How Rian Johnson's Past Scifi Love Birthed LOOPER's Future
Looper may be Rian Johnson's first go at science fiction, but you'd never be able to tell. That's probably because while the filmmaker hasn't created any scifi in the past, he has certainly been a fan.
We sat down with Johnson to talk about his film, his love of science fiction, the cast of big time actors for his first big time movie, and why he'll likely be sticking to the genre of choice for Newsarama readers.
Rian Johnson: Well, this had been an idea I'd had sitting around for awhile, I wrote the idea for this about 10 years ago. I wrote it at a time when I was reading all of Philip K. Dick's books, so my head was kind of soaked in scifi.
The thing that appeals to me about science fiction, the thing I really love about it is how the best of it uses these kind of outlandish concepts that have very little to do with reality like time travel or teleportation or cloning or what have you, to get at very human things, emotions, issues, themes that have everything to do with reality.
So this kind of germ of an idea of using time travel to have the older and younger versions of the same self sitting across a table from each other, it seemed like it would be particularly fertile in that regard.
Nrama: So you wanted your writing to be more Dick-ish? (laughs)
Johnson: I did, I wanted it to be more Dick-ish. I try in life to be more Dick-ish, WWDD?
(laughs) Ray Bradbury though, is another, his name is less fun to say, but he's another, the master of that - hitting you in an emotional spot with a scifi hook.
Nrama: When you set out to make a movie like this, does it ever cross your mind the idea of trying to make "this generation's Bladerunner" or anything like that, or are you just trying to make the best movie you personally can?
Johnson: Yeah, I think that would be poison. That would be a terrible place to come from! You have to just be thinking about telling a story you care about. You start the seed of it, an idea or a feeling you're trying to get to, a question or a thing you're trying to achieve and just build it out from there. You gotta stay completely focused on that.
Once you start thinking about the movie's place in any regard, in culture, meaning in terms of even thinking of its "demographic" or something like that, you're dead in the water. You have to only think about story.
Nrama: Of course, now that you're working in science fiction, you have this whole different - speaking of demographics - this new demographic of people, this geek community that's very tight-knit and seems to have welcomed you pretty nicely! I've seen on your Tumblr all the posters and fan art (like this hand-painted fan trailer!)...Johnson: It's amazing, isn't it? Yeah man, it's really humbling. It's incredible, the art that people are creating. We call it fan art just to indicate that it's not coming from Sony, but it feels like we need a cooler name for it, cause fan art doesn't even do it justice. It's amazing the stuff that people are churning out.
And you know, I'm one of them. I'm one of the people - it's gratifying for me because I grew up watching and loving scifi. I'm making this thing because I love it. That is kind of what you hope for from the beginning, that the community that loves this stuff embraces it, so if they do I'll be really thrilled.
Nrama: So loving it, and now having done it, do you feel like this is your stamp on scifi and you're good, or do you feel like you'll come back to the genre in the future?
Johnson: No, I mean, I love the genre, and it's such an expansive one. It's almost not even a genre, it's almost always something that pairs with another genre, which is really interesting to me.
But I had so much fun working in scifi with Looper and the way it lets you attack big ideas while encasing them in this candy coating big visual world of fun stuff, of cool shit. You're dealing with stuff, you can really get down deep into human emotions. I just loved it, man. The stuff I'm chewing on right now for my next thing - the couple things I'm juggling, they both have scifi hooks to them. I think it's something I might stick around in for awhile.
Nrama: Let's talk about your cast a little. Obviously, you're very familiar with Joseph Gordon-Levitt [Note: The two worked together on Brick in 2005]...
Johnson: Yeah, I've heard of him and his work (laughs).
Nrama: You guys are pals...
Johnson: Overrated! No man, he launched my career. He had it going and I latched on to him!
Joe and I have stayed really good friends since we made Brick together. It's always great to work with your friends. Also, besides Joe, Steve Yedlin, my Cinematographer, I've been friends with him since college, and Nathan Johnson, my composer, is my cousin, we've been working together since we were kids. Having that kind of family around you, I think there's something really valuable about having a support group that lets you go out on limbs you might not otherwise go out on. Hopefully having that support group doesn't create an insulated safe environment, but actually does the opposite - lets you take some risks because you feel like you have a group of friends that have your back.
Nrama: What was that first conversation like when you sat down with Joe and said 'Not only am I putting you up against Bruce Willis, but you have to actually act like him.'?
Johnson: Well, luckily it was a slow burn, I didn't dump it all on him at one time. I actually told him about this idea back when we were at Sundance with Brick, so it was many years ago. Of course, I didn't know that he would be the guy in it, or that Bruce would be the older guy. It was just the basic notion of it.
And then when writing the script, I was writing it for him, and we were constantly talking about it, so he was slowly wrapping his head around the idea of becoming another actor. Then when we cast Bruce, I think we were both really excited for the same reasons: 'cause it's Bruce Fucking Willis, you know? (laughs)
Nrama: So after you nerded out on the set for a few days, you were finally able to get down to business?
Johnson: No, I forced myself not to! That's the thing, when you show up to set, you gotta show up to work, you gotta do it. So I actually didn't let myself watch any Die Hard films leading up to production. Because it wouldn't be fair! I realize, Bruce is a terrific actor. So I realize, it's my job to give him what he needs as an actor. That's not going to be served by me showing up and being giddy that I'm working with Bruce Willis, even if that's what I'm feeling inside. You gotta show up and do right by him, give him what he needs as an actor, and just engage with him on that level.
And that wasn't tough. That's what he's there for. Once you're there on set working with him, all that icon status dissolves into the air and you're just working with a terrific actor.
Nrama: What about Joe, did you give him any homework, telling him to watch a bunch of Bruce Willis movies to get the looks and mannerisms down?
Johnson: Well he really took that on his own shoulders. He really ran with the ball with that.Nrama: There were moments where his face cocked a certain way and you'd swear it was Bruce…
Johnson: Yeah, he really nailed it, he really studied it a lot. The other thing that I think was really smart, he didn't study Bruce's older films, he didn't study Bruce as a younger man. He studied Bruce as older, his more recent stuff.
This was really smart - he didn't want to imitate a young Bruce, he wanted to create a new character that you could buy is a young version of who Bruce is playing on screen. That seems like a weird distinction, but it was a really important one as well.
Nrama: No, that makes sense! And of course we have a couple of terrific females in the cast as well. I think Emily Blunt is really going to stun people with this role.
Johnson: She's phenomenal, isn't she? She's really something!
I kind of cast her in the part because I couldn't picture her in the part. 'I don't know how you're going to pull off being a midwestern farm girl, but I can't wait to find out because I know you will.' So I kind of cast her to see what it would look like, and man, she really nailed it.
Piper Perabo also has a small but pivotal role in the movie, and she's really wonderful in it. We got a really great supporting cast, the people that sort of came in for a day or two and filled it out, I just felt really lucky to have the folks in. Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, we got really really lucky.
SPOILER ALERT! The next section of this interview should only be read if you don't mind minor (but pivotal) plot spoilers, of if you've already seen the film. These SPOILERS have not been covered in official marketing materials for the film, but they were too damn interesting to not talk about. We'll end the spoiler-y part with another large block of bold text.
Nrama: I think people will be a bit surprised, the marketing of this has been very centered on just Joe and Bruce and they're facing off, and that's about it. I think people will be surprised that this is very nuanced and has these deep philosophical questions. It has a bit of the old time travel question "if you could kill Hitler as a baby would you" but with a lot of new twists.
Johnson: Yeah, it's interesting, because it has a little of that question, you're right, you could look at it and see that question… but that's such an uninteresting question to me! To me it's such a false conundrum and so disconnected from reality, I can't imagine making a movie in order to answer that question.
The more interesting question to me is not "if you can go back in time and kill baby Hitler," but instead if there was someone out there right now whose death would protect someone you love does it make sense for you to kill them?
Nrama: So for old Joe, it's more about his personal life and protecting just his life and not giving a shit that this guy also kills thousands of other people?
Johnson: You know, he may use that in the back of his head, but really at the end of the day, he's doing the same thing that Joe's doing at the beginning of the movie: He's protecting this thing that is his. He's protecting it through violence. The movie is kind of a look at the problem with that.
That to me is a lot more interesting than that fanciful notion of the Hitler conundrum. That's something that's very present and is something that can be applied, unfortunately, to our lives today.
That's the end of the big SPOILER part of the interview. You can now read on without being spoiled. But for those of you that did read it… interesting stuff, huh?
Nrama: Are there any underlying themes that you think people might not see in a first viewing that you as a storyteller want them to see?
Johnson: I don't know, that's really hard for me to say. We've just started showing the movie to people, so I don't really know until I start getting feedback from people in terms of what they're picking up on. I will say, I don't think the themes are that deep. This film is not exactly Ulysses! (laughs) It's a scifi movie, and there are themes woven into it, but I feel like hopefully most of those themes will hit you on the first viewing.
But I'd be loathe to plop them on the table. Even if it takes you a few viewings, I'd rather an audience experience it that way than putting what I think out there in a couple badly phrased sentences, you know?
Nrama: You mentioned your love for hard science fiction that takes that setting and uses it for an examination of the human condition. For non-fans of scifi or people who don't think they are, how would you pitch this movie to them?
Johnson: Well, I think that is kind of the way I would pitch it! I really wanted this film to be accessible, I wanted it to be satisfying, even on the first viewing, for people that hear the words "time travel movie" and their eyes glaze over. I wanted to make sure that at the end of the day it's really a drama about these characters. At the end of the day scifi sets up this situation, and we have a little fun with it, but what really carries the movie are some characters that you emotionally invest with dealing with a really hard moral dilemma, a really hard choice.
That's something that is, at the end of the day, it's drama like anything else. I would say give it a shot and I hope that it's something they'd connect with. I was encouraged that my grandmother, my Nana, really loved it, and she's the farthest thing from a scifi nerd. She really connected with the mother-son themes throughout it, and the note of redemption. She really got a lot out of it, even though she could give two shits about blunderbusses and time travel! (laughs)
Nrama: This is a pretty dystopian environment, but seems pretty organic from the way the world currently is. How important was that setting for the film, for you?
Johnson: Well it was important for it to support the story. It was not something I came up with as a - I came up with the world after I came up with the story, as a way to support it. The reason the world has that kind of dystopian, dangerous feel, is to show you why Joe's head is in the space it's at in the beginning of the movie. He's being very self serving and protecting his piece of the pie. That's so you can see, yes he's being selfish, but he's doing that because if he loses his pile of silver, it's straight to the bottom, and the bottom is a really ugly place.
Design wise, as a scifi fan, I wanted to create a very grounded scifi future. So it's just like 10% off from the world we see today. The little touches we put in hopefully create a fun and unique world, but I wanted it to be a recognizable world.
Part of that was for a very practical reason: I knew that in the first act of the film, we're asking people to absorb quite a bit of information. The Time Travel premise, about Loopers, about the TK stuff, and I didn't want the world to be another thing that they had to spend a lot of mental energy to figure out. I wanted to kind of short hand the world a little bit, I guess, where we recognize it, even if it's from other movies! It's kind of 'okay, near future, dystopia, I see where we're at.'