Matt Johnson Talks

Art & Culture
Eagle-eyed Ransom Note readers will recall that I recently reviewed a film called The Dirties – a found-footage style film that looked into the mindset of a school shooter. Last week I was fortunate enough to sit down with the film’s writer/director/star Matt Johnson to explore a little deeper into the world of The Dirties, his background and so much more (I'd also like to point out to any of you that are considering watching The Dirties that this interview contains several spoilers, sorry!);

First off, what was the concept behind The Dirties? How much of it was taken from your own experiences? 

A lot of it!

Not all the way to the end though?

Oddly enough I would say that the only difference between the film and my own life is that I didn’t kill a bunch of people in my high school. Otherwise we tried to be as faithful as we could to our collective childhoods, the people who made the film – there weren’t many of us. That’s actually sort of the reason that we wanted to make the film in the first place; when we looked at, specifically Columbine – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and what they were like when they were kids because there are lots of great videos of them – I couldn’t believe how similar they were to my own childhood and how similar we behaved and acted and how we used movies in the same way. I thought ‘that’s kind of haunting’, the idea that I could be so similar to this guy who goes on to kill a bunch of guys in his high school.

So if things had gone a little differently throughout your life…

Yeah, maybe. But to pinpoint what those few things would be – I couldn’t. That’s why we made the film: to figure out what those few things would be.

In the film it shows you reading the Columbine books, did you have to read through all those books to try and get the mindset right?

Well, no because I was playing myself, but yeah because I was quite obsessive about learning about that time period and what those guys did and what other school shooters did but there wasn’t research to the point where I was trying to become somebody else because I’m just trying to be myself.

Even in the Malkovich scene?

The way that we shot was that we would just roll and I would just behave however I felt like so yeah, if I’m doing something ridiculous I really am doing it. It’s not because I thought ‘Oh, this would be a great scene in a movie’ it’s because I’m trying to be the way that I was when I was in high school. I definitely did crazy… Not that that’s crazy… My friend Eric Davis was CRAZY into cross-dressing and we got a real kick out of it.

How much of the film was actually scripted?

Nothing! We didn’t have a script for anything. The final line was scripted.

Was that ending always going to be how it ended?

Not always but we figured out that it had to be the ending about halfway through shooting.

You didn’t feel like you could give it closure one way or the other?

Well we tried to end the film with the destruction of Matt and Owen’s friendship and that lack of resolution with what literally happens on that day was very calculated because we thought audiences know what happens with school shootings because of reading newspapers and watching the news and it’s quite obvious where that film goes. If you really sat down and had to write what happens after Matt says that line I think everybody could do it. The police come and maybe they have a shoot-out, maybe Matt tries to shoot them or they arrest him. It’s not complicated what happens after that and it’s also not interesting so we stopped the film right at that moment.

It seemed like the perfect way to finish it, you sort of know what’s going to happen but then you’re given the fantastic credits sequence!

That’s my favourite part of the film!

So the one part you didn’t create is now your favourite part?

Of course! Isn’t that always how it is? I mean, it was my idea to do it so even though I didn’t do it I still somewhat selfishly feel that it’s all mine, even though Josh made the whole thing…

You feel like it’s your idea, your brainchild…

Selfishly, yeah. In an egotistical way I can still say yes. But that idea is just so good, the idea of having those credits.

For any film nerd it’s the perfect homage, I found myself sitting there going ‘I know that one, I know that one…’

It’s a fun game!

The one thing that’s really been playing on my mind is the idea of Jared (the cameraman). All the way through I was thinking, obviously it’s a film and not someone going out and doing it, that with that character being the silent observer. How did you come up with that idea?

The reason we wanted to do that was because psychologically it’s much more interesting and deep than… We knew this was going to be a documentary and we knew Matt was making a documentary but the question of how to create a point of view perspective in a camera was very complicated because if we have a character then they need to have a relationship and that relationship is going to… The cameraman would have to be a psychotic person who basically is a dervish for Matt, for did whatever he wanted, was obsequious and just always agreed with him. But by removing an explanation of why he did the things that he did, it actually created this great psychological tension with the audience where they were like ‘I would never do that, why doesn’t the camera turn off? Why doesn’t he say something?’ always asking why. Without even meaning to, without us having to force them to say why they do it because it’s human nature to question it. That, I think, is one of my favourite parts of the film because while it certainly makes a lot of people upset because they want that answer but by withholding it forces them to confront what they would do in that situation and also their own complicity in how they are in part responsible for making people do these types of things.

The moment that made me question it was when he stuck out his hand to grab the popcorn and you realise that someone is behind that camera – before that you’re thinking ‘Is this all Matt’s deluded fantasy?’ In a way, yes it is but it’s also in the real world. What really influenced you to go out and do it in such a stealthy manner?

That was the only way we could because we didn’t have any money. We needed to shoot in a high school, we couldn’t pay them so we had to shoot it without people knowing we were shooting it.

And then go around getting all the consent waivers?

Yeah, we had to do that afterwards. It was our only option, we had no other choice.

The cast only lists 8 or 9 people…

Those were the only people that knew what we were doing and, of those people, only Owen and I knew that it was a movie about a school shooting. Nobody else had any idea what the movie was even about. We would shoot scenes and people thought that they were just that. They didn’t think they were anything bigger than that. It was an interesting way to work, that’s for sure.

The way I first heard about the film was through Kevin Smith’s involvement, I heard you being interviewed on Smodcast last year, and one thing that really struck me as similar was with the original ending to Clerks in which Dante gets shot. People have said that Kevin and Quentin Tarantino have been huge influences on you, is that something you’d agree with?

When I was a kid of course! I couldn’t escape that, Kevin Smith was the original independent film-maker from my perspective. I was too young to understand who Steven Soderbergh was and so Quentin and Kevin, although releasing extremely different types of films, were like the signal to me that you could make your own movies. Actually, obviously Kevin much more than Quentin because I never saw Pulp Fiction and thought ‘Oh I could do that!’.

Clerks had a budget of $27,000 or something whereas Pulp Fiction would be up in the millions.

Exactly, it would have been more Reservoir Dogs but I definitely feel like that influence… I wear it on my sleeve in The Dirties – Matt is a guy very influence by those films. Although what’s funny is that now, as an adult film-maker, you look back and see that work as so sophomoric and disconnected from where you go to but as a kid that was it for me. That was my life, movies like that. It’s so obvious in the movie.

If this was a bit biographical, how would you best describe Nirvana The Band The Show?

I’m still playing myself except obviously I’m playing the syupidest version of myself. I had the same energy but…

Was that hat one that you owned?

I got it from a kid named Matt Yipchuck, I stole it from him and that hat wasn’t important to me as a kid but when I put it on for the first episode of that show I was like ‘This is it, this is the new me!’ In many ways that show is more honest about who I really am than The Dirties is because in that show I’m just so bellicose and extremely tasteless. That is definitely a different side of my personality but it is still me definitely.

Where did the idea for that spawn from?

That was an idea that Jay and I had when we were kids that we were going to have a band called ‘Nirvana The Band’ and we were going to be idiots. Jay is a musical prodigy, he can literally play any song on the piano, and we were like ‘we should make a short film where you play the piano and I am just being silly’. That turned into a web show because a girlfriend at the time said we should make a web show. This was when they were just beginning in like 2007.

Before you have people like Lisa Kudrow starring in them.


I’ve just been told that you’ve been filming over here in the UK for your next project.

Yeah, we’re shooting in Shepperton studios and we were shooting in London all day yesterday and the day before. We’re shooting a movie all summer which is very much like The Dirties but it’s all about the moon landing.

I’m assuming you’ve got a little bit more of a budget this time?

Yeah, we do. Because the concept is so much bigger, the budget is massive in comparison. But we’re still having the same struggles, it’s still just as hard. We’re shooting everything like a documentary in the public which is very hard to do.

Just to not get people interacting?

Yeah, it’s very hard.

You’ve probably never heard of Ransom Note but we’re generally a music magazine but we also delve into film, culture and the arts. I was wondering what music you were listening to growing up?

It depends at what stage of my life.

Usually the teenage years is a good judge of ‘this is who I am’.

When I was a teenager I was obsessed with Rage Against The Machine. Like, really obsessed. A lot of the music that we use in The Dirties, there’s a band called Limblifter who I listen to all the time. Music that really influenced me? Later in life I was obsessed with MF Doom though I’m not really super into a lot of hip-hop music.

He’s got a lot more character.

Yeah, but that was much later, when I was in film school I’d listen to it all the time. I’m trying to think of things that really shaped… Tonnes of soundtracks – when I was a kid I listened to all the Quentin Tarantino soundtracks, I was really into them and would listen to them all the time. When I was a kid I didn’t have much access to music because I was n’t very cool. At all. I wasn’t cool even a bit and the internet wasn’t super huge and so all I could do, I was obsessed by movies and that showed me what cool music was. I remember buying the Big Lebowski soundtrack and thinking that was really cool and just playing soundtracks all the time. I had so many on CD that I would listen to constantly. It’s funny because now I don’t even listen to music like ‘I love this band’ or whatever, I’m only listening to music to form soundtracks to my own films. This new movie is all about the 1960s so the only music I’m listening to is vinyl records from the 50s and 60s so even now I’m only actively looking for music in the context of making a soundtrack. I guess that’s kind of perverse…

You mentioned then that the internet wasn’t big when you were growing up, do you think that a film like The Dirties would have been possible before the internet?

[Hesitates, mulling it over] Yes, I do. I don’t think that it could have had the release that it got or that people would be talking about it in the same way because the power of independent cinema really took off when all of a sudden people could write about it on the internet and share opinions about it. Any internet platform to discuss films, I think The Dirties is tailor-made for that kind of thing. In terms of the production, I think you could have made this film ten years ago. The biggest stumbling block is the grammar of film audiences to understand that this form of fake documentaries hasn’t existed until now because it’s using all the same tools that audiences now use to understand reality television whereas ten years ago I think this move would have been so confusing that I wouldn’t have known how to make it.

The mockumentary style really developed with shows like The Office…

The Office is in my opinion the biggest… Yes, I do believe this. The Office is the biggest ocean-change for what film can be in terms of abusing documentary forms. We’ll look back at The Office in 20 years, for me and a lot of independent film-makers, as a major pivot-point. This whole film; you really could make a case that we stole everything from The Office in terms of how we’re presenting reality. It’s like if David Brent was in charge of the construction of that show, that’s very much what The Dirties is.

I was going to ask if for you it was the UK or US Office but as you’ve mentioned David Brent, that says enough!

I liked the first few seasons of The American Office as well.

I could talk to you for ages about that but it would be a huge sidetrack… To finish with, who is your least favourite cartoon character?

Growing up? A lot of the Looney Tunes characters I was like ‘Fuck this guy’. Donald Duck I though was ridiculous, a lot of the Disney characters I thought were ridiculous. I really liked Roger Rabbit, Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn – I think he’s amazing. But most of them I’d be like ‘fuck these guys’, a lot of WB people and the Looney Tunes people. You know who I really like? That Marvin Martian… My least favourite were all the ducks, I hated them. Although now I think about it as an adult, Daffy Duck is actually pretty cool but whenever his segments would come on I’d be like ‘screw this’. I also didn’t like Sylvester and Tweety. You know who I hated? [Matt’s getting really into it at this point] That dog in Animaniacs that would have to rescue the baby. Who was that?

I can’t think of the name of the dog but I know what you mean.

I hated it, I thought those segments were so boring. Just because they didn’t talk, it was a throwback to old school animation.

To things like Tom & Jerry?

I hate Tom & Jerry too. I liked the ones that talked a lot, like Buster & Babs and the Animaniacs. What was the name of that dog? If I sing the Animaniacs song… [sings Animaniacs song] BUTTONS CHASES MINDY! I hated Buttons & Mindy.

The Dirties is in cinema now, for more information check out the film's official website.