Brothers Bloom by Rian Johnson

As an aspiring filmmaker from an early age, “The Brothers Bloom” writer and director Rian Johnson developed a cinematic point of view by dividing his teenage years between absorbing classic films and making home movies with his friends.

Johnson's first feature film, “Brick,” a contemporary high school mystery infused with the conventions of hard boiled detective fiction, earned a Special Jury prize for originality of vision from the Sundance Film Festival. Now with “The Brothers Bloom” Johnson puts his unique spin on another classic genre.

Among the many films that captured Johnson's prodigious imagination as a youngster were comedies like “The Sting” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” stories about professional charmers whose livelihood depends on staying one step ahead of everyone else. “I've always wanted to take a crack at that kind of comedic escapade,” he says. “I gradually developed a story about these two brothers and a woman they meet. And eventually it evolved into a film about storytelling and the way we use storytelling in our lives.”

Sweeping Canvas

The larger than life characters he created for “The Brothers Bloom” inspired Johnson to set the film's action against a sweeping canvas that takes the protagonists to a number of exotic locales around the world. “It became a big adventure, traveling across Europe,” says Johnson.

Armchair Traveler's Romanticism

“I didn't really start traveling until a little later in life, so I have an armchair traveler's romanticism about Europe, which I got out in this movie. We have steamer ships across the Atlantic and trains through the Hungarian mountainside and ports in Greece and gritty alleyways in St. Petersburg¬ó-all sorts of highly romanticized stuff that has much more to do with an American's fantasy of Europe.”

Because “Brick” was well received, Johnson was able to skip one of the most grueling parts of the development process. “We never really pitched 'The Brothers Bloom' to anyone,” says Ram Bergman, a producer on both pictures. “We really didn't need to. 'This is Rian Johnson's next movie. It's about con men in an adventure around the world.' And that was it. People read it, they loved Brick, or even if they didn't love Brick, they appreciated Rian's talent and they wanted to be in business with him.”

Being in Command

When he read the script for Johnson's first film, Bergman believed he had found a truly original talent. “But you don't really know how talented somebody is until you actually work with them. From the first shot, he was in command and he knew exactly what he wanted. It was the first movie where I said, 'I don't really need to be here. The director knows what he's doing.' And the most amazing thing is he's also the nicest guy in the world. That combination is a rare thing.”

“The Brothers Bloom” is a production of Endgame Films, the company behind such eclectic projects as Hotel Rwanda and I'm Not There. “We were incredibly lucky to be able to read Rian's script early on and absolutely fell in love with it,” says James Stern, Endgame's chief executive officer. “We immediately knew we wanted to do this. “What drew me to it is the way in which the movie ebbs and flows,” he adds. “You think it's one thing and it turns into something else.

It has the ability to be both incredibly charming and funny and entertaining, and also to really be about something at the end of the day. The locations in this film are wonderful and exotic, and sort of feel like something from the old days¬ó-like Hitchcock. The characters and the story and this fabulous cast we got were really the primary impetus for us to want to do the film.”

Clarity of Characters

Wendy Japhet, president of production at Endgame, says although she reads many scripts in the course of her job, “The Brothers Bloom” stood out for several reasons. “The intelligence of the writing, the uniqueness of the comedic voice and the thematic optimism blew me away,” she says. “Rian has great clarity about the characters he's written, why they're doing what they're doing and what the journey means.

“The film has its own voice and its own world,” according to Japhet, whose executive producer credits include “The Italian Job” and Without a Paddle. “It's got tremendous warmth and humor. I respond to movies that make you feel something and when I read the script, I laughed and I cried. I could envision this incredibly beautiful environment for these eccentric characters to exist in. I also could imagine my daughter really responding to the movie, because I think it has an unusual sort of female empowerment subtext to it that I personally really liked.”

Unique Vision

One of Bergman's first decisions as a producer was to rule out making “The Brothers Bloom” under the auspices of a large studio. “Part of my role is to protect Rian's vision,” he says. “And his vision is so unique that you really want to make sure he gets the freedom to achieve it. His first film worked because he was able to make his own movie. He did everything. He edited, he wrote it, he directed it, he had final cut. We made it independently so Rian could do what he really wanted to do and deliver a Rian Johnson movie.”

Japhet, who has worked within the studio system, says an independent company gives her the opportunity to work with filmmakers who really have a point of view. “Rian is an example of the kind of filmmaker we really wanted to embrace and nurture and give opportunity to at Endgame,” she says. “And it just so happened that we were very lucky, timing-wise, and he had the script for his next film and we got our little mitts on it.”

Shooting in Eastern Europe

Shooting in multiple locations in Eastern Europe, as “The Brothers Bloom” did, can take a toll on cast and crew, but according to James Stern, Bergman ran one of the calmest sets he had ever been on. “I love working with Ram,” he says. “Films are never easy and it's a real tribute to Rian and Ram that this shoot went so smoothly. You do a lot of films before you find people at that level.”

For his directing debut, Johnson turned a mystery set in a Southern California high school into a classic film noir complete with hardboiled investigator and tough talking dames. With The Brothers Bloom, the filmmaker again transcends genre by taking the comic adventures of a pair of modern day fortune hunters into the realm of magical realism.

“We created our own world, because the movie operates almost entirely within the world that Stephen, the older brother, creates,” says the director. “It's this magical world where everything's a little bigger than life and Stephen very purposely adds levels of romanticism to it to draw in Penelope.

“Imagine that for a period of a few weeks, every single person you meet is an actor playing a role in a play that you're not privy to,” he says. “You're the only one who doesn't have a script. It's a seductive thing to be completely enveloped by this story. As an audience, we can be inside that world and experience it as well. That gave us a lot of leeway to have fun with the amount of realism or lack thereof in the movie.”

Johnson grew up making short films with his friends and family. “It's how I got through adolescence,” he says. “On family vacations, my cousin Nathan, my brother Aaron and I would all get together and make a family movie. We would grab a video camera and spend the entire vacation monopolizing our little cousins' time making them be the cast in this movie that we were making. We accumulated maybe a dozen of them over the years, because every family vacation we wasted making a movie.”

Grabbing a Camera

“Filmmaking has never been something that I've approached from a professional perspective separate from the people around me and my life,” according to Johnson. “It should always feel like you're grabbing a camera and making a movie with your friends.

Making this one, which had a bigger budget than “Brick” and was shooting at all these locations, one of the main things I was worried about is would it still be able to have that feel” In an effort to recreate that spontaneous atmosphere on the set of “The Brothers Bloom,” Johnson brought in some adopted family. “All the actors from Brick, who I love and are part of the family now, were able to be in the scene that introduces the brothers as adults. They play the cast from the brothers' previous enterprise. And having the cast of Brick come out especially for that scene just seemed appropriate.”

Setting the Mood

Bergman describes the hierarchy of a film set as a pyramid, with the director perched on top. “Rian sets the mood. People respect him because he's original and he knows what he wants, which is a rare combination. For him it's like there's no difference between making Bloom, Brick or a movie with his family when he was ten years old. He makes everyone a part of it. He welcomes everyone's input, but he makes the choices. He's just a purely nice guy with no ego. I know I'll be the happiest person in the world if I can make a movie with Rian every year or every two years, whenever he wants to make one.”

Johnson recognizes this as the largest endeavor he's undertaken to date. “It's a big, globetrotting adventure and the world is eccentric and funny, but there's a lot of stuff in there. I've definitely gotten quite a lot out of the creation of it. I like that it ties everything together at the end, but not necessarily the way one would expect a con man movie to.”

Sense of Play

A large part of the film's charm is in Stephen and Bloom's ability to maintain the sense of humor and fun that defined their play as children, when they began to spin their fantastical tales. “I wanted to make a movie that is essentially very good-hearted,” the director says. “It's about life being this grand story that you can tell. We can't control what the world gives us, but we can control how we tell it back to ourselves, our story. And if you tell it well, and tell it as a beautiful worthwhile adventure, in a way that's what you can make your life into.”

“We all get into this business to be able to do special things,” observes producer Stern. “This is a very special film that we're able to participate in. It's Rian's film, foremost and always. It doesn't fit into some cookie-cutter and Its brand of humor is not straight ahead. It's got its own unique sort of language. It's a film that has real depth and real heart and I think this is going to be the kind of film people are going to talk about for years and years.”