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Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Q&A with Looper's Rian Johnson

The director of Brick returns with a twisty, turny sci-fi brain teaser.

Rian Johnson, far right, the director of Looper

Moviegoers have seen a million different versions of the “man versus himself” narrative conflict; there’s a good chance, however, that they’ve never seen it as literalized (or adrenalized) as writer-director Rian Johnson’s take. His latest, Looper, takes place in a future-shocked Kansas City where time travel has been both invented and outlawed. Which doesn’t stop the Mob from employing guys like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a blunderbuss-wielding hit man who kills marked men sent back into the present. Complications arise, however, when one of Joe’s intended victims happens to be…a decades-older version of himself (Bruce Willis). TONY talked to Johnson the day after his movie opened the Toronto Film Festival.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Toronto Film Festival

Time Out New York: It’d originally started with just a long chase scene, right?
Rian Johnson:
I came up with the initial idea about ten years ago, which was going to be for a short I never ended up making. It was just a foot chase across Los Angeles, with a voiceover explaining who was chasing whom. This was while we were waiting for financing to make Brick, and I was getting really frustrated that I was spending all my time and brainpower on trying to get money to make this goddamn movie. So I wrote it so I could shoot on the weekends with a video camera, to keep from just idly sitting around. But I never got around to making it.

Then years later, after I’d finished The Brothers Bloom (2008), I ended up dragging what I’d written out of the script drawer and took another look at it. And while it was still just a chase scene, the basics were all there in the voiceover: A hit man in the present, a mob gang in the future, the hit man’s future self is sent back to get whacked and he runs. Somehow, I could see a feature in the idea this time.

Time Out New York: Who came up with the idea of using face prosthetics to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like a younger Bruce Willis?
Rian Johnson:
That was my idea. I wrote the part for Joe, and I always had it in my head that no matter who played the older guy’s part, we would end up doing something to Joe’s face. Then we when we cast Bruce in the role, it ended up being a big problem—because Joe looks nothing like him. So we picked a couple of key features and altered them using prosthetics; there’s no CGI involved. In the end of the day, could we have probably gotten away with not doing anything to Joe’s face? Probably. But it was more fun this way. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: Your version of 2044 seems weirdly plausible, even with the hover bikes.
Rian Johnson:
That was a big part of the ideology of our whole design scheme: Let’s ground the fantastic. The interior sets, the hover bikes, the cityscapes—make them dirty and realistic. When you’re trying to establish a world within a sci-fi movie like this, the production team’s work is to make it as bold and far-out as possible. My job as a director was to tell them to consistently pull them back. You know, Take that crazy futuristic thing off that building and just make the building look like it’s been through a lot over the last 40 or 50 years. It’s fun to make world-building movies where you’re completely building an alternate universe from scratch, but that was not this movie. There’s already a lot to absorb in the first half hour in terms of information; give the audience enough to know they’re in a futuristic dystopia and then let’s get to the story of a guy shooting up things with a blunderbuss.

Time Out New York: Was that how you pitched this to Joseph Gordon-Levitt? “I’m going to make you the blunderbuss action hero!”
Rian Johnson:
[Laughs] I mean, he’s already a movie star! One thing that’s been consistent with Joe is that he really does pick his projects entirely on the basis of his passion for it. Whether it’s a high-school movie about kids who talk kinda funny, done by a guy who’d never made a movie before, or it’s a Batman movie with Chris Nolan, he’s there because he believes in a project. We’re both into the idea of making movies that are both smart and fun. When I first started telling Joe about Looper, I told him, look, I don’t want to make a dirge here. There’s some complicated, heavy stuff going on, but I want this to be a ride.

Time Out New York: The two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Rian Johnson:
I don’t think so either. Look at Inception. That’s a great example of how to do it right. That’s why I want move further into mainstream filmmaking. I think now is the time to reach a bigger audience with the sort of interesting, complicated, big-budget movies I want to see and I want to make. People are hungry for something besides empty spectacle.

Time Out New York: Was there a conscious decision on your part to try and avoid the clichés of past time-travel movies?
Rian Johnson:
It was less about avoiding specific clichés than taking those conventions and trying to customize them in order to tell the story I wanted to tell. But if there were familiar elements from other time-travel movies that I could use as a shorthand way of communicating information to the audience, I’d be a fool not to use them! That’s the benefit of working in a genre: You have a shared grammar. You can make bigger leaps because viewers already know where you’re going to leap—and then you make them lose their footing when they land, which is even better.

Time Out New York: When people expect a scene that explains how time travel works, it then allows you to fuck with those expectations by having Bruce Willis say…
Rian Johnson:
… “Look, we could sit around this diner all day with me explaining time travel to you and us playing around with straws, but that’s not what we’re going to do.” [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. Just the fact that we’ve cast Bruce Willis, an actor whose past roles tell you he’s the man with the plan. Then that turns out to be not the case. Somewhat.

Time Out New York: Since you’re bringing up genre, it’s been interesting to see how what used to be seen as a fringe-nerd entertainment—fantasy and sci-fi stories, comic-book superheroes—have now taken over the mainstream. The good news is that studios know that a movie like Looper definitely has an audience; the potential downside to that, however, is that you know have a million sci-fi action movies out there catering to the Comic-Con crowd’s tastes. As someone who’s making these kinds of movies, are you worried about a sort of genre fatigue?
Rian Johnson:
I hear what you’re saying; I’m a fan as a well as a filmmaker, so I know the odd feeling of being bored by entertainment that you’re talking about. Even with blockbusters, there will be amazing stuff happening on the screen that my ten-year-old self would be in awe of, and my 39-year-old self is just sort of disengaged with. You can get jaded about this stuff nowadays. But there’s always a hunger for things that surprise people, and there’s a deep longing in every genre fan for something that makes you stop in your tracks and go, Whoa. So the key is to just rise to the occasion and do it. You can shake things up so long as you don’t break them in the process.

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear