Kirsten Johnson discusses Dick Johnson is Dead, her surreal documentary about her father’s dementia, and how it made her think differently about life and death. The film is now on Netflix.
In Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, she cut together a collage of outtakes from her 20 years as a documentary cinematographer, including footage of subjects ranging from Edward Snowden to survivors of war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina. Johnson herself is rarely glimpsed on screen, but we feel her behind the camera, making choices about when and how to shoot scenes that range from the banal to the horrific. Cameraperson is a study in documentary ethics and the role of the voyeur who drifts into someone else’s life and trauma, captures it, and then leaves it behind.
Johnson’s latest film as director, Dick Johnson is Dead, is a bracingly frank self-portrait in which she turns the camera on herself and her titular father, a jovial psychiatrist who has just been diagnosed with dementia. It’s also an absurdist comedy: in between vérité scenes of father and daughter spending time together, the pair attempt to cheat death by staging Dick’s death over and over again, with the help of stunt performers. One of the first scenes sees Dick walking absentmindedly on the street, only to be struck on the head by an air conditioner falling from an apartment window. In another, he falls down the stairs of his home and lies motionless at the bottom. As morbid as these scenarios are, Johnson brings levity to them by revealing the process by which they were staged. We see a woman explaining how a fake blood dispenser works, a stunt man enthusiastically pitching various causes of death, and Johnson and her father chatting and laughing together behind the scenes.
Johnson is constantly pulling the rug out from under us so we question the images we’re watching; she’s unafraid of highlighting how ‘documentary’ cinema curates and redesigns real life just as much as fiction films do.. For example, the film starts out with conventional voiceover narration but eventually cuts to footage of Johnson in her closet recording that voiceover, sometimes doing multiple takes to try out different intonations. In doing so, she gives a physical form and fallibility to the omniscient narrator. This is reemphasised when we see her recording narration about her father’s death as if it’s in the past, only for her to open the closet door to her smiling and very-much-alive father.
The film is full of little surprises like this that question how we think about death, especially when a disease like dementia takes a person slowly over the course of many years. In a later scene, Johnson presents Dick’s funeral as if it’s real, but then cuts to Dick himself watching the staged-for-the-cameras funeral through a window in the church door. His presence brings levity to a sombre scene; Dick is still here to witness his loved ones celebrating his life. But this jars with the image that follows: one of Dick’s best friends, Ray, who spoke at the funeral, sobs in the corner of the lobby. Dick may not be dead yet, but Ray is still grieving the impending loss of his friend’s mind, soon to be followed by his body.
Dick Johnson is Dead is both the film it is and a film about its own making rolled into one. Johnson doesn’t let a single frame pass without revealing her motivations — selfish or selfless — for capturing it. She features on screen her conversations with Dick (who is very much a collaborator in the project) and with his healthcare workers about whether or not to embark on the project. We witness Johnson deliberating over what to do before she calls off a roadside stunt when her father becomes confused and scared by the fake blood and the nearby traffic. In one moment, Johnson even states aloud that she’s being paid to do this — something I don’t think I’ve ever seen declared so bluntly in a documentary before.
I spoke with Kirsten Johnson over the phone about Dick Johnson is Dead, documentary sound design, finding a label for her film, and how she’s always “searching for ways to include that truth that usually gets left out.”
Seventh Row (7R): I typically start interviews by asking a director about the genesis of their project, but what’s so cool about Dick Johnson is Dead is I don’t need to do that. You’re very upfront about the how and why you made the film in the film itself.
Kirsten Johnson: (laughs) Exactly, I stole that question from you! I love that you got that. That is often a question one is asked when one makes a film. A thing has emerged that is unexpected, so the question is, where did this come from? I always think that ideas come from many sources. In many ways, this film is still a mystery to me.
7R: One of my favourite things about Dick Johnson is Dead is that the film reveals its own process. You’re constantly peeling back layers of artifice: you include footage of yourself recording the film’s narration; you talk about the fact that you’re being paid to do this. Why was it important for you to do that?
Kirsten Johnson: Life is process. We often set ourselves up to think that things are fixed or things in the future will be different. [We tell ourselves that] people will change and then we can love them… all these things that are out of sync with the actual process of life.
Part of it was just accepting our own unknowability, even to ourselves. Why am I mad right now? Why am I suddenly crying? I think any long-term friendship or longtime love, if you look at the process of it from some particular perspective — whether that’s looking back at it or looking at your hopes for it — is full of all these contradictions. It’s not what you thought it was going to be. Making a film is the same way.
People always say, “Oh this film wasn’t what I was expecting it to be!” Yeah that’s right! That’s any interesting film. We deliberately went into this film [Dick Johnson is Dead] saying we won’t know what this film is going to be because the dementia is ahead of us. We don’t know when death is coming. How do we take all this not knowing, and take this craft of cinema that we love to, engage with and be unafraid of the not knowing?
7R: But this is also a film with a budget and elaborate staged sequences. Did those elements clash with you embracing the unknown?
Kirsten Johnson: For one, it’s amazing that we ended up getting a budget for this film, because it’s such a risky, strange film. Of course, once we got a budget, because our protagonist has dementia, he can’t do all those expensive things I wanted him to do!
We had this crazy travel budget to take us to Hong Kong and Ghana, and suddenly we can’t do that. But that I knew. I knew it [the process of making the film] was going to keep throwing me those kinds of curveballs.
What we [decided] was that I would shoot in unexpected situations. [For example, when] my dad needed to sell his house, I wasn’t ready for it; he wasn’t ready for it; I was in shock… so I’m filming in that situation. Then OK, [I ask myself,] what were the meaningful things that happened in [that situation]? Then I’ll build a death back into it. So we would let real life lead us, and then we would go back in time to a moment of significance within that documentary evidence and attempt to craft this fictional moment of death within that. Sometimes, it worked, and sometimes, it didn’t.
We were also thinking a lot about camera language and the fact that Cameraperson exists, so people know something about who I am behind the camera. Maybe they’ve seen that film; maybe they haven’t. But this film also establishes that I’m behind the camera [as Johnson is a visible and audible presence in the film]. So what would I do if my father had a heart attack and an ambulance came? Not what would someone do, but what would I do?
By the time we got to [shooting the fantastical sequences set in] Heaven [which are shot on a soundstage], my father’s dementia was advancing such that we realised that slow motion could help us. We could slow down the speed of cinema, and then his smile would last longer. He could suddenly dance if we were doing it in slow motion. We were thinking, How can the craft of cinema give us the tools to deal with what has now changed?
We also went to Skywalker [Sound Studio] three different times for sound mixing. Really early on, we tried different sounds over the deaths. It was like, do we take it comical? Ooh, the thunk [sound of the] head on the pavement really is a death blow. Do we make it easy? Do we make it hard? We learned how sound could do that [first, and] then went back out [to shoot] like, Ooh I’ve got an idea for a stunt, let’s do this!
7R: That’s so fascinating about the sound! Could you talk to me a bit more about how you approached sound design in the film?
Kirsten Johnson: Pete Horner did the sound mix on Cameraperson. He came onto it really late in the process and [his work] changed it so much. One of the first things he said was, “Do you really want the beginning of the film to be so annoying?” And I was like, “What?!” We’d struggled with that little bit of text at the beginning of the film [that explains the conceit of the film]. I’d written it and rewritten it. We’d committed to the text, but it wasn’t working.
Pete said, “All you’ve done is you’ve extended the sound out from the shot that follows,” which was the sound of a motor scooter in Bosnia going “EEE.” It was this really annoying sound. And he was like, “Maybe you want to invite people into this movie. How’s this?” He put birds in the forest [over the text]. It was the first time I could read the text at the opening of the movie, and I was like, Oh that’s a lovely text! It’s fine! It was so comical because I’d been fixated on image and not hearing sound, trying to rewrite that text and failing without realising there was this terrible, annoying sound behind it.
For the scene [in Cameraperson] with the baby, I filmed that baby struggling for his life for hours and hours and hours. It was impossible to distill that feeling into so short a time. And then Pete was like, “Let’s remove all the sound once the baby is born. Take away any sounds the baby makes.” And then the audience is just hanging on wondering, Will this baby breathe or not? Then 45 seconds is actually a really long time. He taught me all these things about how sound affects the experience of time in a movie.
He [Pete Horner] did something with [the scene of] my mom in Wyoming [in Cameraperson]. [It’s a scene where she’s outside, and] it’s really windy. He put 11 different kinds of wind on it, and then he put a subwoofer [an amplifier that can play low-pitched sound frequencies] on it. He was like, “I really want it to be like she’s being blown off the planet. This is her death.” There were some things he’d done where I just wished I’d known it was possible before we locked the picture edit.
[On Dick Johnson is Dead,] we decided let’s go really early, before we have any ideas. We went into a session [with Pete] with no fictional material and just looked at the documentary material and asked, How can we change the documentary material?
The horn that Ray [Dick’s friend] blows [at Dick’s staged funeral], that’s not the sound that Ray’s horn made. We realised that we could make a sound that could go to the edge of a place where it’s like, Is that real? Is that not real? And then cut in people’s reactions [to the real sound]?
7R: Sound design in documentaries isn’t talked about that much because the idea that you’re changing the sound to something that isn’t technically ‘real’ is kind of taboo. But I love that idea that documentary sound design is a way to translate the feeling of a larger piece of footage into a shorter piece of footage.
Kirsten Johnson: That’s right. Because filming a documentary is experiential. Watching it is experiential. But the difference between being the body in the space and time and being the person sitting watching it [is vast]. How can you bridge that gap? I’ve learned a lot about how sound can do that differently than how image can do it. And I’ve brought that to this movie.
7R: One moment that really struck me was when we meet Joanne, the woman who makes your father chocolate fudge cake. At the end of her appearance on film, there’s text on screen informs us that she died shortly after. It made me sit differently with the footage I’d just seen.
Kirsten Johnson: That was just a moment when we were laughing and making cake, and now she is no more. And that’s the way life often is. It’s these banal moments that are the vital moments. They’re the moments that you treasure that you can’t get back. Nobody can make the cake like Joanne can make the cake! (laughs) You’re never going to taste her chocolate cake again.
I wanted to honour Joanne. The thing you said about how there’s a sacredness around the sound in documentary… those questions around what can you mess with, what do you need to honour [came up here, too]. If you’d left that cake scene not knowing that Joanne has died… it’s a fine scene: it’s nice; it’s just friends having chocolate cake. But once you realise that [she’s dead, you realise that] this film is a cemetery.
Several of the producers lost their parents over the course of making this film. The crew, as well as the people on screen, went through grieving and death while making the film because that’s what living is. We were searching for ways to include that truth that usually gets left out in a film.
7R: Do you think that you approached capturing and editing images of your father differently than you would someone younger or healthier because you knew these were the last images that would exist of him?
Kirsten Johnson: Definitely, because we were actually losing spaces and places and capacities. I have an image of my father driving a car, but he can no longer drive a car.
There was also this sense that we were Frankensteining him back together. The dementia was pulling him apart and stretching out his relationship to time. In real life, he might be repeating and repeating a phrase, but in the movie, I could use those as takes and cut out seven of them and have a conversation. There were questions of how much of the dementia do we leave in, how much do we rebuild him?
7R: There are all these bait and switches in the film, where we think we’re watching an event unfold, but it’s then revealed that we’re seeing someone act out an event that hasn’t even happened yet. Like the fake funeral and the narration. How did you think about structuring these moments to play with the audiences’ expectations?
Kirsten Johnson: Myself and Nels Bangerter, the wonderful editor I work with, were just like, assume the audience is smarter than you. We all know how thrilling it is to have a film do something that we don’t see coming. We were really interested in messing around with those kinds of things and finding a way to do that. That was an active quest. How do we do that in the service of comedy? How do we do that in the service of honouring the real people who exist and questioning what death actually is?
I really did change my relationship to thinking about death and memory in the making of this film. My father is no longer himself in certain ways, and yet he still is. On a very simple, medical level, there are all these different [levels of death]: there’s death of the breath, death of the heart, death of the brain, the death of memory… Even if you completely medicalise it, it’s [death is] still spread out over a much longer spectrum of time than any of us would expect.
I’ve sat by a couple of bedsides where people are doing the death rattle, which is this crazy sound where it sounds like someone’s drowning. It will just go on and on and on, and then all of a sudden, they’ll stop breathing for a while ,and then suddenly they’ll sit up again. It’s this total mindfuck: where is life and death?
I think about it so much for everyone in this pandemic. There are families not able to be with their family in the moment of death, or even in the two weeks preceding the moment of death. In this moment in time, where is death located? A million people have died on the planet and have we grieved them in any way? Can we see their faces? Do we have their stories? No. Right?
And yet I believe that this global grief is going to impact us. We will look back on this time, and it will have a significance that we don’t understand yet. We don’t even know when we get to look back. We’re in the long middle of it. We don’t know when the end of this is.
Those are all the questions that I’m asking of the audience. It was never just about me and my dad. It was about how do we use cinema to ask big questions together?
7R: One of my favourite moments in the film is the lovely little detail of your father enjoying a bowl of chocolate ice cream. How did you work out what vérité footage you wanted to include in between the staged scenes?
Kirsten Johnson: You’re seeing a professional chocolate eater display his technique with a spoon in that moment! (laughs) That is 88 years of love of the game. My father loves eating chocolate cake and chocolate ice cream. If I was to ask, who is my father? It is a person who loves chocolate. That is one of the most profound descriptors of who he is among many other things.
It’s also that thing of really acknowledging, in the moments of most difficulty and uncertainty, such as this moment in history, that there are still great pleasures available to us. We honour the pain and suffering that happens in the world by just really enjoying a spoonful of ice cream.
7R: The term documentary has so many connotations that it can feel quite restrictive for a film like yours, which takes such a unique approach to the form. How do you feel about the label?
Kirsten Johnson: With Cameraperson, I was always being called a cameraman whenever I went out on the street with a camera, so I finally claimed [the term] ‘cameraperson’. I’m really interested in looking for new language, and I’m also happy and interested to use many terms for things. Someone said to me, “This film is a memoir,” and I was like “Oh, of course it is!” But that hadn’t even occurred to me. I like that this film could have many names.
Because of the great expansion of creative nonfiction that is happening in the documentary ecosystem right now, I think that we’re all really excited about what we can do. Look at the work of Chloé Zhao for example, The Rider and Nomadland. There’s no question to me that Frances McDormand’s acting [in Nomadland] was better because she was surrounded by people who had lived through things and she had to rise to their lived experience. It was different than doing that with a bunch of actors. She was not relying on the things that she usually relies upon.
Take All These Sleepless Nights, as an example. I took a bunch of students to see that, and they were like, “This isn’t a documentary!” I was like, “You’re telling me this isn’t a documentary of the emotions you feel when you’re young?” And they were like, “Yeah it totally is.” I don’t know what you want to name it, but I love this film, and I can’t name any other film that transports you to youth in the same way that film does.
I’m interested in multiple names for things. Like life and death, documentary and fiction is all too simple, too binary, and too small. I actually would love it if you came up with a name for this movie, if you gave it a genre. That would be really fun for me.
7R: The term I’ve taken to using for films like yours is creative nonfiction.
Kirsten Johnson: ‘Nonfiction’ still feels to me like… what is that? The negatively defined thing. But it’s not bad. We’re going to find something!
Dick Johnson is Dead is now available on Netflix.