It seems somewhat futile to describe Matt Johnson’s The Dirties as being pertinent. What with the recent, tragic shooting spree in California, the continuing debate of films inspiring violence returns yet again – and it’s a notion that Johnson’s directorial debut intricately studies, and ultimately, rejects. The contentious, imaginative feature is putting the audience in the perpetrator’s position, and it’s this provoking of sympathy for such a character, which has stimulated such discussion.
“I was watching documentaries about Columbine and the home movies that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had made, school projects of them making Tarantino-type movies, and watching those, I thought, I am exactly like this kid,” Johnson told HeyUGuys. “I’m exactly like him. We made the same jokes, we had a lot of the same expressions, we were making movies in the same way, especially when I was that age. So it wasn’t so much about me trying to force myself to become like one of these guys, or pretend to be, it struck me that I am like one of these guys. A lot of people from my generation have a ton in common with them. There are key differences, but I was able to play to those similarities. Other than the ending, I was just being myself the whole time.”
The Dirties blurs the line between reality and fiction, as Johnson is effectively playing himself, and through that process, having to embody somebody who is tormented so much they feel forced into a savage retaliation, it has allowed for him to understand how the bullied, can become the bully.
“It’s given my sympathy for this type of thing,” he said. “What happens is you create your own world, these guys create their own worlds. The guy in California who shot those people, he created his own world where this was the right thing to do. Matt creates a world in The Dirties, where this is the right, and the cool thing to do. You turn yourself into a film character, a movie star. That guy in California, he’s quoting Chronicle, American Psycho, he’s quoting movies that he clearly looks up to and idolises. He’s quoting them without even meaning to probably. He’s becoming a character in a movie himself. In the same way that Matt is becoming a character. Characters in movies have no consequences for the things they do, because it’s what they’re meant to do. The notion of morality, or what’s right or wrong, is not really present in reality. So certainly that’s what I was trying to do.”
By taking such a unique, creative approach to such a sensitive subject matter, Johnson admits that he had to be careful in not glorifying his character’s actions within the production. “It’s a concern that we may have glorified this type of behaviour, but without that it doesn’t work. You’re supposed to have sympathy for this guy. You’re supposed to root for him, and be conflicted about that. You’re supposed to feel complicit in what he does so that you question yourself – which is a mature thing for a movie to ask audiences to do, but that was our goal, that’s what we set out to do. To challenge young people to confront the feeling that they are involved in the makings of these type of people, just by being an audience.”
However it’s not just young people who have seen this picture – and Johnson tells us that the movie was even screened for Congress in the States – which, inevitably, sparked up a debate. “Every year they try and screen five or six films to Congress to try and influence policy, and they screened The Dirties, and Republicans and Democrats are screaming at one another saying it’s film that says we need stricter gun control laws, and Republicans are saying, no it’s saying we need stricter media control laws. Completely missing the whole point of the film.”
“It’s so funny because we never thought that this movie would be seen by the audience it has been seen by, and that this film is now creating a platform for people to argue that violent movies are dangerous for people to watch. It’s absurd.”
Johnson evidently feels passionate about challenging his audience and questioning their morality, leaving the viewer in a rather unsettling position – yet when treading on such delicate territory, there can be repercussions, and a young student was recently jailed for citing The Dirties in a letter to a friend, where he threatened to mimic the actions of Matt’s character in the picture.
“A kid did go to jail in the States because he wrote a letter saying he was going to do what they did in The Dirties,” said Johnson. “My response was that, you’re getting at the central point of the film. If that is what you’re concerned with, then the problem is so much bigger than movies. Do you really think people are Manchurian Candidates who are just waiting for one trigger to turn them into assassins? If that is the society we’re living in, then we have got to take a huge step back. Maybe it’s like this whole other world of stresses and problems that young people have, that are really at issue here.”
Though remaining resolute in his beliefs, he admits that the news was something of an eye-opener for him. “It was reported in the local paper and sent to me. It raised a lot of questions for me. This guy, all he did was write a note to a friend saying something about The Dirties, they didn’t publish the note he’d written. I felt, for the first time, what is my responsibility to this kid, or to the victims of somebody who uses this film as inspiration to do something like that?”
“I think if I was to back off from what we’re trying to do with the film and question why we made the film, it would be a total disservice to what the film is trying to say, which is that we’re at the point where, as that is a reality – like the guy in the movie theatre saying he was the Joker from The Dark Knight, that is not indicative of The Dark Knight being some sort of evil, terrible media. It’s indicative of a culture that is creating people who look to anything to give them some kind of celebrity. Movies, like it or not, are the most powerful cultural currency that exists, movie stars are new Gods and people want to be famous. In that world, people are going to take whatever they can to become like the stars they idolise. Maybe they do that with movies like this, or maybe with books like Cather in the Rye, anything where they think – this is how I’m going to be big. The problem is not that thing, it’s that everybody who feels alone and wants to become a star, our society tells them that’s the only way to be valuable.”
Rarely do first-time filmmakers create something that can spark so much conversation, and Johnson hopes that his sophomore feature will be equally as intriguing, as he tells us that he plans on revisiting the same character (himself) on screen yet again.
“We’re doing the same thing again, except about the moon landing in the 1960s. All the same characters, Matt and Owen doing everything. It’s the same recipe, where we take the same pieces and combine them and let the story go. To provoke, I’m sure, as much discussion. It’ll be slightly more light-hearted, but still the same idea. I wanna do a trilogy where the third film is me playing myself, except way in the future as a robot, like an android kid who is a skateboarder. “
It’s a somewhat fascinating idea, to play himself, to some extent, and place this ‘character’ is varying situations, as a concept seldom seen in cinema. It’s this longing to be unique, and the execution to match, which marks what could potentially be a long and prosperous career for Johnson. Though he admits that his favourite aspect of the industry, is that he gets to talk about movies. A lot.
“I wanted to be a film professor when I was at high school, and now I get to talk about movies all the time with people who also like to talk about movies. That has been amazing. I could do without the movie making part, I wish I didn’t have to make more movies, that is not fun. But I feel very blessed, I’ve been very lucky,” he finished.
The Dirties is released on June 6th. You can read our review here, and find out about special screenings/Q&As with Matt Johnson here.