Dashiell Hammett goes to high school -- the perfect studio pitch. Yet after Brick wowed 'em at the film fests, Rian Johnson's knockout debut as writer and director languished in theaters and on DVD. It took a bunk, as Hammett mighta said, and wound up wearing a wooden kimono.
Johnson, who wrote Brick when he was 20 and shot it after he'd passed 30, kind of expected that. He knew there were plenty of people who didn't dig his movie -- who said it was too arch, nothing but a smarty-pants put-on starring kiddies playing shamus-and-dame dress-up, spewing black-and-white dialogue. He knew the risks of flashing SoCal sunshine on pitch-black noir. And he knew it wasn't going to be easy convincing an audience that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was Humphrey Bogart -- a gumshoe in tennis shoes.
"Definitely, people tend to go one way or the other with Brick," Johnson says now. "One of the things people are turned off by is the fact these are high schoolers acting like adults."
Ironic, because not only is Brick one of the year's best movies; it's among the greatest high school movies ever made. Yeah, yeah -- Johnson's got a gimmick. But barely concealed beneath the ironic quotation marks is your high school experience, complete with jocks, mathletes, stoners, and loners, but this time starring Bogie and Bacall instead of lousy ol' you.
The story goes that Johnson wrote the film without any intention of setting it in a high school; it was straight-up noir, a simple murder mystery. But soon he would find that dropping a film noir inside the hallways and lunchrooms and smoking porches of a high school -- his high school in San Clemente, California, as a matter of fact -- made perfect sense. And Johnson knew the genre. "John Hughes' movies were the touchstone of my adolescence," he says. Plus, where else but high school is every little experience given larger-than-life significance?
"In high school, the stakes aren't as 'serious' as they are in the adult word, but when you are a teenager, and in that subjective reality, you don't think of yourself as a kid or a high schooler. You're just a person in this world trying to survive in it."