Reel Reactions Exclusive: Interview with Director Rian Johnson

Last week, I reviewed Peter Travis’ stellar Dredd 3D and in the opening paragraph of the article I discussed how the science fiction genre was the jumping off point for a number of prolific film directors. Though Dredd 3D disappointed at the box office (it wouldn’t be the first a great sci-fi film has shunned at the domestic box office), this weekend, another sci-fi actioner will be released in movie theaters and this one, I undoubtedly believe, will fare very, very well with moviegoers, critics, and at the box office; plus, it should also be the film that catapults its director, Rian Johnson, into household recognition, making him known to a vast majority instead of the pocket of fans that love his previous two films and his work on the phenomenal AMC program, Breaking Bad. The movie is Looper, an innovative and highly original sci-fi film that stars Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt, and it’s a movie I’ve already had the privilege of seeing and thoroughly enjoying twice.

Directly below is a phone interview that I participated in with a number of representatives from other colleges and periodicals and Rian Johnson himself. Below, he discusses Looper and answers specific questions regarding the production stages of the film, his direction style, favorite films of his that he draws on for influence, how he tackles genre, the content of the film itself, and much more!

RR:  So you’ve been working on the idea for Looper for a while, were there any experiences of yours that like fed the idea or that you incorporated at all?

RJ:  Well, yea, I mean I guess that when I wrote Looper, I was kind of going through a Philip K. Dick phase and I think that definitely added into it.  But, yea, it’s tough because I had had the idea in my head for so long and there was such a big gap between when I wrote the initial idea and when I actually fleshed out the screenplay, you know, so much life happened in there that all those experiences, I think, do end up going into it, feeding into it somehow.  But, for me, it was kind of a way of getting at that older man/younger man dynamic of ‘I’m not going to turn into you’ vs. ‘You’re so young and stupid and you’re doing everything wrong’ and I think from our 20’s into our 30’s we experience that from different sides of the coin.  So coming around to that and taking a hard look at it from both sides was I guess part of how life fed into it.

RR:  How has making Looper enhanced your directing abilities?

RJ:  Well you learn so, so much with everything you make, and that’s true whether it’s a feature or a short or, you know, anything you make there’s some huge learning curve that you go through.  For this one specifically, I guess there were a couple of things, I tried to be more disciplined in writing than I’ve ever been with Looper, I tried to really spend a lot of time in the script phase, writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, just trying to get it all as honed and clear as possible.  And then, directing-wise, I’m not sure, I think that you just constantly grow and I think part of that is coming into each process with your eyes open and coming into it ready to learn, as opposed to just ready to lay down the law and tell everybody how we’re going to make the movie.  You have to know how you’re going to make the movie, you have to have your hands on the wheel of the car, but especially when you’re working with people, great actors, like Joe and Emily and Bruce, or the rest of our crew who are so talented, coming into it ready to learn from them, I think, is a really big and important thing.  God, there was so much that I learned on this movie I don’t think I could even break it down, everything from just tuning the visuals to…well I learned so much from working with this group of actors, it’s kind of like going to film school.  But it always is, I guess.

[Awkward Silence]

RJ:  It’s weird over the phone because you don’t get, kind of like, the smile and nod of ‘Thank you, I’m done.”

[Laughs before Moderator leads in next source]

RR:  I saw a quote from producer, James Stern, which said that you had the entire movie completely in your head, frame to frame, before you even began to make it.

[Johnson laughs]

RR:  Did the final product of the movie turn out how you saw it in your head?

RJ:  You know, there was one frame, Frame 3,298 that was just a little…to the right; it’s just a little off.  I’ll never get over it!

[Laughs]

RJ:  That’s very kind of Jim to say, it’s also pretty inaccurate, unfortunately.  I mean…well it’s not inaccurate, you have a version of the movie in your head when you sit down to make it.  I do storyboard out my entire film, I have a vision in my head for how the scenes are going to play, but then that all changes when you get on set, well not all of it, but you have to be ready to roll with the punches, you gotta be ready to find new stuff and to be open to, with all of these talented people that you’ve hired, what they’re going to bring to the table.  And so, you show up with your storyboards and, to a large extent, you end up executing them, but you also have to look at the way that the actors are playing the scene and feel the way that the space feels and be open to catching something new and if something isn’t working in the scene you can’t just say ‘Well this is the way I planned it,’ you gotta say, ‘OK, well, let’s talk about this.  Let’s take a minute and figure out how to make this better.’  So, leading back to the previous question, that was another thing I feel like I really learned on this movie, and that I’m trying to get better at, is being open to that kind of surprise on set and being open to the certain amount of fluidity in the process.  It was good to have a plan, but it’s more important that the scenes feels real and that requires you being really present, in the moment, when you’re on set.

RR:  When I caught a press screening of the film about two weeks ago, I took notice of the differences that the world of Looper and it’s time travel rules and regulation have when compared to what Back to the Future put in place back in the 80’s. I was wondering if you could explain how you designed the rules and regulations of your time travel and the world that Looper takes place in.

RJ:  Sure. Well the first thing I did was I made it a little bit easier on myself by kind of going by the structure of The Terminator movies where the characters don’t actually have to deal with time travel directly, for the most part, they just have to deal with the situation that’s been flung back at them from the future.  It’s a one-way road in terms of time travel.  So that helped, but I still did have to dig into it and kind of figure out what the rules are.  There were a couple, uh…I guess this will edge into spoiler territory but I guess the movie’s coming out on Friday so, what the hell!…[Though not major, potential spoilers begin here] The big thing that I landed on was, ‘Ok, so when an older self comes back, he’s in this bubble of causality so if something happens to his younger self it is immediately reflected in the older self, and that’s kind of taking the “Polaroid logic” from Back to the Future to a very literal extreme. That logic is slightly magical, you could say, ‘Well, if the younger self gets his foot cut off, would the older self’s foot suddenly disappear, or would he have been able to walk to that point?  Would there have to be a different version of the timeline, or whatever?’ But you can start thinking timeline-wise and think your way around that and the truth is, storytelling-wise it makes sense.  When it happens, as an audience member, you say, ‘Ok, I understand what just happened, I understand the connection.’  It’s a dramatic thing that happens, it’s kind of satisfying.  Again, similar to that moment in Back to the Future where the people in the Polaroid vanishing, part by part, it doesn’t really make sense if you think about it but it makes absolute perfect sense, storytelling-wise, and in that moment.  And then, the other big element of it was, on that same note, the same way his body changes, his memory is starting to shift and change.  I wanted to reflect how that was kind of like a messy thing going on in his head, that he was losing the memories of his wife, but it was this cloudy thing where he could hold onto them if he really concentrated and the torture related to that, I guess. [End potential spoilers]

RR:  Fascinating. So, Brick was filmed on an estimated three million dollar budget?

RJ:  Oh no, no.  No, no, no, Brick was $450,000.

RR:  Oh, wow, so now, with Looper, that was estimated at $50 million…?

RJ:  Nope, haha, much less.  I’m flattered by these estimates.  Looper was around $30 million.

RR:  I’m slacking with my information!  Anyway, that’s still a major difference, even with the wrong numbers, what’d you think of writing and directing a studio film and would you want to get back to indies where you once were?

RJ:  Well, it’s interesting, because with Looper, we actually didn’t make it with Sony, Sony picked it up after the fact but even though it is a big budget movie, it’s by no means a small budget film, we made it independently.  It was kind of exactly the same setup as [The Brothers] Bloom, definitely, and somewhat to Brick, we were just kind of beholden to our financers, so we had conversations with them about the creative stuff but there wasn’t a studio committee that we had to report to.  So, in that way, the experience was much more like making an independent film, which was really nice, but the bump up in budget made sense for what this movie was and I think that’s the key to it for me:  It all depends on what the movie is that you’re making. If you’re making something like Brick,that’s a little more far up field and is a little odder and maybe it’s for a smaller audience, and also requires less resources, it makes sense to make it for less.  If you’re making something like Looper, that is still challenging but has some sci-fi elements and it has Bruce Willis and is kind of a fun ride, it makes sense to make it for a little more.  I think it’s just scaling based on the needs and the realistic expectations of the movie.  That’s one thing I think that’s actually a filmmaker’s responsibility, to be kind of clued into how much should this movie be made for, I guess, and there’s always a way to figure out how to stretch the resources to make it for that amount.  I would love to work with a studio, I would love to try and do something even bigger, it’s just a matter of whether we can do that and this little family that I make movies with, whether we can do that and then kind of tell our –

RR:  Like [Cinematographer] Steve Yedlin?

RJ:  Yea, like Steve Yedlin.

RR:  You’ve been with him for years, right?

RJ:  Yea, since college, freshman year in the dorms.  Steve, who was actually still a senior in high school, and I met on a student film set and Steve was basically running the camera department on the student film set and I was so useless that when they ran out of sandbags they would have me sit on C-stands.  Steve took pity on me and showed me how to load a Bolex and we just kind of became friends.  Or Nathan Johnson, he’s my composer; we’ve been making movies together since we were ten years old.

RR:  Wow! In a world of worthless prequels, sequels, remakes of known properties, how difficult is it for studios to pick up original content like Looper?  What is the fate of the indie film and can people like us [aspiring filmmakers] make it in this business?

RJ:  Well, I think the good news is that people are now, especially because there’s a real sense from a business point of view, that audiences are starting to catch on and that audiences are not just snapping up the latest thing if it doesn’t look interesting.  I think there is, actually, a real, genuine hunger out there for stuff that audiences are gonna spark to, for stuff that’s really, genuinely interesting.  I think it’s a really good time right now to be out there, both as a filmmaker working more on the studio level but also as an independent filmmaker, I think that’s always been the case in the indie world.  You always have a better chance at popping out at festivals if your movie, this sounds so basic, is interesting, the right thing to do is never to, kind of, just make something that’s in the mode of everything else that’s being made right now.  In the indie world, the right thing is always to go out on a limb and make something that no one’s ever seen before.  So, I don’t know, I’m far from being a studio movie insider, this is the biggest film I’ve done and it wasn’t even a studio film, but I can say that just as a moviegoer, the films that I increasingly seek out over the summer are the ones that have something unique and pop off the screen, something like The Cabin in the Woods this summer, for example, that you see and it genuinely surprises you.  I’m optimistic, it seems to me that there’s actually a lot of really incredibly passionate and smart people who are working at the studio level that love movies like that and love that exact same thing; they’re movie lovers, you know, if you can do something that they think can do well for their company but also has that then I think you have a great chance these days…I hope!

RR:  What was the process of casting Bruce Willis as an older Joseph Gordon-Levitt?

RJ:  I wrote the part for Joe [Gordon-Levitt], so we had Joe set and really, my thoughts with casting Bruce were less about casting him specifically to be Older Joe but more, just because, I thought he’d be awesome for the part.  He’s a great actor and there’s also something about him being Bruce Willis that specifically works really well for this part where he comes in and you think he’s the traditional action star who’s going to find this bad guy and kill them and save the day, and then everything kind of turns from there.  Having Bruce bring all the “Bruce Willis-ness” of that to this role seemed really interesting to me, but then, after the fact, we had to deal with the fact that they look nothing alike, Bruce and Joe.  That’s when the prosthetics and Joe’s performance became really important, him picking up all the mannerisms of Bruce and the voice and the way he carries himself.  At the end of the day, that’s really what sells it and that’s all on Joe.

RR:  You said you wrote the role for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, what’s your relationship with him as an actor and director?

RJ:  Well we’re really good friends!  We stayed really good friends since Brick; he’s one of my closest friends, so that’s always nice.  But we’re also friends who, whenever we get together and hang out, we’re usually, a lot of times, doing something creative whether it’s recording a song together or doing a short or talking about [Gordon-Levitt’s production company] hitRECord and sites or what have you.  We seem to connect over creative endeavors, so I guess we’re friends who really love working together, or people who love working together who are friends. Either one, haha.

RRBrick incorporated a number of noir elements into a modern day high school setting, and Looper takes a relatively different approach to sci-fi, is there something specific that you enjoy about challenging the conventions of these genres?

RJ:  Yea, I mean it always keeps it fresh to kind of infuse something new into it.  I love genre because it gives you a chessboard to play on, it gives you a set of expectations the audience has to play with.  Brick and Looper are very different in their approach to genre but, you’re right, they both take one genre and infuse it with another.  That’s something that’s kind of specific to sci-fi though, also, sci-fi is a genre that kind of demands to be infused, it’s hard to think of a straight sci-fi film, you always think of sci-fi noirs of sci-fi westerns.  Yea, it was a genre that kind of specifically demanded it as well.

RR: Each movie so far, you’ve covered really different topics with each one is that something you’ve intended to do?  Like not trying to retread the same territory or do you just pick genres that you are interested in?

RJ: Well, it’s kind of both, actually.  Just naturally you spend, whatever, three to four years working on a movie and thinking about the ideas in that movie and with your head in the tone of that movie, then when you’re done with that you’re kind of sick of it.  When you’re done with that you just naturally want to find something really new to do and something new to think about, something very different.  So it is, definitely, wanting to do something different but not so much because of audience expectations, it’s just because you want to do something different, haha.

RR: In the Robert Elder book, Films That Changed My Life, you cite Annie Hall as being one of your primary film influences.  It’s a different tone than in your work, what is it about that film and do you see the influence in your own films?

RJ: Sure, the thing is I love so many movies and I could rattle off movies, like Topsy-Turvy is also one of my favorite movies and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of my favorite movies and 2001: A Space Odyssey, I could keep going on for awhile actually, there’s plenty of films, but Annie Hall specifically, the way that it plays with narrative and they way that it formally plays with a lot of those elements but still lands really emotionally, that I could draw a direct connection, actually, to a lot of the stuff that I’ve tried to do and with Looper, for instance, we’re working with a lot of moving parts formally, we’re doing a big tonal shift in the middle of it, we’re mixing a few genres, we have a lot of time travel exposition we’re jamming in, but I wanted all of that to serve a very organic feeling story that got to a very emotional end by the end of it.  And I always think it’s interesting to look outside of stuff that’s in the genre that you’re working in or that your head is usually in, it’s good to find influence outside of that; I think it helps keep it fresh.

RR: I also read online that you consulted with the director of Primer, Shane Carruth, and I just kind of want to know about that conversation and did you consult with anybody else?

RJ: Shane, actually, he took a look at an early draft of the script and gave me some good feedback, but it didn’t really end up going any deeper than that.  We talked about maybe collaborating on one of the effects sequences in the movie but for logistic reasons that didn’t end up happening.  But, you have your group of friends who you show the script to while you’re working on it and a lot of them gave really useful feedback and Shane was one of them.  If you’re friends with the director of Primer and you’re writing a time travel movie you’d be a real fool not to check in with him about it, but the other people I checked with they’re mostly just friends, it’s just important to have people that you trust who know your storytelling to bounce stuff off of and see what they think, that’s always the most important resource more than experts in the field or something like that, I think.

RR: Do you do that often, seeking feedback from other filmmakers?

RJ:  Oh always!  Yea, during the process you need to because you need to get your head around it, you can lose perspective really quick.  So, it’s real important to have friends that you trust who you can bounce stuff off of and who you know will give really honest feedback if something isn’t working.  That’s the most important thing.

Looper hits domestic theaters on Friday, September 28th.

Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content

Interview by Mike Murphy

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