How Dick Johnson Is Dead director Kirsten Johnson turned dementia into movie magic
Kirsten Johnson is hardly a traditional documentarian; her directorial debut Cameraperson compiles footage shot for other projects into a cinematic collage that serves as Johnson's memoir. But even by her standards, Dick Johnson Is Dead is a radical approach to non-fiction filmmaking. The documentary centers around Johnson repeatedly "killing" her octogenarian father, Dick, through various modes of movie magic, while also chronicling his deteriorating mental state.
That sounds incredibly bleak, but the movie is anything but, hinging on what Johnson calls "the tension between it being pretty hysterically funny, and also just, like, 'This is so wrong.'" As she explains in the film's opening moments, "Just the thought that I might ever lose this man is too much to bear... But now, it's upon us — the beginning of his disappearance. And we're not accepting it."
Johnson cites such dark-comedy touchstones as Jackass, Harold and Maude, and Groundhog Day as inspirations, as well as a moment in Cameraperson in which she resurrects her late mother through the power of cinema.
"The moment of realizing, through editing, we could bring her back to life by cutting from her box of ashes to her alive — sort of that Pulp Fiction, 'Yay, John Travolta's back!' moment — that was key," Johnson says with a laugh. "I also had this crazy dream where a man sat up and said, 'I'm Dick Johnson, and I'm not dead yet.' I was just like, 'Oh, I'm gonna make a film about my dad. Kill him over and over until he really dies for real.' And that's the first time I've ever had a succinct pitch in my life."
Yet the resulting film defies a succinct pitch, weaving together Dick Johnson's many "deaths," behind-the-scenes looks at their creation, intimate footage of Dick's day-to-day life with dementia, and fantastical sequences set in a "heaven" inspired by the Johnsons' Seventh-day Adventist faith.
"We deliberately conceived of the process of a sort of back and forth," Johnson explains of the film's production. "What would happen would be what's happening in life with Dad, and then let's come back and imagine, how do we enter at that moment of maximum unexpectedness with an imagined thing? What I realized from the beginning was, it would be false if I tried to know things ahead of my capacity to imagine them... Affirming that in my collaborators as well as in myself, as opposed to, like, 'You have to know how this is gonna work out,' made it a lot more fun for everybody."
Dick Johnson Is Dead arrives on Netflix Friday. Ahead of its streaming debut, Kirsten Johnson spoke to EW about getting her dad on board, achieving the film's tricky tonal balance, and how the movie is like dementia... in a good way.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like to pitch this idea to your dad, and how did he respond to it?
KIRSTEN JOHNSON: He laughed. He laughed, he laughed, and he asked, "Why me?" Both on the level of like, do you want to kill me? But also on the level of his modesty as a human. He's like, "I'm not worthy of being the subject of a film." And I was like, "That's not what matters. I don't know if we're gonna make a film that other people want to see, but I want to play this game with you." And he was totally on board with that, just in the way he's always been on board with me in general, in life.
And then how did you start going down the path of actually making it?
Well, we did some crazy things. Like, Dad and I were at home together in Seattle, [in] the house I grew up in, and we just started talking about my mom falling down the stairs, and I was like, "Oh, that's a death. You could fall down the stairs." So then he went and laid down at the bottom of the stairs, and then we moved him around. Just seeing him do it, I was sort of horrified. I was like, "I can't do this. I can't ask this of him." But then I was having a good time about it, and [we watched] Harold and Maude afterward and were like, "Wow, so that's how you film a suicide." Those kinds of absurdist, transgressive conversations were happening between us.
So did you come up with the different death sequences in an improvisatory sort of way?
I had a long list of deaths I was interested in, but then I realized my dad couldn't do any of them. Once we had the budget, my dad's dementia had further advanced. I really, really wanted to take my dad to Ghana, where they have these incredible caskets in the shapes of things, like in the shapes of shoes and fish and televisions and beer bottles. So I wanted to go to this casket shop I had visited in Accra, called "Paa Willie's Six Feet Deep Shop." I was desperate to go to Hong Kong and have Jackie Chan help us throw Dad out of a building. Like, I went up to Jackie Chan's people at an event and talked to them about it. And I was imagining all of these possibilities, like, "Oh, Bud Cort — Harold of Harold and Maude — is still alive. Have Dad meet Bud Cort." The mind just went to all of these extraordinary places.
How did you decide to show the making of the death scenes, and give the audience a behind-the-scenes perspective as well?
We knew there were ways in which I could exist behind the camera; through my voice, through the way I moved it. And then we just started to think about all the different ways that cinema can serve this crazy cracking open of time and mortality. And, you know, dementia is so strange the way it functions — the person is there, they're not there, they're halfway there, they're there with new energy — and that's changing all the time. So it felt like this multi-perspective approach speaks to the way dementia functions. And also, I'm throwing myself under the bus as I throw my father under the bus in terms of vulnerability, so I must be on camera. I must let other people film me. So it was always about this multiplicity of angles on the questions of the film.
How did you get the idea for the heaven sequences? Those are so strange and fun.
Heaven grew out of, "How can I do a fantasy sequence differently in terms of process?" We knew my father's capacities were shifting. His memory was so short that he might say, "Yeah, I'd be happy to do that," and then two minutes later, he'd be like, "No, I don't want to do that." So if we were going to assemble this giant crew and cast of people, what do you do if the person who's at the center of it is completely unreliable in a certain way? It meant everything can shift, there are backup plans for everything. We created all of [heaven] as a collage; I was referencing anywhere from Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] to the Seventh-day Adventist books about heaven that I had seen before, but we were just there with all the elements, nothing was assembled. We would add something when we knew we could add it. And so it was very much like filming a documentary, where you are nimble and searching and able to improvise. Every scene and shot functioned in relation to the precarity of my dad's situation. And I really credit the producer I worked with, Maureen Ryan, because I always said, "I want to not know as many things as possible till the last possible moment," and we worked that into the production process.
How did you go about striking the right balance of tones when it came time to put it all together?
Well, we were putting it all together all along; [editing] was constantly happening. But I think in some ways, the most powerful idea putting it together was that I really felt like I was behind the dementia, that the loss of my father was in front of me. So I was trying to put him back together. And it was happening in these layers, where I felt like we were failing and we wouldn't be able to capture his essence, there was no way for it to be funny. All of those feelings [happened] at the same time that we were searching, tonally; going to the sound mix early, and testing, "This trip, can we put a funny sound behind it? Can we make a blood-curdling sound behind it? Can we make that head hit on the sidewalk in a way that makes you ill?" And then like, "Oh, ooh, don't want that. Ooh, that really made me laugh." So the putting together and falling apart was always happening, kind of like the dementia itself. [Laughs]
But I think the film taught us how to make it. My father showed us what he was able to do and surprised us with what he was able to do. Like, him playing the clarinet or him dancing. He'd never danced. He hadn't played the clarinet in years, and suddenly he could do it again. So he brought us these unimaginable joys. As much as we can imagine the horror of dementia, the film brought us this unimaginable pleasure.