When he was 24, Rian Johnson wrote the script for a high school noir. It had all the teen cliches—cool kids, jocks, loners, burnouts—and a heavy dose of his Dashiell Hammett influences including a murder and a beautiful dame who can't be trusted. And then he spent seven years trying to get it made. When the studio system wouldn't nibble, he raised $500,000 from his friends and family and shot Brick himself, casting a young TV actor named Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead. He shot it in 20 days, submitted it to Sundance, and won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision. A career was launched. His next film, the caper comedy The Brothers Bloom, showed he had a sense of humor and the energy to wrangle Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody into a bright-colored confection. But it's his third film, Looper, a time travel thriller that pits assassin Joseph Gordon-Levitt literally against his older self (played by Bruce Willis), that will cement the now-38 Rian Johnson as a director with the ambition and smarts to shape the next generation of cinema. If he wasn't on your radar before, be sure to read on.
You wrote the bones of this story ten years ago. What got you interested in working on it again now?
Well, it had just been sitting in a drawer for all that time. Like the Willie Nelson song, it had always been on my mind. It was just kind of always there, and after Brothers Bloom, it made a lot of sense to pick it up. I think tonally, I wanted to do something very different from Bloom coming out of it, just because naturally if your head is in a certain space for years and years you want to do something that's very, very different the next time. The grittiness of this seemed like it would be a good answer to that. But other than that, you never quite know why the next story is the one that ends up taking off—but this one just did.
You cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt first—how did that narrow down who you could pick as the older version of him?
We probably should have paid more attention to: "Do they look like Joe?" There are definitely actors out there who are a lot closer, but when the possibility of Bruce presented itself, there was no way we were going to pass it up. Besides being a terrific actor, Bruce is also very, very right for the part in some very specific ways. The way that he is Bruce Willis on screen, the way that audiences look at him as the hero with the plan, that kind of played very well to the function the character has in the story. We cast him and then it was like a morning-after moment. We were like, "Oh my God—they don't look anything like each other." And so that's when we had to figure out what we were going to do, and we enlisted this great make-up artist, Kazuhiro Tsuji, who looked at their faces and his initial reaction was, "This isn't going to work."
Yeah! Their faces were too different. The big thing—and this was really interesting—he said the spacing of their eyes was too different. And that's actually one of the first things that you immediately recognize about somebody's face, is how far apart their eyes are. And that's one thing you can't fake with makeup. So he just said, "There is no way you can make these two look the same." So we kind of took a break and we said, "Okay, well we won't try to make them look the same, let's just pick a couple features and alter those—let's just get them closer." And luckily, Kazu did a great job with that, and Joe's performance is, I think, good enough to sell people on it.
Maybe the movie mentally tricks you because when I was watching it, I was thinking, "Wow, I never realized how much they looked alike before." They way their eyes turn down at the corners, the shape of their foreheads.
Yes! It's the make-up and that's why I'm excited for people to start seeing the movie because I think that Joe's performance is really great. I mean, the makeup looked good to us but before we started shooting, in the back of my head I was still terrified. I was thinking, "How is this going to work?" And once I saw Joe kind of take on the mannerisms of Bruce and the voice and create this very real living, breathing character who had so many qualities with Bruce, that's when I started breathing a little easier.
At least he knows he'll keep his hair, unlike Bruce.
Yeah, exactly. Actually, he did that—did you catch that little thing of him checking his hairline in the mirror at the beginning of it? Look for it. It was a little thing Joe did that he improvised, squinting at his hairline.
This seems like the kind of script where you woke up in the middle of the night with an "A-ha!" moment, where you'd figure out something new you could do with the time travel.
Ha, very few of those moments. Those moments are usually much more anticlimactic. I do actually remember walking down the street and having the idea for this one cool, specific thing. And it was a pretty early thing, kind of like an "A-ha" moment coming up with that worked with the logic of our time travel and helped explain it in a horrifying way. With time travel movies, so much of the trick of it is figuring out how to get the rules across without explaining the rules, and that's where most of the elbow grease ends up going in terms of the script. It's little moments like that where, in a really visceral way and without dialogue, you can communicate the rules to the audiences. Those are very lucky moments.
True. And you've jumped forward to this near-ish future of 2044, but you don't really talk about anything that's happened in the world between then and now. You just casually show what the world is like. Talk about the thought behind imagining this version of the future.
It's funny because when I was writing the script, I was really focused just on the narrative and the characters, especially because The Brothers Bloom had been this very loose thing. With this, I wanted to really discipline myself and really try and tighten the screws and get everything as tight as possible narratively. I was just putting all my energy into that and I wasn't really thinking about world-building. I wasn't thinking about how any of this would look or what the world would be like. And so when it came time to do that, when we hired all these talented design people and started making the movie, I didn't have some vision or whatever of the world. We just had to start working from scratch, which was great, because every single design decision came out of just the needs of the story. So, we made this kind of dystopian near-future that hopefully has some fun, unique elements to it, but overall I think is something that audiences will just recognize. Which I think is useful as a storyteller because there are so many other things we're asking the audience to wrap their heads around in this story, that you can just look at the world and say, "Oh, okay. We know where we are." It's one less thing for the audience to spend brain-power wrestling with.
And the cars still seem familiar-ish.
Yeah. The reference we had was the "Yanks Tanks" in Cuba—you know, the cars from the '60s that are still in use. People just have to make do, and here there's the idea that they're doing that with cars from 2010. Now, any time I see a movie set in the future—especially one that doesn't have a huge budget—the first thing I look for is how they handled the cars and the street signs. I realize that that's the big challenge.
You had a much larger budget here in comparison to the $500,000 that you had for Brick. A half-million dollars forces you to be crazy creative. Now that you had more money and flexibility, did you miss having that pinch?
Did I miss it? Hell no! But the truth is, and I don't know how this is going to sound, but I would suspect this would be the same if we had an $80 million dollar budget or a $200 million dollar budget. Well, maybe not $200 million, but I think you always have ten percent less than you think you need. So we had many more resources here on Looper, but it was a much more ambitious thing in terms of scope than Brick, and we were dealing with some special effects, and a bigger world, and a bigger cast, and bigger scope. Gas expands to fill a container, and you always feel like you're rushing and you always have to make creative leaps to make it work for your budget. I'd be surprised if there's a level of filmmaking where that doesn't happen.
So being a director is like being a goldfish in a tank.
There you go! You said it, not me.
Fair enough. One other choice that you made is that you decided to rarely show the future-future, Bruce Willis' future. What was behind the decision to keep it almost strictly in one time zone?
The main thing was that the narrative takes place in this one time zone. It's about these characters dealing with this specific situation—it's not so much about hopping back and forth. But, to some extent, that was also in order to keep the time-travel element tame. We decided to take the approach that the first Terminator took where time travel exists in the future, but the people in our story don't really have access to it. And so, it can impose this magical situation on them and then we kind of don't have to deal with it for the rest of the story. For me, because the movie is about the characters and about this situation and not about the rules of time travel, that just seemed to make a lot of sense. Except for that one sequence where we do kind of briefly glimpse the future.
By the way, the use of bars of silvers is so Biblical.
Yeah, right? The silver and the gold—it feels like, what's the old saying? A "shekel" in the Old Testament? Yeah, Judas' silver.
You can exactly measure the value of a man's life in silver bars.
I like that. And yeah, that's the sort of "A-ha!" moment that you were mentioning before. The things that makes me really go "A-ha!"—especially in the context of sci-fi—is when you come up with something that has that sort of resonance, but also just makes total sense. They use precious metal as the currency from the future because obviously paper currency wouldn't work. When you strike on something that has that kind of resonance but at the same time is actually the way it would happen in the real world, that for me is when you hear that crystal bell ring. That's when it feels ready.
Do you think people are ultimately in charge of their own destiny?
God, hitting me with the big questions! I think that we're in charge of our own destiny. I think one of the processes you hopefully go through in being a human being is slowly unfolding and becoming conscious of the things, the external forces, that guide you into whatever paths you're being guided onto. And then you can either choose to fight those or not. And whether that's society or whether that's psychological, in terms of the way you were raised or what have you, I dunno—I feel like I'm sounding like a pretentious asshole.
You're a director—you're supposed to.
Oh, wow. Again—you said it, not me. I will say this, though: the approach I took in this movie was I made a real conscious decision to not take a timeline view of the movie's events. To not take a God's eye perspective and to feel like I had to draw out a huge timeline and the characters had to adhere to that. I really wanted just to be on the ground with these characters moment to moment and have them act in response to what was in front of them. And so in that way, even though the movie has many elements of fate being determined by this bigger loop they're all in, the characters are all very much deciding their own destiny moment to moment. And I think the end of the movie is ultimately the best answer I can give to the question.
That makes sense. And if you don't mind me asking the million-dollar question, which I sort of feel like I have to, if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?
Sad little baby Hitler? With his little moppet of hair and his little baby mustache? In a very, very strange way, for me, the movie isn't about that specific question. It's much more about the broader notion of fixing the problem by finding the right person and killing them. You can separate that from the fantasy question of, "Can you time-travel back and kill Hitler?" because that's something that unfortunately we think of not just in action movies, but in world politics, as a solution to problems. And for me, it is less about the moral boundaries of that—it's more about the practical ones. Does that work? Or does that just create a self-perpetuating loop? And is that something that as humans we should maybe take a look at and think about breaking? God, so pretentious! Does that make sense?
If you could overhear people leaving Looper, what questions do you want them to be talking about after they've seen the film?
Oh, God, that's a terrifying question! There's nothing worse than being anonymous in the lobby and hearing people coming out and hearing the little snippets of conversation.
But now, you can design what you want them to say!
Oh, I can? In that case, I'm cool with this. No, I mean I think the fun thing for me is hearing where people land morally on the decisions that the main characters have made, and whose side they were on by the end of it. That for me is what's really exciting: seeing people get engaged. And on the same level that maybe in another movie, you'd be riding this narrative roller coaster about whether they're going to accomplish this heist or something, I hope to some degree in Looper that roller coaster happens in terms of your moral compass—whose side you're on, and who you think is in the right. And hearing the conversations about that afterward is actually something I'm really looking forward to.
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