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Rian Johnson Interview: ‘Looper,’ Time Travel Logistics and Transformations

Rian Johnson 'Looper' interview
Getty Images/Sony Pictures

We’ve already known how creative Rian Johnson is, and Emily Blunt even attested to that fact back during our Comic-Con interview. Back then, the celeb gave us some tid bits about what the director has in store for us with his latest project ‘Looper,’ and we’ll find out soon enough when it hits theaters this Friday, September 28.

The movie tells the story of a designated hitman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who kills people from the future who are sent back in time by the mob. But when he’s faced with killing his future self (Bruce Willis) and “closing the loop,” he misses the target and has to track himself down to finish the job.

We had a chance to speak with Rian Johnson at Fantastic Fest in Austin, just a few hours before the film’s premiere, to chat about what else we can expect. 

I really loved ‘Looper.’ I cried.

Yay! Cry high five! … That makes me very happy.

You’re happy that I cried.

I’m happy you cried.

You’re happy that I was in pain.

Yeah, I’m sorry.

We’re off to a good start. 

I’m sorry that I’m happy!

So how did you first come up with this idea for ‘Looper’? You’d been working on the script for several years, right?

I wrote the initial idea for it a long time ago. I wrote like, this three page short film that I never ended up shooting, about 10 years ago now, back before we made ‘Brick,’ our first film. It just kind of sat in a drawer for eight years, but I hadn’t been working on it for about 10 years. After ‘Brothers Bloom,’ that’s when I took it out of the drawer — took it off the hard drive, I guess — and figured out how to expand it into a feature.

And you always had Joseph Gordon-Levitt in mind for the film?

Yeah, when I picked it up and started writing it as a feature — you know, Joe and I stayed really good friends since we made ‘Brick’ together. We had always kind of thought we can’t wait to do a movie together again. So this seemed like something that would work really well for that, so while I was writing it I kind of, I wasn’t basing the character on Joe in any way, but I just kind of had in the back of my head that this would be a fun thing to work with him on. And I knew because of the big transformation that the part required that it would be something he would really love doing.

With Bruce Willis playing the older version of that character, it’s such a fascinating transformation. Can you talk about the process of making Joseph look more like Bruce?

When we first cast Bruce, we kind of looked at them both side by side and our first reaction was, we’re screwed, because they look so dissimilar. They don’t look anything alike. So we decided to do physical prosthetics and we just adjusted a few features, but really the thing that gives the illusion that they look alike is Joe’s performance, I think — his mannerisms, his voice, the way he carries himself.

It’s a lot of little things, I noticed.

I feel like I’m still picking it apart. I’m still figuring out what Joe did. He just kind of did it. I can’t take credit for any of it, he just kind of had the task and he went off, and we would talk about it or I would dial it back, or give him feedback or whatever, but it was really just him just studying Bruce and studying Bruce’s movies and bringing it all to the table.

Did Bruce also study Joseph’s mannerisms? Did they try to meet in the middle on anything?

Not really. It made sense to us to have Joe wrap himself around Bruce — mostly because we all grew up watching Bruce in movies so we all… on the same level where you know what your mother’s face looks like, we know what Bruce Willis’ face looks like and what his voice sounds like, and so to give Joe those big hand-holds to grab onto, and to give us and the audience the shared reference point of Bruce Willis just made a lot of sense.

I want to talk about the time travel in the film. You quickly dismiss the complicated hypotheticals in that diner scene — all the what ifs and ‘Back to the Future’-type scenarios.

[Laughs] Storytelling-wise, when I got to that point in the story, I could have had a half hour scene talking about that stuff. I’m a time travel geek myself. I’m a sci-fi nerd. I spent a lot of time coming up with what our set of rules was going to be for the movie, and making sure that we stayed consistent with those rules. I just realized that storytelling-wise, at that point, it wasn’t what was important to the story. I guess what I’m saying is that as a sci-fi nerd I’m always nervous that line is going to come across as me giving myself an excuse to be lazy with that stuff, and I actually tried to construct… It’s mostly a storytelling thing. And I hope it’s something the audience is feeling as well at that point. I’m hoping it clicks with the audience, like, [exhales] yes, as interesting as it would be, what I really care about right now is not a 30-minute discussion about all the different intricacies of how the time travel stuff works. Let’s see these two guys have it out and see who comes out on top, I guess.

That was one of my favorite parts, and I don’t think it reads as lazy at all. I think it reads exactly as you intended. It’s saying this is not what this movie is about. This is not that movie.

Right! Exactly.

It’s kind of that movie, but not really.

Yeah, and I love those movies, and ‘Primer’ is that movie. That’s one of my favorite films, but you’re right — the specific needs of this story were that we’d get on with it, I guess.

I just watched ‘Primer’ for the first time last year. 

Oh, wow. It’s intense, right?

Definitely. And speaking of ‘Primer,’ the writer and director of that film — Shane Carruth — was involved in ‘Looper’ in some capacity, is that correct?

Well, not really. I’m friends with Shane and he took a look at an early draft of the script and gave some useful feedback. And we had talked about collaborating on one of the effects sequences in the movie, but the sequence ended up getting cut and just for logistics reasons, it didn’t work out. So no, he didn’t really end up being involved with it.

But he was kind of around!

[Whispers] His spirit is in the air. Always.

Well, if you’re going to talk about the intricacies of time travel, ‘Primer’ is, well, the primer for that.

‘Primer’ is the primer. That’s a good way of putting it. It’s the primary influence. It covers it extensively.

I enjoyed that even though the film is set in the future, the technology feels tangible. How did you create the aesthetic for this future without over designing it?

That was just kind of our starting point. Let’s make it really grounded, and let’s make it near-future, really grounded, and let’s just… You know, it’s so easy these days to make huge sci-fi worlds because, when using CG, it’s so easy to kind of go over the top in terms of design. And that stuff can be incredibly cool, and there are movies I love that create huge, amazing worlds. But again, for the specific story requirements of this story, I wanted to keep it low to the ground and very grounded. And part of that was that I figured the audience had enough to absorb in that first half hour, with the time travel and the Looper stuff. I didn’t want them also having to wrap their heads around this crazy, outlandish future world. I wanted it to be recognizable. I wanted you to take a look at it and say, “Okay, I get where we’re at. Every design decision came from that place of, ‘let’s keep it grounded, let’s keep it down to earth.’”

And when you get to the farm it’s even better because you do away with a lot of that technology and the setting becomes nostalgic in that world. It becomes way more character-focused.

I think so, yeah. It does definitely shift gears there. That’s something that I was really worried about. I was really conscious of trying to make it work, you know? It’s definitely a narrative gambit whenever you do that kind of shift. I wanted the movie to carry through, but at the same, the idea of setting up these two halves, of this city in direct opposition to Sarah’s world because they both sort of represent the moral choices… the two halves of the moral choice that Joe has to swing between at the end of it. It made a lot of sense to me to kind of have the yin and the yang very distinct from each other, I guess.

Where did you find the little boy that plays Sarah’s son? He is amazing.

Isn’t he amazing?! Pierce Gagnon. He was 5 years old. He’s in Atlanta, he’s based out of Atlanta. He’s just an extraordinary actor. Something Joe has always told me — because Joe started acting right at about the same age as Pierce — and Joe’s always said there’s kids who can act. Adults think you have to trick kids into giving a performance, but the same way there are adults who can act, there are kids who can act, and Pierce is one of those kids. He’s just… If you saw him on set, he was just incredible. But he’s also just a healthy 5-year-old kid. Between takes he would be running around, kicking people in the shins, playing with swords, getting impatient, wondering how many more takes he had to to do. But when the cameras are on he’s in the scene. He’s actually emotionally engaging with the actor in front of him.

He expresses so much with his face. It’s incredible. And any time you have a kid expressing the emotions he does, it has the capacity to become unintentionally humorous. But that’s not the case here. I was impressed with how…

Scary he was?

Yes. I was terrified.

In retrospect I’m really terrified that I wrote a script whose back-half depended on finding someone as good as Pierce, ’cause that’s someone we could have easily not found. It’s really rare to find a kid who’s that young, who’s got those kinds of chops and you can pull that off. I feel like we just got really, really lucky finding Pierce.

The supporting actors in ‘Looper’ are fantastic as well. Can you talk about how you got some of these guys? Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan — all great actors who I love. I met Noah last night. He’s such a charmer!

He is very sweet. Noah’s a really good friend of mine. He was in ‘Brick’ and we’ve known each other since then also. That’s kind of one of the real fun parts for me ’cause there’s so many actors I am a fan of, so the supporting roles — just getting to kind of work with them in brief little clips throughout the course of the movie. And I’m still… I’m just humbled that an actor as talented and great as Paul just came out for like a week to do that part. To get to watch him work, for me, you know, it’s like going to film school. It really is incredible.

Garret Dillahunt… I was so delighted when he showed up. I had no idea he was in it! Yeah! It’s kind of like a variety show thing like, oh cool, now it’s this guy!

It’s the Garret Dillahunt hour, followed by the Paul Dano hour at 10.

In production it’s the same type of deal. You’re working every day with Joe and Bruce and with Emily [Blunt], and then Garret comes on board for a week and it’s a whole new energy on the set.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Dano, though, seriously. I just saw ‘Ruby Sparks’ recently…

Isn’t it great?! It’s fantastic.

It’s one of my favorite films of the year.

Zoe Kazan’s script is just… it rides this amazing line where she just pulls out this — she takes a surreal concept and just lands it with so much emotional reality. That was a great movie.

One of the things I picked up on in ‘Looper’ is the relationship between Kid Blue and Abe. It’s very much like a son trying to win his father’s love. I think a big question for a lot of people watching it is whether or not they’re related.

I know! Or some people have asked…

Are they the same person?

Are they the same person, which is interesting to me. I never thought that they were. I don’t think that would work, but I think it’s really cool that people’s heads go there. That’s definitely the dynamic  I was reaching for with it, to see that kind of older/younger, a different variant on that — a sort of variant on the same theme between them.

The stuff between them is so great because Noah’s part is very much the comic relief, but once we get to know him a little better, it’s ultimately very sad.

Good, good. That was a big part of casting Noah, the same way you cast to a certain actor’s strengths. Noah’s so likable, and he’s got that little boy quality to him that just… even when he’s playing this kind of f— up villain, your heart goes out to him. I knew that was going to be a really important part of that character landing.

‘Looper’ hits theaters this Friday, September 28. 

 

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