Netflix’s “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is a profound and deeply personal portrait of the director Kirsten Johnson’s examination of her father, Richard Johnson (lovingly known as “Dick”), a retired clinical psychiatrist who is suffering from dementia and his inevitable end. Beginning as an attempt to make the impending loss of her father bearable for both him and herself, Johnson fashions nearly a dozen fake death scenarios, including falling down a flight of stairs and dropping an air conditioner from an apartment building. The 55-year-old filmmaker brings about the most enriching and beautiful questions regarding our own mortality and what we choose to do with the time given to us.
Johnson has shown immense brilliance as a filmmaker and a cinematographer with her acclaimed films such as “Cameraperson,” which also made the 2016 Oscars shortlist but missed out on a nomination. Her film was added to the Criterion Collection in Feb. 2017.
The critically acclaimed documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 and was later released on the streaming platform on Oct. 2. In Johnson’s first interview following the news that the film made the 15-film Oscars shortlist for best documentary feature, she speaks with Variety about dreaming in “record” mode, the reality of realizing her dream of taking her father to the most exotic locations in the world wasn’t going to happen and still doing all she can to learn from “the school of Dick Johnson.”
Starting with an idea in the fall of 2016, she shot and edited the film throughout the filming process, which consisted of times of just her and her father, upwards to a 50-person crew. Utilizing different cameras, including a Canon C-300 and her Panasonic EPA that she’s in love with, she wrapped just before its Sundance screening in Jan. 2020.
Johnson dedicated this conversation to Marta, the caregiver who worked with her father and is in the hospital fighting COVID-19.
Watch her on the eighth episode of Variety’s “Doc Dreams” in the video above, with excerpts of her interview below.
Talk about the moment you decided to make a movie about killing your father in various ways.
It was literally a dream, and I’m a big dreamer. Actually, you know people have different reoccurring dreams…my reoccurring dream, if I’m filming a lot, is there’s a little red light in the corner of my dreams, and it says REC, and I actually dream in recording mode, which is crazy.
I would say I was grappling from the very beginning. Sure, my dad is game for this, and he’ll love me no matter what, but I’m taking my dad’s life and putting it on the line. I’ve never made anything funny before. “Cameraperson” has one laugh and one other half-laugh.
Do you feel in making this film, you’ve made your father immortal?
Somebody just pointed out to me like the frequently asked question is, “is Dick Johnson still alive?” How good is that? On the one hand, my dad’s good. He’s an American white man who had a family, who had a job, who had a home. He’s good. He does not need anything, and this is normal for someone to die. I know there are all kinds of other subject matter that needs to be dealt with in this world right now, and yet for me, Kirsten Johnson, the unbearable idea that my father would disappear. What can I do about that, or is there anything I can do about that? I knew this was an experiment that’s personal between the other people who go with the territory and us. It speaks to all of our struggles with this idea that there are some people we just cannot bear to lose.
Could you, under the same circumstances, make this movie if your mother was still alive?
I don’t think there’s any way. I’m not even sure I would have allowed myself to imagine it. The dream would not have happened, and I think that’s true about where I’m at with my life. I had twins using an egg donor.
Co-parenting, me as a straight woman, been straight all my life and BOOM, fell in love with Tabitha Jackson. These things I’m not sure I would have done if my mom was alive. Because I think there are people in our lives who are holding us to standards but sometimes death sets parts of ourselves free.
I think it was on the day of my mother’s death that I said to myself, like a vision, “I must have children.” I wouldn’t have gotten there without her death. It’s weird to just thank her for it, and I thank her for all of the hope, ambition and dreams she had for herself that wasn’t quite possible for a woman of her period in history. She didn’t stop me; she was egging me on, but there was a way to do things right, and when she died, I realized there are other ways to do things. I do think she would be cheering this movie on — but also mortified.
Variety’s “Doc Dreams” is presented by National Geographic.