Netflix Doc 'Dick Johnson Is Dead' Is One of 2020's Must-See Films
Director Kirsten Johnson shares her process for (fictionally) killing her dad over and over in her excellent new documentary about coping with loss.
"So tell me," Kirsten Johnson, director of the extraordinary new documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead asked me after our interview time was up, "what you're going to make with your mom?" Earlier in our conversation, I had mentioned how much her film, out now on Netflix, in which she repeatedly stages her father's death in order to grapple with his impending loss, had affected me as someone who had what I saw as a similarly close relationship with a parent. I had told her that after I left the screening I had called my mother in tears. I was caught off guard by her question, but it was one in the spirit of her profoundly moving nonfiction film, which sees the artistic process as a way to hold onto your loved ones.
Johnson spent years in the industry as a cinematographer and camera operator for documentary filmmakers like Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) and Michael Moore. Her first feature as a director, Cameraperson, is a self portrait assembled from years of footage. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a different kind of personal excavation. Realizing that her beloved dad, psychiatrist C. Richard Johnson, was slowly succumbing to dementia, she had an idea: She would "kill him" on screen, staging his death over and over with stunt people, as a way of coping with the fact that he will eventually die. There are sequences that take place in a "heaven" set featuring an angelic jazz band, as well as ones that show the brutal reality of aging. The resulting piece of art is unlike anything you've ever seen; it's as funny as it is sad. I spoke with Johnson about her wildly inventive project.
Thrillist: The question on everyone's mind after they finish the film is: How is your dad now?
Kirsten Johnson: The pandemic has changed everything, like it has for all of us. He got to go and stay with my brother during the pandemic, which was just this extraordinary gift because that wasn't possible before. My brother is director of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum so was just completely unable to engage in day-to-day care. And then the museum closed. So my dad and my brother were home together from March until July, which gave me an incredible respite from the dementia. The first three months were recovering from that, being in "dementia land" all the time.
And then we made the very impossible decision to move him into a dementia care facility in July, [but] Dad's kind of thriving there. He really likes it. He's popular. Everyone's watched the movie a bunch of times. And he's eating a lot of chocolate ice cream. He says, "Life is sweet," and he also says, "When are you coming to get me?" It's holding all of these contradictions. But he's also totally participating in the [movie's] release and calling me in the middle of some of these conversations with journalists, putting in his two cents. He's totally present and he's also absent in the way that so many of our loved ones are absent in this pandemic. We don't know when we are going to touch them next. We're in the thick of it with all of the rest of us.
He has been watching the movie with the other people at the care facility?
Johnson: I think they've watched it five times already.
What were those early conversations about the movie like with him?
Johnson: He laughed immediately. His first response was a laugh. There's a little bit of, there's no way we could make anything as funny as Monty Python or Harold and Maude or Jackass. He was like, "How are you going to do that? That would not be possible. There's nothing special about me. Why would you do that?" He's an incredibly modest and humble person, and it eluded him. He loves me like crazy and he's interested in what I'm interested in. He's game. He was doing the thing where, 'I feel like I'm not sure I am in a place where I would trust my child to make whatever they wanted with me and to sort of throw me under the bus multiple times.' I still have a sense of my own self-consciousness, or self-awareness, or I'm attached to my reputation. The fact that he was willing to throw his life's reputation into my arms just knocks me out. That is such a gift from him to me, that he would let me play and experiment with the story of our relationship. It's just like, wow. I'm not sure I would be capable of doing that. So when the team was encouraging me like, "Why are you still killing him? Can we do something else? Or you really need to say something here?" I went into riskier territory than I felt comfortable with because he was doing that from the initiation of the project.
One of the first scenes is a conversation between your dad and a stuntman in your dad's office about how the stuntman might act out his death. But then the imagined deaths change once you move to New York. They become related to the fabric of the city. Had you mapped all the deaths out beforehand? Did they come up organically?
Johnson: We did not map them out. This was very consciously, very purposefully an experiment with not knowing, and knowing that if we filmed observational documentary material with things as they happen, we would encounter unexpectedness and then the idea would be in response to that truly unexpected moment. [For instance,] the moment that my dad really realizes that he's about to lose his car. I couldn't have predicted how much emotion would be there. I know because I've worked on so many documentaries that if you film, you will be there for those unexpected moments. From the beginning, that was the plan. We are going to go forward into the unknown, the unknown will reveal itself, then we will attempt to respond to the unknown with our imagination, then the imagination will lead us into the new territory of the documentary. It was conceived as a back and forth. We started editing really early. We did a sound mix session with Pete Horner at Skywalker really early because we knew tone would be a question mark. We tested all kinds of different sounds around the stunts that we filmed. Is this comical? Is this brutal? Do you feel it in your gut?
My dad blew me away multiple times during the filming of that. He went straight to the core like he would with the patient around: "Do you feel suicidal feelings? Does alcohol help you cope with this brutalizing of your body that you are doing behalf of movies?" He went straight to, What are the psychological underpinnings of that? The stuntman thought he was coming there to discuss how do we do stunts with an old man, and suddenly he was talking about the things that matter most to him. That's my father embodying that capacity to unearth the unexpected. So right away, the presence and the role of stunt people just felt very meaningful because of the way they are risking their bodies in the service of this invisible, false death in a movie. That was one of those things that really helped me think about how we approach the making. That was all very deliberately engaged with, which is why we were always filming the behind the scenes with the stunt people and filming the conversations about things, as well as trying to do the things themselves.
It does feel like the film is also about filmmaking, how there's "movie magic," but these stunts and deaths are really physical. How did you think about incorporating that?
Johnson: It is beyond for me, just like there is the front of the scene and the behind the scenes. I am definitely trying to break into new dimensions because I do feel like cinema is time itself and can function in all the very strange quantum physics levels of ways that time is not completely understandable to us as humans. I think similarly, with actual bodies and images of bodies, there's this incredibly strange tension where we know it when we see it. We know when something is not faked and yet we also can be faked out by cinema. I really wanted to go as far into that territory as I could, and then this impossible goal of, I really want to keep my father alive for real. I'm trying to have this film do that. Not just in like, this film makes my father immortal. But like really. Like, I'm really using the movie to Frankenstein him back together.
Do you think it did help him in that it was an active thing he could participate in?
Johnson: "Am I helping him by killing him?" Some of the time he was colder than he wanted to be or he was tired and he wanted to sit down and then we just decided, let's put him in a warm set and sit him on a chair. We kept sort of readjusting for the needs, but someone said to me that I was activating resisting, sidelining him. He had a job to do. He's the center of our movie; he has work to do. He's not retired. We're trying to imagine together how this movie can be funnier. We were always trying to make it funnier. How could we do that? I think what I was asking for was his presence, even though absence was all around us. So, yeah, absolutely, we discovered how flexible our relationship is. Even though I really didn't want to lose the him that was, I was able to engage with the him that is.
That's one of the things about parents: We can't imagine they are going to die, we can't imagine they are going to age. And then it happens. Because that had happened to my mom, because dementia had changed her so much, I was like, okay, actually, I can imagine this and some of it I really don't want. So how can moviemaking give me unimaginable territory that I do want? It wasn't that I imagined the heaven sequence, I just brought together all these elements -- collaborators, choreographers, costume designers, set designers -- who could imagine with me, and then we built something unimaginable. None of us had the full picture in our minds. We built the unexpected into it. It was built of fragments that we recombined. It was a deliberate expression of building something out of broken things. That was creating the unimaginable pleasurable, as opposed to the unimaginable horror or grief or loss. The unimaginable delight: "Oh yeah, your wife will be there in heaven and you can dance with her. She never danced before, but she can sure dance now." All that kind of stuff was really fun.
In the heaven scene, you have Farah Fawcett and…
Johnson: And Frederick Douglass and Frida Kahlo and Freud. For me, it was people who used creative imagination to transform pain and also make it available to other people. I'm really obsessed with Frederick Douglass in general because, one, he's the most photographed person of the 19th Century and I think he understood things about photography and the relationship of filming. But he also manages to translate his experience to the rest of us in a way that is alive. I feel like his photos are alive and so when you think about not being seen as human and then through your creative work, through your writing and your speaking and letting yourself be made into an image, you reclaim your humanity and sort of force people who are blind to see. That's such an inspiration to me. He is a guiding light in this project.
So those figures were your picks not your father's?
Johnson: It was funny. My father and I talked a lot about it. He wanted all his friends and people he knew to be there. And then we talked a lot about musicians that he wanted to be there. He wanted Benny Goodman to be there. And I was like, "You can be Benny Goodman. I'll put you in a tuxedo and you can play clarinet while you're dancing." To put Billie Holiday, someone who transformed the idea of lynching into "Strange Fruit" -- that level of transforming the most extreme pain into something that we can face and that we can mourn and that we can be haunted by, Dad was totally on board. My brother had a poster of Farah Fawcett on his wall, the infamous poster. We were going through old photos and dad and I thought, "Oh, Farah's in heaven, for sure."
You mentioned Monty Python, Harold and Maude, and Jackass. Were those three reference points you went to for the humor?
Johnson: It was more the memory of the experience of those. I mean, Jackass, there were some moments I was hysterical and some moments I was horrified, out of control laughing. It was such a bodily experience. It was generated in some ways by the sort of horrible scatalogical moments. I can barely stand how wrong this is but it's so gleeful. And also just the way they are hurting themselves. I saw Harold and Maude as a kid with my dad. I just remember being like, "You can do that?" What it allowed itself was so far beyond. My dad loved The Simpsons and we had one moment with my dad when we were all watching The Simpsons and the phone rings, and my dad puts The Simpsons on mute and he says, "Oh, you don't want to do that. No, no. Just take that off and step down and I'll see you on Monday." And he hung up the phone and put The Simpsons back on. And I was like, "Dad, was that just a person trying to kill themselves?" And he was like, "Yeah, but they took the noose off and they stepped down."
Johnson: Yeah. Holy shit, right? That juxtaposition that is in Harold and Maude, that can be in cinema, that was in our lives with him as a psychiatrist. I learned in this film that he had a couple of patients who committed suicide. I didn't know that. I thought he had saved everybody. But I think my father's calmness in the face of mental illness was deeply affirming to his patients. He accepted their state and also indicated if help was possible, he was going to be there. I worked for him one summer during college and was his secretary. There was a moment when a terrifying man came in and said, "The US government asked me to kill people and I did. I killed them with my own hands. Where's the doctor?" And I was like, "I'll ring you in." He went running into my dad's office and I started to call the police. And then the man walked out literally moments later and said, "I'd like to make an appointment for next week." I was like, "Sure, okay." He walked out. I went in and I was like, "Dad." He said, "I just told him, 'We already have a plan to speak. We knew you were going to come in next week. You just need to make an appointment and I'll be here for you.'" Him not being afraid of that man, him just saying, "you're okay, you'll be okay until next week," that alone was the thing that hopefully calmed that man down. Who knows? Who knows what that man went out and did? He appeared very calm when he walked out. Seeing those kinds of things happen and my father's calm in the face of that is also the juxtaposition that inspired that as well as those movies.
Your voice is so present, but you're often behind the camera, which I know is your natural habitat. Still, there are some moments when you are on screen. How did you see your place in the film?
Johnson: I was completely Dad-focused when I began to film, and then little by little through the making of it with him, it became clear to me that the film is also telling the story of this relationship. In some ways, I was throwing my dad under the bus, but I wasn't throwing myself under the bus. He was exposed and I needed to be exposed in the way that he was exposed. There's very little footage in Cameraperson that I shot knowing that Cameraperson would exist, so it's un-self-conscious. I didn't think anyone would ever look at those scenes thinking about me. With this one, I know Cameraperson exists. So I'm like, "Am I in Cameraperson mode now and you know me by how I film, right?" But then I realized looking at some of the footage that I am self-conscious now because I'm thinking about Cameraperson. That kind of vulnerability and awkwardness and not knowing and just un-filtered-ness of it became clear to me that I could let other people film me and for it to be what it needs to be between my dad and I in certain situations. It gives the audience many perspectives from which to enter. There is no pretense of control. In some strange way, that is what death and dementia demand, that we acknowledge our own lack of control. That is what the pandemic is making us all engage with as our supreme lack of capacity to predict the future. With all of the terribleness come also these gifts, like the time my father has been able to spend with my brother and also this new set of relationships he has in this new place, but also the pain and the disconnect of that.
There is a grim, almost funny joke in transitioning footage of your camera on the floor of an ambulance into the fake funeral. What was the thinking behind that?
Johnson: I think in that way that I'm talking about how much can cinema give us if we push it as hard as we can push it. I learned things from Cameraperson, too. I learn things from people telling me what they saw in Cameraperson. We are all more sophisticated together in how we can interpret camera moves. So then the question became, when I first pitched the film and when I first spoke it to myself, I said, "I'm going to keep killing my father over and over until he really dies." My intention was to keep making the film until beyond his death. When we realized that we had a film already and that in some ways he was at the limit of something, the limit of his capacities to collaborate, I realized, I can finish this film, but is there a way to shoot a scene that will really feel like it really is his death, in contrast to other things? And what cinematic language would that be? And what would I do if he was having a heart attack? Would I film? Would I not film? Would I not care if I dropped the camera? So we played with that. We really wanted the funeral to be the loss of him and be the end of him, as well as all the other things that it is.
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