Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): How Dick Johnson Is Dead made a finale out of a fake funeral
Kirsten Johnson’s radical documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead blurs and subverts the line between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking. Throughout the film, Johnson uses the magic of cinema to repeatedly “kill” her octogenarian father, Dick, while documenting his losing battle with dementia. We see Dick tumble down the stairs, get struck by a falling air conditioner, be impaled by nails, and more — all culminating in a staged funeral and a final sequence that encapsulates the movie’s prankish yet warm-hearted spirit. Here, film editor Nels Bangerter, who also collaborated with Johnson on her 2016 film Cameraperson, explains how they perfected Dick Johnson’s finale.
Given that by the end of Dick Johnson Is Dead we’ve watched the title character “die” multiple times, it’s only fitting that the film’s grand finale features Dick Johnson watching his own funeral.
Director Kirsten Johnson conceived the documentary’s final set piece in the early stages of production — it was actually among the first footage shot — when she still thought the film would include her father’s actual death. (“I thought that the funeral we had filmed would be the first funeral, and then we would film his real funeral when he really died,” Johnson previously explained to EW.) But as her plans shifted, she and editor Nels Bangerter rethought the sequence’s place in the narrative.
“We were always a little torn about how it was actually going to work,” Bangerter says. “Would we have it only at the end, as this symbolic finish to Dick Johnson's life, or would we put it in the beginning as sort of a launch into the way that this movie was going to work? And it worked really well in both ways.”
The funeral, which was filmed in Dick’s hometown church and attended by many of his friends and family, would ultimately bookend the film. Early on, we see Johnson and her crew preparing to shoot the sequence, and the scene proper plays out as the emotional climax before the movie’s magic-trick conclusion. (You can read more about that ending here.) We spoke to Bangerter about how he and Johnson put it all together.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before we get into the funeral scene, I wanted to ask, with Dick Johnson being such a unique project, how was your experience and your process different on this film compared to others you’ve worked on?
NELS BANGERTER: Often when I work on documentaries I come in before [filming] is completely done, but with this, we started editing, I'd say, about halfway through the real guts of production. That meant that I was editing scenes as we were conceiving how the movie was going to work, and that was really a lot of fun, to be involved directly in the writing and conception of things as we were going along. We were able to try scenes, see how they worked, and learn something from that together to go forward and try more.
Can you tell me about the different versions that the funeral scene went through as the film evolved?
We were working with so many great elements in that funeral scene. We had Dick's performance as he walks up the aisle, with all the people there clapping. We had Dick's friend Ray's performance, which was unbelievably good. He knew, certainly, what was going on in the film, and he knew that it was meant to be an emotional spot, and he kind of Method acted that. And then, completely as a surprise, we had Dick's patient who gives that speech, and she's so convincing that we used her to get the audience into, if they weren't there already, this idea that maybe this is a real funeral. We had beautiful music from [musical duo] Syzygys that we wanted to play. We had Kirsten's voice-over. We had all these things, and getting those figured out was not an easy process. We tried time after time, and we always got to something that we thought, “This is okay.”
But it was when we were finally nailing down those very last edits that I just kept thinking, “Let me try that again. We can get this better.” And it was in the very last hours of the very last night we had to cut that we reworked the scene. I think what we did that last night was to add the flickering coffin in the wide shot. That flicker off gave this sort of answer to, what happens when Dick comes up the aisle? Does he have to encounter his body in the coffin? Is this about that, or is this about Dick's emotion with his family and Ray's emotion on his own after his speech? So it was sorting all that stuff out and getting it in just the right order that we never quite had. And when we finally nailed it down, we were like, “I think this is much better than anything we've come up with before.” We didn't have much time to really reflect on it, and we sent it out.
How did you find the right tone, throughout the film but in this scene in particular?
The funeral scene is really a microcosm of the tone of the whole movie. We took on this challenge with this film, that it did not hold together in a tonal way at all. It was a broad swath of tones. It was sad in your typical way; it was funny in a sometimes typical way and sometimes atypical way. It was serious, it was fiction, and it was non-fiction, and [the funeral] was combining all those things that had been throughout the movie into one scene. Ray's long horn toot is almost scatological humor with the sound that comes out. You have this really touching emotional moment, as Dick joins KJ and his family up there in front of the chapel. You have other really emotional moments with the people at the funeral.
Kirsten told me you spent a lot of time searching for the right sound for that horn toot. Can you tell me about calibrating that moment?
When Ray got out that horn — it was his idea — he brought it out and he gave that horn a massive toot, and KJ and Dick were watching from behind that door when it happened, and cracked up with laughter. That’s one of the great moments where the tone shifts, and what we did with that moment was extend it. So we needed a longer toot sound to occupy the whole time. We tried a lot of different ways to do it — I was making sort of temp lip tooting noises on my mic to try to cut with, we used a plastic pipe, I ordered a little horn on eBay. Eventually, Pete Horner, the sound person, found — and I don't even know where he actually found it — but he found the sound that really sounded like what Ray had done, but extended to a ridiculous and hilarious length.
I think it was a smart choice to cut to that shot of Dick and Kirsten behind the door. I think that kind of lets the audience know it's okay to laugh in that moment.
Yeah. When you're editing anything, you're looking for reaction shots, and it's the hardest thing in documentary because capturing those in real time sometimes happens, and sometimes it doesn't. In this case, we had multiple cameras in the funeral, so it allowed us to get those looks for real. We had the actual reaction of Dick and KJ that is completely amazing. And then we had a selection of reactions from other parts of the funeral, and we kind of assembled those to make it into not only what happens, but what people think about what happens.
The end of the film has multiple fake-outs as to whether Dick is alive or dead, from the ambulance footage to the very end with Kirsten in the closet. Tell me about putting that whole sequence together.
We started early on by shooting the funeral scene to have something that could work as an ending that we had in the can. Getting there, though, meant that we had to sort of outdo ourselves in scene after scene with these deaths that were being shot. The ambulance one was one that we set up as something that was supposed to play a little differently, to play as possibly more real than what you'd seen before. And that was a great shoot that was set up by our brilliant producers. We got a real ambulance, we got a real ambulance crew, we made that feel as real as we could.
But we knew we'd built up a skepticism in the audience, so what happens from there is this balancing of all of the places that the audience might be: A truly skeptical audience would be onto us from the start, a more believing audience would be already thinking Dick was dead. And we had to sort of guide them through, moment by moment, these shifting tones. So when the funeral scene begins with Dick's patient, her performance is so perfect there that she manages, whether you believe Dick is dead or not, to put everybody into this same mindset that's like, in some world, he is dead, because he's losing his memory. As she says, he's sort of lost to us in some ways. She brings everything together in that moment. And then we have Ray's performance and the funny horn toot, which takes it to a different level, right before this really, truly emotional moment. It's our best footage in the film, where Dick walks up the aisle. That's what we've been building to this whole time. So it was a matter of walking through moment by moment and trying to achieve clarity in each part of the scene before we could move on to the next.
So, wait, the ambulance scene was staged? I completely bought that that was real.
Yeah! I mean, I'm glad. We really wanted that one to play as realistically as possible, and we even tried putting in a title card after that to say, “Dick Johnson passed away on such and such date, after a day in the hospital he lost consciousness and died the next day,” or something. Which is really a violation of your trust with the audience. When you write something in text on the screen, you're really lying if that's not the case. So we felt like that was going too far, but we were really happy with this idea that if we shot on an iPhone, then that was a realistic way of how KJ might have been able to shoot that scene if that really happened. We engineered that to be as realistic as we could, but luckily it wasn't real.
The title card that’s actually in the movie, with just a date, is equally effective at selling that, I think.
It's meant to be. It’s something that we haven't done before, put a date on the screen. It's sort of saying, “This is real.” And then we mess with you. And I mean, that's the fun of watching a movie, is getting sort of toyed with by the film. You go to a movie to go on a ride, and I think when a film can take you on that ride, it's all the more fun.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.