Movie Talk

‘Looper’ director Rian Johnson talks about time travel, Bruce Willis, and nostalgia

Movie Talk

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Photo: Sony Pictures

If you saw "Looper" this past weekend, you're probably still thinking about it. Rian Johnson's surprisingly dense dystopic time-travel movie is, like "The Master," one of those movies that just engenders conversation. Johnson so thoroughly thought out the paradoxical weirdness of time travel along with the grubby, dysfunctional world of middle America in 2044 that the movie not only holds up with multiple viewers, it gets richer.

The movie is about Joe, an assassin -- or looper -- living in the near future. His job is to whack mob victims sent illicitly back in time. The gig might not be the most demanding, but it pays well. Joe has enough money for a sweet vintage Miata, a vault filled with silver bars, and enough drugs to keep him flying high every night. Meanwhile, citizens not involved with some form of organized crime live either in soulless tenements or out on the street. It's the sort of blandly grim future that makes "Blade Runner" look like a utopia. No flying cars or sexy androids here. When Joe is confronted with the task of killing the middle-aged version of himself, he chokes. The older Joe (Bruce Willis) cold-cocks him and flees. While Joe the younger desperately searches for his lost target, the older one has a brutally simple plan to return back to the good life he had taken from him.

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I sat down with Rian Johnson during the Toronto Film Festival. He had an old school Leica camera with him. When I complimented him on it, he snapped a picture of me. I usually try to avoid getting into spoilers when I talk to filmmakers but I couldn't resist with this flick. I had too many questions. I liked the movie too much. So consider this a warning: Spoilers abound in this interview.

Jonathan Crow: One thing I really liked about the film is that you have an extremely well thought out world. What were your inspirations?

Rian Johnson: Well, the starting point for it all was really the script.  That sounds like an obvious thing to say but I wasn't coming up with some big construction visually of what this world was going to be.  I was just focused on the story and the characters and the themes and making sure it all ticked.  So it wasn't until we sat down in preproduction with our production designer, Ed Verreaux, that we started thinking about what is this world going to look like.

The nice thing about that was every design decision was based on the needs of the story.  So it wasn't like, "Let's create a Blade Runner-like world.  Let's create a Twelve Monkey-esque world."  It was the world that makes sense for these characters to live in.  For instance Joe, at the beginning of the movie, is making these decisions out of this desperate self-interest of holding on to his stack of silver. So I created a world where you can see why he's doing that. There is no middle class, there is no cushion.  It's either you've got your slice of the pie or it's destitution on the streets.

JC: There are obviously some film references there.  You mentioned "Twelve Monkeys" and "Blade Runner." What other movies influenced you?

RJ: "Witness" was a big one.  When I was writing the back half of the script, I looked at the way that they sustain the tension in that movie even when they're out on the farm.  That's a brilliant, brilliant film. I owe quite a bit to that movie, probably more so than any of the sci-fi movies you've mentioned.

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JC: How did you approach time travel for this movie?

RJ: It's a sticky wicket. My strategy was that time travel doesn't exist in the present that the movie takes place in.  It all exists in the future. It's the same way that the first "Terminator" handles time travel. It's so elegant that it's easier to forget that it's a time travel movie. That made a lot of sense to me so not only do our characters not have to actually use time travel but they don't even know how it works.  They're just dealing with the ramifications of it.  That doesn't mean that I can get away with not knowing how it works.  I came up with the whole elaborate set of rules for how the paradoxes work and everything but I didn't want to explain those rules to the audience.  I wanted them to just see the effects of it and see these characters dealing with it step by step.

JC: There's that scene in the diner where Bruce Willis says "I don't want to spend all day making diagrams with straws."

RJ: Yeah.  I hope at the same time that if anyone actually cares to dig into it, they'll see a deliberately constructed approach to time travel in this movie.

JC: Ok. So I got to ask, is Jeff Daniels' character Abe actually dead again at the end of the movie?

RJ: Yeah, he's dead.

JC: He's dead?  Even though Bruce Willis' character vanishes at the end of the movie.

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Rian Johnson

Photo: Jonathan Crow

RJ: Yeah. Instead of looking at time travel from a God's eye point of view, I was going to look at it from an experiential perspective. So that means that you're living moment to moment and everything that has happened to you has happened to you, and all that can be possibly changed is in the present moment, moving forward.  For instance, when the scar appears on Bruce Willis' arm. You could say that when that happens, we're actually dropping down to another alternate timeline where he has gotten cut so he got a scar.  So you could see all these timelines splitting out. You could choose to think of it that way and that would make sense.  I chose to stick to what is this guy actually experiencing moment to moment.

JC: The thing is that with "Looper", I felt like the idea of the loop is explored a whole lot. By the end, it's starting to get sort of this Eastern religion karma sort of thing.  Was that intentional?

RJ: I guess so, yeah.  We'd have to talk for another hour about what exactly that means.  It's about the notion of breaking that loop because the loop is  at the an unhealthy cycle of self-interest motivating violence, which motivates the self interest of someone else, which motivates violence, which motivates -- blah, blah, blah.

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JC: That is until Joe enlightens himself at the end, so to speak.

RJ: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly.  And not to glorify that act but it's first kind of truly unselfish act in the movie besides Sarah's character possibly.  Yeah, choosing Sarah's notion of fixing the future by raising your kids right versus old Joe's notion of fixing the future by finding the right person and killing them.

JC: So tell me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He was somebody you thought of from the beginning for this project, right?

RJ: Yeah. I wrote the idea for "Looper" about 10 years ago back before I made my first feature, "Brick." I wrote the script with him in mind largely just because we stayed close friends and I wanted to work with my friend again.  But I also knew that the part was going to require an actor who is up for the challenge of totally disappearing into being a younger version of another actor.  Joe, he's got that leading man charisma but at his heart, he's a character actor and he loves vanishing into roles.  So I knew he'd be really good at it.

JC: So tell me about Bruce Willis.  He's a famous cinematic badass, but …

RJ: He's also I think a tremendous actor.  If you watch Twelve Monkeys for example, it's extraordinary, the nakedness of that performance literally and otherwise.  But the emotional places he goes to with that part are just incredible.

You mentioned him being a cinematic badass and in a real way though, that did get me excited about him specifically for this part because he's the guy who were used to showing up in a movie and saving the day with a plan to find the bad guy and kill them. That was the way of using what audiences expect from Bruce Willis against itself when you realize what the moral consequences of what that actually entails. The horrible things he has to do.

JC: I think the best sci-fi movies always feel like they have something about what's going on now.

RJ: Yeah.

JC: I got that feeling with your films, especially as you're talking about the no middle class.  The world you presented there reminded me a lot of the post-Soviet Union, Russia right after Soviet Union, that sort of complete desolation.

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RJ: It's really cool to hear -- because you're right.  I was aware that this obviously resonated with me. That's why it's in there besides the fact that it just kind of served very well the characters in the story.  These characters are acting out of this desperate need to hold on to their chunk of silver.  Let's put them in a world where you can see why they're doing that because if they lose what they have, there's no -- it's going to fall into destitution. So it's not like that was put in the story for any kind of social commentary, but it's really gratifying just to see that.  Not gratifying.  I guess it's kind of scary to see how that resonates with people today.

JC: The other nice touch I like is the sense that culture hasn't really progressed much since about 1995.

RJ: Everyone still romanticizes neckties.

JC: Right.  He is driving a Miata.

RJ: Sure.  When a culture doesn't have a future, they look at their past.  That's kind of the notion behind it.  There's a certain amount of the thing that Jeff Daniels' character calls Joe out for in the beginning.  It was kind of imitating movies that are imitating other movies.

JC: I kind of feel the same way when I see some 15 year-old wearing the same sweater I wore in 1988.

RJ: Everything comes back around, right?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rian Johnson talk to Yahoo! Movies:

Insider Access: 'Looper' Clip Commentary

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