It’s one of the strangest ideas anybody’s ever had for a film and Kirsten Johnson followed through: knowing her father was suffering from Alzheimer’s, she decided to preserve his memory on film by “conquering death.” Which is confronting it vis-à-vis stagings of the many horrific ways her father, Dick Johnson, might die. Thus, Dick Johnson is Dead.
Following a Sundance premiere where we called it “an exploration of death that is fun, bittersweet, and bursting with colorful imagination,” the film arrives on Netflix this Friday. I spoke to Johnson, who, having spent her career face-to-face with documentary subjects, is not even close to the standard filmmaker-journalist dichotomy: rarely does someone spend this much time probing your thoughts, feelings, intention, process.
Not that you might remember, but four years ago we spoke at the Criterion office. You said “because we are here—two bodies in a room—I know something about your internal state, and, in some ways, we connected on a more intimate level because I acknowledged your body.” Of course, we’re now in the situation of talking about this movie and it can’t be in-person. Are you finding something different, unique, frustrating with that?
I actually remember that conversation kind of vividly because I was just beginning to talk about the film and realizing this space of having an interview with someone is more dynamic than I realized, so let’s push and pull, me and you together. How do we take it to a deeper place? I just did a Q & A with some students at the University of North Carolina and they had my image projected really big on the screen. It was Zoom. They were in the theater, socially distanced, sitting apart, and then they put a microphone really close to the computer. The kids would come down, talk to me, and it was just this crazy-intimate conversation. I realized what was happening, almost, was: they had their backs to the audience but were with other people, and I was like the Wizard of Oz or something—this giant head. I was talking with a psychoanalytic friend and she was like, “You’re the mother. They got lost in you like in the image of a mother leaning over a crib. The baby does not yet know…”
It was really amazing, the things people were saying. It was like, “Okay, there are different things that are possible in this moment in time,” and I think that thing one experiences… talking to someone like a taxi driver, and you’re with a stranger saying things you wouldn’t necessarily say. You and me, we aren’t on Zoom—we’re just hearing each other’s voices, so we have no visual information about each other at this moment. What are we listening to? How are we connecting? You evoked the memory of us being together in that space. We both get to feel a little bit of loss, right? Like, God, I would love to be in the Criterion office right now. I would love to be in that teeny-tiny theater or that little closet full of the history of cinema. So we have this shared loss in this moment, and we sort of have this shared loss of our moment, again, together. I get all, in these moments, “I’ll hug you!” So I think we know what we’ve lost, in a certain way. We had it and we lost it, which is some of the pain and worry we feel about what this moment in history might rob us all of in terms of our capacity to do things collectively. The loss of cinema in theaters, this thing that was holding on by its fingernails and we’re working so hard to preserve that. To feel that in danger, there’s anticipatory grief attached to it—like in the loss of a loved one.
So like we talked about before, in some ways: recording this conversation, you transcribing it, you are able to go back to that conversation we had years ago. I’m still here, I’m still alive, but at some point you may go back to these transcripts and I won’t be. Or someone will go back to these transcripts and neither of us will be. So the future is held in the recorded thing. Basically, you and I right now are in this space like, “What is this space? What is the present?” I’m talking into this black void of my phone in my own home. I don’t know where you are, but I know what we had and what we’ve lost—hopefully temporarily. We also know this thing we’re making together is the future. Those very existential, time-travel, what-is-a-movie, that’s what I was trying to play around with in Dick Johnson is Dead, because I know all these things to be true in relation to my dad. Right?
At times I felt like I shouldn’t be allowed to watch this movie, or that I hadn’t quite earned the right to see some of what you show. Being that documentary filmmaking is often a wealth of material recorded but not implemented, were unpleasant aspects of your father’s condition elided? What is the push-pull of including and excluding, especially when it comes to future-proofing an experience?
I love all those words—”future-proofing.” I think there’s a way in which I protected the audience from how brutal dementia is. In some questions people ask me, it is revealed whether people are familiar with dementia or not, and the just excruciating “we’re saying this sentence again, we’re going back here again”—the looping that creates this crazy experience of time. I just went down and visited my dad in the dementia facility where he is. It’s the first time I’ve seen him since the pandemic and they allow you to visit for half an hour. You do it distanced. We did it once on Saturday and once on Sunday. On Saturday, basically the only thing he said to me for the entire half-hour was just, “Please take me home. Please take me home. Please take me home.” On repeat for half an hour. I did everything I could, I tried every conversation gambit, I told him jokes, I got up to leave, and he’d say, “Please take me home!” I held it together for the whole time, then just went to the car and lost it.
You know? That duration—the duration of 30 minutes straight, of “please take me home”—could be cinema, too. It’s a cinema that no one can bear, right? [Laughs] Or it’s experimental cinema. I wasn’t leaving out… I didn’t have anything I wanted to put in about, like, who my father was, or didn’t want to show. It was just the time—how time is so challenging with dementia. It’s such a mindfuck. I tried to build that into the film. We tried. Nels [Bangerter] and I wrestled with it in all kinds of different ways, but I still think it’s kind. I still think the film is kind compared to what the experience actually is.
I was just watching your Reverse Shot “happy hour,” where you asked if the movie was worth making—the ethics, approach, what-have-you. I wonder if, with how things have progressed and changed, you’ve resolved that question or not. Or if it’s perpetuated and mutated into different shapes.
You know me: I love ongoing questions. I love having this film in the space of the pandemic. I mean, not saying I love the pandemic or my father’s dementia—just saying there’s a really active dialogue here. I don’t know how any of us cope emotionally with what we’re living through. This is totally uncharted territory. I don’t know how we share this. A million people have died. We have not grieved them in any kind of way. There’s so much hidden grief now in the world and it’s going to change the world in ways we don’t understand yet. We’re also just all sharing this anticipatory grief, which we were all talking about. Such great people to be in conversation with, but their relationship to cinema—their inquiry of cinema—is this ongoing inquiry into what we need to survive, to thrive, to make things better. All those questions are why we care so much about cinema, in a certain way. It gives us this space in which to ask these questions.
I know a lot of people who are struggling invisibly and silently with dementia and Alzheimer’s—that I know. For the people who live with it, it’s much harder than anyone else realizes. I knew that before the pandemic arrived, but now that it’s here I think it gives us this space in which we can talk about our shared systems and how they fail us. That’s all these questions of injustice: how are these systems failing us? Now that we are connected, everyone in the world, how can we engage with this stuff in meaningful ways? Not going back to some false past, but being in the present. This is our present now. So I’m really relying on cinema to be in the questioning of the present time, and this present time happens to be a lot about death and grief and loss. It’s pretty wild that I spent all this time working on this project and saying I was “focused on the nature of the unexpected,” then I just got blindsided by the nature of this pandemic. It’s hilarious… if it wasn’t so awful. I was at True/False in an 1,800-person theater, bumping people’s elbows. What were we thinking? We didn’t get it.
Have you been able to focus on the things you appreciate, like watching films and working on projects? But you’re thinking about things differently, so perhaps they’re thrown asunder.
Yes, yes, they have been totally thrown asunder. I feel a world of questions and am trying even more to be in the physical world. Like, with my kids, we were outside of the city during the summer in a friend’s borrowed house. We were in nature, jumping in rivers, jumping in lakes, going bike-riding. That affirmation of being out in the world, in nature, was… I knew not everybody was getting it. Some people were trapped in apartments and it was so meaningful to me. So that time to figure it out—like, how do I build my life so that I can be in nature—feels like one of the things that’s become really clear to me. Like, the deprivation of nature, and also the balm of it. So trying to stay connected to that makes me feel like you’ve got to stay connected to people and movies and nature, and whatever is our political resistance. How do we stay connected to that when it’s so overwhelming?
I’ve both been really active and… not paralyzed, but trying to slow down and think, slow down and question, slow down and keep questioning. I have a new project, I’ll tell you, because that’ll be in our next interview together—you can go back to your notes and it’ll be there. I’m working on this project called Camerapeople of the 21st Century. I’m trying to figure out what camera people know about what the world is now, from our perspective in all these different places around the world. There’s a real question. [Laughs] If you’re a camera person in Saudi Arabia, in Syria, anywhere in the world, you’ve got these crazy questions. So that’s where I’m headed next, is out into the world with these questions that are totally activated right now. Certainly the pandemic is a part of that. Camera people have to change the way they think and behave; that question of being a body in space and time with a camera is raising new questions, basically.
That’s a brilliant marketing move: you’ve told me about the movie and there has to be a published interview. No getting out of it now.
I committed myself! I committed myself. Even when I’m terrified, that’s what you’ve got to do: got to embrace the fear. [Laughs] It’s how we get things written, how we get things made: we make promises to each other.
On the subject of embracing the fear: reading Dick Johnson‘s synopsis honestly made me ask “seriously?” Because it seems so… not just insane, but has such potential for bad taste.
Oh, yeah. [Laughs] Yes! It’s a total wipeout!
I often found this movie quite disturbing. I asked if I could imagine taking somebody I love and making a movie called [Their Name] is Dead. That alone would be such a burden on me, but to then stage the many horrific and frighteningly realistic ways they could die—I don’t think I could do that. But if it could be argued any of Dick Johnson is in bad taste, I also think a lot of bad taste requires bravery. By its very nature does it go against norms, risk offense, put yourself out there in a major way.
That’s right. It’s transgressive. It’s vulnerable. It can be criticized. It can be damned. I’m telling you: it is real. The thing of calling it Dick Johnson is Dead, that came late as a title, and I woke up ill. I said, “I can’t do this.” Then I was like, “I must do this. This is the movie. Right now this is the fiction. I can say it and it’s not real, but one day it will be real.” Also, the madness of it… Ira [Sachs] sent an email out to friends and family with a thing that just said “Dick Johnson is Dead” and someone’s mother called in tears and said “Dick died?” [Laughs] But that’s the realness of it. This is really what’s at stake. You’re saying you couldn’t do it—I think that’s what’s so crazy about death. We cannot do these things, and yet we must do them. You can’t imagine picking your mom up from the bottom of the stairs when she’s fallen down and broken her hip. You can’t imagine doing those things but you must do those things, sometimes, with people that you love.
These moments of when you’re together with family after a family member has died are the most surreal times that humans experience—this shared “we can’t be here, this can’t be happening, I can’t be getting the phone call from my brother saying my mom has died.” She had Alzheimer’s for seven years and my brother called. I’d been making Darfur Now and had been home for a day and he calls and said she died. I was like, “No. No.” You know? I think that is the answer to [Insert the Name of Your Loved One] is Dead. Like, no. Defiance. The bad taste of death. The bad taste of accidents, like the horrific and absurdist ways in which people die: no to it. So all of that is in this being so tonally all over the map.
[Publicist informs us we’re out of time]
Perfect timing! We’re all out of time and yet we will struggle to live.
Dick Johnson is Dead begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, October 2.