The Long Con
After kicking around for months, 'The Brothers Bloom' finally makes its mark
Last September, as part of the Alamo Drafthouse's annual Fantastic Fest, writer/director Rian Johnson screened his new film, The Brothers Bloom. It's Johnson's first film since his celebrated high school noir, Brick, which was one of the true surprises of 2005. (The Brothers Bloom has had its release bumped repeatedly in months since, and a final print was not screened for Austin film critics prior to its release this week.)
Leaving the dark tones of Brick behind, Johnson set out to create a whimsical world with The Brothers Bloom, a near-fairy-tale landscape of storytellers, benevolent con men, eccentric heiresses, offbeat sidekicks, and old-European style. The story follows the Bloom brothers, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody), two criminal orphans in suits and fedoras who agree to one final con job before retiring. Their mark is beautiful and neurotic shut-in Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), who allows her own desires for adventure, romance, and travel to cloud her better judgment.
The Chronicle sat down with Johnson while he was in town for Fantastic Fest to talk about the serendipitous joy to be found in the casting process and the difficulty of making a con movie with heart.
Austin Chronicle: What was the original spark for the story?
Rian Johnson: The thematic spark for the film was storytelling and its relation to the con. And then I wanted to explore the idea of a con movie where there's an emotional payoff at the end, where the emotional payoff, the connection between all these characters, is the con. Instead of being about who screws who, like so many con movies are, the con in this movie is about coming to care for the characters in a way you weren't expecting.
AC: How much research did you have to do to write a con movie? There's such a strong legacy of con movies in Hollywood, and I would imagine there's a strong need to pay respect to that legacy and also to the actual real world of conning. Was getting the legacy right important to you?
RJ: I'm a big fan of con movies, so I didn't really have to research much because I know those movies so well. I love Mamet's con movies, like House of Games. I love The Sting and Paper Moon. Honestly, because con movies have been done so well in the past, I felt some freedom while making Bloom. I didn't feel like we had to do the procedural thing too much because it's already been done so well. It's hard to imagine topping The Sting in terms of showing the intricacies of how a con actually works. Besides, that wasn't really our goal. The point of this movie was more to make a sort of fairy tale about con men and to explore the more romanticized version of the con man as a storyteller. And also to see if we could make a love story in the context of a con movie, not just romantically, but between the two brothers. I wanted to see if that would be possible in a genre where the audience is trained not to trust anybody, much less those people's emotions.
AC: Did you always know you wanted Mark Ruffalo for the part of the older brother, Stephen?
RJ: No, he wasn't my first thought for the part. Because on the page, Stephen is more impenetrably cool and always in control, and Mark doesn't really fit that description. When Mark came in originally, I was thinking about him for the Bloom part. But once I met with him and realized he had this warm, charming quality to him that you don't see in most of his work, I got excited about putting someone who wasn't like Stephen into that part, someone who would bring something entirely new to the role. Because Mark isn't that guy; he isn't the bold, brash character. He's got more of a lopsided charm to him. But this was a con man movie where the ultimate aim was creating an emotional connection between the two brothers and between the brothers and the audience, so it made sense to find someone who was a little more vulnerable and have him play the part of Stephen rather than getting someone who simply was Stephen.
AC: When you have those sorts of serendipitous moments in the casting process, will you go back and change the script to accommodate the shift?
RJ: No, because typically what's exciting is seeing how your perception of the part as the writer will change without any of your words changing. And that's something that can freak you out at first if you have a set perception of what a part is going to be like and what kind of person will be playing it. So if you can let go of preconceptions about your own script, that kind of character re-evaluation you can get from a talented actor is a really enjoyable thing that constantly renews your creative energy and your passion about the project. Because the film is essentially being remade before your eyes with every new actor you consider. All of a sudden, you're looking at someone you didn't consider for the role, and the film plays completely different. When you're lucky, it plays better.
AC: So you work collaboratively on your movies? You're not an old-Hollywood despot just moving actors around on a soundstage?
RJ: No, the way I learned to make movies was by grabbing a camera and making them with friends for fun when we were kids. So for me, that's what making a movie should be like, no matter what the scale of the particular movie is. Making something collaboratively has always been the most important part of the filmmaking experience for me. And having that feeling is just as important as what ends up on the screen. Plus, I don't understand why you would hire amazing actors and then just shut them off so you can make the movie that's in your head. After you've written the script, you have a version of the movie in your head. But you've seen that version already [laughs]. What's the point of seeing it again? The fun thing is when you start working with these creative people and they start bringing their own perspectives to the process. You want your vision infused with these other points of view. That's when something can happen that might surprise you.
The Brothers Bloom opens in Austin on Friday.