Matt and Owen on a bully hunt.
Last week, I saw The Dirties: a complicated, funny, thrilling Canadian film made for almost zero dollars by director Matt Johnson. It deals with two Grade 11ish kids, one of whom is played by Matt, who make a short, violent bully-revenge film that gets censored by their teacher and ridiculed by their shitty classmates. After putting all that work into making a silly, gory high school movie—their adolescent brains are so scrambled they decide to take their revenge fantasies one step further, by planning a real school shooting. Using GoPros and wireless mics, they begin to make a new movie that documents the way in which they plan to commit a massacre.
As a viewer, watching this kind of scenario play out on-screen—in a film that was made without a budget and is mainly improvised—would be almost completely unsettling because of how realistic it looks. But thanks to the silly and entertaining dynamic that Matt and his co-star Owen share throughout the film, The Dirties maintains a really entertaining tone despite the murderous plot being planned out in front of the audience.
The Dirties opens at the TIFF Lightbox this Friday, so to get a better sense of who Matt Johnson is, I called him up on Skype. When he picked up, he was playing Warhammer in a hotel room in Vancouver.
VICE: Hey man, how’s it going?
Matt Johnson: It's going great. Did you play Warhammer as a kid?
Oh, did you play Magic Cards at all?
Uh, no. We’re off to a good start here.
I’m in the middle of a pretty amazing tournament right now.
Warhammer's gonna get fucked once everybody has a 3D printer. Right?
That’s what they're saying, yeah. But the problem is, like, the artistry in a lot of the pewter models… No 3D printer would be able to recreate those.
They're just too beautiful?
Yeah, they're gorgeous.
Good to hear that Warhammer can weather the looming 3D printing storm. Anyway though, let’s get into it. Do you want The Dirties to affect how people see Canadian film? Is that a consideration for you?
That definitely was not. I get asked that more and more now…. We weren't thinking of how The Dirties could change the perception of Canadian film. We weren't thinking about Canadian film at all. We were thinking, like, “Oh, we'll never be able to make this movie with Canadian money."
Everybody we pitched this movie to, like: “Will you help us make this movie?” Told us: “No way, no way.” We tried so hard to get into TIFF, we were begging them to play the movie and they were like: “No, this movie sucks.” So, we couldn't get it to play at any Canadian film festivals. That was lamentable, because we’re so proud of being Canadian.
Well at least the film is subtly Canadian. You guys say ‘eh’ a lot.
Of course. And we weren't trying to not make it from a Canadian perspective. It's not like we were using American money or anything like that, but we weren't thinking about our nationality at all when we were filming. We were just trying to accurately portray our own high school experiences. Then once the film started playing film festivals, everybody thought we were American.
Why is that, do you think?
We don't know. I think it’s because of the subject matter, and also once they see the film… There's something about mumblecore filmmaking that just reeks of American indie style, so I think people just assume… In fact, in many film festivals we're listed as Americans wrongly. They'll list the country of origin of the film as America.
That means you've made it.
Yeah, well… All of us are proud Canadians, but it’s too bad that nobody in Canada though we were good.
Well that’s probably changing now. How important was it for you to capture an authentic high school experience in the film?
It was important for reasons people probably don't realize. The big one was that we didn't have the money to film it any other way. There's no way we could have faked high school with a set and a budget, we never could have done it because we had no operating budget. So we needed to shoot in real high schools with real people. And two, we wanted to do something and show high school life in a way that it had never really been done before—in the way Hollywood can't do—and that involved using as many unknowing high school students as we could to try and more accurately show our experience. I'm sure your experience was closer to [the one we show in the film] as opposed to, you know, a Hollywood movie where there are high school students that are so ridiculous.
For sure. So once you actually got into the high schools to start shooting, what were some of the problems you had to deal with?
There were no hardcore problems, but we had no clue what the logistics of actually filming in one of these places were going to be. So, never being able to shoot a second take was something… And then little things like sound. The hallways were always loud so it was very hard to shoot things during period changes. But we did it anyway and just used the terrible audio. Then sometimes we'd have to put the cameras very far away from us because if people saw the camera close, they'd behave differently. We wanted it to be as real as we could get it, so we started putting the cameras farther and farther and farther away.
[At this point there was some commotion in the hotel room, and Matt’s Warhammer opponent and friend Ben walked in front of the webcam]
This is actually the guy that Owen's character [second lead in the film] is based on.
Awesome. Real Owen.
We went to a school that was exclusively nerds, but it was in a part of Mississauga where… It was like a pilot program. So they took two students from every single Grade 6 class in the area and sent them all to a school where they would teach you a bunch of crazy shit, but half of the school was these kids and the other half were the mainstream kids—
—from this really dangerous neighbourhood. It was vicious. Ben had to leave after one year because he got kicked in the face and his mom wouldn't let him stay. That's where a lot of stuff from The Dirties comes from, is that period.
Owen and Matt.
How seriously do you want The Dirties to be a response to modern bullying?
It’s funny, I almost have no choice when it comes to how people view the film. First and foremost I think I was trying to make a movie that accurately showed what my life was like at that age. And because the zeitgeist right now is so obsessed with bullying and obsessed with the ramifications of violence and people abusing each other, it became the central message of this film. Which I'm comfortable talking about and certainly is in the film and that's why we made it at some level, but… I take your point.
I'm definitely not an ideal spokesman for this because I only know my own perspective. Certainly I think the way we talk about it is a little biased and sort of ridiculous. I am by no means an expert in bullying at all.
Do you expect this film to freak some people out?
I fully expect older people who haven't seen the movie and just hear about it to be really disgusted and think it's this tasteless awful young filmmaker trading on the issues of the day to try and make a popular film. I'm fully prepared for that. But I hope that doesn't overwhelm that the fact that the movie is in many ways fun and about young people trying to be themselves. What excited us about making the film wasn't that it was going to be like, a manifesto.
Right. One of the things that really interested me in the film is how you have these silent camera guys following you around but they’re never on screen—despite your character referencing them once or twice.
Yeah. Have you seen the film Man Bites Dog? The Belgian film? It's similar, it's a 1994 black-and-white French film about a serial killer being followed around by a documentary crew—and what that film does is make the cameramen explicit characters. You spend time with them and you see their faces. They really are involved in the story.
We really wanted this film to try to implicate the audience in the same way those characters are implicated in Man Bites Dog. So we had filmed with these cameramen as characters with faces where we talk with them but we found that the less we showed them, the more psychologically involved the audience became. What we're trying to do is to get audiences to feel like they're in the room with us, like they are our friend, and I think like, creating a solid cameraman character we know and can relate to or has any of those narrative devices, removes that separation
It deals with the sort of new grammar of reality filmmaking and documentary in a way I like a lot. Like how in The Office, we don't know who's filming, and yet there's something… There's just something very new about that type of filmmaking that lets you get away with, and at the same time explicate things in a way you haven't been able to do before, just because film grammar is changing so quickly, especially among young people.
The officlal trailer.
Yes, and in The Dirties there’s such an explicit celebration of new filmmaking equipment. The whole opening sequence is just you guys geeking out over a wireless mic, and then you film the actual school shooting with GoPros. You couldn't have done this ten years ago, which is cool.
Remember when Blair Witch Project came out and people were like “The camera's so shaky, we can't watch it”? That's a ludicrous thing to say now. Geriatrics would have that issue, but any audience under 50 can deal with these images and can deal with this type of storytelling. So I think in as much as cameras have become cheap, microphones have become cheap, and production material and cameras have come to a point where you can shoot with no light, the actual language of making cheap independent films has moved to a place where you need less and less and less pre-visualized, beautiful stuff.
It’s very freeing… And to go back to the subject matter itself, what inspired you to explore school shootings creatively?
When we were young—I’m sure it was the same for you—school shootings were such a cultural touchstone and so strange. And for me specifically, I felt like I never had any real closure with them, I was so young and my mom was a doctor who’s very much into mental wellness, and she had such sympathy for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold when Columbine happened. I was at an age that I didn't really understand the concept—sympathy for people who have done something awful and terrible.
So I had all of these unresolved feelings and as I was getting older—again, I'm sure you felt the same way—school shootings became a thing. They became [a media] event, like a storm almost—like the way they report on hurricanes. And that was very bizarre to me, and what was more bizarre was that as I was really getting obsessed with movies, I didn't see them represented in a way I could connect with.
Elephant, I think, is such a joke in terms of its representation of the way young people really are. And then other films like Polytechnique or any movie that dealt with [youth violence and mental illness], like We Need to Talk About Kevin… I found myself thinking: “These are made by old men.” I was waiting for somebody from my generation to have an opinion on it, or to make something about it. There weren’t even any great comics about this stuff. It just seemed like nobody our age was dealing with it. So I thought it was finally time.
Sure seems that way. Thanks Matt.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire
Into Canadian film? Watch our new series on Canadian filmmakers:
Or read this: