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Matt Johnson goes inside the mind of a high school killer in The Dirties

Soon-to-be-cult classic, Canadian-made The Dirties is a Sundance winning, improvised, hidden camera shot, film within a film made for $10,000 that comments on our obsession with celebrity and the media’s portrayal of High School killers. Director and star of The Dirties, Matt Johnson, identifies the five things that inspired the making of the film, which is out tomorrow and is an absolute must-see.

Text Hattie Collins
Movie still from The Dirties

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  • gimme shelter, 1970

    There’s no word for this type of filmmaking yet - filming people who don’t know they’re being filmed. People have called The Dirties all kind of things but nothing's stuck, like ‘Dogma 95’. I think other filmmakers would need to start doing the same thing to create a brand. The approach we took came out of necessity, certainly, because we were broke filmmakers in Toronto. But also because of all the things we saw wrong with independent films; namely acting and locations. The places that people shoot are nearly always boring sets and then you can feel everybody pretending which is always awful. For us it was the perfect way to combine a prank show with an indie art film where you can get people being themselves without them even realising they’re being themselves. It’s interesting that you can do something so cheaply with so little planning. Of course, many other films heavily influenced us. Gimme Shelter is the documentary about the Rolling Stones by the Maysles Brothers. We stole everything from it. When I’m watching myself on camera, and editing myself, that’s completely stolen from Mick Jagger looking at himself on a Steinbeck and commenting on it.


  • f for fake, 1973

    We stole more or less the entire formal approach from Orson Wells - where what you’re watching, you don’t know if it’s real or not, and they’re commenting on the realness of it. It’s an insane documentary. It’s a masterpiece. It was sort of his last film, in a way, when he was already a loser and nobody liked him.

  • best coast, when i’m with you, 2011

    Best Coast is like this California surfer band. That was the music that Matt, the character, was obsessed by. There’s something very Nihilistic but romantic about it; it seems almost suicidal. The songs are all about being in love but it is a high school/ sleepover/ teenage version of love. It’s all like ‘I love you so much, but you don’t love me, or something changed’, but it’s sung in this doom-y melody where you can imagine this person committing suicide at any moment. Which is very much what Matt is about; he’s this guy that seems manically happy, everything is always ok, everything is a total cliché of movies or love or relationships. But then he’s got this suicidal death drive that seems to completely not fit with that, in the same way as that Best Coast music does.


  • the wire

    We stole a lot of dialogue from The Wire. Matt and Owen are often repeating lines from it, inside of the film, but they’re pretty hidden. Lots of people wouldn’t spot it. It’s in the scenes where they’re inside the movie that they’re making, where they’re talking to their teacher, who is also the chief of police in their movie, and they’re saying things like ‘Go above the Deputy’s head’ or ‘Fuck the chain of command’. It’s very childish.


  • rushmore, 1998

    We stole scenes from Rushmore because The Dirties is based on a kid who’s obsessed with movies, who’s trying to steal from them, even unconsciously. Matt is a neophyte filmmaker, all he can do is ape and mimic things. He has no identity yet and he’s trying to forge it through violence. The film’s content has been criticized, sure, but really only from people who haven’t seen the entire film. On paper, it can seem like a comedy about a school shooting. When we were pitching to try and get money for it, nobody would give us anything because they thought it was such a tasteless idea. They screened the film for the US Congress in November because there’s a programme that screens four or five movies a year to try and influence policy-making, and there was a huge argument there between the right and the left about what the film was trying to say, but the film wasn’t trying to say any of the things that they were saying it said. It’s a movie about my own life and my friend’s life. When we were making it, it was just us trying to deal with our baggage over Columbine, which was such a psychological brick to us. Personally, I had so much baggage over it because when I see the films those kids made of themselves, they’re exactly like me. The movie that Matt and Owen make in The Dirties is so much like the movies that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were making. It’s quite traumatic that the idea that somebody who is just like you, who says a lot of thing things you said as a kid and behaves the way you behaved, goes on to become this psychotic, demonic, monster. I think the point we’re trying to make is about celebrity and how the media represents these people. These guys are always trying to become celebrities or powerful myths. They say things like ‘I’m powerful, I’m important, I’m more important than people give me credit for’. It’s so strange that they are always saying the same things; Matt in the movie is saying the same thing. Our theory, as young people who know nothing about psychology, is that these people want to become stars in their own movies. They’re trying to become celebrities. They’re cut off from the celebrity of their own schools, they’re cut off from their own social groups, they feel like they have no power, and in order to get power and show people they’re important and worth ‘idolising’, they try to do something to cast them into the light of celebrity. Jim Morrison said, in the ‘70s, to really be a star you have to be a politician or an assassin. It was true then and it’s true now; it’s the people that do things that we find the most detestable that become the most famous, for some strange reason. Which is the reason why the camera in our film never stops, never turns off because it’s as fascinated by what’s happening as media audiences would be.