Kirsten Johnson Killed Her Father, Over and Over Again: Inside ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead,’ the Year’s Best Movie
To process the loss of her father to dementia, Kirsten Johnson repeatedly staged his death, resulting in the hilarious and devastating living eulogy “Dick Johnson Is Dead.”
In Dick Johnson Is Dead, a documentary on the last years of a man’s life, the titular subject is hit in the head by a falling air conditioner while walking the streets of New York City, where his daughter, the film’s director Kirsten Johnson, lives. He dies.
The retired psychologist from Washington state slips and tumbles down a flight of stairs, his body splayed at the landing in the shape of a crime-scene chalk outline. He dies.
He walks into the street without looking and is hit by a bus. He dies.
He trips on uneven sidewalk pavement, slamming his head on the concrete as he falls. He dies.
By the end of the film, you lose count of how many times you watch Richard “Dick” Johnson, a pun-loving warm breeze of a man with a Dick Van Dyke smile and cartoon-like buoyant laugh, so violently and gruesomely die. It’s only fitting that when we escape with him to heaven, too, it’s a requiem bathed in confetti and dazzled with glitter, with this exceptionally generous person in a fantastical afterlife indulging in cake, boundless laughter, and waltzes with cardboard cutouts of his late wife.
The thing about Dick Johnson Is Dead is that Dick Johnson is not dead yet, though he is dying.
After her father was diagnosed with dementia in 2016, Johnson, a prolific documentary cinematographer who worked on Citizenfour, The Invisible War, and Fahrenheit 9/11 before directing 2016’s Cameraperson, approached him with an unusual proposition. What if they processed the inevitable grief and their own relationship by staging his death, over and over?
And so, in between emotional conversations—some of the most intimate and painful a child and her father can share so openly—Johnson invents graphic ways to dramatize his death, playing them off with a detachment that propels the film into a Monty Python-like slapstick absurdity. Even her 8-year-old twin children get in on the action, brainstorming over breakfast how they’re going to “kill grandpa” today. (Dream sequences set in heaven are a fanciful antidote to all the morbidity.)
The effect is a confrontational examination of grief and the discussions we’re afraid to have, boring into the impending loss with such unflinching honesty that, for the gag factor of all these dramatized stunts, Dick Johnson’s death feels unbearably real. When a fake funeral is staged to mourn him, there’s nothing fictional about the inconsolable weeping of his family and friends in attendance—nor, it must be said, the audiences watching it unfold on film.
Buried feelings about the mortality of viewers’ own loved ones are also excavated, exposing all the opportunity that is wasted when we refuse to think about death. It demands you engage with the topic, if not necessarily to the extent of the macabre exercise of repeatedly staging a parent’s death multiple times in a row.
“You should definitely think about that though!” Johnson says, letting out a loud cackle when we connect on the phone to talk about the film, which can be streamed on Netflix starting Friday.
Dick Johnson Is Dead first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling, topped nearly every critic’s best-of list, and was responsible for mass incidents of dehydration across Park City, with audiences still full-on sobbing long after the credits rolled.
That film festival happened to be one of the last normal Hollywood “events” to take place before the pandemic. Almost nine months later, in an era marked by the pall of anxiety and the tangible, inescapable reality of death, a viewing of the film, as visceral as it was before, burrows at you much differently.
“I think there's no question that things that maybe felt unfamiliar about the film before, this sort of notion of anticipatory grief, for example, are recognizable,” Johnson says. “I feel like almost all of us have a new relationship to loss and anticipatory grief.”
“The pandemic has meant that we all have to think about things we cannot wish to think about, on one hand,” she continues. “On the other hand, I think the scale of death is so extraordinary that it's really hard to engage with the grief that the loss of 200,000 Americans represents.”
There’s also the fact that one of the first major sequences in the film documents her dad’s move across the country from Washington into the one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan that Johnson shares with her kids, whom she co-parents with filmmaker Ira Sachs and painter Boris Torres, who live next door.
“On this, like, silly level, when I was making the film everyone was like, ‘How can you be living in a one bedroom apartment with two kids and your dad?’” she laughs. “Now everybody's living in these crazy recombinations. ‘Living in my parents’ basement.’ ‘I have my grandmother staying with me.’ Everyone is redefining family and their relationships to the people they are sequestered with.”
If you watch the film, it will come as no surprise that Johnson manages to thread conversations about death and her father’s dementia battle with an abundance of laughter, lacerating the gravity of things with the same crack humor the film displays from her father. And just as she did with Cameraperson, in which she cut footage she filmed over her decades as a documentarian into a revealing memoir, she opens herself up in a way that somehow unlocks the most fragile feelings of her audience, too.
“I think that fear is dangerous to all of our health,” she says, especially when it comes to talking about death. “I think that that fear and denial shut us off from other people. It’s a healthy risk assessment. But not speaking about certain things always feels easier, I think, than it actually is. It takes a toll in many forms.”
Not speaking about things, it becomes abundantly clear when it comes to Kirsten Johnson, is not an option.
In addition to filmmaker, Johnson has grown into a different role in the months since Dick Johnson Is Dead first premiered at Sundance and people have begun seeing—and reacting—to the film. She’s become a therapist, in the grand sense, and an instant confidante: a shoulder to cry on, a receptacle for strangers’ grief, a person to hug.
It’s something that a part of her maybe expected, or perhaps at least hoped for, given the reasons she set out to make the film in the first place. And it’s clear she’s cherishing these interactions, to the point that she’s taken to encouraging and facilitating them. As she does with me.
She’s thrilled to learn that, as we talk on the phone, I’m sitting at the desk I used to do homework on in my childhood home in Maryland. It is my first visit to see my parents since the pandemic hit, an occasion to breathe and feel briefly at peace after so many months of separation swathed in terror.
From New York City, where the spring brought refrigerated trucks to the streets in order to store dead bodies and the constant wail of sirens haunted every waking thought, the possibility that death could make that separation permanent lurked behind every news report of the virus’ escalation in the city, and how at-risk my parents, who are younger members of the Boomer generation, were.
We mention this to Johnson casually, as an entree into a discussion about how much more relevant the film seems to have become. But she immediately—and repeatedly—refocuses the conversation on me and my parents, mimicking the probing of her father I had just watched in her film.
She wants to know how similar the bedroom I’m in is to when I lived in it 15 years ago. She wants to know what my parents are like. She wants to know if it feels heavier being there under the cloud of the pandemic and death, after such a long and dramatic separation. She wants to know if there’s more gravity to the visit, especially in the emotional hangover of watching the film.
Now that she’s gone through the labor of making the movie, it’s a new sort of preoccupation: learning how people are engaging with it, and then engaging with them on that. She wishes for my parents and me to have some sort of unexpected interaction or conversation. She implores me to think about what it feels like to touch my parents, to watch a movie with them, and to taste my favorite food that my dad makes. She sees the opportunity for something profound to happen, and she wants me to report back about it if and when it does.
“This is the way my dad rolls,” she says. “I’ve been trying to roll the way he rolls and, like, open it up so it's a back-and-forth. And this movie is all about a back-and-forth.”
One of the things she says she’s found most fun in the promotion of the film is in the conversations she’s had with people, asking them directly how they want to die. “Kevin, how would you wish to die?” she asks me, to my stunned silence and then, once I realize that this isn’t rhetorical and she is seriously asking, nervous stammering. “Have you ever thought about it?” I haven’t. “Do you know how your parents wish to die?” I don’t.
“What happens if you have that conversation with your parents?” she says. “You might think you know your parents. But, in some ways, you knew them better when they were younger. Like, how much time do you spend with them now that they are the age that they are? They know new things, because they have aged right?”
It’s an echo of one of the epiphanies she had while making Dick Johnson Is Dead.
“That's the thing that I find really amazing about, when it is not so painful and brutal, engaging with dementia. It’s like, there's always new ways to know my father,” she continues. “What I thought I knew is shifting. I think we imagine our relationship to our parents as a static one, and our relationship to death to be controlled and static. But it's totally a moving target. It is full of all the palpable suffering. We want to avoid suffering, but suffering reveals to us people's dignity, or the way in which they love, or what is unforgettable about them. All of the treasured values and precious things.”
Johnson couldn’t have known that her father would turn out to be such a magnetic movie star. There is something that she always found ineffable about him—“a magical energy,” she says—but wasn’t sure if she’d be able to bottle it up the way the film ends up doing. Above all else, it is a showcase for Dick Johnson’s effortless humor and seemingly boundless compassion.
“At Sundance there was a moment that I came outside and there was a line of women waiting to hug him,” she says. “He said to me, ‘I don’t know how this happened but I really am enjoying it.’”
Dick was an enthusiastic part of the film’s Sundance premiere, though he would occasionally lose track of what was going on and why he was there. The risk of the pandemic for a man his age and the reality that he needs 24-hour care meant the difficult decision to move him into a full-time residential facility for dementia patients. He’s helping with Dick Johnson Is Dead press when he’s up to it, and often has his pistol wits about him. But also, as is the way with the disease, he sometimes does not.
Though he initially—and then often—would rib her over the subtext of her desire to kill him over and over again on film, Johnson says that she suspected from the start that her father would understand what she was aiming to do with the documentary, and certainly the humor behind it, too.
“He introduced me to all of it,” she says. “He introduced me to Harold and Maude, Charles Addams cartoons, Monty Python. He has a great sense of humor. He's terrible with puns, as you can imagine. I know what kind of movies he loves. So I was like let's try to make a movie both of us would love.”
It is a delightful surprise to also learn that, for how intellectually stimulating and emotionally profound the film, another major reference point for both Johnsons was Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass films. Johnson uncorks an aria of guffaws at the mere mention of it.
“The cathartic, hysterical laughter that Jackass generates is so meaningful to me,” she says. “I took my dad to see it and he laughed his ass off also. It’s transgressive. It’s juvenile. It’s all of that. Like it hurts so badly. You know somewhere there is extreme hurt in all of it. I mean, that's part of the glee and the horror of it. And I knew that my father takes some glee in transgression.”
What is also interesting to learn, though it may be naive that it’s a discovery at all, is how active Johnson still is in exploring all the issues she and her father delve into in the film, and how fluid and evolving their relationship remains. The pandemic has shocked her all over again about the powerfulness of suffering. For the first time in three-and-a-half years of caring for him in her home, there is physical distance between her and father. “I definitely feel like I'm in a new chapter with my dad that is unknown to me.”
It’s part of why she’s so curious to dive into others’ experiences with the film and their loved ones. The answers are still as unknown to her as they are to them. Maybe we can all help each other in the search.
“The film takes you to such places that you experience my dad’s death,” she says. “You experience his funeral. So you forget that you know [he’s still alive]. I'm hoping that the film opens up this place of not knowing and really questioning our literalness, our binariness, around life and death.”
In the span of a conversation between two fast-talkers enabling each other’s rapid-fire pace of speech, what follows is a rare moment of quiet, a long beat of stillness.
Finally, she says, “In many ways, my dad is dead already. In many ways, he will live forever.”