Easily the best science fiction movie since Inception, Looper is a highly original time travel movie about hitmen whose targets are sent to them from the future. Things become life-threatening for a hit man named Joe (played by Johnson muse Joseph Gordon-Levitt) when he fails to kill his older self from 30 years in the future (played by Bruce Willis). This is Rian Johnson's third film that he has written and directed, with indie breakout hit Brick and the quirky Brothers Bloom coming before it. For those following at home, Johnson has also directed two episodes of "Breaking Bad."
In a roundtable interview, I discussed with Johnson the importance of story in science fiction, the difference between "entertainment" and "spectacle," the reason for Looper's many awesome left turns, and more.
Looper opens wide on September 28.
'Looper' is heavy on the science-fiction, but the characters and their emotions are such a vital part to the story as well.
Ray Bradbury is the master to me for that. Using a sci-fi hook to get at something that has you crying by the end for the short story. For me, it always has to start with something human. Like this, for example. Yes, it's time travel and its an odd concept, but all of these huge strange things allow for a young man to sit across from an old man, and have the young man saying, "I'm not going to turn into you," and the old man saying, "You're such an idiot, I know where you're going to end up." Anyone who has been a teenager and had an argument, that's where that comes from. I think it's a good time for science fiction. You take a look at a movie like Moon, or Primer, or Elysium, and you see what you're ding, we're in this golden age of indie sci-fi.
When you were working on such a heady concept, how often did you get stuck on it?
Every single day [laughs]. It's easier to count the times you get unstuck.
Were the many shifts in the story's direction something that helped liberate you from those stuck moments?
Absolutely. And that's one of the things. I don't know if it's because I'm such a slow writer, I just take so long to write it. A lot of things that come from left field that are hopefully able to form a cohesive whole, a big part of that is to just keep the thing interesting for me. You keep the one concept and working with it for a while, and then another element comes in that juices it and makes it exciting again. I hope it's still cohesive, but I also hope it has the same effect for the audience, that when a new thing comes in you didn't quite expect, or it goes to a place you weren't expecting, it has the same effect of perking your ears up. But that also leads to, the danger is, in screenwriting it is called putting a hat on top of a hat. The danger is that you're just stacking an eccentricity on top of another eccentricity. Any time you do that, you just have to be conscious of that, and you have to do a lot of work to try and iron all these things into one fabric that all feel of one piece. That's the flip-side of it.
Along with something you've called theatrical realism, you have this love for slang, especially in movies like 'Brick' and 'The Brothers Bloom'. Here, 'Looper' toys with words like "blunderbuss," and even the word "looper" itself.
I love that stuff. To me, it always comes from the needs of the individual story that we are telling. The slang in Brick, it is something I do love, but it also was to a specific end. Which is, I knew that we were going to open up our first frame on a high school, and that we didn't have the production design or money to make it look crazy. I needed some way of informing the audience that this was an elevated world and to set their expectations up that we were stylizing this whole thing. Language was honestly the cheapest way to do that, from the first moment a character opens their mouth, you have to adjust.
Like 'Bloom' before it, this story follows the concept of characters being trapped in others stories. Could you talk about that?
It's almost a battle as to whose narrative is going to define the ultimate story. It's something I am fascinated by - the degree to which our lives are storytelling. The creation of this thing that we call our self is the act of the storytelling, and the narrative of our lives that we're all kind of telling our own story, but keeping the consistency as we see ourselves ... this is getting pretentious real fast [laughs].
How did you first start this project when you were writing it?
I wrote this as a 3-page short that I never ended up shooting. And then it sat in the drawer for 8 years, and after I finished Bloom, I took it out. I wrote it for Joe. I knew it was a part that would require huge transformation, and something I know he gets off on is completely disappearing into a role. This was literally putting on someone else's face.
How did you handle the challenging scene between Bruce Willis, a gun, and a little boy?
It's a really dangerous place. If you're going there, you have to respect it, and you have to make sure that it is a really authentic moral choice this character has t make, and deal with. If I see something like that and sense that the filmmaker is trying to provoke me with it, or try to poke me with it, I'm likely to sit back and say, "Fine, I feel awful that you did this, you win, screw you." It was important to me that you saw such a thing was inevitable, but also the effect that it has on Willis' character. His performance when he breaks down is really what saves our butts and earns us that moment.
As you've grown, your scope has certain expanded. Are you going to continue to make bigger movies?
I am really inspired by seeing what Christopher Nolan does. Inception specifically, which I thought was so smart and so uncompromised, and such a personal vision,that to see it on the level that it succeeded just thrilled me. To me, the most interesting challenge to me is, "Can we do what we do, and reach an even broader audience? Can we make a big summer movie that is going to have that kind of impact that surprises and thrills and engages an audience?" Entertainment, that word can be replaced by "spectacle." Real entertainment is something that engages you on multiple levels. Can we move into a sphere of working on a bigger canvas?
'Looper' feels like the rare film, a smart science fiction movie made for a wide audience. Do you have faith that this is the material audiences want?
I think more than having faith in audiences, I think audiences are thirsty for it. There's a speech that Andre Gregory gives about in My Dinner with Andre concerning the woman who ate nothing but chicken. She starved to death because she was malnourished. As a moviegoer, that is sometimes how I feel. We can gorge ourselves on these big spectacles, but what our spirits really need, we react to it when we see it. There's a real desire to it.
What involvement did 'Primer' director Shane Carruth have with this project?
He didn't really end up doing anything. He gave me some notes on the script. We had talked about collaborating on a special effects sequence, where Old Joe starts losing the memories of his wife in this crystalline fog that swallows up his memories. We had started developing visual ideas, but that sequence eventually got cut from the film. Why did you cast Emily Blunt as a shotgun-carrying farm girl? It seems to be a very unusual role for her.
I didn't know what she would look like or act like as a Midwestern farm girl, so I cast her in order to find out. She showed up blonde and tan with a flat Midwestern accent that she had gotten from watching a bunch of Chris Cooper movies, and I thought, "This is awesome."