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Dirty Movies: An Interview With Matt Johnson
Nadia Attia , June 20th, 2014 11:15

Nadia Attia talks to to Matt Johnson, director of the school shooting-inspired buddy movie, The Dirties

For a young film school graduate, Matt Johnson has achieved an impressive amount in a short period of time with just a few friends and some basic camera kit. From 2007 to 2009 Johnson and his friend Jay McCarroll had a hit web series, Nirvana The Band The Show, a humorous mockumentary about two guys in a band who try, and continually fail, to get a gig in Toronto. With its improvised, ‘non-acting’ and keep-the-cameras-rolling immediacy, it's easy to see it as the stylistic precursor to his debut film, The Dirties which is out in cinemas now.

How did you get the idea for The Dirties?

Matt Johnson: My friend Josh Boles watched a film called Man Bites Dog, a 1992 film, which is a fake doc about a serial killer who has this camera crew follow him around, and we sort of evolved that into a school shooting movie.

How hard was it to pitch a witty, found footage buddy movie that involved bullying and a school shooting?

MJ: We tried to pitch it for almost a year and everyone said it was crazy, so we had to do it all on our own. There was about five of us who made The Dirties. We shot for about a month and a half. Then edited it for, I guess, five or six months – but in that time we kept shooting, because the movie was improvised so we had to go back and add pieces.

Was it weird directing yourself and your mates on-camera, whilst real school kids were walking about?

MJ: I’m making a movie, but me on camera - the lead character is also called Matt - is also making a movie, so I can be absurd and ridiculous, but that’s fine, it’s real and we can use all the material. Any reactions from the kids we could just choose to keep in or not. It’s a good trick.

Did you draw from your own high school experiences? Did you witness bullying?

MJ: Everything we put in the film was something that some of us had seen. We tried not to do anything that wasn’t personal in some way. In a way, it’s us dealing with our own baggage over what happened at Columbine, and that notion of ‘the psychotic young person’ who would do such a thing. Bullying is a part of the world of this guy, and it makes him feel powerless, and his search for celebrity and myth is his response to that. The Dirties is sort of about my life and my childhood and the way that I behave. And why the guys who did the Columbine massacre did that, whereas I didn’t – because I think I’m similar to them.

There’ll inevitably be some critics who will suggest that your film is putting a gloss on bullying and gun violence in schools, won’t there?

MJ: I don’t think people who actually see the film see it as a controversial film – it’s easier to criticise the film having not seen it. There’s nothing sensational in it at all; it’s just a documentary about one kid’s life. The movie is simply bringing up the notion that these types of people actually exist.

The release of The Dirties is quite timely, what with the recent US shootings…

MJ: The most famous people in the world right now are killers – like that guy, Elliott Rodger? He was the biggest guy in the news. These people are projected to the size and scope of modern gods! And that’s a huge problem, because we need to question why they want that celebrity in the first place, if the cost is their lives. The Dirties was actually taken to a screening in Washington DC for Republicans and Democrats and apparently it got quite an argument going! The Democrats were saying "it’s so clearly about gun control", and the Republicans were saying "it’s about media control" and were trying to use the film as ammo for justifying censorship laws.

So where do you stand on the whole, ongoing, violence in movies and TV debate?

MJ: The genre audience has this crazy hunger for more and more psychotically violent movies, like I saw that film Big Bad Wolves? I was like, "Oh, OK. This is new." But ultimately, it sucked. I think violence in movies is stupid, I don’t get anything out of it.

We’re getting desensitised to on-screen violence now, aren’t we?

MJ: Did you see the latest Game of Thrones - the fight between the Red Viper and The Mountain?! There’s that bit where the guy gets his face punched in, and I had to stop and re-watch it two or three times! It does affect me.

The Dirties was a low-budget film but you spent $45,000 on the music rights didn’t you? And you reference what songs you want playing on the scenes as you're filming them.

MJ: Yeah, because that’s what’s real for kids, for Matt. He knows that movies need music to be ‘cool.’ One of the big problems of indie films – apart from terrible acting – is that they don’t have great music. Music was really important to us. It was the only thing we couldn’t cheat.

So what’s next for you?

MJ: We’re shooting our next film now at Shepperton Studios called Operation Avalanche. It’s like The Dirties and it’s the exact same crew, but it’s about the ‘faking of’ the moon landing. I’m also making a TV show with Sacha Baron Cohen’s production company in LA, about a guy who sneaks back into high school to make it famous as a playwright. And it’s my dream to make a modern-day Lord of the Flies

The Dirties is in cinemas now