The Dirties is the upcoming drama/comedy/horror from Matthew Johnson, which sees two bullied high school movie buffs Matt (Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams), fantasise about getting their own back on their tormentors (which they name ‘The Dirties’) as part of a school project. However, for one of them the filter between fantasy and reality begins to dissolve. This feature has advanced towards cinemas with a degree of buzz off the festival circuit and arrives in UK on June 6th (read our approving review right here). Ahead of the film's release, STARBURST caught up with writer, director and star Matthew Johnson for a deeper look into his startling, important and compelling film...
STARBURST: First of all we just wanted to start by saying how fantastic the film was; for people who have been the victims of bullying it really strikes a chord personally. In fact, in the film you play an alternate version of yourself, alongside other cast members, most notably Owen Williams, was The Dirties a response to any of your life experiences?
Matthew Johnson: It was a response to how close we felt our childhoods were to the lives of "psychotic killers" like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. We had many of the same experiences as them yet wound up so different, and that's what we wanted to explore.
The term ‘The Dirties’ is used to describe the bullies in the film, what was the reason for using this name as opposed to any other?
That's what the bullies were called at Owen's school. He used the term enough times when discussing the movie that it stuck.
Many will see the film and, especially come that conclusion, think of recent school shootings and other tragedies, was there any fear in bringing such material to the screen?
No there wasn’t, this is supposed to confront people with something they don't want to think about.
Writer/director Kevin Smith has hailed the movie as “the most important film you’ll see all year” and other critics have expressed how truly important it is too; has this added pressure to the process of releasing the film or relieved it?
Neither, because I don't think there would have even been a release without the critical response the film received.
This is a strange point, but those end credits were joyfully full of film motifs and logos, how did this evident love of cinema - shown throughout, via countless references - come to work its way into the plot?
It's about celebrity and cultural overload. Matt lives for movies because that's the source of social power to him, so everything is warped around that glass for him.
There have been other film’s that tackled bullying, from Brian De Palma’s classic Carrie to more recent efforts like Chronicle, Tormented and The Final. Did you have any particular influences going into this film?
Not on the bullying side, because we knew we were going to show only scenes from our collective pasts, but formally we stole a ton from Man Bites Dog and Gimme Shelter.
The handheld shooting style used in the movie is kept quite elusive and some have their own readings as to who was operating the camera, what was the motivation behind shooting the film in this way?
This is Matt's movie, and the heart of the film is that we're watching his construction. He becomes a movie star by his own hand, and that couldn't be done any other way. It also brought the audience into the film as de facto accomplices.
Some scenes were shot unbeknownst to the people around the school, did this bring about any unexpected moments during filming?
All the scenes in public were unexpected; we had no idea what was going to happen when we started rolling in those high schools.
In the film you use multi-media too, do you feel that bullying is getting worse as a result of advanced technology?
I think it's easy for people to offload personal guilt by having avatars act on their behalf, and that combines badly with people filling online identities with attributes they aspire to; when those effigies are torn down it's opening up kids to a whole new kind of psychological pain. But in many ways it's the same as it always has been: people hurting each other to find themselves.
This is listed as a drama/comedy, however we would say that its genre is far more hybridised and challenging, with elements of a psychological thriller within; were you aiming to make a film that looked into the mind of the protagonists?
Yes, we wanted to engender sympathy for a character like this to see what it would look like.
Despite all the heaviness that we've discussed in the film, it is also brilliantly funny, how difficult was it applying comedy to such a potentially dark subject?
We were just trying to be ourselves while going through this stuff. I think it's funny because the characters don't feel the same gravity that the audience does.
Some might say dark comedy is even more challenging than broad comedy in many ways, are there any particular comedic influences that you and the cast took into the film?
Apart from those mentioned, the same things that influenced Nirvana the Band the Show inspired us: Mega64, Ali G, and The Office.
Sticking with the comedy for a moment, making people laugh is hard enough but was it easier or harder to do this with a film open to improvisation?
I think that made it easier, because we could just edit together whatever we responded to.
And to that note just how open to improvisation was The Dirties and how did it aid in creating such a realistic film going experience?
We didn't have a script at all!
Really?! Wow. Well speaking of realism, your friendship with Owen Williams must have made this an all the more involving experience, was The Dirties focus on the challenges of friendship always a focal point for the film’s plot?
Not at first, but Owen is such a complex guy that all these things from our real friendship kept creeping into the story. Most of the fights we have are real.
Finally, of all the issues your film tackles, many of which we have discussed here, what would you ultimately say that your film is saying to audiences?
Have sympathy for people you see as evil.
THE DIRTIES arrives in UK cinemas from the 6th of June and you can find out more details about it, including where it's screening, via the film’s official Facebook and website, as well as getting involved with the debate on twitter with #thedirtiesmovie.
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