A man walks down the street, carrying a package, thinking to himself what a lovely day it is —” THWACK! An air conditioner, falling from an apartment window several stories above him, comes crashing down on his head. He didn’t see it coming; neither, for that matter, do you. The passerby lies there on the pavement, sprawled out among the debris. Then a crew of people, including a lady in a bright orange coat, come and help him up. Despite the pool of “blood” behind his head, he seems a-ok, and shuffles away seemingly without a scratch. The man, a former therapist from Seattle, is named Dick Johnson. The woman in the coat is his daughter, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson. She’s the one who engineered that “air conditioner” — a styrofoam prop — to come plummeting down on his noggin.
Over the next 90 minutes, Dick is going to keep dying and and Kirsten is going to keep killing him in the most creative ways. (There is even a faux funeral with friends and family.) Because the elderly Johnson, who’s suffering from dementia, may be slowly fading away for real in the near future. Until then, however, these two close-knit family members are going to make sure that this tender, loving mock-murder party is in full swing for as long as humanly possible.
Part verité slow-motion tragedy, part surreal black comedy and a 100-percent long-goodbye love letter, Dick Johnson Is Dead is the documentarian’s way of dealing with a wave of grief she knows is inevitably headed her way. It’s also an extraordinary testament to how Johnson — a longtime cinematographer for nonfiction auteurs like Laura Poitras, Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, and many, many more — is willing to turn the lens on herself. Following the free-form, collage-like memoir of her directorial debut Cameraperson, this unclassifiable portrait of father-daughter bonding could not be more personal for Johnson, or more upfront about whether her entire cathartic, let’s-kill-dad! project is even morally sound. It’s genuinely moving, but also genuinely hilarious: When was the last time a documentary had you rolling on the floor thanks to bobbleheaded celebrities dancing around a colorful, camp, Pierre et Gilles postcard afterlife? (It’s now streaming on Netflix.)
We talked to Johnson via Zoom about the art of staging fake deaths, the ethics of doing a project like this and “filming heaven like a documentarian.” This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your dad started showing symptoms that something was going on with his memory in 2016; how soon after that did the idea of doing this documentary on him occur to you?
It was August of 2016 when his secretary called to tell us about this sort of minor thing that was happening with him. She basically mentioned that he’d been forgetting about booking patients, just weird little memory things. It was minor stuff at first, but my brother and I had been through this with our mom [Kirsten’s mother passed away from Alzheimer’s in 2007] so we should’ve recognized this. I think maybe we didn’t want to. It wasn’t until December that, because we both live thousands of miles away, were like, “Maybe we should check this out.” And then there was the dream, which I think was in September of that year.
I had a dream that I saw a man in a casket. It was not my dad, but kind of was my dad, you know? And this man suddenly sits up in the casket and says, “I’m Dick Johnson and I’m not dead yet.” [Pause] I’m not kidding, it was only within like the last few days, as I’ve been talking about the movie, that I realized that the guy in the casket was really my dad with dementia. There idea that there is someone who is like my father but doesn’t seem like him. I mean, diagnosis or no diagnosis, life and death, fiction and documentary — it’s all such a blur to me at this point [laughs]. But I feel like even though I didn’t know, it was like my subconscious knew. There was some part of my mind that remembered what we went through with my mom and was thinking, “Here we go again.”
At what point did you think, I want to document what he’s going through — and also we should do these Pythonesque skits of him dying over and over again?
It was several points, really. First off, even though I’ve been filming things for 30 years or so, I have very little footage of my mom. Like, a tiny fingernail’s worth of footage, and it’s mostly her with dementia. And I had almost no footage of my dad, or my family, really. When I’m working, I’m traveling everywhere and I’m behind the camera. When I’m with my family, I’m home and it’s time to put the camera down. They offer a break from all of that.
But I remember when I was cutting Cameraperson with [editor] Nels Bangerter and he showed me the scene with her ashes …
Where you cut from the box with her ashes in it to her walking around outside?
Right! When he showed me the juxtaposition of those shots together and I started just yelling, Oh my god! It was what I called my John-Travolta-from-Pulp-Fiction moment, when he stick the hypodermic needle in Uma Thurman’s chest: “She’s alive!” [Laughs] I had a similar thing happened when I had filmed this old grandmother in Sarajevo, and the family was there when we’d showed the movie…and after, they came up to me and were sobbing and hugging me, saying, “We had no pictures of her, nothing — and you brought her back to us!” There was this sense of, I need to capture this while I still can. I want this to remember him by.
As for the death bits, that’s my dad’s sense of humor. We both share that kind of dark, absurd sense of humor. He’s always been a person that kinds of walks between the sacred and profane. And he understands that these things sort of exist hand in hand. I remember once, I was watching The Simpsons with him, he’s laughing uproariously, and the phone rings. His voice completely changes. “You don’t really want to do that. No, you have an appointment with me next week, take it off and step down. Ok? Yeah. I’ll see you on Monday.” He hangs up, sits back down and goes right back to The Simpsons, starts laughing again.
I asked him, “Dad…the person you just talked to, did he have … a noose around his neck?” And my father goes, “Yeah, but he didn’t really mean it. He’ll be ok.”
Yeah. I was just like, Oh my god, right, ok. But the person was fine, and was an ongoing patient of my dad’s until he retired. And it was seeing my dad handle those kinds of situations that taught me to navigate the absurdities of life. It’s the art of the tonal shift. So when I started thinking about making something around this … look, nobody wants to see a thing about old nice white American man who’s got dementia. And I kept going back to that dream of him dying and then saying, I’m not dead yet.” I thought, this is it. I have to keep killing him and he has to keep coming back.
Was there an idea of “death” that came to you initially?
What came first was the funeral — the one we threw him in Seattle, for all of his friends, before he moved in with me back in New York. It was one of the first scenes that came to me, and one of the first things we did. I was originally going to open the film with that, actually; it eventually made more sense to put it at the end. And it’s the same church that we held my mom’s funeral in, which … I didn’t want to be in that church 13 years ago, saying goodbye to my mom. In a weird way, it was like: I get to redo this on my terms. I get to control this.
You’re reclaiming that space.
Exactly. We’re not going to hold a funeral for him when he does die — we’ve already had it! And he got to hear everybody say what he meant to them, he got a standing ovation and then we went home and ate chocolate cake. That’s how you throw a funeral!
The thing is, with dementia … those people may never get to see my father again. He may be gone, even if he’s present. So it really was their goodbye to him.
How hard did you have to pitch this idea to him?
Not hard at all. “Dad, can I film you being killed over and over again?” “Sure, honey. Anything for you.” [Laughs] He got it right away. The thing with my dad is, he’s a pretty humble guy. He just wants to be remembered by his family and friends. The death parts, which are funny — that he got. The parts where I was just filming him around his old house, or in my apartment, or walking around … “What, you just want to film me eating soup and baking a cake?” He couldn’t figure out why that was interesting. He has no hubris. But I do think he’s someone who’s always looking for a laugh.
The funny thing is, though, with those death scenes — when you see the film, you know what we’re doing. When we were making the film, I wasn’t sure what I was doing. The team with me, making this film, wasn’t sure what we were doing. “We’ll drop an air conditioner on you, maybe we’ll hit you with a car …”. It was one of those ideas where you’re like, I have no clue if this will work. But he was game. I have so much respect for how he put his dignity on the line.
You were going to put him on an ice floe and send him out to sea at one point, right? And you’d talked to some stunt people in Hong Kong about doing some of his “deaths”?
[Laughs] An ice floe in a studio, but yeah, it was too dangerous for my dad. He could have fallen. I mean, it was just dangerous having him out on the streets of New York, filming the regular stuff — he’s a man with dementia. If I looked away and he just walked into traffic … I felt like I was potentially putting my dad at risk just having him out there. And yeah, so I was at the University of Hong Kong teaching a class, I reached out to some folks and ended up meeting a lot of stuntpeople there. I talked to one stunt man who’d lost both his legs doing a hit-and-run stunt. He had been driving the car — he said, “Normally it’s more dangerous to be the one getting hit by the car, but occasionally it’s not so great when you’re the one driving the car.” We ended up using some wonderful stunt men from here, who you see my dad interacting with in the movie. I wanted them, and the process they went through to help me, to be in the movie as well.
There’s a scene in the movie where you’re doing a stunt with him and he actually freaks out a little bit …
The one with the construction worker and the fake blood, yeah. He was wet, cold, uncomfortable and forgot where he was. That was not a good day.
… And then later, you’re having a conversation with his caretaker and wondering whether it’s ethical that you’re doing this at all. You left both of those scenes in. Was this something that you questioned a lot as you were making this: Is this right, what I’m doing? Where is the line that I shouldn’t cross here?
All the time. That feeling you just described was with me all the time. Because, you know … I do think one has a responsibility to people whose agency is impaired in some way, whether they have less power in society or whether their lucidity is impaired in some kind of way. If you’re filming a mentally ill person, or a child, or a person with dementia — you have a responsibility to that person. That person cannot always protect themselves. And it is your responsibility to protect them if you can. So the ethical considerations, just as a human, were in play the whole time when we were making the film. He kept saying, “I’d do anything for you.” And as his daughter and a filmmaker, I can’t exploit that. I can’t. I purposefully left those moments in the film because I wanted to own up to that. You know, I’m a loving daughter doing something fun with her dad. Plus I’m a filmmaker who may be complicit in doing something I maybe shouldn’t be doing. Both of those things were part of the process. Both of those aspects needed to be in there.
My dad was also deteriorating while we were making this, in terms of his cognition, so also had to contend with his safety. We’d have him doing a stunt with a stuntman, and I’d say, “Ok, the stuntman is going to fall, just bob your head as if you’re falling and he’ll step in” — and then my dad would just register that as, Oh, I need to fall now. And then he’d try to fall himself, and it’s like, No, Dad, that’s the stunt man’s job. His body just went into the mode of: Ok, fall. You had to be careful what you said, and we had ti be careful what we did as time went on.
Oh my god.
Yeah. It was like I was co-directing the film with his dementia, and the dementia was always three steps ahead of you.
How did you come up with the look and feel of his own personal heaven?
I love artists like Max Ernst and Jacques Prévert, and the whole notion of collage, where the past and the present kind of mix. So the guiding principle was always, Let’s do a collage version of an afterlife. But it was really all centered around: What can we give to my dad that he can’t get for himself any more, or that he doesn’t have? Also: Can we we maybe give this man a moment of pleasure? We’ve been killing him long enough, putting him in those crazy situations and really, who wants to stand outside in New York in November, covered in cold fake blood? Can we do something nice for a change? My dad used to play clarinet, so let’s give him some swing music. Let’s give him his car back. Let him be Jesus. [Laughs]
Let him cavort with people wearing giant masks of dead celebrities.
That part came from wanting my mom to be with him. It’s my dad’s version of heaven — of course my mother is there! So we had a giant mask made of her picture, with the proportions of her face being slightly larger than her body, because that’s how memories often work. The face is more prominent. I wanted the design team to set all of those elements up and then just go in and film whatever happened. I wanted to shoot heaven like a documentarian would.