Looper – Interview with director Rian Johnson

Behind the scenes of the new sci-fi thriller

One of the highlights at Dublin’s Movie Fest a few weeks ago, Looper is the latest sci-fi, time travel adventure from Brick director, Rian Johnson. Movies.ie grabbed Rian Johnson for a quick chat about time travel, Breaking Bad and reteaming with Joseph Gordon Levitt after many years.

Looper feels a little like a Philip K. Dick story, where did the idea come from?
Rian Johnson: It’s funny you should say that, I wrote the original idea about 10 years ago as a script for a short film that I never ended up shooting. At the time I was blazing through all of Philip K. Dick’s books, so I was reading a lot of him when I wrote it, so I guess that makes sense! [laughs] That was just the original premise and the basic hook of being set in the future and the Loopers and the guy having his older self sent back. It was only a couple of years ago, after I finished The Brothers Bloom, that I picked up that short script and attached these different things to it like The Rainmaker and Sarah and Sid and that’s when the whole thing took shape.

A lot of time travel movies steer clear of older and younger selves meeting, but you actually play with the idea in Looper. Why did you decide to do that?
RJ: Once you commit to the idea of having a younger self chasing his older self, I think you have to dive into the pool. I think you have to go with it and embrace all the complications that arise from that. At the same time it was really important to me that the movie wasn’t about time travel paradoxes, it wasn’t about the technical complications of time travel. At the end of the day, the big impact of the movie had to be an emotional one from the characters and the story and so, as a writer, it was really important to have fun with the time travel, but also to tame it and it make it lie down to a certain extent so that it didn’t overwhelm the whole movie.

Did any of the great time travel movies like ‘Back to the Future’ inspire you for Looper?
RJ: In a way, all the sci-fi I watched growing up [inspired me], but also, what I really enjoyed doing was looking for influences outside of the genre you’re working in. So for instance, in the opening where Joe is living the high life as a Looper, I went back and I watched a lot of French new Wave films, and I watched a lot of Godard films to get that loose feel. The second half of the movie probably owes more to the Harrison Ford Film Witness than it does the Harrison Ford film Blade Runner. That’s what fun; when you have a sci-fi film and you use stuff in it that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in a sci-fi film.

How did you create the world of the film?
RJ: It was important to me that it felt really grounded. I knew that we weren’t making a movie where the pleasure of it was this huge, new, foreign world that we were creating. Like I said before, and similar to the time travel, the world building wasn’t something that I wanted to draw attention to. It’s just a few degrees off from our world, but those few degrees are really important. The world is very broken down and everything is in a really bad place. We had fun with a few pieces like the bikes and the blunderbusses but even those, we undercut them. The hoverbikes look more like Triumph motorcycles than they do big, sleek, futuristic machines, and they don’t work that well. They are real pieces of s*** [laughs] that rich jerks pull up on, but the truth is that they only start half of the time and they don’t stop very quickly [laughs] It was important to me to keep it all grounded; that was the basis for the aesthetic of the future world.

Who was cast first, Joseph Gordon Levitt or Bruce Willis?
RJ: It was Joe [Gordon Levitt] by a long shot because I wrote the part for him, so I was actually talking to him about the script while I was writing it. I even told him about the idea 10 years ago when I first wrote the short. I remember being at Sundance with Brick and we discussed it, so we had been talking about the story for a long, long time. Bruce only came into it when we got the thing together and started casting. The order was definitely Joe, and then we were very happily able to get Bruce.

It is obvious that these two actors are playing the same person by their mannerisms, who was borrowing from whom?
RJ: It was definitely Joe wrapping himself around Bruce. Once we cast Bruce we had the problem that they don’t look anything alike [laughs] and that’s really where Joe stepped up. Besides some subtle but pretty intense make up work that we did to him, we did prosthetics that adjusted the bridge of his nose and his upper and lower lip, he was also wearing these very uncomfortable contact lenses that changed his brown eyes to blue. So there was the physical adjustment but the bigger thing, I think, is Joe’s performance. It’s the mannerisms; it’s the way that he carries himself and that, at the end of the day, is why you end up buying that this is the same character. The actors look nothing alike and the fact that audiences are even willing to entertain the notion that they are the same person, that’s just Joe.

Some time has passed since you and Joseph Gordon Levitt first worked together on ‘Brick’, what was it like working together again?
RJ: It’s interesting. I am still trying to articulate what the difference was. We were much younger when we did Brick, it is shocking to think of how many years it actually was [laughs] I feel like I have learned so much since then; when I made Brick it was the first time I had worked with a professional crew; I had made lots and lots of short films on my own but I was really just learning on my feet. Now, having made that and having had the experience of making The Brothers Bloom and working with some incredibly talented people, and then coming back on to Looper… It was really nice because I felt that I was more focussed… Well, not focussed, that’s not really true! [laughs] I was just a lot more comfortable on the set. The truth is, in terms of the dynamic and the working dynamic between us, not much had changed. We have remained friends and the thing that’s the same is – and this is why I think we love working together – is that we have the same priorities, we have the same things that are important to us on set and the same approach to telling stories. We have a huge level of trust between us that goes both ways, so that’s why we clicked when we first got together to make Brick, and that’s why I think Looper was such a joy.

What’s next for you?
RJ: Oh god, I dunno. I should do a musical maybe! [laughs] A Dublin based musical; that would be awesome! Unfortunately coming out of Looper I didn’t have another short script sitting in the drawer so I have just been fishing… I have a few things now that I am really excited about and I am working on, but I am just slowly writing… Writing is such a not fun process. On a scale of things that are actually horrible in life it’s not horrible, but it’s a slow process. I am working on it! Get off my back! [laughs].

LOOPER is at Irish cinemas from Sept 28th
Interview by Brogen Hayes