Day 6

Dick Johnson is Dead: A funny, dark, heartwarming documentary about nearing the end of life

When Kirsten Johnson learns that her father Dick has dementia, she addresses it in a somewhat unorthodox way — by faking Dick's death over and over again in her documentary film, Dick Johnson is Dead.

'I wanted to see him come back to life over and over and over again,' said director Kirsten Johnson

Dick Johnson in the fantasy-like heaven sequence in the documentary 'Dick Johnson is Dead.' (Netflix)

For most people, seeing one of their parents in a coffin would be a total nightmare

For Kirsten Johnson it was still a nightmare, but it was also kind of funny.

"Oh, that is brutal. That looks pretty good. Is it cozy in there?" she joked as her father lay in a coffin at the mock funeral she'd organized for him.

Kirsten Johnson is the director of the new Netflix documentary, Dick Johnson is Dead. Dick is her father and he is very much not dead.

But in the film, Kirsten stages her father's death multiple times, all of it fake and using stunt doubles. He dies by having a window air conditioner fall on his head as he walks down the sidewalk, he gets hit by a car and he gets hit with a wooden plank, just to name a few.

Johnson lies on the sidewalk after seemingly being killed by a falling air conditioner. It's one of his many staged deaths in 'Dick Johnson Is Dead.' (Netflix)

On the screen Kirsten and Dick appear to have a very loving relationship. So why would she create a film about killing him over and over again?

"I wanted to see him come back to life over and over and over again," she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

The resurrections

Before the idea of Dick Johnson is Dead had come to her, Dick had been diagnosed with dementia. A decade earlier, Kirsten's mother had died after suffering with Alzeheimer's. That had been a devastating experience for the family. 

"So this crazy idea came out of like, well, if my dad dies and I can bring him back to life again, then somehow I can get around this thing called death," she explained.

It's his gift to me and my gift to him.- Kirsten Johnson, director of Dick Johnson is Dead

Using stunt doubles, Kirsten had "this idea that I could have a stand-in dad, I could kill these stand-ins and keep my own dad safe was this strange metaphor for how cinema might help me, you know, hold my father back from the grips of dementia. How it might keep him alive forever, which was my mission — a doomed mission. I know."

Kirsten pitched the idea to her father, who is also a film lover.

"I said, 'Dad, you know, how about if we get some stunt people to help us, but we kill you over and over and we keep doing it until you really die,'" she says. "And he laughed." 

Kirsten Johnson sits over her father, who fakes being dead, for her film 'Dick Johnson is Dead.' (Netflix)

Dick is a former psychiatrist who lived and worked in Seattle. And in between the jokes and deaths Kirsten shows us the heartbreak of having to pack up his office and home and move to New York to live with her.

A little bit of heaven

In the film Kirsten creates a set of heaven, and what it might be like in Dick's vision.

At his dreamlike, celebratory dinner table people are wearing giant cardboard cutouts of the heads of famous people they thought would make great guests in heaven. Frederick Douglass, Frida Kahlo and Farrah Fawcett are among them.  

There is also a cutout of Dick's late wife, and via stand-in dancers, they share a joyful dance together.

And as the fantasy-like celebrations continue, there's a scene where Dick, who was born without fully formed toes, has his feet repaired by Jesus himself.


Kirsten talked about that scene with her father.

"You said to me once that ... if you could wish for anything, that [fixing your feet] was the wish," and she jokes with him that she was surprised because she thought he'd wish for world peace.

As they laugh together Dick responds, "I'd wish for mom not to die."

And just like that, as happens throughout the film, a lighthearted moment turns heartwarming, and even heartbreaking.

Dick Johnson isn't dead

"You know, dementia … it induces whiplash," said Kirsten.

"Because one moment ... the person who is there is the lucid, remarkable, brilliant person who has always loved you," she explained. "I'll be in these incredible analytic conversations with my dad and then all of a sudden, boom." 

As his dementia has progressed, Kirsten says the film has been a bit of a gift.

"He's watched it hundreds of times. He loves it. It allows him to do some time travel, to go back to the time when he could drive to see his friends again, to see his home again."

Dick Johnson and daughter Kirsten Johnson share a moment, dressed for Halloween. (Netflix)

She says the film has also highlighted his own self-awareness about his illness.

"He is incredibly empathetic to me about what I am going through. I think because we went through it with my mom. He'll say, 'wow, this must be really hard on you to see this happening to me.' And he'll watch the movie and say something like that," she said.

It's clear throughout the film that Kirsten and Dick are very close, and that he'd do anything for her.

"My relationship to him is the thing that, you know, mattered to him throughout this project. And it's his gift to me and my gift to him. And of course, if we could find a way to laugh about this, we want to share that with everybody."


Written and produced by Laurie Allan.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now