Dick Johnson Is Dead postmortem: Director Kirsten Johnson on Netflix film's touching ending
WARNING: This article contains spoilers about Dick Johnson Is Dead.
Netflix's new documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead is like a magic trick. Throughout the movie, often when you least expect it, its octogenarian subject suffers a gruesome demise, only to emerge unscathed as the "death" is revealed as the product of filmmaking fakery. Director Kirsten Johnson, Dick's daughter, essentially spends the movie making her father disappear, then bringing him back, over and over again.
But Johnson saves her greatest sleight of hand for the film's conclusion. After we've seen Dick Johnson "die" numerous times — by tumbling down the stairs, by tripping while walking down the street, by a falling air conditioner — the film cuts to inside an ambulance. We hear chattering paramedics, the words "cardiac arrest," a defibrillator being charged.
We then see a funeral — a staged funeral teased earlier in the film, which a living Dick attends in person. In voice-over, Johnson intones: "We were so happy with ourselves that day. We thought that maybe we could stop what was coming." Cut to Johnson in her closet, recording narration on her phone.
"All I can say is, Dick Johnson is dead," the filmmaker says. "And all I want to say is, long live Dick Johnson." She opens the closet door to reveal her father, very much alive, and embraces him.
As the closing credits then reveal, Dick Johnson is indeed still alive. Though his daughter originally planned for the film to include his real death, she ultimately came to realize it wasn't necessary.
"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," the director tells EW. "But as soon as we had done that funeral, I was like, 'Oh, this is done, this is real, and they are mourning him.'" (Indeed, one of the film's most powerful moments comes when Dick's old friend Ray breaks down and cries while delivering a eulogy at the fake funeral.)
Dick's progressing dementia also played a factor. "As my dad's capacities changed, we realized his capacity to collaborate in this movie was ending," Johnson explains. "His last stunt, I would say, was him taking a spoonful of tomato soup. That was hard for him to do. And I was like, 'Okay, wow, it's time to be done.' Because I didn't want to make this movie without him. I wanted the act of collaboration through the whole thing. And I think I will keep filming with my father until he dies for real. I don't know what that will become."
Viewers who fell in love with Johnson's warm-hearted father through the film will be happy to know that he's still holding on, despite the radical changes to the world and our way of life since the movie's completion.
"The pandemic has totally changed the dynamic of things," Johnson says. "We just made the terrible, difficult decision to move him into a dementia care facility, which we're all still struggling with. But also, Dad's loving it there, and he's participating in the rollout of the film via Zoom. So it's much the same. He is himself despite the obstacles of this moment in time, I would say."
And, in his own way, he's delighted to be a movie star. "This is what's crazy about dementia. My father has seen the film hundreds of times, so he has had hundreds, if not thousands, of reactions to this film," says Johnson. "It usually makes him laugh. It also gives him back things. Often when he'll watch it, he'll say, 'Where did we park the car? Oh, can we go for a drive now?' Because he thinks he has [his] car again. It's bringing back to life things that are dead for him. Seeing Ray cry at the end, he'll say, 'Oh my God, I've gotta call Ray.' And then he'll call Ray. It's a very alive thing. And because of the dementia, it just manifests in all these super interesting ways. Like, 'Oh, I want a bowl of ice cream,' will be the response to the movie one time."
All we want to say is, long live Dick Johnson.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is currently streaming on Netflix.