Dick Johnson Is Dead is one of the best films of the year, an utterly unique rumination on mortality from one of the greatest living documentary filmmakers. After her father, Dick, was diagnosed with dementia, Kirsten Johnson wanted to create a cinematic tribute to him. Having previously made a film composed entirely of footage she had shot for other documentaries as a cinematographer, she wasn’t content to do this in any conventional manner. Johnson and Dick collaborated to stage a series of fantastical death sequences for him, everything from simply slipping and falling down the stairs to having an air conditioner dropped on his head. It embodies the slippery way that both memory and cinema can continually both kill people and bring them back to life. Hyperallergic spoke to Johnson over the phone about the film, its ideas, and the challenging logistics of working around someone with dementia.
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Hyperallergic: Was this your first experience directing a non-documentary film?
Kirsten Johnson: It’s not. Believe it or not, out of film school in 1997, I made a feature-length film about a pandemic that was blamed on a foreigner — it was a bit of a train wreck. I also directed a couple of short fiction films; I had written narrative scripts. I always had this wish to do narrative work as well as documentary work. This is the first time that I was able to bring what I’ve learned all these years from documentary and what Cameraperson taught me into directing fiction. But even in the process of making this film, I was still pretending to know things, thinking that the director must know them.
H: Do you think that’s part of the process, even for directors who just stick to fiction?
KJ: Undoubtedly. That’s certainly what I see in many performances, and the narrative films I love. Beau Travail has always been a touchstone. There’s no question that Claire Denis is living in the not-knowing of how things will resonate when she is filming them. This new space for me — I think many narrative directors stepped into it long ago. [Abbas] Kiarostami was doing it for a long time.
H: What other influences were there?
KJ: I have to say there were a lot of art references. I love collages. Saul Steinberg was a huge influence, as well as Jock Provera and Max Ernst collages. I was thinking about the ways in which my father was falling apart. How could we use these fragments to reconstitute him?
A lot of techniques also emerged from the need to work around my father’s dementia. The use of slow motion was one of them. He was looping. He’d say something and then say it again, and again, and again. Filming in slow motion allowed us to enter his present time, so that a smile that lasted a couple of seconds could last four minutes. The process was always related to the dementia and how we could film in a way that my father was onboard with.
H: That seems both ethically and logistically challenging. You mentioned a near-accident when he was behind the wheel of a car in one interview. Were there any incidents like that?
KJ: I worked with this wonderful stunt coordinator named Kemp Curley, who works in the realm between cinema and the real. He managed someone reproducing Evel Knievel’s motorcycle jump over dozens of buses. He came out to New York, and we were simply walking down the street with my dad and my son. Kemp was new to understanding my dad’s dementia, and was talking about what I might do with the camera if I was filming my father and he tripped. Dad, listening to him describe that, just went for it and tripped right there, and we had to catch him. In that moment, his brain translated, ‘I’m going to trip,’ and just did it. Any moment that he was left alone, it felt like he might be in danger. But which was also true in real life, not just when we were filming. If I let go of his arm at a street corner … It’s like being with a two-year-old. They don’t understand that traffic is real.
H: How many concepts did you go through before arriving at the fantasy sequences that show up in the film? What was the process like?
KJ: The producing team was incredible on this film. So, it’s Marilyn Ness,
Katy Chevigny, and Maureen Ryan. Maureen did the reenactment scenes for Man on Wire; she had experience in this space between documentary and narrative work. She and I just developed this really interesting relationship, because she likes to know as much as possible, and I want to not know for as long as possible. We developed this really fun methodology where she would ask me, ‘Are we filming heaven in a studio or outside?’ And I would say, ‘I don’t know yet.’ And then she’d say, ‘I’ll give you a date, and you have to decide by that date. Do you want live sheep or fake? How many dancers do you want?’
So it was this incremental back and forth, and not just with her, but also with the choreographer, the costume designer, the art director, the production designer. But really, nothing was assembled until we figured out what Dad could actually do, and then we would work around that. It was a fascinating and fun process, one that reminded me a lot of documentary, of having a world and being prepared for the unexpected. In that moment, with the car, none of us were quite there imagining it was a real car. But of course it was, and if we put real keys in the real ignition, Dad was capable of thinking that he could drive.
Everyone understood how fragile my dad was, but also how much capacity he had, and they were onboard with the flexibility necessary there. It was beautiful how all of them shared this wish that my father could participate in as many ways as possible. The focus puller was an incredibly sensitive human being. My father could not stay on any marks; there was no way to make him do that. So I told the focus puller, ‘I will accept whatever you get. If it’s out of focus, that also has meaning, that’s also a part of this story.’ But he made this heroic effort to follow an utterly unpredictable actor.
H: How long did shooting the fantasy sequences take?
KJ: It was very quick, three or five days. We brought all these elements together, we storyboarded it, thought about what we wanted to do, but we didn’t know whether we would be able to do any of it.
H: Obviously this would be nebulous to pin down, but what might have caused filming to stop?
KJ: I don’t know how familiar you are with dementia, but it’s really weird. If a person is tired, they’ll say, ‘I can’t do that. This is the hardest thing in my life.’ But then they can go take a nap and be like, ‘Hey, I’d love to do this!’ To shoot anything he had to be 100% good with it in the moment. The assistant director did an amazing job organizing so that Dad would be resting while we were setting things up. He had his own chair on set and didn’t want to miss anything, which made me worried he’d be too tired to do things. But he was having such a good time, and the point of this was for him and me to do this together. At one point, we started playing Benny Goodman. Dad hasn’t played the clarinet in years, but he just started swinging with the clarinet, and I was so blown away. It was as if the collaboration gave him back things he’s lost.
H: How did you know you had captured enough footage from real life to make the film?
KJ: I mean, the original conception was that I was going to keep doing it until Dad died for real, and that the funeral we filmed while he was still alive would be the end. But that funeral was so real that, even though he came out alive at the end of it, we would never do anything like it again, in this church with these people. So, then we searched for a cinematic way to punk the audience and make it as believable as possible that he had actually died. But he still hasn’t.
H: Were there any fantasy sequences you conceived of that you really liked but couldn’t execute?
KJ: I really, really wanted to put Dad on an ice floe, but that wasn’t feasible. I also wanted him to catch fire, which is related to my own imagination of hell and the beauty of the color orange, and I’ve also just always wanted to have real fire in a movie. But that also felt too dangerous. Stunt people are incredible.
H: That physicality also plays into the underlying themes of the film, of both mortality in general and the strange ways that we relate to our bodies.
KJ: Totally. Thank you for picking up on that, because over the process of making this film, I learned there’s no one marker to the death of the body. For the breath, there’s an end; for the brain, there’s an end. There’s a spectrum. Recently, I heard on the radio how the coronavirus is not considered a living organism. It’s in the gray zone between a living and not-living thing. It’s mind-blowing, thinking about the space between what is living and what is not. What are our bodies? What is our consciousness? What is a self? My dad’s dementia has totally advanced, but he is still completely himself. This morning we showed him the review in the New York Times, and he said, ‘Oh, is this for my birthday?’ I think about all these categories we attempt to put people into, to put films into. I think we need new language to allow for the extreme diversity that is life and death.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is now available on Netflix.