more than anything, the comment that the film is making is on celebrity. Matt is trying to become a movie star of his own creation. There is a difference between constantly making reference to things and trying to somehow become the thing to which you’re making reference. The turning point of the film is when he stops making references and saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if,” and instead starts to quote and make reference to himself. That’s when the psychology of the movie really changes. In the past, Matt was just thinking about other famous people doing these things, and now he himself is that thing.
Matt is always feeling the camera. And he’s not alone. The concept of always seeing the camera and always feeling like you’re on camera is a very modern problem. And by “problem,” I don’t even necessarily mean that it’s a negative thing—this is just something that we need to consider. Kids these days are always filming themselves and they’re always acting like they’re on TV. Matt is just a guy that has actively put himself on TV 24/7. So he’s always trying to perform. And he can’t break the spell because he’s made this rule for himself of performing.
Scope: He is literally on camera, but the cameramen are self-effacing. Why?
Johnson: We made an early cut of The Dirties in which the presence of the cameramen was explained more. But when we screened that version it just wasn’t working at all. There were so many weird psychological problems with it, as if you couldn’t get into the film because you felt like the whole story was just happening between these four kids and had nothing to do with you the viewer. But as soon as we took out all references to the camera operators, you could watch it and feel like you were there. It was a cool trick that we just kind of stumbled upon. If the cameramen were more present it would be like a Christopher Guest mockumentary, or like Man Bites Dog (1992). Without them it’s more like the presentation of Brian De Palma’s Hi Mom! (1979), which is a film that I love.
Scope: Do you intend to convince an audience that what they’re watching is real? Or are they meant to question its reality?
Johnson: Well, what’s the difference? If they’re questioning whether it’s real or not, that is better than if they think it’s 100% real. At no point are you going to get an audience to believe what they’re watching is 100% real when the conceit is that they’re watching a fiction film. People want to be engaged by a movie. I think when people see bad acting, it takes them out of movies, whereas when you see good acting you’re engaged in it. Bad acting is the same as seeing a boom mic fall into the frame of a Hollywood film. You’re exposing the script; revealing the mechanics of filmmaking in a way that instantly pulls audiences out of the world. And it’s actually much worse than showing a boom mic because not everyone will notice that. Some people don’t know what a boom mic is, but everyone is an expert on human behaviour, and can spot insincere performances in a second. Which is an insane idea, because on a real film set technical problems are everyone’s number-one concern, and it’s considered a disaster if you can see the mic or the set—but it’s totally fine if the acting in every take is terrible. All you’re seeing in The Dirties is just a lot of really good acting from people who don’t know that they’re acting. That’s all that it is. The real trick of The Dirties isn’t that it tricks you, but that it engages you the whole way through.
Scope: Do you think you are exploiting real people by filming them without their consent?
Johnson: If we were in any way trying to put these people down or show them as anything less than they are, then yes. But that’s something that I care about a lot. Nobody in the film is made to look silly or like a fool or like they made a mistake.
With The Dirties, Nirvana The Band The Show, and the movie we’re working on now, simply combining these larger-than-life characters with real-world people and then getting audience members to question that combination was important. I think more filmmakers are going to start doing this. It’s so easy, it costs no money, and it’s accessible to anybody who wants to try. And yet nobody is doing it. The closest thing is something like Borat (2006), but we’re not making fun of people here. We’re the stupid ones. I’m always the one who doesn’t know what’s going on. With Borat or Ali G, Sacha Baron Cohen’s always the smartest guy. Even though he plays the stupid guy, people are always playing into his hands.
By contrast, I’m always trying to expose myself. The scene with the kids at the beginning of The Dirties is a great example of this: I go up to them and I try to get their story. That old man who walks up when Owen gets hit with a rock is the same kind of example. It’s not even a joke, that moment, it’s simply reality. The old man was just there, and didn’t know what was going on. The joke is on us.
Scope: How did you shoot?
Johnson: We wanted to shoot in real high schools with real students, but we thought that would be impossible. We rented a school and we got a whole bunch of extras, and we shot some scenes—some classroom scenes, some of the cafeteria scenes—with high-school kids as extras. But then we got this amazing offer from a high school in Peterborough to just join the school. Owen and I could go to classes, and the cameras could follow us as long as they didn’t interfere. So what we wound up with was this amazing combination of scenes set up and shot like a regular movie inside a real school.
We had five days where we just walked through from class to class. All the teachers knew what we were doing. Most of the students had no idea who we were and didn’t talk to us. We had all of these crazy moments where we would, say, stage a fight between me and these bullies, and all these kids would be thinking, “What the fuck is happening?” They had no clue. The reactions you see are from kids wondering what’s going on, as teenagers naturally would. I thought that was important. Hollywood is the worst at making movies about bullying and high-school violence. The treatment is always so clichéd and awful and stupid. And so getting as many real kids as possible into the movie and getting to talk as much as possible with them was an important part of going against that.
Scope: The movie seems to be about understanding people. At one point your character makes an extended reference to Being John Malkovich (1999), and he’s worried that his class won’t get the joke and therefore won’t understand what he’s doing. You as a filmmaker are doing the same thing, because the audience watching The Dirties also needs to get the reference to understand Matt’s situation.
Johnson: We’re getting at this thing that’s not only key to The Dirties but also to Nirvana The Band The Show: the inside joke as a narrative device. The TV show Community is a great example of how to use this device. You’ll notice that characters and people are beginning to talk in inside jokes with one another. It’s getting to the point where 90% of a North American audience would have no clue what they’re talking about, and yet we can engage because the characters are so passionate about the inside jokes that we’re being brought into. As long as an audience believes a reference means something to the person saying it, they can empathize with them as they talk about anything. This is a big reason why a show like The Big Bang Theory is such unwatchable trash: clearly those actors have no clue why they’re saying what they’re saying. They’re puppets for idiot writers who think bare references on their own are interesting.
The Gus Van Sant movie Gerry (2002) is the opposite example: those characters speak exclusively in slang, and the opening campfire scene is all about a video game that almost no one in the world had ever played, and yet we understand and follow all of it because we believe it means something to these guys. At the beginning of The Dirties when I explain to those ten-year-olds that our movie is like Irreversible, not even Owen understood what that meant, and yet everyone there could still follow what I was saying because I clearly believed it myself. Since The Dirties is a documentary and the audience is literally in the room with these guys, they feel that they’re being told the joke as a peer—like you’re sitting here with me, and I’m telling you the joke, and I’m like, “Do you get it?” It’s more psychological than it is intuitive. But somehow you connect with it.
Scope: Do you think that you risk alienating your audiences if they can’t keep up with Matt, the protagonist, and with his constant references?
Johnson: No, because he’s a buffoon. He is so lost. And you know what’s crazy? Owen doesn’t even get the jokes. His best friend, who he’s making the jokes for, even he doesn’t get them. Owen, the actor, doesn’t get those jokes in real life—he had no idea what I was talking about when I was talking about those things. He’s not a film student. He’s a high-school English teacher, and he doesn’t know anything about those things at all. And so Matt’s literally making those jokes for himself. And yet the audience follows him and believes that there’s something there to him. It’s very endearing for some reason. There’s something about that character that makes you just believe in him.
Scope: What’s the most obscure reference in The Dirties?
Johnson: I’ll tell you. There’s a reference to a story told by Peter Bogdanovich in the film Orson Welles: One-Man Band, which is on the second disc of Criterion’s F for Fake DVD.
Scope: How did this film grow out of Nirvana The Band The Show?
Johnson: This was literally us trying to do Nirvana The Band except as drama. When we were trying to get money for this project, nobody wanted to touch it. You go to these meetings and you say, “Here’s Nirvana The Band. Now here’s what we wanna do: a school shooting. It’s the exact same except they’re going to shoot up a school instead of trying to play at the Rivoli.” It sounds tasteless and idiotic. That said, even in Nirvana The Band, we’re not going for jokes with the documentary style. It’s for plot. When we go to the Rivoli, there’s nothing really funny about it. We’re just doing it. And I thought, if we can do that for a whole movie—where everyone is real, everyone around us—we would be breaking new ground in a way. I wanted to do that in a more serious world. And as you start exploring new ways to make this an interesting, compelling story, you start putting the building blocks of the school shooting narrative together. The whole thing was an art project to us: we became obsessed with getting everything right.
Our next film is actually a period movie. It uses all of the same tricks, except for that it’s set in the 1960s. It’s a documentary shot on expired 16mm film, all in the 4:3 ratio. It’s real. We’re shooting in Kubrick’s 2001 studio and hopefully, when people watch the movie, it will be seen as proof that the moon landing was faked. Not because I think it was faked, but I want the movie to be so real that it can be presented in court as proof. That’s the goal, creatively. I’m extremely critical of movies that don’t have clear goals.
Scope: Your goals were clear when making The Dirties. But what surprised you the most about making the film?
Johnson: How easy it was to get complicated things to happen. By that, I mean things like shooting in a school, with just Owen and I walking through a hallway and talking while the bell was ringing. While I was thinking about that, and writing it, I thought, well, the simplest things are gonna be the hardest. But those ended up being the easiest things in the world, because we would just be in these environments and we would just do it. You could get these things so long as you were there.
With all that said, the real work of that film wasn’t in shooting, but in the following eight months of me trying to edit the footage into a sensible story. That was the hard work. It was the same way with Nirvana The Band: every single episode of that show was shot in one day, but each episode would take four months to edit. Every single cut is a joke to me. The mockumentary style is seemingly supposed to be easier to do than other styles are, but it’s actually way harder. It’s cheaper, definitely, because editing is free so long as you’re editing your own stuff. But it takes forever to get it right. You can lose your audience with every single cut. If a cut isn’t right, people know you’re fucking with reality, and people will know that it’s not real. We would shoot a scene with Owen and me in it for like an hour and a half, and we would go through whole ranges of things. We would then need to make the scene look like it was happening in real time, even though it wasn’t. Minute 1 is cut with minute 55, and if it looks like that, it fails. But there is a great joy in working this way, because when you get it right, you feel like you’ve done something that has never been seen before. This approach will become more popular. Mark my words.