One of the best films that screened for audiences in Park City, Utah earlier this year was not at the Sundance Film Festival, but at the Slamdance Film Festival. That movie is called The Dirties, and aside from winning the big Grand Jury Award for Narrative Feature from Slamdance, it's quickly risen to the top of my personal list of favorites, and it's a movie that is sure to gain traction once more people watch it and more festivals take a chance on its controversial theme. (Note: The Dirties hits limited theaters and VOD this weekend.)
The Dirties is more a movie about the psychology of a teenager than it is about school violence, but its excellent performances and found-footage approach really take it to another level in terms of humanizing young people who may or may not be heading in a very dangerous direction. The film follows two high school friends (and movie nerds), Matt and Owen, who are making a short movie for their film class about two Quentin Tarantino-quoting, detective-type tough guys who set a plan in motion to kill a gang of bullies at their school they've named the Dirties. As the boys invest more and more in the movie, the line between what's real and what's fake begins to blur, setting the stage for an uncomfortable conclusion, sure, but one that immediately makes you want to talk about it more.
And talk we did! Joining me to discuss The Dirties -- and the impact it could have on the school-violence conversation moving forward -- is my friend and colleague Jordan Hoffman, of Film.com and ScreenCrush. You can listen to our chat below.
Note: This is part one of a two-part conversation about The Dirties. We've reposted part two below, featuring a conversation with the film's director and star. Both posts originally ran back in January following the film's premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival.
PART 2: 'The Dirties' Director and Star Matthew Johnson on Winning Slamdance, School Violence and More
"We'd been accepted to Slamdance two weeks before [Sandy Hook]. We had our cast and crew screening in Toronto on a Tuesday, and then Sandy Hook happened the Friday before. It just changed everything for us. We got two phone calls from Slamdance that day and we thought they were going to pull the film out of the festival. But then we started talking about it -- and we had our screening with the crew -- and it became clear to all of us that this was an important film exactly because of its relevance." -- Matthew Johnson, cowriter, director, producer and star of The Dirties
Above you will find an in-depth conversation about the film that I had with film critic Jordan Hoffman, and now below you can listen to an interview I conducted with Matthew Johnson, cowriter, director, producer and star of The Dirties (that's him on the right in the image above).
You can listen to our interview below. Note that the conversation is choppy in places, so I've transcribed some of Johnson's answers below ...
On winning the Grand Jury Award at Slamdance -- "I think that getting a jury award like that makes people take it as a serious film versus more of a gag. [Winning the award] has helped a lot, and we've been getting a lot of questions. A lot of people have been wondering about what the film was supposed to be doing. It's been amazing. The best two weeks of my life by far."
On what genre The Dirties falls under -- "What I'm really interested in are fake documentaries, so that's the category I'd put this in. What it's trying to be is a real-life portrait of what high school could be like. I like to think of it as a drama about two best friends in high school who happen to be funny."
On how the tragedy at Sandy Hook impacted their film and its premiere -- "We'd been accepted to Slamdance two weeks before [Sandy Hook], and we had our cast and crew screening in Toronto on a Tuesday, and then Sandy Hook happened the Friday before. It just changed everything for us. We got two phone calls from Slamdance that day and we thought they were going to pull the film out of the festival. But then we started talking about it -- and we had our screening with the crew -- and it became clear to all of us that this was an important film exactly because of its relevance."
"Sandy Hook was a huge tragedy, but it's not an isolated incident. This film is very much a reaction to how we felt about Columbine when we were kids. That's why the film is the way that it is. I think part of the reason why it seems like these things come out of nowhere is because everyone tries so hard to forget what just happened by putting it in the past without actually talking about it, and I think this film is sort of trying to be a remedy to that."
On whether violence in movies and video games play a part in real-life violence -- "Bigger than anything else, the point we were getting at with The Dirties was about celebrity and the cult of celebrity, and the American sense of being a super celebrity and wanting to be a star. While that tied in certainly with violence in movies and video games, I think like most people in not finding any connections between the violent scenes and the violence people enact on one another.
"It's a psychological violence. I do not believe that enacting violence in any other form is going to lead to real-world results. Also, to that point, because that seems to be the big talking point politically right now, I think that's the most surface, facile look at this problem. To reduce it to gun control and violence in video games. I think that's ridiculous. What we really need to be talking about is what compels people emotionally to do these things. And that's what our film is about."
On how they shot the film undercover -- "We would go into real environments and interact with them without them knowing that it was a movie to try to evoke something you wouldn't get in a film normally, like a slightly more real moment."
On how much the incidents at Columbine influenced The Dirties -- "We were watching the BBC documentary on Columbine that actually has a lot of the home videos that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris made, of the two of them. What's funny about those videos when you watch them is they are so much like two regular kids making silly videos in a media class. If you were just to see those, you would never think they were two psychotic potential school shooters -- you'd never think that. That was so interesting to us. These people that everyone views as monsters could, in another light, be these silly, naive kids trying to make funny movies. That was such a compelling idea that it just seemed worth exploring."
On the audience reaction to the film -- "Best-case scenario going through our heads when we got on the plane [to Slamdance] was there would be some young guys who loved it and everyone else would hate us. We kept waiting for it, but not a single person thought that what were doing was inappropriate or had a problem with it. I think because the idea of the film seems so offensive, you want to go in hating it, but when you watch it beginning to end, it's pretty sensitive. It's pretty noncontroversial. It's just a sort of humanistic look at what makes somebody lose it."
For more on The Dirties, and to find out when you can watch it, follow the movie on Facebook, Twitter and through its official website.
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