The Dirties, Matt Johnson, Review & Analysis

The Sundance rejected feature The Dirties is one of the most important films of the decade. It represents a new, cheap and above all fascinating way of digital filmmaking, innovative and groundbreaking.


Is realism in film getting closer to reality?

With the technology of today, it is possible to make secret feature films on territory where it is not allowed. A perfect example is Escape from Tommorow, which is shot ‘guerrilla-style’ at Disney World in Florida without permission. With a Canon EOS 5D and a tiny crew, the filmmakers looked like regular park visitors. They used their phones to record sound and hold the script. Strangely, going at least twelve times on the same ‘It’s a Small World’ ride did not confuse any of the Disney superintendents. Next to being extremely secretive, Randy Moore even went to South Korea to edit his film. The film did not interact that heavily with other people in the environment. Unlike Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson who for instance directs real people expressing real emotional reactions in his debut feature The Dirties. This way he arrives at you could call it a next but questionable stage in realism.

Tricking people, actors and audience into digital realism. Zooming in on The Dirties (2013)

“Owen, it’s me.”

Matt in The Dirties

The last and only line of dialog in the script describes perfectly well the film’s dealing with identity and friendship. Two buddies, Matt and Owen, are bullied at high school by a gang they call ‘the dirties’. Among their constant fascination with movies and imitating them, they conceive a plan to make a feature about taking revenge on those bad guys. In the whole process of filmmaking, the thin line between fantasy and reality begins to fade, not only for them but also for the spectator. The main head character gets into a hyperrealist, movie way of thinking. Suddenly, everything is simple, it is white against black, the hero against the bad guys and it does not matter how many people die. Matt Johnson, as the director, describes it in an interview with Eye for Film (2014): “The good guys have to kill the bad guys. You do what you need to do to get to act three. Nothing else matters. So you killed 50 guys? What does it matter if you were the hero?” In the end, the life of Matt becomes a narrative of an action movie.

When (in the film) Matt and Owen show their film project to a teacher, he does not approve the violence of a school shooting and that is exactly what the The Dirties is about. The treatment of controversial subjects as bullying and school violence is mostly clichéd and rarely elaborated in depth in Hollywood cinema. The close up on the sympathetic personalities of the protagonists in The Dirties brings a sort of cinema vérité, semi-documentary feel to the seriousness of Van Sant’s fascinating Elephant (2003). Van Sant’s film about a school shooting works perfectly and possesses beautiful aesthetics, but is a more distanced, contemplative account of a shooting, in a Bresson kind of way. The Dirties mixes a real world documentary style with frightening but recognizable movie fiction, which makes it an enthralling experience.

After having seen many of the documentaries about and home videos made by the Columbine shooters, Matt’s friend Josh Boles came up with the idea of following a violent psychopath youngster, just filming everything he does before he ‘loses his mind’. Much of the story is based on high school memories of screenwriters Matt Johnson and Evan Morgan. C’est arrivé près de chez vous [Man Bites Dog] (1992) was a major influence on the filmmakers at the time. As a result, the final version of The Dirties resembles the style of the former a lot but is without the dominating presence of the cameramen. Maybe a better comparison could be made with Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1970).

The Dirties pretends to give an honest self-documented insight into these bullied youngsters’ life. Some classify the film in the found footage genre, but it’s much more than that. Usually found footage is associated with horror or superhero features that build up an illusion of realism that gets disturbed by supernatural forces, like in Escape from Tomorrow for instance. With The Dirties, Matt Johnson creates a fictional story out of documentary material, in other words he uses reality to construct a compelling drama. Like in the Orson Welles film F For Fake (1974), somehow the spectator knows all is a lie, but at the same time all is real. That is the story and power of the movie in a nutshell.

The Dirties won both the ‘Grand Jury Prize’ and the ‘Spirit of Slamdance Filmmaker Choice Award’ at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival. Although it is a Canadian feature, it has received way more attention in the United States, probably because its subject has a greater relevance there. Kevin Smith praised the film as ”the most important movie you will see all year” (2013). Not so weird when known Smith’s own landmark in American independent film history Clerks (1994) has been such an important and entertaining work of art with its groundbreaking low budget of 27.575 US Dollars.

The Dirties only took a spectacularly low 10.000 USD to produce, which all was out of their own pockets. The only two cameras that focus on and follow two actors as in a documentary, could explain the small budget. Also a lot of their equipment came from Johnson’s little comedy web series Nirvana the Band the Show (Johnson and McCaroll, 2007-2009), which ran for ten episodes, featuring himself and musician, friend Jay McCaroll. Based upon improvisation and smart editing, the series resembled The Dirties a lot. After winning Slamdance, they had to clear the music rights for another 45.000 USD, which is almost five times the budget. This chapter is divided in three parts, the first explains how Johnson uses people, the second how his actors and the third how his audience.

Exploiting the naturalism of passersby

The Dirties tries to simulate realism, or better naturalism as it is a selective realism of people in extraordinary conditions. To achieve its goal, it borrowed aesthetics and techniques from Italian Neorealism, indies and Dogme ’95. Bazin did influence the first to establish an objective approach by shooting on location and using non-actors, while the ‘Dogme ’95 Manifesto’ obligated filmmakers an austere aesthetic. Just as Vinterberg and von Trier wanted to fill the lack of emotional realism in contemporary cinema, so does North American independent cinema like mumblecore and Matt Johnson. Not only out of economical reasons but also because of the flexible techniques they use to tape from afar, The Dirties seems to be a direct heir to all those previous movements. It is because of their wireless microphones, tiny cameras or telephoto lenses and almost no crew, they could avoid to raise suspicion from bystanders and film their natural response to particular situations.

Matt Johnson finds acting performances much more important for the spectator to engage than technical perfection.

“[…] on a real film set technical problems are everyone’s number-one concern, and it’s considered a disaster if you can see the mic or the set—but it’s totally fine if the acting in every take is terrible. All you’re seeing in The Dirties is just a lot of really good acting from people who don’t know that they’re acting. That’s all that it is. The real trick of The Dirties isn’t that it tricks you, but that it engages you the whole way through […]”

Johnson, 2013

Matt and Owen just played ‘Matt and Owen’ at high school, two kids making this movie about themselves. Besides shooting as often as possible with real people who did not know they were in a movie, they also tried to get into shooting situations where they did not know what was about to happen. Big necessary narrative moments were done with real actors off course.

Matt and Owen look like normal high school kids (although they are both in the end of their twenties). Using their own names to avoid confusion, together with Matt’s people skills on top of that, were the perfect supplies to ‘fool’ everyone. Even Matt’s mom acted without she knew she was on camera. “She’s a mental health professional; she talked to me about victimization and sympathy my entire life, I knew she would talk to me. It’s her”, Johnson claims.

They got an amazing offer from a high school in Peterborough to just join the school and go to classes. They could film everything, as long as they did not interfere. The teachers knew it, but most of the pupils did not. Matt and Owen just sit and eat in the cafeteria and while people were waiting for a film to get shot, it was already been shot. That is how they did not stand out in the crowd. And when they staged a fight against the bullies, teenagers looked upon indifferently or wondered what was going on like they would in real life. Like that and his mother’s response, Johnson is a master in twisting elicited reactions to the plot, also by montage if necessary.

At the start of The Dirties, Matt and Owen come across two boys with a moviecamera, which coincidentally made a powerful parallel to their own narrative. They were real, Matt just bumped into them upon which they were both glad to tell each other about their films. The kids’ theirs is on the The Dirties DVD. Despite the ‘exploitation’ of people’s images, they never want to make somebody look silly or like a fool that made a mistake. After a scene, they also still have to get an autograph from those people to have their consent.

“Some people ask me the ethical question (especially when filming someone without their knowing) ‘What’s it being used for?’ raises some problems and I agree. We have no intention — it’s our philosophy — we have no intention to embarrass anyone. We want people to be the best version of themselves.”

Johnson, 2013

That way, it is totally different from a movie like Borat (Cohen, 2006). Johnson’s feature tries to combine larger-than-life characters with real-world people to provoke the spectator to think. It costs no money to do that and it is highly interesting. They do not make fun of people, they are the so-called stupid ones, the joke is on them. Matt tried to expose himself as much as possible. For example, when Owen gets hit with a rock, there was an old man, who did not know what was going on and just sought to help.

Using the actors, the ‘people in the plot’

The three principal actors were Matt Johnson, Owen Williams and Krista Madison, the girl Owen has a crush on in the film. Matt Johnson made sure to cast real people with natural reactions and no ‘acting’ actors with a big ego in the way. After all, most of the scenes were without a script, improvised and depended on ‘what is Matt going to say?’ It took more than hundred auditions before Matt met Owen Williams, a high school teacher, through a friend. The two of them worked together at the same place for a couple of months to get to know each other and to learn each other’s inside jokes. The scenario was written in one day. Ideas for scenes were on cue cards that would change every minute, according to what was happening. They had little control in that, eventually they were just ‘students’ being filmed.

Besides secretly filming actors Owen and Krista’s real friendship in-between scenes to put in the film later on, crises in actors Matt and Owen’s relationship did show up too. Two times in the film, the actor Owen had had enough of it, tired of Matt’s unreachable personality and probably fatigued by the whole process that looked like going nowhere. At a certain moment in The Dirties, a frustrated Owen shouts “I don’t know what’s real with you and what’s not real!” An understandable outburst when you know his friend and director Matt is in front of a camera 24/7, trying to perform the whole time, going as far as becoming a simulacrum of his real self. Joaquin Phoenix did the same in the groundbreaking, way before its time I’m Still Here (Affleck, 2010). Matt responds that “This is me, I am me, and this movie is me, so don’t get in the way.” As a result, his veiled, fake personality and confusing, layered behavior fitted even more the definition of a psychopath he reads out loud in the last part of the film. Compared to contemporary youth culture, it is not uncommon kids act like they are on television, even without cameras.

Dazzling the audience with a constructed realism and enthusiast eclecticism

“The real work of that film wasn’t in shooting, but in the following eight months of me trying to edit the footage into a sensible story. That was the hard work.”

Johnson, 2013

The fictional Matt and Owen’s film project unsettle their teacher, because they abuse his images into a violent over the top revenge story. This part could serve as a fine metaphor for the whole movie. They constantly bend images to their purpose in the editing room. Not only to theirs, but they also adapted their film to commercial interests. Putting a disclaimer about bullying upfront the beginning of the movie made sure festival programmers could not turn it off immediately. So the amateurish looking film would get an honest chance to compete. Matt Johnson himself made the more important decisions in the editing room. He had a lot of experience through his Nirvana the Band the Show experience in which every single cut was important in delivering a successful joke. The mockumentary style looks easy and spontaneous but is in fact very hard to get right. Luckily, it is cheap but it takes ages. When minute 1 gets cut with minute 55, it has to look like it is real time, otherwise it does not flow or feel right.

“You can lose your audience with every single cut. If a cut isn’t right, people know you’re fucking with reality, and people will know that it’s not real.”

Johnson, 2013

Johnson did cut out a bunch of interesting stuff as well. First, he wanted to explain the presence of the cameramen more to achieve a kind of Brechtian ‘verfremdungseffekt’, but it felt so much harder to engage. When he did cut out all the references to the crew, the viewer perceived the film more like he was actually there. An important part of the film that almost missed the final cut are all the, sometimes really obscure, pop culture references the two buddies make throughout the film. They throw with film quotes from Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994), Trainspotting (Boyle, 1996), The Usual Suspects (Synger, 1995), Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino, 1991), The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson, 2001), etc. like it is the most normal thing in the world.

Mostly Matt, as a film student, makes an innumerable account of inside jokes, that even Owen would not understand let alone the majority of the audience. Because of that, they first wanted to cut out the whole lot, but quickly understood that it ads a lot of authenticity and power to the whole friendship of Matt and Owen. It is not important to get the jokes but to embrace the genuine emotions to it, expressed by the main actors. Also, like in their web show Nirvana the Band, Johnson’s jokes are done subtly and densely layered that it has no major consequences if you cannot keep up with his obsessive pop culture interests. It is more important that he has made something of his own out of it.

The passionate inside jokes serve as a new kind of narrative device and are totally opposed to the bland namedropping in a stereotypical show as The Big Bang Theory (Lorre, 2007-). Johnson mentions the TV show Community (Aust, 2009-2014) as a great example where maybe 90% of the audience has no clue and yet can engage just because the characters are being so passionate about it. At the beginning of The Dirties, Matt explains to the ten-year-olds, he is about to make a movie like Irréversible (Noé, 2002). Somehow, they could connect with Matt’s enthusiasm. In a film like Gerry (Van Sant, 2002), Damon and Affleck talk in slang that nobody understands, still the actors clearly do which makes it an intriguing, emotional film to watch.

Reminiscent to Umberto Eco’s postmodernist quoting with irony, The Dirties falls back upon quoting easy accessible archetypical Hollywood cliché moments like slow motion with music. Owen plays a romantic song on his guitar in the middle of the school hall to impress Krista. Their postmodernist eclecticism leads to cultural nihilism when they just overdo on unnecessary references, like for instance using licensed music, which is generally discouraged to film school students. They ended up utilizing a song of the soundtrack of Being John Malkovich (Jonze & Kaufman, 1999), which only a handful of people will recognize.

Besides high school students and teachers, there are mostly film school students that respond really well to the film. Their anarchistic way of breaking every rule film school teaches, must surely attract. Werner Herzog said at a Master Class at the Locarno Festival:

“You should gain experience in life and I would advise everyone don’t spend time in film schools. If you travel by foot for four months, it’s better than four years in film school. Read. Read. It gives you different perspectives.”

Although Matt Johnson certainly does not disagree, he wants to make clear the importance of the invaluable friendships formed in a location like film school, where like-minded people with the same passion come together. Certainly you need to live a life, to find a voice, to figure out what to do. Especially now when making a film is so cheap, young people just have to get out and do it.

Johnson’s next film, Operation Avalanche questions the authenticity of the American Apollo moon landing in the 1960s. Not because Johnson wants to prove it was fake but to deliver a film so real looking that it could be presented in court as proof. Shot at Kubrick’s 2001 studio, on expired 16mm film and in 4:3 ratio, from afar with telephoto lenses, Johnson goes on the challenge to go back to 1968. Lionsgate seems to have confidence and already acquired the rights on the CIA thriller.

Final word

Matt Johnson brought realism to the next level, it seems. Nobody is safe anymore, everybody turns out to be a potential actor. He exploits his by-passers, his actors and his audience, and himself? He manipulates everyone and his images into making a film that does not have anything in common anymore with the people in it. So in the end, he edited realism into a film, like actually many did before him already. Anyways, great and probably influential film, one of the best of this decade so far.

See The Dirties, it makes you think.

If you liked it, watch Catfish (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, 2010), also great and somehow similar.