Looper with Rian Johnson

Writer-director Rian Johnson has done neo-noir with Brick and capers with The Brothers Bloom. And this week he’s back with his clever take on sci-fi, Looper, which opens on 28 September.

Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises) as Joe, a hitman living in 2044. His job is to kill off people sent back in time from 2074 by his gangster employers.

At some point, every hitman or looper has to close the time-travelling loop by killing their future self.

When young Joe’s time comes to do this, his older self (Bruce Willis) has other ideas.

Instead of accepting his fate, Willis escapes and it’s up to Gordon-Levitt to hunt him down before Willis changes everyone’s fate.

I caught up with Rian Johnson to chat about working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, sci-fi movies, and changing the past.

Jeff Daniels’ character in Looper says that ‘This time travel crap fries your brain like an egg.’ How did you get your head round it when you were writing the script?

I started out researching on the web, reading what people were writing about time travel, and it does melt your mind and very quickly start turning your brain into a big pile of green goo.

For me, when I started writing the story, it was very important to try and simplify time travel so it didn’t get in the way of the characters and the plot.

So, a lot of the work of writing the screenplay was working out how to keep it in the background and a big decision I made was to have it exist in the future but not in the present, so our characters don’t have access to it.

That helped out a lot because then it could be this magical thing in the future but our characters don’t really know how it works and the audience doesn’t feel it has to get a lecture from the characters about how everything works.

What films did you look to for inspiration?

Time travel-wise, the first Terminator film is probably the closest, just the way it handles time travel because it exists in the future but not the present, so it does its job at the beginning of the film by setting the situation and conflict up. Then it gets out of the way and you don’t worry about it. That was the model time travel-wise for Looper.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a superb performance. And to make him physically resemble a young Bruce Willis, he had some facial prosthetics too. What was it like when you saw him made up like that for the first time?

It was really bizarre, and not just for the first time… it never got easier or normal for a minute. The prosthetics were just flawless, you could put your face inches from Joe’s face and just not see it – it looked completely real, just like that’s the way he looked.

It was especially weird because I’ve been friends with Joe for 10 years now, I know him very well, and having your friend on set having him not look like your friend is the strangest thing in the world.

And Emily Blunt thought it wasn’t actually Joe when they were first introduced on set…

Yes, she got completely freaked out and thought she’d been introduced to his stunt double! It was extraordinary. I think it really disturbed his parents too. It’s so uncanny that I don’t think his mum liked it at all.

What’s it like working with Joe now, compared to on your first feature, Brick?

First of all, it’s just really cool to be working with a good friend, that’s always the best. With Brick, we’d just met, and now we’ve been friends for 10 years, so there’s that relationship and there’s more of that trust.

We had a great time working on Brick together, but this just felt like something totally different.

It’s been so much fun as his friend to see his popularity go up and up recently. He’s a guy who choses movies just based on whether they’re interesting to him and whether they’re interesting stories and interesting filmmakers.

He’s always had his head in the right place. And to see him do these incredible cool movies because of that and to see your friend do well, it feels really good.

Looper’s set in the 2040s and 2070s. How did you go about constructing that future world?

When I started working with the design team I didn’t have any idea specifically about how the world would look. Most of the writing process hadn’t been focused on world-building; it was focused on the story and characters, so we were kind of starting from square one when we began.

That ended up being great because every design decision was based on the needs of the story, so we wanted a very broken down, dangerous-feeling world to motivate all the characters in the movie.

Everyone’s trying to hold on to their little piece of the pie. Everybody’s trying to do whatever they have to do to keep their stash of gold because the only other option is destitution, so that led to the design of a very broken down, frightening-looking world. So we worked with the designers to distress all the buildings and adjust the world to feel like that.

But it was also a process of pulling it back. Inevitably when you’re doing a sci-fi movie the temptation is to throw it way out there and do something really cool, something more like Blade Runner or Minority Report, which I love.

Obviously those movies are fantastic, but that’s just not the world we were creating. So a lot of my job was pulling these great designers back and saying let’s bring it back down to earth, let’s ground it more.

Because there was so much for the audience to chew on already with the time travel element, I didn’t want the world or the technology of the world to be something the audience had to spend energy wrapping their heads around. I wanted it to be very recognisable, very grounded. So even the hover bikes look more like motorcycles than crazy sci-fi hover bikes.

And you’re working again with your cousin, the composer Nathan Johnson, who provided the score for Brick and The Brothers Bloom too…

We’ve been making movies together since we were 10 years old and I really love the score he made for this. What he did was he took a field recorder, a handheld high quality recorder, out to New Orleans when we were shooting and he recorded all these different sounds like the doorstop spring in his motel room, the quiet-on-the-set alarm on the sound stage.

He put them in a computer and he messed with them, slowed them down 3000%, put weird filters on them and he turned them into instruments. So basically he created what sounds like an orchestra with a huge orchestral sound out of these very small and very real noises.

It’s something that’s been experimented before in music, but the way Nathan applied it and brought this emotion of a beautiful orchestral score to these sounds, I think he did a great job.

You talked about your filmic inspiration for Looper’s time travel, but what are your other favourite sci-fi movies?

Oh, my gosh, I love so many sci-fi movies! I think the first Alien is pretty close to being a perfect film. Blade Runner is just this mythic thing in my head.

The Star Wars movies… it’s very easy to forget how conceptually genre-bending they are. They’re such a part of our culture now it’s almost hard to look back on them now and think ‘wow, they were mixing a lot of very strange things in a very non-intuitive way.’ It’s a pretty amazing thing that Lucas created.

And there’s books… I’m a big Philip K Dick fan. Ray Bradbury is just a god, he’s incredible. Murakami writes some fantastic, what I consider to be, science-fiction but in a beautiful noir-like modern mode. I could go on and on. Oh, I haven’t said 12 Monkeys!

If you could go back in time, like in the film, and change anything, what would it be?

Nothing! Are you kidding?! I would just mess everything up. I’m getting to make movies with Bruce Willis right now, I don’t want to mess anything up!

Who knows where changing one thing might lead you…

Exactly! I’d be waking up and living under a bridge somewhere! I could only screw things up if I went back, so I’ll stay right here.