The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Dick Johnson is Dead.
Sometimes as a documentarian, you don’t have total control. But in this film you were able to script things and envision scenarios.
Kirsten Johnson: Honestly I was trying to engage in not being in control. It was the dementia that had more control of the fate of my father and I in this movie. I’m really glad you brought up this idea of control because I think it’s central to these questions of how do we construct films, and how do we think about directors. Historically we’ve thought about directors as people who have a vision and find a way to execute that vision against all odds. What I would say that the team of people and I working on this film together discovered along with my father was that we found our way to a process in which we embraced our lack of control as humans. And it happened in several steps. Some of it we wished it to be and we made it happen; other times we realized we had to let go more than we even thought we did. I very purposefully acknowledge the recognition I got from Cameraperson. It was so unexpected and so remarkable for me that it really freed me to say, I want to take as much risk as I can in filmmaking, I want to be a part of pushing this form in new directions, and I’m liberated to take this huge leap into the void and have it be okay even it’s a total wipeout. I’m trying to keep my father alive by making this movie. So of course on some level it will fail. Once I figured out my dad had dementia, I decided I was going to keep him from falling apart by making this film. I was going to keep him at the center of things instead of sidelining him. All of those were wishes, and we did all the purposeful things in relation to cinematic language, in relation to thinking about the audience. Instead of doing things in the conventional order, we planned for the process out of order. I worked with the extraordinary sound mixer at Skywalker, Peter Horner, who did great work on Cameraperson. He so changed my ideas about the film in the last three days of mixing that film that I said I want sound mixing to happen in the beginning of this film, in the middle of this film, and at the end of this film. And I want the sound mixing to change the nature of the film. So we did that and it was amazing! We tried out these tonal things, like when my dad trips and falls on the ground. Is it funny? Is it road runner? Does it make you want to throw up? We tried all of these different ranges of sounds to find how sound affects our emotional experience. Learning from that, I would go out and shoot new things, both new documentary things and also try to imagine what we could do with VFX, or what we could do with set pieces in a studio and actors. This idea of back and forth was really part of the conception of the film. The set pieces of heaven we filmed almost at the very end of the movie, knowing that they would move throughout the film.
one image taught me to see another image.
So you were conceiving those particular set pieces as you went?
Totally. Here’s the principle. One, we all have blind spots. I’m obsessed with my blind spot, always trying to get in there and see it! And of course you can’t see it. Two, this idea that death itself is unexpected, by its very nature. Even if you have cancer, even if you have dementia, that doesn’t mean that you won’t walk out the door and trip and fall and hit your head and it’s over. We are having this conversation right now, and it could be either some of your last words or my last words on the planet. We don’t know that. Death is that crazy, but also that absurdist, that real, that funny. Except if you know and love the person dying, then you’re going to grieve if these are their last words. And I love you all, if these are my last words! When I was working on this film at the very beginning, I would say things like, well if I were to die… until finally someone called me out on it like “oh, IF you die?”. There’s a hubristic way in which we all are humans that recognize that other people are sick and aging, but think “I’m never gonna die,” and you live with that feeling. Even my dad at age 88 thinks he’s not dying. Obviously the pandemic shifts that for all of us. Suddenly we can all imagine death. We know who is the most vulnerable but also it is deeply random. There’s a desire to engage in the unexpected. The other thing I know that’s unexpected is documentary work. Literally every day if you’re out with a camera filming documentary footage, something happens that you cannot see coming. The world is that unpredictable. I was trying to harness what I know about the unexpected from documentary, and bump it up against the unknowability of the future. It’s unknowable what happens after death. So we built the unknowable back and forth into the film and started to blur those boundaries.
The film contains so many shots and sequences that really capture the core of this film. The voiceover in the rearview mirror in the tunnel, the after school drop-off where the VO doesn’t quite match, the shot where catch the guy with the bag on the street that you follow, and when you’re talking about sleepwalking and you have that shot of the window in the snow, which I think is masterful. Are you aware of these things when you shoot or do they come to your attention later?
I love the scenes you picked because they’re such intimate moments, moments of the face and the eyes. They’re tender and I would say small moments and yet they function in big ways because they do resonate with all the themes. One of things I do when I shoot documentaries is I have a going list in my brain of all the things I think the movie is interested in. With this movie, I’m interested in the idea of how do we make visible the invisible? I’m interested in the idea of cinema, the idea of deterioration. My father and Judy Karp (our wonderful sound person) and I were trapped in my dad’s office because of this sudden snowstorm. There’s never a snowstorm in Seattle where you can’t leave the building! But we were trapped in there and that’s one of the things I love most in documentaries. You get stuck somewhere after you think you’ve finished. We had already filmed everything I thought we needed to film, and then this crazy snowstorm happened and I was looking at the window and I thought, Whoa, dad looks like the Wizard of Oz. So suddenly there he is, boom, this head floating in space as snowflakes are going by. And it depends on what I focus on—the snowflakes or his face—which will determine whether he is together or whether he is fragmented. So it is kind of intentional but it’s also me responding to the shock that my ideas manifest themselves in the world. Then I start searching. I film it one way and another way and see if I should make the head bigger in the frame or smaller, and a lot of times I don’t realize until after filming that those images have taught me to see in new ways. And then I’ll film other things in response to my brain’s interaction with that image. I think that’s why at a certain point there’s a cumulation where everything starts to resonate and you wonder, how does this talk to that so strongly? And it’s because one image taught me to see another image.
How do you know when in the film to use the elevated Eames chair?
It was the last VFX thing we did. It was an idea that we found when shooting in dad’s office and he was sleeping in his chair. I had this idea that he was sort of floating away from me. And Nels [Bangerter] put it in and we thought wow that really works, but then it wasn’t the right place for it because it was the beginning of the movie. So we kept looking for the right place. And I honestly thought that this bedroom in my one-bedroom apartment in New York City was going to be his final room, but the pandemic changed that and he had to go to live my brother, and now lives in a dementia care facility. Two days ago I moved all of his stuff out of that room and I’m so grateful that I have the image of him floating away in that room. It is so my emotional experience of this. It’s like getting to have a hallucination of my own memories, my own future.