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[Interview] ‘Looper’ Helmer Rian Johnson Discusses Shaping the Future, Combining Conceits, and Big Exposure

Written by , on September 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm 

The first time I heard Rian Johnson talk about Looper, a new President had just been elected.

Needless to say, there’s been a long journey for this film — his third, biggest, and most accomplished — a fact which already gave me somewhere to kick off when we sat down last week. Once you see the film, you’ll know there are about fifteen different places to go from there; where this headed, if I may say so, should give a bit of proper insight into the writer-director’s creative process. And, although elements of the film’s second half are discussed, some of the more specific language has been edited our for your own convenience. Nevertheless, go see this film.

The Film Stage: You must be excited to finally have this coming out.

Rian Johnson: I’m really excited. It’s really weird that the movie’s finally going to come out. [Laughs] It’s been a long time coming.

I remember first reading about this back in early 2009 and thinking, “Oh, that should be out soon.” It ended up taking a while.

Yeah.

So, I think that’s actually a good jumping off-point. Years ago, there was a photo you took that showed stacks of the script –

It was notebooks.

Notebooks.

Yeah, because I work in these moleskin notebooks.

So, how did the film evolve, grow, and change from its inception point up to now?

Well, it was a weird path. I wrote the first idea for it, the basic idea, as a short film that I never ended up shooting. And I did that about ten years ago — back before we made Brick, actually — but, then, that just sat in a drawer until I finished Brothers Bloom, and it would’ve been around 2009 or so, I guess — 2008, 2009. I pulled it out, attached some bigger themes to it, and kind of expanded that into a feature.

But it’s funny, though. At some point, I will put the script for that short out online — I don’t want to do it before the movie comes out, because it’ll actually spoil the ending of the movie — but it’s interesting how much of the movie is actually in that short. It’s interesting — the consistency, the throughline, and how little changed. But, of course, the whole element of Sarah’s story, with Emily Blunt’s character, that’s one of the big things that came into it when I expanded it out, I guess.

How long was that original short script?

About three pages.

Oh, wow. Very short.

Yeah, very short.

I guess you could have done Evil Demon Golfball from Hell!!! as a film –

[Laughs] Franchise! That’s going to be my big franchise; I’ve got that in my pocket. It’s my tentpole.

I didn’t watch much before going in, so I really had no idea what the film was actually about. I knew “guy gets sent back in time, he meets his past self.” What surprised me, right off the bat, is that this is actually set in the future, which, I think, is an interesting choice for a movie about time travel where somebody gets sent back. What was your creative incentive in choosing the setting?

Well, first of all, I knew that it had to be a world where time travel doesn’t exist, but the effects of time travel are something that this criminal portion has to deal with. So it was either… we said “in the near future,” or, we somehow make it that it’s very secret — and no one in our world knows it — or we create an alternate present, or something like that.

It just seemed simpler, to me, to set it in the near-future. We give ourselves a freedom of creating a world where this is part of it, where Loopers are not a big secret; it’s kind of, everyone knows this criminal group exists, and everyone knows that time travel, in the future, exists, and they use it for this purpose.

So, that was a big part of it. And, also, just as a sci-fi fan myself, getting to do near-future, having that be our base, let us have some of the toys — let us do hover bikes, or really knocked-down, grounded versions of hover bikes, at least. Or a technology with phones. It let us have the [other] thing, which ended up being a pretty integral part of the story. So, I guess there were a lot of reasons to just set it a little farther out.

I really like how you had [that], or floating bikes. It also seems like, at one point, there’s a flying police surveillance car?

Yeah, the helicopters had drones. Yeah.

And, of course, when I saw that shot, my mind instantly went to Blade Runner.

Sure, yeah.

But, even some of the skyline shots… I almost thought of Metropolis, in a weird way.

I like that.

On that note, what were some of your filmic influences when creating this near-future?

Well, as we were trying — especially for the sci-fi stuff — I was actually trying not to look specifically at other sci-fi movies. I was trying just to make each decision based on the needs of the story, because I figured all of that stuff would be in there; because I love that stuff I grew up watching. So, I knew that, you know, the sci-fi influences would seep their way in there.

For a lot of the city stuff, it was just a matter of trying to think, “Okay, what’s this world like?” And one of the big things was, we’re going to make it really grounded; it’s going to be kind of a knocked-down version of a world that looks pretty familiar to all of us. So, as opposed to building big, sleek, new buildings, it was taking existing buildings in the skyline, knocking out half of it, and seeing, like, vagrant fires burning in the shell of the building, or seeing weeds that have overgrown part of it.

Yeah, it was just a matter of taking it step-by-step, and I also… there’s so much that we’re asking the audience to absorb in that first act — with the time travel, the [redacted], the society of the gat men and Loopers — to a certain extent, I wanted the world to kind of be telegraphed, to be something that we recognize. I didn’t want to throw it that far out there, because I didn’t want the audience to have to spend a lot of brain calories figuring it out. It’s sort of a version of the dystopian future that we’ve seen before, so you can look at it and say, “Okay, I know where we’re at.”

Well, it seems to have worked. I remember, as I was watching the film, thinking that it all kind of felt lived-in; like you’re just sort of filming it now, as opposed to building it from the ground-up, onscreen.

Yeah, that’s the way we intended it to feel. Of course, that requires building it from the ground-up when you’re designing it, but that’s the way we intended it to feel to an audience — that you should recognize it to a weird degree. Even if you’re just recognizing it from other movies, you recognize it.

Going back to the script: How did you find a way to reconcile and balance the film’s two science fiction conceits? They’re very different, and I’ve never seen them in the same film.

It was kind of tricky, once I realized [that other] element was going to be essential for what I wanted to do with The Rainmaker. I realized I had to work it into the fabric of the story and it was a tough thing, because there’s the phrase “putting a hat on a hat.” Have you heard that?

I don’t believe so.

It’s a really good description of a trap you can fall into in screenwriting — where you have one tricky concept that you’re asking the audience to buy, and then you put another tricky concept on top of that. It’s kind of a shorthand for over-complicating things. And that was the danger with having these two sci-fi elements in it, but I also knew [it] was totally essential, so I had to figure out a way to do it. My approach was to really underplay the [other] thing; to have it be something where it’s mainly used as… kind of make a joke out of it in the beginning of it. It’s used as a bar trick, basically. That was kind of my approach.

At the same time, it was important to weave it into the fabric of everything, but we kind of sell time travel as the huge concept that everything’s going to hinge on, and undersell the [other] thing; at the end, time travel has kind of receded and the [other] thing kind of takes over. So, it hopefully kind of wedges into each other a little bit.

I thought to myself, “So, first he watched The Terminator, and then he must have seen [another film].” I mean that in a good way, too.

Oh, absolutely. Well, also, I mean, a lot of that imagery is also out of Otomo’s work out of Akira, and Domu — which is another one he did before Akira — but, yeah, absolutely. There’s something about the child screaming, that image, that has stuck with me. Absolutely.

It’s interesting, how it’s now been about six years since Brick opened theatrically.

Oh, I guess so. Yeah.

Obviously, in that time, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has really taken off. When he started to re-emerge, I remember thinking, “It’s the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun.” Now, he’s not that; he’s his own name.

Yeah.

In this sense, do you find that, when you’re moving to these bigger films… it seems like you’re not just getting bigger in terms of scale, but also receiving much more outside attention. Is it kind of hard to work in that same mold, when more eyes end up peering at you during the creative process?

No, not really, because it doesn’t really feel that way. It’s nice, it’s really cool, the idea that more people will see this movie, right out of the gate — that’s awesome, and that’s why we make them. But, at the same time… I mean, just for me, that’s a really abstract concept.

It’s not like I’m out there with a million more people watching it; I just vaguely know that, and it’s hard to wrap your head around that. Which, I think, is a really healthy thing, because it means that the actually process of making these movies is pretty consistent. I mean, making Looper felt very much the same as making — I mean, it’s a very different experience — but, scale-wise, working with the same group of friends. It’s just getting together to tell a story; it didn’t feel like anything different.

So, I guess all the stuff that would make it feel different is so weird and abstract that it doesn’t really enter into the reality of making these things.

Right. It’s more, “after you’ve made it, now you have to sell it.”

Yeah, exactly. And even in this phase, it’s… I don’t know, this feels the same way it did releasing Brick or Bloom, where I’m sitting down with people and talking about the movie. The concept that it’s going to be in more theaters, or whatever, like I said, that’s cool to think about, but it’s hard to really hold that as a concrete fact in your head. [Laughs] You know, it just seems so weird, I guess.

Looper opens everywhere on September 28th.


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