Director Rian Johnson Explains The Difficult Path to ‘Looper’

By  · Published on January 9th, 2013

Writer/director Rian Johnson’s Looper is an intricately told film. Nearly every scene in the movie is packed full of new information, from character development to world building. As Johnson explains finding that structure, it was like creating stepping stones across a pond for the audience, so they don’t fall into the pond of mind-numbing exposition.

That wasn’t an easy path to make, either. Johnson spent many years developing the story from a two-page treatment to a feature length film, and much of that process was dedicated to handling all of the film’s information. After Looper’s box office and critical success, it’s fair to say he managed with flying colors.

With the movie out on Blu-ray, Johnson took some time to speak with us about the story’s mother/son dynamic, why the best science fiction has something we care deeply about at its core, and his desire to write more economically:

A lot of sci-fi films never match their premise, and I’d say you avoided that pitfall by having that high concept lead to a mother/son story. How early on did you know you were going to steer the set up into that direction?

That’s a good question, because all the sci-fi I grew up loving ‐ Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, or whoever it was ‐ used its sci-fi premise as a tool to talk about something we really cared about. To me, that’s what sci-fi is for. It’s not necessarily to preach or send a message, but just to talk about what we as human beings can relate to, while using these fantastic concepts we cannot relate to at all. That’s a very powerful thing, I think. The idea of going onto the farm in the second half of it with the mother/son relationship developed as I was writing the script relatively late in the game.

It was a less about switching the focus from the basic set up of the old man versus the young man, but more about: what is the best, deepest way of exploring this old man versus young man dynamic and the basic concept between them? You can either have them go head-to-head in the second half of the movie ‐ having more chases and shootouts between them or the two of them ganging up ‐ but it seemed much sharper giving them both the same problem to deal with, and then exploring the conflict within them by how they deal with that problem.

The problem that seemed to cut most to the bone was this thing between children and mothers, which was the exact opposite of the world we had just been in. I don’t know if I’m making sense, but, for me, it was not a way of departing from our main theme, but digging deeper into it.

So there was never a version early on of the two Joes constantly fighting each other?

No, no, not really. I will say, the original two-page treatment I wrote 10 years ago, which was the first incarnation of Looper, was just that. It was the two of them chasing each other across the city. I found when I expanded it out into an entire feature it has to become a different feature. What works on a few pages of text doesn’t necessarily stretch out to two hours worth an audience’s time. It just ended up growing and it made sense taking it into the direction the movie goes in.

The two Joes commit some pretty heinous acts. When trying to find financing, did you meet some resistance over how unappealing they appear?

Yeah, we definitely did. At the same time, we were very lucky that the company that financed this, Endgame, and the main guy there, Jim Stern, we have a good relationship with. They financed The Brothers Bloom and we have a very good working relationship with them. We were lucky to have a very powerful man to greenlight our film who trusted us quite a bit. I think that was a very fortunate spot to be in, and that’s the reason the movie exists.

[Spoiler Alert]

Touching more on the anti-hero angle, I always liked the idea that, maybe if young Joe had a few more seconds to think about it, he wouldn’t have sacrificed himself.

To me, the entire movie was about landing that ending. That’s really interesting you say that, and from a filmmaking point-of-view, that’s a part of the pleasure for me. I’m seeing it one way to a certain extent and then I put it the film out there and people think far beyong that and create their own theories. That’s why I do this.

[Spoiler Over]

Obviously the ending was a challenge, but what other scenes stand out as the most difficult?

The diner scene. That scene was a real beast. Even leading into production I did a lot of work on it. I ran it over with Joe and Bruce over and over before we shot it. Then we honed it, trimmed it, added stuff, and took away stuff. Actually, I recently released the script online, so anyone can look and see how different the finished scene is from what was originally written. You know, I never really worked as a professional writer and I’ve only written stuff for me to direct, so one of things with Looper I wanted to challenge myself on was disciplining myself to rewrites and never getting precious over anything.

It was always about questioning every single word in the script and asking, “Can this be better?” It was like that all the way up to shooting on set. Obviously that’s just a writer’s job and not anything special, but, for me, that’s something I wanted to get better at.

Did you do less of that on The Brothers Bloom and Brick?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you still dig into it and make it better, but it was one of the things I wanted to focus on with Looper and moving forward. I want to keep pushing myself to honing it down and never letting myself off the hook.

Something Emily Blunt mentions in the audio commentary is how certain things work on a page, but not in a movie. Now having made three features, what would you say usually doesn’t translate from the script to screen?

God, man, it’s tough, because if there’s one thing I wish I had the power to it’d be the ability to see that on the page [Laughs]. You’d save so much time being able to recognize something you could lose. Maybe I’ll get better at that with more experience, but…I don’t know. Besides the simple answer of economy, I can’t say, “You got to watch out for this and that.” Overall I think it’s the old chestnut of, “Does this line need to be here? Does this scene need to be here? Does this word in this line need to be here?” If you’re really honest with yourself and you say “no,” that’s what works on the page, but ultimately may not work on the screen.

I imagine the aging montage may have been one of those scenes, since we see an alternate version with a few extra shots cut out.

It was more tough in the editing than in the writing. That’s one of those things where it was a sequence that came in fairly late in the writing process. From a writing point-of-view, it was an entirely visual scene, so I may have overwrote it. When you’re writing it’s very easy to have this fast flow of images in your head, but then you shoot the thing and think, “Oh my God, this scene is eight minutes long and everyone is getting bored during it.” The writing of that felt very easy, and maybe that should’ve been a warning sign, but we ended up trimming it down and finding the heart of it. We finished that scene right before we locked picture. That was the last scene I did work on.

So, always be wary if something feels too easy?

Well, no…I mean, it’s tempting to say a rule like that, but if something feels easy then it can workout great [Laughs]. I guess the only rule is whatever phase gives you the most trouble keep working on it until it’s right. Never give yourself a pass.

For that montage, there’s a big gap of 13 years between 10 and 23. I’m just curious, did you have anything in mind for what did happened in those years?

I can’t remember the exact layout of the scenes, but you’re probably right. I had it in my head what happened in those years, which I talked through with Joe. That sequence, and the movie itself, was entirely about what blanks we have to fill in. To totally belabor the analogy, it was like building a series of stepping stones across a pond and carefully choosing how to get across the pond using the fewest amount of stones while making sure the audience doesn’t fall into the water. That’s what those moments and the leaps in the timeline were really gauged by.

My final question for you: Do you see yourself only directing your own original scripts in the future?

For now? Yeah. I’m writing the next thing I’m going to do, and it’s another original script. That’s just the thing I’m used to. At the same time, I’m a slow writer and writing is kind of a laborious process, so I can’t say it wouldn’t be nice to find a really great piece of material written by someone else and come in and realize it.

Right now I’m resigned to telling my own stories, even if takes more time. It’s what makes the machine run for me.

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Looper is now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.