Small budget indie film The Dirties has been sweeping across North America lately, creating immense buzz, and receiving countless awards and praise. All this for a film about a topic that others would never dare touch. The film is about two high school students, Matt (Matthew Johnson), and Owen (Owen Williams) who are creating a movie — called “The Dirties” — for a class project. In it, the two students cast themselves as detectives, looking to take down a group of bullies, the same bullies that torment them in real life. After their teacher tells them it’s too vulgar and violent to work, Matt begins contemplating actually shooting the bullies, filming it all along the way. As Matt becomes more focused on this goal, Owen is pushed away, eventually starting to connect with a girl within the group of bullies. The friendship between the friends is strained and pushed to the limit when Matt puts his plan into action.
The challenges to creating a film about a school shooting are fairly obvious, and there’s even a moment within the film remarking that you can’t make a movie about a school shooting. Even within the movie, there’s an understanding that this is a rather taboo subject, so what drives someone to set out and make such a controversial film. “My friend, Josh Boles, who was really into watching documentaries about Columbine at this time, and watching a lot of the home videos that the Columbine guys made themselves, and he was showing a lot of these to me,” explains Matthew Johnson, the film’s director and one of its leads. “Then we saw this great Belgium film called Man Bites Dog. It’s a documentary about a serial killer, but it’s a lot more about this crazy, crazy guy who just kinda kills as a job, but it’s a documentary, and it follows the rules of a documentary. So Josh was thinking that we should make a documentary about me being a serial killer, kind of in the same way that these Columbine guys were making home videos of themselves, and that idea was just so resonant with what our high school experiences were like, that we were like, oh yeah, this makes perfect sense.”
It’s not just the idea that seemed outrageous, the way The Dirties is filmed seems like an almost impossible feat. With no scripted dialogue, Matthew and Owen simply went to a real high school, shot without many of the students and teachers knowing, and had to improv every moment. “Yeah, we just shot it, literally like we were these kids making this movie about themselves. We did everything as realistically as we could, we shot with all real people as often as we could, we shot with people who didn’t know they were in a movie as often as we could, we shot where we didn’t even know what would happen,” Johnson continued, “A lot of the super big narrative moments, where something changes, or where something really big happens, those were all done with actors.”
Keeping characters to a minimum, using the people around them for background, and the fact that every moment is improv gives the film such a realistic feeling. Audiences are quickly absorbed into the world of Matt and Owen, and their chemistry is so natural, that they really feel like they’ve been friends since grade school.
Finding the right actor to play opposite Johnson wound up being a rather easy task, as producer Evan Morgan explains. “[Owen] was my roommate. Owen was unemployed at the time, it was before he was teaching, and we hadn’t found anyone who we felt could play opposite Matt effectively. We were honestly just problem solving, and Owen happened to be passing us, while we were on the couch trying to work this out. At a certain point, someone must have just mentioned maybe Owen could work. We were concerned that he’d never had any experience performing really, but the trade off was that he was our friend.”
Much of the focus on the film points out the school shooting aspect, which is true, but isn’t really what the film is about. The Dirties is much more about why a school shooting could happen, and the way that bullying can affect kids, but it wasn’t always planned exactly that way. An early draft involved a much larger, and bloodier, shooting for the end of the film, but the budget was limited, and it became apparent that a larger event wouldn’t blend well with the earlier scenes. Morgan spoke a little about how these limitations may have helped the film. “In one sense, it’s benefited from its limitations because when we decided we were going to try and do it totally independently, we knew that a big school shooting simply wouldn’t be feasible.
We knew that dramatically, a mass school shooting wasn’t what we were looking for, that it sort of belonged to a different story, a different movie. The budget, I don’t think, in the end, was really the defining point. The minimal aspect of it makes it that much more powerful, in the sense that it’s not really being sensationalized, it’s realistic in a way.”
From the outstanding (and uncomfortably realistic) performances, to the fascinating way the film was shot, The Dirties is a film the needs multiple viewings. It’s hard to fully grasp what you’re witnessing the first time around, so film fans in Toronto should be happy to hear that The Dirties is opening on Friday, October 4, 2013 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. It’s only screening for a short while, so make sure to check their website for information.