American writer, producer and director Rian Johnson has gained steady recognition for his 2012 film “Looper” and his writing for AMC’s hit series “Breaking Bad”—not to mention his upcoming gig writing and directing “Star Wars Episode VIII” and “Episode IX.” Johnson’s work also will make it to Wilmington in the debut stage adaptation of his 2005 film “Brick,” which won Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It all started with a fan-fare email from local playwright and director Zeb Mims, who happened to adore the film since high school and stumbled upon Johnson’s website one day.
“You are able to download both the script to ‘Brick’ and also the novella he wrote of the same story,” Mims explains. “I sent [Johnson] an email, requesting to adapt the screenplay into a stage play and produce it. I wasn’t really expecting a response. The way I saw it, that website was 10 years old, and I questioned whether the email address was still active.”
Low and behold, a week later Johnson wrote back, not only with an apology on delay of response but to give the green light on Mims’ production. Johnson requested the young director keep him up to date on the process. It was a dream come true for Mims, who already had seen the debut of his own work, “Forget About It,” over the summer, thanks to Up All Night Productions, which is producing “Brick.”
“‘Brick’ has been my favorite movie since I first saw it when I was roughly 15,” Mims says. “It takes incredibly adult themes and a very stylized aesthetic and juxtaposes it all with a modern American high school. In an interview I read several years ago, Johnson (or it might have been Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the lead role of Brendan) talked about how a lot of films set in high schools poke fun at the way high-schoolers see the world. This film embraced the perspective of its main characters and immersed itself in their perceptions and experiences.”
The plot follows a high schooler whose girlfriend goes missing. A detective story emerges, all set in a neo-noir genre. Johnson has admitted taking inspiration from hard-boiled detective author Dashiell Hammett’s process of story construction.
“Johnson’s writing is very specific and stylized, almost to a Shakespearean level,” Mims tells. “To that end, I tried my hardest to make sure that absolutely nothing was changed about the way the characters speak. . . . I worried the dialogue was going to be difficult. My production crew and I have jokingly said this script has been like learning a new language. Luckily, everyone has really stepped up to the challenge of using language derived from old film-noir movies, without falling into the stereotypical accent associated with these characters.”
Browncoat Pub and Theatre veteran Joshua Bailey will be taking on the protagonist role. Brendan is onstage during every scene of the play and reveals the story through many monologues. “Josh has really risen to the challenge of this part,” Mims says. “The other characters in this play are all distinct from one another. From the femme fatale to the damsel in distress, from the organized crime boss to the innocent soul caught in the crossfire, this cast runs the gamut of types. Each character is mysterious, yet somehow intimately familiar to us.”
The cast makes up new and old faces on Wilmington’s theatre scene. Kristi Ray, Jaimie Harwood, Andrew Liguori, Matthew Carter, Olivia Arokiasamy, Hal Cosec, Atwood Boyd, Jessica Gift, Robert Smith, Joshua Browner, and Matthew Rodriguez all play a variety of roles. “The cast is very large compared to shows I’ve worked on in the past,” Mims notes.
It consists of eight main characters and four stock characters.”
Jessica Gift’s character is the only to stray from Johnson’s original script. Gift plays Trueman, the vice-principal of the high school. The role originally was played by Richard Roundtree, best known as Shaft in the movie “Shaft.” Gift will play all other female adults in the story, too. “The plot is essentially exactly the same,” Mims promieses. “When writing the script, I used only Johnson’s words and added nothing new of my own.”
Set design has come with the help of assistant director Arianna Tysinger. Though the film utilizes numerous locations, Mims and Tysinger are choosing to go minimal. The two are displaying overarching themes and icons from the film, instead.
“The tone of the story is understandably dark,” Mims explains. “The color scheme makes use of blue, which recurs in the film both thematically and stylistically (large sections of the film were color corrected to have a blue tint). There is also a very large drainage tunnel that features prominently in early parts of the film. It’s iconic to the movie, so this image is likewise prominent in our set design.”
Costuming has been handed over to the cast. That they’re dressing modern-day teenagers allows them their own interpretations of their characters’ styles. “I asked them to think of things their character would wear,” Mims says.
Richard Blaylock is the show’s technical director. A lot of attention has been paid to the safety issue of firing blank weapons—especially considering Browncoat’s close quarters. “Like any good detective story, ‘Brick’ is full of gunshots and violent fist fights, but at the same time, it’s very smart and character-driven,” Mims tells. “I think that this is something we don’t see a lot of anymore, and I think this is what makes ‘Brick’ such an interesting story, whether it is presented as a film or a play.”
Browncoat Pub and Theatre
111 Grace St
Thurs..-Sun., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. January 8-11, 15-18 and 22-25