An interview with Rian Johnson



After only three films, Rian Johnson has established himself as a rising auteur. "Brick" (2006)  raised some eyebrows with its crafty combination of high school movie and film noir. "The Brothers Bloom" (2009) dazzled many but disappointed some with its non-stop convoluting of the caper film. But the movie that truly establishes him is his latest, "Looper." It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role, a  hitman in 2042 who bumps off undesirables sent to him via time machine by mobsters from 2072. That is, until one of the victims turns out to be himself, three decades older and played by Bruce Willis.

Here's a conversation I had with Johnson over the phone a few days ago while he was en route to the airport.

Q: While I was waiting for your call I was watching your short film "The Psychology of Dream Analysis."

Rian Johnson: Oh, dear.

Q: The last line is, "I wouldn't read too much into it." I was wondering if that was ironic and also if you would apply that to "Looper."

RJ: Well, I don't know. I mean, yes and no. I actually am a big fan of reading too much into movies. I like movies that encourage you to do that and it's kind of a hobby of mine, so I would hate to discourage that. But I think that with the time travel elements of "Looper" it was important for me as a story teller to make sure that element of it was tamed so that it didn't feel like you had to read too much into it, so you could just kind of roll with the story. I wanted it to be much more of a human drama that carried the story forward instead of a math equation that you had to work out, if that makes sense.

Q:  And encourage people to see it a second time and go for the deeper levels of meaning.

RJ: I hope so, that's the hope.  At the same time I wanted to work really hard to make sure that even if there were lingering questions or even if you get more out of it on the second viewing that it was satisfying on some level after the first viewing. I wanted it to be a very accessible film.

Q: I was particularly struck by the image of somebody coming back from the future and being killed by their younger self. It's a very disturbing and almost kind of Jungian kind of image. Was that the...

RJ: Something primal about it, right? yeah, cool.

Q:  Do you have any interpretation of that or do you leave it to the...

RJ: Well that's the sort of thing that you're hunting for. Especially with sci-fi when you can strike on an image that uses kind of an outlandish situation like time travel to give it something that strikes deep inside you in a very human way. That's what you're always gunning for. So it's the younger self killing the older self, which is obviously a very potent and heightened reflection of what inevitably happens in some mythical way with fathers and sons. Or it's the older self and younger self sitting across from each other and the conversation that they have.


You know, the older self saying "I know where you're heading, you're being an idiot" and the younger self saying "screw you, I'm not going to turn into you." That again is something that's heightened using the science fiction elements of it, but is an incredibly relatable human situation.  That for me is what I wanted to use sci-fi for, that's what all my favorite sci-fi does.

Q:  Do you think that the younger self/older self has anything to do with the younger generation's annoyance with the baby boomer generation not going away?

RJ: I think it's every generation with the previous generation. I think you know I don't know if it's that specific but I feel like it's a pretty universal thing that.... You know the generation gap that widens and shortens, I guess, to some degree but is always present. Even more than the generation gap, but just the personal thing of anyone who has ever been a teenager and had a conversation with an elder, at some point you're going to feel that conflict. Even if you have a good relationship with your dad you're going to be, you're going to have that basic ‘I'm not you' conversation at some point, whether you voice it or it's just deep inside of you. But, yeah, in a broader sense in terms of the generational feeling of ‘your way of doing things is dead, I'm going to find a better way.' I mean, that's, you can say that our parents generation has that with the boomers, but the baby boomers had that with the previous generation and not to any lesser extent, I think.

Q: Don't trust anybody over thirty.

RJ: Yeah. Precisely.

Q:  The film is, your previous film also, is a combination of genres. This was sort of a film noir, sci-fi, time travel kind of genre. Among other things there was a little bit of the western and some other elements thrown in. Why did you think those two, film noir and sci-fi, worked well together?

RJ: Well it's interesting. Sci-fi is a genre that I can't imagine on its own, it seems like sci-fi usually mixes with something else. Like Westerns or sci-fi noir obviously, or the alien movies with sci-fi haunted house. As someone who loves mixing of genres, that was very tantalizing to me. So sci-fi noir obviously goes together well and has the "Blade Runner" connection. But part of the fun of it, I think, is riding it and seeing where it goes and maybe being surprised by that, so I don't want to lay all the influences out on the table. It was definitely some that was on my mind when I was writing it, having the tone of it sort of shift and presenting these two, well the whole movie's kind of setting up this moral choice

[SPOILER! of sorts]. So behind both the visual distinction between those in terms of the landscape, but also a tonal one in terms of the dilemma that they both kind of have their feet in made a lot of sense to me.

Q:  Yeah, it's a choice between [SPOILER!]

RJ: Yeah but it's also a choice between [SPOILER!] It's basically addressing the problems of the future by finding the right person and killing them or [SPOILER!] And that kind of essential moral question at the end, that's kind of where the whole compass spins for me.

Q: So it's like the question if you could go back in time and [SPOILER!}

RJ: Although, that's such know I always find that question so inherently uninteresting. I feel like it's such a fantasy thing. To me the more pertinent question is one that I have more interest in dealing with is if there's somebody out there right now whose death would protect something that you feel is yours, would you endorse them being killed? That's something that unfortunately we actually have to deal with in our world.

Q:  Yeah, do you worry about spoilers in discussing this movie because it seems like that last question might have given some detail away that might...

RJ: Yeah, I trust your discretion in terms of judicially editing this. I appreciate it, it's obviously part of the fun of this, is being surprised.

Q:  What do you think is the appeal of time travel? It seems to be even more prevalent recently, and I think there were three or four movies at the Toronto festival where I saw your film...

RJ: That deal with it? Yeah, I don't know. I think that it's got an appeal on several levels and I think there's something to it where, you know, obviously the grand tragedy of this life is that we're all latched to the draconian cycle of ...not cycle but straight line of years that starts here and ends there. And, there's something...the same way the power of flight is very appealing to us. There's something about leaping off of that timeline and seeing beyond your years that feels very, you know, is tantalizing to us. But then, obviously, there's kind of the idea of going back and fixing the past. All of us have things in our past that we revisit just through the time travel device of memory, that we think about, that we're tortured by, or have to let go of at some point. The idea of playing, both the going back and fixing it and also the pleasing idea that that would not work out that well if we tried to do that, the pleasing idea that we shouldn't think about going back and fixing the past, but that we should just kind of live in the present. I think that's a very life affirming idea and that seems to be what a lot of time travel movies seem to come back around to.

Q: The look of the movie is, you must have put some thought into what the world in, was it 2037? was going to look like. Did you have any models that you based that on?

RJ: Well, sort of. I wanted to avoid looking directly at other science fiction movies just because I figured I grew up loving sci-fi movies so I figured those influences would be there just organically. I didn't want it to feel like an homage to other films so I really tried to just take each design decision step by step and really tailored it to the needs of the story. So, for instance, the world that we created is a very dystopian one and it's one where there's obviously no middle class and it's a very dangerous world where if you don't have your pile of riches, you're down at the bottom. And that was important to me just because Joe's character started living in a very self-serving place. He was a bit like Bogart in the beginning of  "Casablanca." It was important the audience see in the world around him why he is that way. He's not just a selfish person, there's a reason that we created that he's acting that way. And then, you know, with every design decision in the story it was the same way. One big mandate that I kind of had with the creative chain was to constantly ground the world with reality and with every design decision to try and bring it down to earth and make it recognizable. I felt that, to some degree, I felt that the audience had enough on its plate in that first half hour of the movie in particular, wrapping their heads around the notion of time travel and all these different things. I wanted the world to be a slightly recognizable one, I didn't want them to have to spend that much energy on figuring out a complicated future world on top of everything else.

Q:  So that's why everybody drives pick-up trucks and '70s muscle cars?

RJ: Yep, exactly. One of the elements is nostalgia. What's the phrase that when a society doesn't have a future they look to their past? That's something that made a lot of sense to me, so, the loopers kid of wearing neckties and Joe thinks that an old Miata is cool.  You know, that seemed organic to me, it seemed to make sense in the world I'd created.

Q:  And when the crime boss says, you know, you're trying to act like a character from movies that were made 50 years ago.

RJ: Yeah, absolutely.

Q:  You said that you didn't actually watch any time travel movies when you were making it, but there were some clear, it seems conscious, allusions, like just having Bruce Willis in it brings to mind  "Twelve Monkeys" (1995).

RJ: "Twelve Monkeys," sure. Well when I was writing it I definitely looks at time travel movies, you know, I would be a fool not to, to look at the ones that worked and see how they pulled it off, so.

Q:  And, I don't know, is it a coincidence that that woman's name is Sara, which is the name of the woman...

RJ: Yeah, you know what, it was and I actually, part way into production, I realized, oh wow, of course, it's Sarah Connor [from "The Terminator"]. If I noticed, it was probably just an unconscious thing that I did, probably if I had caught it sooner, you know, I might have changed it actually. I didn't want it to be distracting. But so far it seems like something that a couple people have pointed out, it's hopefully not a distracting thing.

Q:  There don't seem to be as many identifiable allusions to noir movies that I could come up with, actually, is that uh...

RJ: Yeah, like any identifiable allusions you mean that connect?

Q:  Yeah, well you mentioned "Casablanca."

RJ: Well there is, the name of the club, La Belle Aurore is a reference to the club in Paris that Bogart, that Rick and Ilsa had their final drink in before the Germans marched in. Just because I felt like I did quite a bit to Bogart's character arch so I felt like I'd give a little overt nod. But you know I try and keep that stuff to a minimum. It's fun to see the couple things like that in there, but it's also really important to just stay honest and stay true to the emotional arch of your story and not start playing a game of spot the allusion.

Q: I was looking at your three movies, the three features you've made, and it seems that a common denominator, in addition to the fact that all three seem to play with genres that way mixing and matching and finding ways of augmenting the genres by combining them, is that they all seem to have an essentially romantic heart. Pretty much the hero will sacrifice everything to save the woman he loves or in some case to avenge her death. Is that your primary impulse, do you think, when you're making movies?

RJ: I like to think so! I do, I like to think so. It's important that.... I don't know it obviously depends on the needs of each individual story, but I am essentially optimistic and I am essentially a romantic. I like stories that come around to some sort of bitter sweet revelation at the end of it. A redemption. It's definitely true of "Bloom,"


and I think it's definitely true of "Looper" also, especially with all the darkness in the movie, all the dark places it goes to, it was important to me that it comes around to a place of hope at the end of it. And, you know, there's the romantic thing of Bruce, Bruce's character, doing these things for his wife, but I hope it also, you know, takes a hard look at what he's doing. The movie's the end of the day, the movie kind of comes around to a place where, hopefully, you sort of see that Bruce's character is sort of cooking his action to this romantic motivation, but the truth is he's being just as selfish as young Joe is being at the beginning of the move. You know, he's doing violence to protect this thing that he thinks is his. And you know would his wife want him to be doing these horrible things? Probably not. Hopefully it's romanticism cut by an honest eye to some degree, I'd hope.

Q:  His violent tirade, from the Bruce Willis version, was pretty exhilarating, I thought.

RJ: Yeah, It's interesting to see an audience react to that part of it. Part of it I think is just that you felt so morally conflicted about his actions up to that point, and for the character as well,  part of why, I think, he goes on that violent rampage is finally he has some guys he can look at and say ‘oh these are bad guys I can kill." And I think the audience feels that rush with him. I hope that on further reflection you can look at that and say it's not exactly a yay-go-get-‘em type of moment. But, an audience also feels that thing of, ya know, we felt so morally conflicted by his actions and finally we get to see him just blaze ahead. It's interesting for me to watch.

Q:  We get that satisfaction and then you realize in kind of a dreadful moment that he's doing exactly the wrong thing.

RJ: Yeah, exactly, yeah, yeah, yeah. You're feeling that kind of exhilaration while at the same time you're realizing that yeah, you're wondering whether you should be going on the ride with him.

Q: It reminded me a bit of "History of Violence" by Cronenberg.

RJ: Yeah, and that's always an interesting line to ride with. You know, you thrill that audience with violence and then confront them with the reality of it. A lot of my favorite filmmakers have kind of ridden that line with violence, I think it's always an interesting way of undercutting the thrill that's always inherent in showing violence on the screen.

Q:  I have a couple of sort of trivial questions, but I think they're sort of interesting. Why did you have Joseph Gordon-Levitt have the face change and not Bruce Willis? Did you flip a coin or something? Joseph Gordon Levitt has his face altered with two and a half hours of prosthetic work, I guess, and Bruce Willis gets off scott free. I was just wondering how you chose who would undergo the change

RJ: Well it made a lot of sense to me to have Joe wrap himself around Bruce just because we're all so familiar with Bruce Willis and we all know what he looks like and what he sounds like on a very deep level, I mean we've been watching his movies for 30 years. So I mean beyond just it being difficult to transform Bruce, it also made sense to give that to Joe as a tool. To give Joe those hand-holds and that common language with the audience where, because we all know that, lets use that. Let's say, ok...well...and that's what Joe is going to grab onto for his performance. So that all just made sense. And just logistically, it was a big enough deal putting Joe through the makeup process, I don't think we could have found the resources to put both actors through it.

Q: It's easier to make younger people look different than older people, I guess?

RJ: I guess so, yeah. And, you know, at a certain point, also, you're asking to just make belief. So in terms of doing it with bringing them physically that close to each other, we didn't want to rely on that too much. We kind of always knew that it was going to be Joe's performance that was going to carry the day or not.

Q: So you didn't want to go back to old episodes of "Moonlighting" to find your model.

RJ: We didn't go back to what?

Q:  Old episodes of Bruce Willis's "Moonlighting" to...

RJ: Oh, no, actually we were specifically, and this is something that was really smart on Joe's part, he watched more recent Bruce Willis movies. He didn't watch older films, or "Moonlighting." And that seems like it was a distinction, but that made it seem like he was basing his character on more current-day Bruce and not imitating younger Bruce, which felt really important to me.

Q: The film is very challenging, but also very clear in terms of the chronology. Did you have a chart that kept track of all of this?

RJ: You know, I did make out a chart. When you actually chart it out, it isn't actually that complicated. I figured it would be good for the actors to have a chart to work off of. And then I drew out this timeline and I got my cousin to do these great drawings for it and made this elaborate timeline thinking we'd be referring to back to it and we really barely looked at it. It was something that the majority of the script with the exception of one little kink in the center of it, takes place very linearly. So that was something that was important to me, again: I wanted to make a movie that was really driven forward by these characters dealing with a situation, I didn't want to be hopping back and forth. So it was nice to step back and realize the whole thing is much simpler than it is.

Q: So you didn't want the audience members to be taking notes about exactly where you were in terms of...

RJ: No! at least not on the first viewing. I wanted it to be satisfying on some level on the first viewing at least. Like I said, you can go back and take notes and deconstruct it if you want to and God knows I'm a sci-fi geek myself, I love doing that. But I also wanted it to be satisfying on a base level on the first round through. No paper required.

Q:  You took the film, or parts of the film to the WonderCon. How did that go and do you think that's part of your target audience?

RJ: We did WonderCon and ComicCon and it was super fun. Yeah, that is a big part of the audience. To me it's important that, I mean I wanted it to be for a broader audience as well. It's important to me that the sci-fi crowd connect with it. It is at the end of the day, a time travel movie with Bruce Willis. It's something that, you know, the sci-fi nerd in me really wanted to jump into and do. So it was fun taking it there and kind of seeing it connect with the crowd on that level. It was really gratifying.

Q:  Are you still reading sci-fi? I understand you were reading a lot of Philip K. Dick, which is pretty obvious, when you were conceiving this movie and writing it.

RJ: Yeah, at the time when I was writing the short I was reading a bunch of Philip K. Dick. You  know, my other big influence, the guy that was probably my first exposure to the genre, was Ray Bradbury. I still really consider him sort of the master of getting very human emotions with using the sci-fi, these far out there sci-fi concepts. Bradbury's really the master. I'm really enjoying, today I'm reading, I've discovered Haruki Murakami and I'm kind of late in the game in discovering him. "Something like Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" is very much science fiction and a very modern spin on it.  Itlooks like we're pulling up to the airport...

Q:  Oh, yeah. But first,  what does the future hold for you?

RJ: I wish I could jump forward and see it!

Q: Do you have a project you're working on?

RJ: No, write now I'm just sitting down and writing. I'm trying to figure out what the next thing is. I really do wish I had a time machine so I could zap forward a year and have a finished script, but now I'm just starting to dig into it and figure it out.

Q:  One objection I have to the movie is that the mob only used the time machine process to get rid of bodies. You'd think they'd at least use it to get the bet on the Super Bowl or something. How'd you figure that?

RJ: Well the idea though is that it's really toxic material. It's incredibly dangerous to use. And the other thing is there's not going back and forth, I guess. There's no two-way communication with it, it's just this big hunk of metal that they can't really control or send something back to fix the amount of time. So yeah, it's the sort of thing you can dig into it and say what about this and what about that but I guess the limitations of time travel and that it's so dangerous. They would only use it for this really specific purpose.

Q:  Merchandising. The time machine will make a fortune,

RJ: Yeah, precisely.

Q:  And those future blunderbusses.  The kids would love those.

RJ: That's horrifying, I hope not.

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