Fantastic Fest: Rian Johnson Talks ‘Looper,’ ‘Back to the Future’ and What Happened to France

By  · Published on September 27th, 2012

Photo Courtesy of Fantastic Fest

Rian Johnson is a director you’re going to want to get to know, if you don’t already. He’s one of the more innovative filmmakers around and his previous films, Brick and Brothers Bloom have been triumphs of independent cinema. If nothing else, Brick showed us that there is still life remaining in the otherwise tired convention of film noir and that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was ready to be a leading man in something other than fluff comedy. Johnson’s latest film, Looper, re-teams him with JGL as well as giving him the chance to work with Bruce Willis on what is essentially the biggest movie of his burgeoning career. After seeing Looper at Fantastic Fest, we had a blunderbuss full of questions to fire at Johnson. We were so happy he was able to make time for us.

In interviews for films this layered, I always ask about the genesis of the script. In this case I am fairly certain it wasn’t that you saw The Kid and just wanted to see another Bruce-Willis-meets-his-younger-self movie.

I’ve never seen The Kid, actually. I need to see it now. That’s the premise of it, right?

It’s nowhere near as good, but yeah.

I need to see it, I really need to see it. No, the genesis of it was… and I wrote it a while ago. I wrote it about 10 years ago as a short film that I never ended up shooting. So it was like a three page script that I wrote. I was reading a ton of Philip K. Dick at the time. And this was a little sci-fi idea that just popped out of that. Basically the voiceover narration that opens the movie opened the short. It was very VO driven. Yeah, just the basic notion of a hitman that works for a mob in the future. They send him his victims back. One day they send him back his older self. His older self runs and the short was a foot chase between the two of them across the city as voiceover kinda played out. And it was just like this little simple, self-contained short. But the idea always stuck with me. So it kinda sat in a drawer, and after I got done with Brothers Bloom I took it out and it seemed like something really tonally different than Bloom, which was appealing to me because I’d had my head in that world. It seemed nice to kind of do something totally different. And it also seemed like something I could work with Joe on. The main character, the notion that I could work with my friend on it.

You wrote it for him, right?

I did, yeah. We had stayed really tight since Brick. We’ve stayed really good friends. So we were always kinda looking for something to work on together. And I knew that he would be really good at it and excited about it, very excited about tackling this challenge of transforming into another actor. That’s a really specific thing to ask of somebody. And it’s something Joe is particularly good at, is doing like physical transformations.

As a director, is it especially difficult to say to an actor, “OK, I need to help you create your character, your character that is completely yours, but then also, you are the younger version of another actor.”

[laughter] Well, I mean no. The answer is, as a director, just hiring Joe was the hardest thing that I had to do. It was really on his shoulders. You give him what he needs. You guide him through it. You kind of give him feedback. But the truth is, you know, he is tasked with taking on these mannerisms of Bruce. I guess I was never really concerned about it feeling like an impression. I was never concerned about it feeling like that, because I know that Joe is a terrific actor; he is going to be coming from it at the right place. And he was never imitating Bruce, he was creating a character that you could buy as the younger version of the character Bruce is playing, which sounds like just…you know…

Well no, because if he was just doing an impression, there are marked differences in a person’s life between when they are young and when they are older.

Well, that’s something that Joe did that I thought was really smart. He studied Bruce’s films, but he studied his more recent films. He didn’t look back at Die Hard and Moonlighting. He looked at Sin City. He looked at the more recent stuff that he had done. And mostly, he just had dinner with him and just studied him. That is something I think is a really important distinction, because he wasn’t imitating young Bruce, he was looking at Bruce today and creating somebody you could buy a younger version of him.

I have to ask, when you set out to write a time travel story, were you concerned about those logical traps that this subset of sci-fi presents?

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I was. But, at the same time…I was…I mean I’m sci-fi geek myself, and I’m the guy who loves to dig into the logic traps of everything…

Start picking apart Back to the Future?

Yeah. At the same time, if it’s a great movie, it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of it. If anything, if I dig into it and find all the little things that don’t quite make sense, that’s part of the enjoyment. You know, you dig deep enough into any story, even the best told one that has time travel in it, you’re going to hit a level where it doesn’t add up and it doesn’t make sense.

Because it is, at its heart, illogical.

It is illogical at its heart, especially when you are going into the past and dealing with all that jazz. So the best thing you can do is create an internal logic that you stick to and play fair by, and then make sure that your storytelling is tight. That’s what Back to the Future does great, for example. You can look at the thing with the limbs disappearing in Back to the Future in the Polaroid and say, “well, does that really make sense?” And the answer is it doesn’t matter, because intuitively it make sense to the audience. It makes sense on a storytelling level. You see that and you realize instantly what’s happened.

It’s playing by its own rules so it’s at least internally consistent.

Precisely. That’s all you can go for. So once I give myself permission to do that, then that kind of took that weight off my shoulders a little bit. Look, it’s a beast. It’s a tough thing to work into your story and tame it, especially a movie like this where it’s not about time travel, it’s about the characters dealing with the effects of it. It’s just something you have to continually stop yourself from explaining every little thing.

I don’t know if this is intentional, but I do love the fact that at one point Bruce has that very barking line where he tells you, “I don’t want to talk about time travel shit!” I felt like he was saying that to the audience. Like, “OK, if Bruce Willis says we’re going to leave it alone, we’re going to leave it alone.”

[Laughs] Well I hope it also expresses where the audience’s head is at, at that point, too. As an audience member watching the movie at that point, do I really want to see a 20-minute chalkboard scene? No. I want to see how this is going to play out. So yeah, it’s both an expression as a writer and also as the audience. But I did definitely put a lot of work into coming up with a consistent set of rules we stuck to. It was just a matter of not having a scene where we explain them, I guess.

The one thing I really love in any sci-fi movie is seeing how the filmmaker conceives of the future, because they are always going to be different. What I really love about the future in Looper is how reserved it is. I mean we have a few noticeable technological advances, but you still, for example, have an agrarian setting in the future, which is something you don’t see much anymore. So what were you thinking about in terms of constructing that view of the future?

Well, it was near future. I wanted it to be very grounded. And I wanted it to be recognizable. My thinking was that we’re asking the audience to absorb so much in that first half hour of the movie with the rules of Loopers, and time travel, and the TK stuff. I wanted the world to be something that didn’t take that much energy to absorb, where you looked at it and said, “OK, I know where we’re at.” And so, near future, dystopia. There are some fun touches in there, and hopefully it holds together in a cohesive way that is kind of unique. But overall, I didn’t want it to be having to figure out how the technology in this new world worked. I wanted you to just kind of see it as a natural evolution of the world that we live in now. So all the design decisions kind of came from there. You know, and also from a story place. It made sense, to me, to make the world that way because all these characters are acting in very self-serving ways. Joe is doing everything he can to protect his piece of the pie at the beginning. So to show the world around him and why he’s like that, it showed that it’s either you have your stack of silver or you are in the gutter. That was important as well.

Rian Johnson and Aaron Hillis Performing in Fantastic Fest’s Nerd Rap

Something that I noticed in your films ‐ I mean, obviously in Brick it’s hard not to notice it ‐ but your use of language is very specific. And more to the point, you have, it seems, an affinity for archaic language. I feel like there’s even little bits of that that leak into Looper. Is that something you try to do with every movie?

Well, you know, I try to, but I think it’s just something that’s fun.

The guns being called…

The Blunderbuss. Yeah, that’s a big one.

And the “gat” men, I loved that.

Well, and part of that is, you know, it is just fun and it’s something I do really enjoy working in there. Though, at the same time, it’s got to make sense for the story. For me it’s…I was trying to consciously do a lot less of it in Looper. I was trying to make this sound the same way that the world is visually grounded. I wanted to use less words. I wanted to have the language kind of not be so ornate. But yeah, I mean the gat men and the Blunderbusses are the two where I guess I kind of just let myself have those. The Blunderbuss, although it’s an antiquated phrase, it does actually call back to exactly the function of the gun ‐ this idea of it being kind of a widespread type gun that’s gonna hit anything you vaguely aim at if it’s close enough. And the gats, that was a way of just pegging these guys as muscle, as gangsters.

Well, and what it does too is that it actually says something about the Loopers themseles. You have gat men who have actual guns, and then you have the Loopers who are just kind of the minimum wage guys. It’s like give them the biggest gun possible so they can’t screw up.

Yeah, and that was important to me too. They are kind of a bunch of overdressed yahoos who are probably going to show up totally hung-over in the morning. So give them something that not only will they basically hit it, but also the gun is not something they can do any real damage with because it doesn’t even have any range to it. Yeah, so you’re right. That was really important.

With that language, it does bring into play a kind of film noir aspect. You’ve got sci-fi, you’ve got action, you’ve got film noir. You’ve even got a super villain origin story going on. So as you’re juggling all these different genres at once, how do you manage them so that you have one cohesive thread?

Well, I think you start with a thread line. It’s not until I get the whole thing formed and step back that I can even see where the genre elements come in. If you started from, “OK, I’m going to weave this genre into that genre and subvert it with that genre,” that would probably be a bad place to start. You’ve got to begin with the story that you’re telling and begin with figuring out where that has to go in order to get to the emotional and thematic place you want by the end. And then you’ve got to look at the needs of that and use the tools of genre to kind of support that and to get it there. So, for instance, it does lead to a thing where the beginning of the movie has like this noir twinge to it because the world of the city is a very dangerous world where it’s dog-eat-dog and people use violence to get what they want and to protect what’s theirs. And then Sara’s world has a much more western feel because it is, as opposed to the dirty vertical of the city, it’s the flat clean horizontal of the farm. It’s got those wide open spaces and there’s a totally different feel. That’s to support this moral sort of dichotomy that I was hoping to build that comes down to the big choice at the end for Joe, which is the city’s way of doing things versus Sara’s way of doing things. So it’s about using, hopefully, the tools of genre to support the construct that you’ve got in your head, which is coming from a story-based and thematic place.

There are so many striking visuals in this movie. I wan to talk about the, not to get too spoilery, I would just say the angry child scene. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to shoot that scene? It’s phenomenal.

Yeah. We had a tremendous young actor, Pierce Gagnon, who was five years old when we shot this. For him it was just getting to scream at the top of his lungs. It was fun. Pierce is a great actor and he just really had a great time doing those scenes. And it is the sort of thing also where a sequence like that is put together in little pieces. So it’s not like the full impact of what it’s going to be like on the screen is apparent to anybody on the set when you’re shooting it. Also, a lot of it had slow motion stuff. So you are shooting something that doesn’t look that impressive, and it’s only when you put it together in the context of how you build up the sound design and everything you realize how disturbing it all is.Which I think is a really good thing, especially considering it was a child actor on set. You are just getting bit, by bit, by bit, and do this, and going through this thing and that thing and that thing. It’s only in the edit room it all comes together into something kind of disturbing.

I’m almost afraid to ask, but I have to, what happened to France?

Oh. [laughs] What happened basically is that, originally, the sequence where he goes off, we were going to shoot it in France. Well, it was going to be set in France, but we didn’t have the money to go there. So we were going to have to fake Paris in New Orleans, which would not have been ideal. Our Chinese distributor stepped in and said, “Look, if it makes sense to you for that section of the story for him to go to Shanghai instead, we can make this a coproduction and actually bring you over and you can shoot that sequence in Shanghai instead of just pasting the Eifel Tower on the horizon visually and making New Orleans work. So I gave it a little bit of thought and I’m like, you know what? In terms of the far future setting, just contextually in the world of sci-fi, Shanghai feels actually like it makes more sense than Paris would. And it would also visually open it up because we’d actually be able to go over there and shoot. So yeah, I actually made the change when we were in preproduction and decided to go over there.

So it was an inside baseball production joke. It wasn’t that you had conceived of a horrible fate for France?

Oh yeah, no, no. And actually, France would have played exactly the same role that Shanghai ended up playing. We didn’t change anything in the script besides just the name headers in terms of what city they were in. So it would have been functionally the same thing where he goes over and it’s a brave new world, and he falls into the same pattern he was before.

You are an independent filmmaker and you’ve been working so hard to excel in that vein. This is the biggest movie you’ve done thus far. Do you feel any heightened anxiety about it? Not that you have any reason to.

Sure. You always have reasons to…[laughs]. Well, yes and no. Yes just because it is a bigger thing. But no because…I don’t know. To me it’s nothing but a good thing the fact that it’s getting out there and the fact that more people are going to see it opening weekend. I mean that’s just really cool. I want it to do well because I want the people who financed it to do well. I want the people who stuck their necks out to get it made to be happy and to do well with it. But for me, it just seems like nothing but a good thing that more people are going to see it. But, and this is maybe the reason it doesn’t feel all that different or all that strange, that’s a very abstract thing. As a filmmaker going through this process, my day-to-day experience is exactly the same as it was for Brick or Bloom, just sitting down and talking to people about the movie. The notion that thousands and thousands of people are going to be seeing it more than saw any of the previous ones, that’s not really something concrete you can wrap your head around. It’s very ethereal and very abstract.

Because from your side it looks the same.

It looks the same, basically. So that’s probably a healthy thing, I guess.

Looper is in theaters this Friday. Read more from Fantastic Fest

Related Topics:

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.