Interview: Rian Johnson

How do you tamper with the very fabric of a dimension? Rian Johnson’s latest film deals in the business of time travel, a logical and causal roadblock that has furrowed the brow of many a science-fiction writer over the years. In Looper, Johnson pits a mob assassin against his future self, sent back in time thirty years hence. A standoff between the same person, then. How the hell does one go about constructing such a mindfuck of a movie?

“It’s almost like a magic trick,” Johnson chuckles, acknowledging the inherent paradox of a man confronting himself, face-to-face. “There has to be some misdirection. I did actually work out an internal logic, but narratively my approach was: these effects playing out are not the real drama of the story. The real drama of the story is tied up in these characters and the situation they’ve been placed in.” Or as Bruce Willis grumbles in the movie: “We’d be here all day making diagrams with straws.”

In fact, for an elaborate futuristic fantasy, there is remarkably little exposition in Looper. Dialogue is often sparse, and complex timelines are presented without much elucidation. “It’s so easy as a writer to suddenly want to explain everything,” Johnson observes. “It was pleasantly surprising how little the audience actually needed to know. People have seen enough time travel movies already to intuitively get how all this stuff works.”

Indeed, Johnson’s trust in an audience’s intuition is evident throughout his short but fruitful career. It’s there in Brick, his groundbreaking 2005 debut which blended cigarette-chomping film noir procedurals with slouched, cliquey high school students, or as Johnson self-deprecatingly puts it, “a strange detective movie where people talk funny.”

As a meditation on the teenage experience, it was fairly far-removed from your average Disney Channel output. Brick was taut, dense, angry and darkly funny, born of Johnson’s fondness for pulpy Dashiell Hammett novels. It electrified the indie film world and quickly cast Johnson as a director to watch – and thrust its young star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as a credible actor beyond his inauspicious sitcom beginnings.

Three years later came The Brothers Bloom, a comedy which wove a fanciful yarn of sibling con artists on one last job. Knotty narrative met wacky humour with charm and zeal, though it received a somewhat muted critical reception and failed to break even at the box office. With Looper, however, Rian Johnson may have his first bona fide commercial hit. It’s his grandest and most outlandish effort to date, yet inversely also his most grounded.

“It’s not worldbuilding sci-fi,” Johnson says. “Looper is near-future. It’s basically our world, but with some tweaks.” Unlike the “funny talking” of Brick or BloomLooper has a cold, tough realism offsetting the futuristic elements. America in 2047 has broken down, dominated by crime, poverty, and addiction. “There’s a very deliberate reason for that,” Johnson notes. “Making the world a very dangerous, threatening place was a way of playing up a sense of desperation for these characters.”

Few are as desperate as the titular ‘loopers’, killers hired by the ruling mob bosses to efficiently assassinate targets sent from the future, so their bodies will never be found. The loopers are richly rewarded for their efforts; in return, they must accept that they may one day have to kill their future selves – ‘closing the loop’. Such a fate befalls our hero, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), when he finds himself eye-to-eye with his older, gruffer, balder self (Willis).

It was this concept that first came to Johnson a decade ago, at that point merely a short film treatment. “The whole short was just going to be a foot chase between this guy and his future self across a city. It had the basic sci-fi premise and I always thought it had some promise. Then I ended up attaching these other, bigger themes that let me expand it into a feature.”

It is Johnson’s most audacious outing so far, with a reported budget of $60m – over a hundred times the measly half a million he managed to scrape for Brick. Yet he seems largely unflustered by the exponential scale. It was “shockingly easy” to find funding – “once you have Bruce Willis in a science fiction movie you can get your financing pretty quickly” – and independently produced so there was no studio interference.

Crucially, too, the route from low-budget indie to multimillion dollar blockbuster has been a smooth one because little has changed along the way. “It didn’t feel like a massive leap. It just felt like I was with the same group of people making another movie.” Johnson’s cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, has been working with him since their college dorm days at the USC School of Cinematic Arts; his regular composer, Nathan Johnson, is his cousin, and cinematic collaborator since they were 10. “Hopefully, working with the same group of folks gives you a comfort level to try bigger stuff and to go out on creative limbs.”

Part of that group includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose stock has risen considerably since he last worked with Johnson. Is the actor any different now he is a confirmed leading man? “Oh yeah, he’s become such an asshole,” he laughs. “Stretched limo Hummers… No, Joe is the same Joe I met ten years ago. He has a passion for the work and the thing that motivates him is working with creative people he really connects with and telling stories he cares about.”

Bruce Willis, meanwhile, is a newcomer to the Family Johnson. Was there any apprehension having the world’s biggest action star in your movie, especially when audiences have a clearly defined idea of what a Bruce Willis movie is? “Well, that’s partly why it was so exciting. There were specific reasons why having Bruce Willis, the guy who shows up with the plan thats gonna save the day, worked really well in this story, as a kind of leather against the audience’s expectations.”

He pauses. “I was nervous as hell, of course. I mean, it’s Bruce Willis! But he ended up being so cool and so patient – he jumped into it with both feet. He was everything you would want from working with one of your heroes.”

It dawns on me that Rian Johnson’s love of cinema is wholesale and unadulterated. His career trajectory seems unusual, but reasonably unpretentious. He seems happy to work down quite narrow, delineated lines, unfazed by the ‘genre director’ tag. “Genres give you a nice framework to work within, a chessboard to play on. I do tend to think in those terms. I mean, it’s not the starting point. But I guess I do tend to really like the restrictions that genre imposes on you narratively. I find that really useful.”

So, somehow, Rian Johnson is an undercover indie director in a blockbuster world. Or perhaps he’s an art director making genre movies. Or maybe he’s just a straightforwardly sincere film fan making movies like he always dreamed. I ask him if he would be happy to continue hopping around genres for the rest of his career. “Oh my God, man, yeah! I would be thrilled!” He sounds genuinely excited and grateful, as if I have offered him a ten-picture deal. “Every time I watch a movie, I think, ‘My God, it’d be fun to do something in that world.’ I just love so many genres of film. I wanna do them all.”

Article first appeared in The Skinny, September 2012 issue. [Link]