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Winner of the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Rian Johnson takes the spirit of hard-boiled noir mysteries somewhere new—modern-day Southern California. Student Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mysterious Skin) is smarter than everyone else, but he's happy to be an outsider until his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) vanishes. That's when Brendan enlists the help of The Brain (Matt O'Leary) and non-student The Pin (Lukas Haas) in what soon becomes a dangerous investigation into the truth about what happened to Emily. 


I have a big family, and we're all very close. As kids we'd spend our vacations together, fifteen cousins (I was the eldest) sitting around our grandparents' house in Colorado for several weeks with nothing much to do. Being too young to either understand the epic familial conflicts of our parents or drive to the mall, we spent our time making movies. And as the years passed, our library grew. From the frothy comedy of Aaron and Adam's Excellent Adventure to the effects-driven grandeur of Space Vampires, from historic epics such as Robing Hat, Prince of Nothing to the hard-hitting documentary Blood on the Sand: The Olga Gruben Story, we pushed the boundaries of teen filmmaking. We made blood squibs from ziplock bags and cherry Capri-Suns. We took vintage gowns from our grandmother's closet, put them on stuffed bears and threw them off rooftops. We woefully underused our one female cousin, Bethany, for which I'd like to publicly apologize. Sorry Bethany. And at the end of the vacation, after cutting it all together record-pause style from camera to VCR, we corralled our tipsy parents in front of the TV and had our screening.


When it came time to make my first feature, a strange little detective movie called Brick, I was 29 years old. It had taken seven years to find the money, get the cast and crew and pull it all together. In that time I had directed plenty of shorts, but in a way I felt like I was hopping straight from the level of those family movies to shooting a real film. I had never worked with a cast of professional actors. I had never directed a full crew. I felt confident in my ability to visually tell a story, and as frustrating as those seven years of limbo had been, they gave me plenty of time to plan every detail of what this movie would be. But still, going into it, a part of me was terrified.


The big revelation for me was that everything I needed to know about the logistics of making my first feature film, I learned from making those family movies. You think it's tough keeping a low-budget feature crew happy and motivated each day on set? Try working with nine-year-olds you're related to. How about knowing exactly what camera angles to cover a scene with? Piece of cake, we used to edit our family videos in camera. Getting kicked out of a location or busted for not having a permit? Child's play, if you've handled explaining to your grandmother what her Chanel couture gown is doing on that bear.


As proud as I am of the finished product and of everyone's work on the film, the thing I'm most proud of from my entire experience making Brick was the atmosphere during the shoot. In all the best ways, it felt like a natural extension of those family movies. If I'm lucky enough to keep making films, no matter what the budget, I hope every one of them captures that same feeling of a vacation during which we all decided to skip the mall, raid some wardrobes and make a movie.