The Looper director talks time travel, walking a creative tightrope and Breaking Bad.
Rian Johnson isn’t in a hurry. After making a splashy debut as a 32-year-old with 2005’s high-school noir Brick, the following seven years have seen just two further films – high-wire con-caper The Brothers Bloom and sci-fi time-twister Looper. Each has been painstakingly assembled by the writer/director, who shared his take on how to tackle the creative process with LWLies recently.
LWLies: Where do you start with a time travel movie? How do you keep a handle on the narrative in pre-production?
Johnson: It was really important to keep the time travel element of it contained, especially with this film. Unlike a great movie like Primer or Twelve Monkeys or even the second Back to the Future movie, those movies, part of the pleasure of them was digging into the intricacies of all these different time lines. I love those films but Looper is a very different thing – it’s more about the story and the characters, so we had to figure out how to get time travel to take a back seat, to do its job and get out of the way. In that regard, the first Terminator was my model for how to use time travel. The main part of that is that our main characters don’t have access to time travel. It exists in the future but it doesn’t exist in our present day. They don’t know how it works so they don’t have to deal with how it works, they just have to deal with this situation. So that was the main thing, and then it was just a matter of, in the writing, working out how little we could explain and get away with it. Even in the editing of the film, we were still taking out exposition about time travel. We found that audiences didn’t need it and at the end of the day they were able to take some pretty big leaps with us without the movie explaining it.
If you’re still making these decisions during the edit, is there any sense in which you’re surprised by the film you come away with?
You’re definitely surprised by what you discover along the way. I think by the time you get to the end, you have such a strange, complicated relationship with the film I don’t know if surprise is really the word. It’s more… It has morphed into something different than what you started out with in your head but it’s happened so slowly it’s like the old thing where if you put the frog in the pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat it won’t hop out, it’ll just be boiled. It’s sort of like that. You’re definitely surprised by stuff along the way, and scenes. You know… I always feel like I should be able in the screenwriting stage to spot the scenes that will end up getting cut out in the movie but the truth is you just don’t know and you’re taken by surprise by the stuff that’s superfluous as you pull the movie together. In the diner, there was actually originally much more in the diner scene where Old Joe went into an explanation of what was happening, he used straws to lay out this diagram of how it all worked. And we found when we were cutting it and we started showing it to audiences that it just wasn’t necessary. That really surprised me. But you have to find what the movie wants to be not stick to the movie that you have in your head.
It’s time travel movie for time travel movie fans.
I think yes and no. For me, there are two distinct pleasures to a time travel movie. There are the intricacies of it and the math of it. Then on the other side there’s the moral dilemma that it sets out. And Looper has very much of the second one and very little of the first one. It’s just the specific type of movie it is, as opposed to a movie like Primer, which leans more towards the first one. And I love those movies, I’m a time travel fan myself, but just because of what Looper was, it’s much more about the situation that time travel creates rather than the intricacies of time travel. But the situation that time travel creates, that’s part of the genre and what I love about the genre so I do consider it a movie for time travel fans.
How do you make sure you’re referencing the genre movies you love rather than imitating?
You kinda just have to continuously check yourself that your head is in the right place, that you’re coming from the right place and you’re not trying to point out references – that you’re just telling the story. Also, though, another thing I find helps is to look for inspiration from films and books that are not in the genre you’re working in at all. Look at stuff that seems far afield. For instance, the movie Witness was as big an inspiration on this film as any time travelling or science-fiction movie. That ended up being a thing I went back to over and over again in the writing because the moral dilemma that Joe finds himself in with this information from the future and choosing to do this violent act in order to make that come about… I like looking at stuff that is not from the genre and I think it also helps to keep you a little bit more honest rather than just churning out references to other sci-fi movies.
How did Looper play when you first showed it to the money men? Did they freak out?
It was financed by this great company called End Game. We made this movie entirely independently then after we had made the film it was purchased by Film District and released through Sony. So that’s when the studio got involved. But during the making of the film, it was this company, End Game, and Jim Stern runs End Games – he’s a filmmaker himself and I have a really great relationship with him. He did The Brothers Bloom as well and is an incredibly smart guy. So he was in it from the beginning. He was really the decision maker and he was the ‘studio’. Yeah, of course everybody was nervous about that aspect of it – killing the kid. You read that on the page and you worry, ‘Is the audience going to tune out’. I was placing all my chips on… I know this is a really difficult thing but it’s supposed to be a difficult thing and I think the fact that it is really ingrained in the story, audiences who find it difficult won’t find it… I think what would make audiences disengage from that would be if it felt inorganic or if it felt, you know, gratuitous. And it’s the opposite of that, I think. But there was definitely… Everybody was nervous about it but we were all going through the process together. When we shot it I was explaining to them how I was going to shoot it, when we went through the edit we tweaked that moment to make sure it played right and everybody stayed comfortable with it. So lucky there wasn’t the lights coming up in the screening room and all the executives have their knives out moment. As to how audiences react to it, that’s what I’m looking forward to seeing.
How did you approach that with Bruce Willis, who has all the baggage of stardom and image to contend with?
I didn’t have to sell it at all, he was just so into it. He understood what it was and he also understood – and this is such a testament to him as an actor – he was so up for just diving into what the story needed. He had no ego at all about how he was gonna come off as a movie star, he just approached it entirely from an acting perspective. And I think just extraordinary work in that moment. He also appreciated on a deep level, besides just being a great actor, part of the appeal of putting him in that role was the fact that he’s Bruce Willis, when he shows up in the movie audiences feel like, 'Oh, good, here’s the man with the plan who’s gonna save the day.' That makes that turn hopefully much more complicated. Bruce saw that and I think that’s part of what really excited him about it.
You’re walking a tightrope – making indie movies but doing it on a level where you have movie stars on board. Give us a sense of what it takes to pull that off? How tough is it?
Well, I just feel really, really lucky that I’ve had a couple of incredibly smart, talented people around me who have believed in these stories and wanted to tell them. My producer Ram Berkman who I’ve been with since Brick knows his way around that world. Jim Stern and all the people at End Game – I mean, to take a leap of faith and back a movie like this. It’s like, it’s something… It takes a leap. It’s just a matter of finding the right people. We’ve just been incredibly lucky also on the level that because it has been independent we’ve had the best case scenario production wise where, you know, we’ve been very trusted and we’ve been allowed to make the movies that we want to make. That’s not to say that we’ll never engage with a studio – I would love to make movies on that level but I’m curious whether we can keep doing what we do and engage with that world. There are filmmakers who do it – Chris Nolan – it’s possible so, to me, that’s an exciting notion.
If we live in a world where Marc Webb is making Spider-Man movies, anything is possible. Do you cast envious glances in the direction of those guys, or have you even been approached for tentpole stuff?
Yeah, sure, and it’s really flattering. I love those movies. In coming out of Looper, I had such a good time making Looper, and I’m such a slow writer, the first thing I said coming out of production was, 'Well, let’s find a script, let’s find a project. Let’s not wait for me to write something let’s just find something to make.’ And I saw a lot of really cool stuff, I read a lot of terrific stuff, but at the end of the day I kind of realised that the thing I’m really in this for, at least right now, is to tell my own stories and building something from the ground up. So for better or worse that’s the way I’m approaching this next one. I’m just starting with an idea and seeing if we can bring it to the screen.
Are you happy for it to be like that? For it to take that long? A while back we spoke to Edgar Wright who talked about the frustration of being away from filmmaking for so long between movies that he felt like he was constantly relearning. Do you share that?
Oh god, yeah, it’s absolutely frustrating. And that’s why I’ve directed a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad. That’s a really nice thing – just to be able to get back on set and work that muscle. It’s true, I have such… First of all I hate writing. It sucks. Writing is not fun at all. I don’t trust anyone who claims to enjoy writing. It’s just a laborious, unhealthy process. And I’m a slow writer even on the scale of slow writers. Yeah, it’s phenomenally frustrating. Directing is the fun part, I’d love to have the discipline and the speed to get a couple of scripts in the desk drawer and be able to get one ahead and make them more often. I’m hoping I can learn how to do that. At the same time, it’s frustrating but it’s the way that it is. It’s just the way that I know how to make movies. I think it would be even more frustrating to leap immediately into production on something that wasn’t entirely mine.
If you were to make a movie based on someone else’s script, would it just fundamentally not feel like yours? No matter how much input you had?
No, well, eventually I hope I do. I don’t know. That’s hard to speak to because it’s in the future. That would be heaven, to find a writer whose script I love and connect with and just jump into it. I can see that happening but for right now, the place that I’m at right now, for me it’s all about just growing these things from scratch.
So the long gaps aren’t about struggles with the Hollywood system or politics or failures or anything, it’s a choice? Whenever you’re ready you can pick up the phone and make a movie?
That’s how it was with this one. The delay this time was just me writing the script. The script took a year and a half to write and revise and get right. But once I had the script done, the truth is Bruce Willis was like the first person we went to and once he said yes we were greenlit, we were a go. We got our foreign financing, End Game filled the gap and we were off to the races. Once I had the script ready it was incredibly quick. Much quicker than getting Bloom together, coming off of Brick, actually. Take any assumptions you read about the inner workings of any process with a grain of salt, whether it’s about the developmental process or what’s happening on a movie set. It’s a complicated thing and unless you hear it from the horse’s mouth you probably don’t know what the hell is going on.
What would be your moviemaking rule?
One thing that I really try to leash myself to with this specifically was to be absolutely brutal with myself during the writing process in terms of rewriting and in terms of editing. Anything that isn’t absolutely essential to the main spine of your story, no matter how much you love it, get rid of it. Because you’re either going to have to lose it now or you’re going to have to lose it in the editing room. Don’t cut yourself any slack or give yourself any indulgences in the writing stage. That was the big thing I was trying to discipline myself with, with Looper. And we still ended up cutting out nearly an hour of scenes.
What do you love about movies?
Wow. Er… I feel like movies have been… Movies are my earliest memory of storytelling. The earliest memories I have of being transported by a story are of watching movies and that’s just carried through the rest of my life. And… I think there’s nothing more powerful to me than sitting in a theatre and, you know… God, this is so clichéd I feel like I’m on an interstitial Oscars broadcast. ‘There’s nothing better than being transported by film!’ But there is nothing more powerful than being transported by film, so there you go.