The Dirties came very highly recommended by filmmaker friends who’d seen the small indie film at the Slamdance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize, Best Narrative Feature, and the Spirit of Slamdance Award. I’d originally hesitated to see The Dirties, the synopsis of which describes a school shooting by two bullied teens. Flashbacks to my visceral upchuck reaction when watching Gus Van Sant’s Elephant came to mind and I was in no mood for a repeat experience. School shootings are a subject matter that really gets to me and their treatment on film and by the media is something I am particularly critical of.
Fortunately, Johnson’s The Dirties is a fresh, intelligent, insightful film about the love of films, obsession, and the relationship between two teenage friends.
Two teenage film geeks, Matt (Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams), are excitedly working on a project called The Dirties for their school media class. Their project centers on two renegade cop-like characters getting rid of a gang of bad kids at the school, whom Matt and Owen have nicknamed The Dirties, using a chock-full of filmic references and plastic guns. As production advances, we are privy to the type of abuses and humiliations Matt and Owen are subjected to as well as their changing friendship dynamics. Soon, the lines between film and reality are blurred and plastic guns might be replaced for the real thing.
After seeing the Canadian premiere of The Dirties at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, I was beyond excited to meet Canadian director, writer, and co-star of the film Matt Johnson. I caught up with Johnson right as he arrived in Montreal from screening The Dirties at Comic Con with none other than Kevin Smith, who recently acquired the film for his Kevin Smith Movie Club. After seeing the film post its Slamdance buzz, Smith gave a surprised Johnson a call.
“It was so wicked because that’s exactly the kind of leverage a movie like this needed. To have somebody who is seen as trustworthy and like a cultural maven in a lot of ways. I think it helped a lot of audiences get over the fact that on paper the premise can seem tasteless and offensive,” explained Johnson.
Indeed, the subject matter of the film is a heavy one and yet, the performances and delivery remain engaging and funny. The group of filmmaking friends came to make The Dirties after Johnson’s friend Josh Boles, who’d been watching Man Bites Dog (Belveaux 1992) quite a bit, was looking to make a movie in which Johnson played a psychopath crazy killer. With further discussion they came to decide on situating it within the world of a school shooting.
“Politically, we weren’t interested in making the definitive answer to what a school shooting movie should be or why school shootings happen,” Johnson offered, “But we wanted to explore it in a way that we hadn’t seen before. The more we talked about it, the more we realized that it was a real nexus of a lot of our childhood experiences. This idea of what a school shooting is, what the celebrity of it means, and what it means in terms of changing the dynamics of how a school works, and also, what bullying is really like. That’s what led us to the subject matter.”
In terms of researching for the film, Johnson explained that they mostly did video research.
“What I think is really funny is stealing behaviors,” he said. “I like inside jokes a lot. I really love them. Josh and I watched tons and tons of documentaries about Columbine, about other crazy young people, and about youth out of control and we tried to steal as many mannerisms and things as we could. A big thing we watched were the home videos of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. There are hours and hours of them making goofy movies. Kind of like what The Dirties is inside The Dirties; making movies where they play cops, do ridiculous things and making each other laugh. We drew a lot out of that mostly because the reality of it so much more interesting than what we could have thought of. Also, because we wanted to make it as realistic as possible.”
“The movie formally came out of the web series [Nirvana The Band The Show] that I did beforehand. They are basically the same in terms of how they are developed. So I don’t know. Movies that inspired ideas for The Dirties are like Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers documentary, a lot of 60s era docs and self-reflexive docs. Because this style of filmmaking is so new, not many people are doing it yet,” Johnson explained in terms of the inspiration behind his filmmaking approach. Along with the above, films like Werner Herzhog’s Grizzly Man, where he uses tricks and lies as well as French movies like La Haine and Man Bites Dog have inspired Johnson.
One of the most compelling elements of The Dirties is in the way in which it was made. This type of filmmaking is novel, blending elements of found footage, documentary film, and unscripted dynamism. Johnson explained that with such a small crew and the use of wireless microphones, they were able to capture unexpected events every day that enriched the movie as exemplified in the opening scene. Over the course of five months, the team of about four shot about five or six weeks.
Often, extras were unawares that Johnson was anything other than a teenager in the film. Indeed, some of the people in The Dirties didn’t even realize they were in a film. With no script and no plan, Johnson explained that this method was frustrating at times for his co-star Owen Williams, whom Johnson described as “so handsome” and looking “like Isabelle Rossilini” (we agree on both counts). Williams’ actual frustration with the process fueled some of the more tense scenes between the two.
Much of the directing with this kind approach, Johnson revealed, is in the editing.
“Directing a movie like this, or anything that I’ve ever done, there isn’t really a whole ton of on-set direction because I know what I want to behave like,” he said. “It’s really just my job to make sure that my acting partner – Owen, in this case – and I are constantly engaged and that’s it. I try to put myself in environments or situations where the crew and everybody acting doesn’t know what’s going to happen. That’s all I have to do. At no point do I say ‘ok guys we are going to do this like this.’ Everyone knows that the rules are keep shooting, keep following us, and don’t stop shooting.”
We’d like to thank Matt Johnson for the entertaining interview and his appreciation of John Saul books and 90s film Disturbing Behaviour.