Comic-Con Interview: Looper Director Rian Johnson

We first met Johnson while he was doing promotion for his first movie Brick and then again during the long process of getting his second movie The Brothers Bloom released, but fans of Johnson’s work knows what a creative and talented filmmaker he is, often combining rather diverse genres to create movies unlike others.

Looper does just that by combining classic gangster movies with a science fiction element. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a “looper,” a gangster hitman working out of a rural area of the Midwest, who takes care of mob targets that have been sent back through time to be disposed of. It pays well and the job’s going great until Bruce Willis shows up in front of his shotgun to be killed and he realizes that the guy he’s been assigned to kill is himself from decades in the future.

It’s a very different movie for Johnson due to the genre, the fact there’s a lot more action in it and that it’s getting a major studio release across the country, unlike his previous two movies which never played in more than a couple hundred theatres. We’re pretty excited that more moviegoers will be able to experience Johnson’s creativity on the big screen.

Unfortunately, our beloved Flipcam died right as we started the interview, but you can read our brief chat below, and hopefully we’ll have a chance for a more in-depth interview after we’ve actually seen Looper. The first time we talked about this movie was in Toronto when you there with The Brothers Bloom…

Rian Johnson:
Yeah, I was working on it.

CS: So has the idea changed a lot over the ideas or have you kept most of that script you were writing?

I honestly can’t remember at Toronto where I was at. The basic premise of it, just the plot device of what the whole thing hinges on, I wrote as a short film like 10 years ago, back before “Brick” actually, and I never ended up shooting it. It just sat in a drawer, and then it was around the time of Toronto when we were putting Bloom out that a couple bigger ideas and themes attached themselves to this idea and that’s when it kind of took off as a feature. I’m guessing I was pretty well down the path by the time we talked then.

CS: When you first were writing it, was it going to be a smaller indie movie like “Brick” or did you always know this would need a bigger budget?

We knew because of the sci-fi stuff, we would need a bigger budget. My producer Ram Bergman is great in that when I’m writing, he tells me to not think about budget or sale, “Just write the story that you want to tell,” so I wasn’t thinking in those terms, but in the back of my head, I knew we were going to need a bigger scale for it. Also, it has action in it, it has gun fight sequences and chases. It’s got some stuff that I really wanted to play around with, and that takes a little bit more money.

CS: You’ve had action in both “Brick” and “Brothers Bloom”…

Yeah, sure.

CS: But when you start bringing Bruce Willis into an action movie…

It’s a whole ‘nother level.

CS: You’ve worked with Joe before, but how did you go about approaching Bruce about doing this? Just sent him the script?

Yeah, just sent the script to him. We had Joe in it, I’d written the part for Joe, so he was in it before the beginning, and then Bruce was the first piece of the puzzle to fit in. We sent him the script, he was really into it. It was shockingly easy. I just sat down with him and we really dug each other and we were off to the races. Yeah, Bruce just threw himself into this movie. He was awesome to work with, we had such a good time together working on set, and he was really selfless in terms of his approach to the part. He had no ego and he was just willing to go work wherever the part needed him to go. I think he gives a really vulnerable and credible performance in it. I’m really excited for people to see it, it’s so good.

CS: One of the things that really sets “Brick” and “Brothers Bloom” apart is the dialogue, which is very distinctive. That’s definitely one of the takeaways most people have from your movies, so have you been able to fit that level of writing into this sort of sci-fi action movie or did you noticeably change your style of writing?

Well, the answer is you do what each story requires. “Brick,” there were really specific reasons we had that ornate language and “Bloom,” the same thing, but this, I actually wanted to do that much less. I wanted to make this much more stripped down and less stylized in terms of the language, and I was frankly just trying to use less dialogue. I was trying to say more with less, that was my challenge to myself with this one.

CS: Did that change once you started shooting or was that something you predetermined going in?

No, that was in the script phase, and then you get in the editing room and you end up cutting out even more of the dialogue. It really becomes about how little you can say and still have it be completely effective, and that was the game for me on this one. It wasn’t about being verbose, it was about being economic.

CS: A lot of times with science fiction movies, you need exposition to explain the concept, and it’s funny because I just spoke to “Total Recall” director Len Wiseman, and Philip K. Dick is a perfect example where the concept is fairly complex. Was this a concept that was easier to explain?

No, well that’s the thing. It had a tricky concept that I knew we had to explain, but I wanted to get that out of the way very quickly. I wanted to get past that very quickly and get into the meat of the story. I kind of made the decision to just explain it at the beginning of the movie to the audience, to have voiceover at the beginning with Joe, and from the very first draft of the script, that was the approach I had to take. I was like, “You know what? Let’s just state the complicated things and get them out of the way and get the story started.” That’s the approach we take and it’s kind of the equivalent of the opening scroll on “Blade Runner,” but with Joe doing it in voiceover.

CS: Bruce has a lot of experience with action so when you start doing those scenes, was it helpful to have him around, since he’s probably done anything possible when it comes to action, I’d imagine?

Yeah, he showed Joe the ropes. There’s a scene where they have to fight together and Bruce has Joe in a half-nelson, dragging Joe across the floor of this diner, and Bruce was like, “Do it this way” and Joe did it and his eyes just went wide and he went, “Holy sh*t, Bruce Willis is showing me how to take a punch!” It was pretty cool, but you’re in good hands when you’ve got Bruce. It was exactly what I wanted also because you don’t cast Bruce Willis in a movie and not listen when he has an idea about an action scene.

CS: I’m really happy that Sony is getting behind this movie, because I remember with “Brick,” everybody loved the movie but it just didn’t connect theatrically, and “Brothers Bloom” was the same. How is it having a big studio behind “Looper” and doing such a big push at places like Comic-Con?

It’s a whole ‘nother ball game, it’s exciting. This is the first time I’m going through this. It’s the first time, like you said, where I’ve had a movie where the studio really loves the movie and really feels they know what to do with it, they know how to get it out there. It’s weird to have a movie in an environment like Comic-Con that people are paying attention to, it’s pretty cool! (laughs). It’s a whole new ball of wax, but also, I’m really proud of the movie. I’m just excited for people to see it, and the idea that more people will get to see it, that’s really exciting to me.

CS: Do you think the people who go see “Looper” who then go back to check out your earlier movies will be thrown off by how different it is?

Oh, I don’t know. I’ve got no clue. They’re such different movies. You have to tell me after you see it. I guess there’s connective tissue between them but they’re all three so different. I honestly don’t know.

CS: Do you have any idea what you want to do next and have you developed anything between the last two movies?

I wish, I wish. If I had half a brain, I would have been developing it. No, we finished this thing and I’m trying to figure out what the next one’s going to be.

CS: I guess you’re pretty busy with promotion between this and WonderCon and earlier this year.

Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff to be done, but I still have time to figure it out. I have a couple ideas I’ve been working on, but honestly, I had such a good time making this, I wanted to be in production making a movie very quickly after this one. I actually read a lot of scripts and I read a lot of really good stuff. Honestly, I read a lot of stuff that was better than anything I could ever write, but I realized in reading it all that’s what turns me on about all this is finding something from the beginning and seeing it through to the end. It’s just kind of what I’m in it for, so for better or for worse, that’s what I gotta do.

CS: Which basically means you’ll have a movie every three or four years.

Yeah, I want to figure out a way that I can get faster at writing or maybe to write two at once. I want to get one ahead so I can be doing these a little faster, ’cause making them is the fun part, writing sucks.

CS: That seems to be the general consensus with many writer/directors I’ve spoken to where they want to do their own stuff but unless you’re Woody Allen where you can write and direct one movie a year…

Yeah, Woody Allen churns them out, he’s a machine. He’s Woody Allen!

Looper opens nationwide on September 28.