In ‘Dick Johnson Is Useless,’ Kirsten Johnson Levels Her Father’s ‘Dying’ : NPR

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Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson phases considered one of her father’s “deaths” in Dick Johnson Is Useless.

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Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson phases considered one of her father’s “deaths” in Dick Johnson Is Useless.

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When Kirsten Johnson’s dad began exhibiting indicators of dementia, she had a tough time accepting the truth that his dying was getting nearer. So she determined to make a film about him.

Johnson’s new Netflix documentary, Dick Johnson Is Useless, tells the story of transferring her dad out of his house in Seattle and into her residence in New York. It additionally enacts her father’s dying from imagined accidents, like getting hit within the head by a falling air conditioner or tripping on a crack within the sidewalk.

Johnson has labored as a cinematographer for over 50 documentaries, and has directed seven films, together with Cameraperson and the quick movie The Above. She says her father laughed when she pitched the thought to him.

“Ever since I used to be fairly little with my dad, we have now type of superb conversations about all types of issues. … He was not notably eager about being the middle of issues, however he was completely eager about doing one thing with me full time, spending time collectively, watching films collectively, making one thing humorous collectively.”

The primary “dying” they filmed was at house, on the staircase the place Johnson’s late mom, who had Alzheimer’s illness, as soon as broke her hip. It was a robust second.

“To see my 84-year-old father, like, laughing — but in addition simply the vulnerability of him laying himself out on the backside of the steps as a result of I had requested him to — each made me query all the thought and in addition say, ‘ Woah, that is potent,’ ” Johnson says.

Interview highlights

On developing with the thought of filming her dad’s dying again and again

One of many major locations this got here from was the expertise we had making my earlier movie Cameraperson and this glorious editor I work with, Nels Bangerter, he positioned a shot of my mom alive after a shot of her ashes in a field. And it so startled me, I actually had the impression that she got here again to life. It was like, “Oh, proper, cinema can do that!” … In order that was a part of the origin story.

“He was not notably eager about being the middle of issues, however he was completely eager about doing one thing with me full time,” filmmaker Kirsten Johnson says of her dad’s look (as himself) in Dick Johnson Is Useless.

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“He was not notably eager about being the middle of issues, however he was completely eager about doing one thing with me full time,” filmmaker Kirsten Johnson says of her dad’s look (as himself) in Dick Johnson Is Useless.

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After which, after all, I had a dream. I am like an enormous, vivid dreamer. And I had a dream wherein I noticed an open casket and a person who wasn’t my father sat up and stated, “I am Dick Johnson and I am not lifeless but.” And it simply clicked one thing in me, like, “Wait a minute! My time is working out with him.” So these are a few locations that the thought bubbled from, I might say.

On why she initially needed to have the deaths be huge stunts

[Initially] I needed huge stunts. I needed him to catch on hearth. I needed to place him out on an ice floe. I needed Jackie Chan to assist us, as a result of I actually was additionally on this position of the stunt individual. … I like to consider each member of a staff or a crew having insights into the mission that go unnoticed, unrecognized, unquestioned. So I began serious about stunt folks and dying like that they are actually risking their very own lives on behalf of being invisible in a movie — and for all of us to take it flippantly on a sure degree. Like, oh, that film star did not simply die, after all. However we’re not pondering of the one that needed to catch themselves on hearth and, like, fall out of a constructing. So I did wish to do huge stunts. However then as soon as we began to do them, it turned actually clear that my father’s dementia was such that it might be actually exhausting to do these stunts. After which abruptly the conclusion of, effectively, this in all probability is the extra seemingly approach that he would die.

On the emotional expertise of creating the movie

Our personal feelings are so deeply sudden. … One of many first big surprises for me was after we did the funeral [scene], I awoke simply so depressed the Monday after we did the funeral. And I spotted, some a part of me had fully satisfied myself if we did the funeral actually within the church with my dad’s pals, he would by no means die. I actually realized, oh, that is what I believed I used to be doing.

On how she sees dementia altering her dad’s character

It is doing so many issues to him. He’s distilled to his essence, which I might say, he can name me a number of occasions in a day and easily say to me, “I am simply checking to see if you already know that I really like you.” And that’s who he has been in my whole life, simply affirming that. All of those phrases are relevant. I do assume the lack of his capability to have an prolonged dialog, an analytic dialog — it is a profound loss for him and for me.

My largest conundrums, essentially the most difficult issues for me, I might go to my dad and simply say, “I wish to lay this out for you and I do not perceive why I am behaving on this approach. I do not perceive what’s taking place.” And he might simply, like, break it aside and ask questions. By no means, by no means, choose, by no means give me even recommendation, simply ask questions that then allowed me to assume, OK, I see what is going on on right here.

And in order that I’ve undoubtedly misplaced and he has undoubtedly misplaced. However, each occasionally I can nonetheless are available with a query and he’ll simply go deep analytic and be proper in there for the size of that query. So in some methods, it is taught me new methods to assume and speak and work together with him.

Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey tailored it for the Internet.

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