In the making of the documentary “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” the filmmakers unraveled the complicated nature of death to find joy.
“Let us try to allow things to be exposed without shame, but in their deep pain and complexity, and have a sense of humor about it,” Kirsten Johnson said of her priorities as a director. “We’re all in this together. We all are going to die. And yet these are the sort of taboos that we put into place.”
Variety senior film writer Matt Donnelly and the “Dick Johnson Is Dead” team pondered death and discussed the documentary’s foundational father-daughter relationship in the Variety Streaming Room. Producer Marilyn Ness, co-producer Maureen Ryan and editor Nels Bangerter joined Johnson.
Johnson blends fact and fiction in “Dick Johnson Is Dead” to kill Dick over and over again. The father-daughter duo brings their backgrounds as psychiatrist and filmmaker, respectively, to process his onsetting dementia and certain, eventual death.
“The challenge in this film was the tension between me trying to rage against what I had already lost,” Johnson said, “My dad, that I’d already lost, but because I’d been through the Alzheimer’s with my mother, seeing the future coming was really frightening to me, and knowing what was coming was a great struggle for me.”
Still, Johnson loves morbidity and noted she wants to die in a way that makes everyone laugh. Ness said she hopes not to die violently, as Dick Johnson did again and again in the film. In fact, having an air conditioner fall on her head is one of Ryan’s fears, which the film illustrates early on as one of Dick’s deaths.
Through fantasy, the filmmakers gave Dick more than death. Ness recalled asking Johnson, “Isn’t there a way to give him back something from his life?” The result was heaven, which manifested as Dick playing the saxophone and being able to dance with his wife again.
“It didn’t stop my dad from having dementia, but it did in certain moments,” Johnson said. “My dad, in certain moments, came back out of the shell he was closing into.”