Rian Johnson On Time Travel, His Film 'Family,' And The Retro Soul Jam At The Heart Of Looper

Looper Rian Johnson

Hitman Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is confronted with his future self — in the form of a time-traveling Bruce Willis — in Rian Johnson's Looper, the writer-director's third feature and one of the freshest original science fiction tales in years. Before debuting the September 28 release at Fantastic Fest over the weekend, Johnson spoke with Movieline about the pre-Brick short script that gestated into Looper, the film's dark streak and the 1970 soul ballad that serves as "the heart of the movie."

Take me back to the beginning – the idea for Looper began as a short story in your notebook around the time of Brick, right?
Before I made Brick. It was a script for a short film, and it was a few years before we made Brick, during a time when we were spending all of our time looking for money to make Brick – Steve [Yedlin], my cinematographer, and I. We realized we were just driving ourselves crazy and to alleviate the pressure we decided to start making some shorts, and we made a few but this was one that I wrote but we never ended up shooting.

What was the original seed of the idea that started it?
It’s funny, at some point after the release I’m going to put the three-page script up on the internet but it started with the same voice over that the feature starts with. It explains the guy and his job, and when his older self shows up, it was a foot chase between the two of them across the city, then it ended when they caught up with each other. It has a similar ending to the feature which is why I don’t want to put it out too soon. I had been reading a ton of Philip K. Dick and was in a period when I had just discovered his books, so I think my brain was full of sci-fi ideas.

Were you feeling super existential?
I must have been going through one of those existential phases we all go through, continuously. The honest answer is it was ten years ago and I don’t exactly remember. Ten years ago I was 28.

The quarter-life years or so.
It’s true, my God. Now I’m going through an existential crisis, thanks a bunch!

I’m sorry! One thing I like about the concept is that it’s so much about identity, our past selves, our future selves, how we see ourselves and the potential to change the future.
And our relationship with this kind of character, our future self, our notion of what we’re going to turn into and our ideas of how our lives are going to go. That’s usually personified in your relationship with a mentor or parent, someone who’s indicative of a path you could take in life and whether you want to or not, that’s kind of the interesting question.

I found the film to be quite romantic.

And that was not something I was really expecting. That song you use, Chuck and Mac’s “Powerful Love,” is so beautiful and perfect.
Isn’t it incredible? It’s such a beautiful song. I literally picked up blind, I think on vinyl on the Twinights [album]. Listening to that song just sticks, then the lyrics somehow attach themselves to the meaning of the whole thing and it ends up jamming in your head and it becomes a really obvious choice, you know? Actually, in pre-production I sent an mp3 of that song to Bruce [Willis] right when he signed on and told him this song is the heart of the movie, and he got really excited about it. I was listening to that song over and over while we were shooting it. That and a lot of Sam Cooke.

A soul connection.
I’m really happy that you felt that from the movie. There is a real deep heart of romance in the movie, and not just boy-girl romance but romance with a capital R.

Yeah – love in the sense that love can somehow fix things. I hope that that’s baked into it. As dark and as bleak as the movie can get at times, the reason I feel comfortable having it go there is I hope that it gets to a really hopeful and redemptive place at the end.

Do you see Looper as dark and bleak?
I think it goes to some pretty dark, bleak places and shows these characters, even the ones who are supposed to be good guys, doing some terrible things. I think it shows the dark side of everybody and gets to some spots where you wonder if it’s all going to be okay, but I hope it shows you that people can change and people can make decisions for the right reasons.

I was really surprised to be crying as the credits rolled.
Yes! I was trying to make you cry. That makes me really happy. My little sister cried! That’s what we were going for, that kind of rush of emotion at the end.

Your films have been quite different, playing in different genres. When you decided Looper would be your next feature did you have any trepidation about tackling the time travel aspect knowing the geekosphere would scrutinize it?
Well, yes – especially because I’m part of the geekosphere and I’m one of those guys. The thing is, I’ve never had time travel inconsistencies in a movie deny me the pleasure of enjoying a movie. For me those are two separate things. And that’s something I can’t understand. I can’t understand someone who says “I didn’t like that movie because that, that, and that…” For me it’s like, wow, that’s a cool movie with a well-told story that was awesome, and this didn’t make sense and that’s fun to dive into and pick apart. But every time travel movie that’s ever been made, if you really dig into it you’re going to hit bedrock where paradoxes kind of hit each other and it doesn’t make sense. The important thing is that the storytelling works and that it has a consistent set of rules that it plays fair by. But I was mostly terrified just because time travel is a tough thing to work into the fabric of a story. It’s a tough thing to put into a story and still have the whole thing tick – it can be like pouring grape jelly into a clockwork watch. It’s a messy ingredient that’s hard to tame.

As your films have gotten bigger and your career has gone from indie to increasingly more mainstream audiences, how do you feel your trajectory has evolved?
I guess the movies have gotten bigger, one by one – I still haven’t worked with a studio. Sony’s putting this out and have been awesome and I would love to work with a studio someday, but so far we’re doing each of these independently. I guess I’ve crept up in scale with each one, but at the end of the day they’re all motivated by the same thing; they all start with a story that I care about that I want to tell. It is fun to see how broad a canvas we can accomplish; even with the next step I think it would be really fun to do something bigger, working on a broader canvas and reaching a bigger audience. But it can never come from that place. It’s so much work to make a movie, and for me it has to get me off my butt. To get me actually writing you have to strike something inside, you have to hit a power main to get the energy. You have to strike something you care about.

Have studios approached you a lot more in recent years with projects?
Not so much after Brick – I got anything that was dark and had to do with high school. Not so much after Brothers Bloom. In the lead up to Looper there have been more people calling… but the thing that’s interesting to me is if this group, this little family that we have that we’ve made these movies with, can tell one of our stories on that scale – and that doesn’t just mean doing something, I think you have to be conscious of the size of the canvas that you’re working on, the amount of money you’re spending, and the audience you’re trying to reach and you have to adjust your storytelling. I think that’s part of your job as a storyteller.

You mention this “family” of filmmakers and collaborators, from using Joseph Gordon-Levitt again to working with Nathan Johnson on the music. You named Noah Segan’s character after his own nickname. Even Joe’s character is named Joe.
I was really lazy with these names! [Laughs]

When it comes to working with this group of people again and again, how do you synthesize all this? Did you write these characters with their personalities or capabilities in mind?
Their capabilities more than their personalities, their strengths. This is a unique case with Noah and Joe, but usually I don’t have any idea who’s going to play [my characters]. It’s not like when I’m writing these characters I’m picturing my friends. You’re creating a completely new character and hiring somebody to play to that and against it and shatter your expectations of what that character could be in some ways. With Joe for instance, the way that Joe loves transforming himself on film and the way that he loves disappearing into his role I knew was specifically suited to something where he was going to have to sell himself as a younger version of an older actor. And there’s just something about Noah that’s inherently likeable and I knew that’s a trait I wanted to shine through with this weird little pathetic villain character – I wanted there to be something where you could see the little boy in him who’s trying to be a cowboy. That’s the sort of thing you know from your friends that you can hopefully use to your advantage.

How much do you think our world will be like the world of Looper by the year 2044?
I think that our world will be much nicer. I’m an optimist, actually. I think everything’s going to get better. I think we’re evolving.

Looper is in theaters Friday.

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