‘The Dirties’ Director on Changing Hollywood’s ‘Ridiculous’ Take on Bullying

“We’re trying to change the conversation,” Matthew Johnson tells TheWrap

Matthew Johnson accidentally convinced several grandparents he made a documentary about a school shooting. He was in Sarasota, Fla., where a group of geriatrics had just seen his movie “The Dirties.”

“At the end of the movie, I went to do a Q&A and we had this bizarre first minute of me answering questions from people who thought what they watched was 100 percent real,” Johnson told TheWrap.

Johnson’s movie, which won the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Slamdance Film Festival, depicts the bullying of a high school kid and the violent outcome of that abuse. Though based on his experiences and those of his friends, it is a complete fiction.

It also changed Johnson’s life. Kevin Smith fell in love with the film at Slamdance, the less famous cousin of the Sundance Film Festival. That earned the movie a distribution deal under Smith’s deal with Phase 4 Films.

Also read: Kevin Smith on Kickstarter: I’d Rather Take a Second Mortgage Out

Johnson’s triumph at Slamdance also landed him meetings with major film studios about future work. Yet before Fox or anyone else can enlist Johnson for a new project, he has to graduate from film school first. Johnson is making a film about the CIA and a moon mission for his thesis, subsidized by the Canadian government.

While in Los Angeles, Johnson spoke with TheWrap about making a movie about bullying and school shootings in an age of constant violence.

Where did the idea for the movie come from?
My friend Josh, one of the co-writers, had just seen the Belgian film ‘Man Bites Dog’ about a French serial killer. We just got obsessed with a fake documentary about something so dark. I thought we could do that with our own stories, stories from our own childhood.

Did you look at other movies about bullying first?
There are no decent movies about bullying. Every Hollywood take on the bullying issue is so sensational and ridiculous. There are so few movies made by young people about bullying or high school for that matter. We were inspired by the lack of conversation.

How do you want to change that conversation?
Just by having the voice of someone younger and more connected. We’re trying to move the conversation towards a more humanizing place where we weren’t seeing people who committed terrible acts as these psychotic monsters who can never be helped or are completely evil.

We are trying to figure out why people do the things they do, showing their childhood and the relatable side to broaden the conversation from “these people are evil.”

Have you seen “Blue Caprice”?
Yeah, we were on the festival circuit at the same time. This concept of humanizing these people is on the cusp of becoming a popular thing. We’re happy to see that film had a similar philosophy.

Why do you think it’s becoming more popular?
We are trying to address the differences from what we all know in the collective media consciousness. The movie cuts at the moment where the mainstream movie would take over.

Without justifying the behavior.
The point of this film is that this kind of behavior is completely unjustified no matter what kind of causality you attribute to it.

It’s the opposite. We need to start seeing things as ‘a decision young people feel they were forced into. They felt like they had no other choice. To these people this was their reality.

So how did you approach the subject of a school shooting?
It seems to be in a flip way so we’re often asked to justify it. When we were making this film, schools shootings and violence were not in the zeitgeist the way they are now. We screened it for the first time three weeks before Sandy Hook. We were accepted into Slamdance before Sandy Hook happened. Then that happened and we expected to be told it wouldn’t screen. They told us they were still happy to screen it.

It’s a movie about something that matters to me and what I’m trying to avoid is the notion that we were trying to trade on these issues.  From our perspective, nobody was going to see this movie. It’s something very personal we made at film school.

How did the movie go from something you were making for school to something opening in theaters?
When we won Slamdance Kevin Smith fell in love with it. We were a small indie movie with the godfather of American indie comedies offering to distribute it. It was a perfect storm.

And what’s life been like since then?
I’ve just been going to film festivals and talking with audiences.

What was the most memorable conversation with audiences?
The Sarasota Film Festival draws a very very old crowd, mostly grandparents. When we finished showing the movie, most of the audience thought they were watching a documentary. At the end of the movie, I went to do a Q&A and we had this bizarre first minute of me answering questions from people who thought what they watched was 100 percent real.