‘Looper’ Director Rian Johnson Discusses Creative Process, Influences, Heightened Reality
By Rachel Bennett
Television Editor & Columnist
They say the third time’s the charm, and that appears to be the case for writer-director Rian Johnson.
Looper, Johnson’s third and most ambitious feature , opened on Sept. 28 and quickly became one of the year’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful releases. The story of a man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) assigned to kill the 30-years-older version of himself (Bruce Willis) after time-travel is discovered, it’s a rare blockbuster that’s both creative and smart. It has thus earned Johnson comparisons to fellow filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky.
Oh, and Looper is also immensely profitable: made on a mid-range budget of just $30 million, it grossed $66 million at the U.S. box-office and another $97 million abroad. How many other 2012 films can compete with those profit-margins?
Looper marks the second large collaboration between Johnson and star Gordon-Levitt, who worked together on Johnson’s first feature, the 2005 high school drama Brick, a $475,000 neo-noir that caught a lot of people’s attention after it played at Sundance and went on to gross over $3 million internationally. Gordon-Levitt also made a cameo in Johnson’s second film, The Brothers Bloom, a $20 million film that was rejected by critics and ignored by moviegoers upon its release in 2008.
I recently caught up with Johnson, of whom I am admittedly a big fan, over the telephone to discuss his life and career.
Of his filmmaking, Johnson says, “I think that each film is definitely a learning process, and coming out of each one, you try and figure out what you want to get a little bit better at.”
Johnson says his goal as a filmmaker is to blend the two kinds of movies that he loved as a kid: those that feature thought-provoking ideas, like the films of Martin Scorsese and Federico Fellini, and those that have broad appeal, like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future. He credits his childhood love of film to his grandfather and father, the latter of whom made a brief appearance in Looper. (“That was a great day for him — getting shot in the face by Bruce Willis. Kind of made his year,” Johnson remembers with a laugh.)
Johnson’s father also introduced him to filmmaking by bringing home “the first video camera on the block.” Johnson recalls being in grade school when he first used the camera, holding it down while running through a space between the coffee table and couch.
When Johnson’s father played the film back, Johnson says, “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that looks just like the X-Wing going into the trench in Star Wars,’ and I was hooked.” From there, he filmed sketches with childhood friends and began making Super 8 movies in junior high. Once camcorders became popular, he began using one and made small movies throughout high school.
Johnson eventually wound up studying at the University of Southern California. There, through USC’s prestigious undergraduate film production program, he met Steve Yedlin, who became one of his best friends as well as his cinematographer for Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper. In addition to Gordon-Levitt and Yedlin, Johnson has also worked with numerous others on all three of his films — among them Nathan Johnson, his cousin and composer, and actor Noah Segan, who plays the gun-spinning Kid Blue in Looper.
“I’m just lucky enough that those people I’m close to are also the most talented people I know,” Johnson says. “And so I do feel like I’ve got the strongest team I could ever hope for.”
Unlike many young screenwriters who pound away on laptops at the local Starbucks, Johnson prefers writing in notebooks. “In terms of writing, sitting and staring at a title draft can be the least invigorating space to work in for me. I prefer to just have a page with a pen in my hand,” he says. The first 80 percent of his writing process is meticulously outlining a script, sketching out scenes without fully writing them and setting up a structure. The rest involves filling in the dialogue and eventually resorting to a computer to transcribe it all, after which the editing process commences.
“It’s a very, very loose process,” he notes. The Brothers Bloom and Looper each took him a year and a half to compose, but he says he’s trying to write faster because he admits it probably takes him much longer than it should.
When drafting Looper, Johnson says that one of his challenges was creating a consistent tone as the story went back and forth from the farm to the city. He explains that he wanted the movie to feel like one piece by the end, but he also wanted the two spaces to represent the two sides of a moral choice, such as the one Gordon-Levitt has to make in the film.
Discussing films and literature with Johnson go hand-in-hand, as the influences of numerous literary works can be detected throughout his scripts — everything from Dashiell Hammett in Brick to James Joyce throughout The Brothers Bloom. “When you’re writing, what you’re ingesting is so important in creating as rich of a soup as you can to draw ideas out of,” he explains. He adds that doing so often involves reading works that aren’t directly applicable to what he’s writing and then stumbling across passages that articulate the point he’s trying to make in a script.
He cites an influence that he unexpectedly encountered when writing Looper: William Shakespeare, specifically Macbeth. As Johnson read the play, he realized that Macbeth mirrors Old Joe, played by Willis in Looper, because they both attain information about the future and commit violent acts to make certain versions of reality come true.
“There’s actually a line from Lady Macbeth that I wrote down as a big, bold heading early on,” Johnson says. “It’s, ‘Naught’s had, all’s spent, / Where our desire is got without content. / ‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy / Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.’ And that felt like, kind of, the heart of not just Old Joe’s half, but also Young Joe’s decision. And that got to the heart of the film’s view on destruction and violence.”
Another of the many characteristics that distinguish Johnson from most of his peers is his desire and ability to create a fully-realized heightened reality. Brick portrays high school students as characters in a film-noir who are solving a murder. The Brothers Bloom depicts a con-man scheme that increasingly becomes less linear and more labyrinth-like as the film proceeds. And Looper continues this trend, blurring the lines of the past and the future so they literally come face-to-face in the present.
Under anybody else’s control, these stories could get out of control. But under Johnson’s watch, they make complete sense — you don’t sell millions of dollars worth of tickets if they don’t — and are used to represent raw, universal, everyday emotions.
“I’ve probably had more days of my life that felt like a Fellini movie than felt like a cinéma vérité that depicts, quote-unquote, ‘actual reality,’” Johnson says. “Whether it’s trying to get at the way that we turn our high school memories into this dark mythology in our minds and using that heightened reality in Brick to try and get at that feeling, or with Brothers Bloom, the feeling of being trapped inside a story that isn’t yours and being trapped inside this kind of suffocating storytelling that you didn’t create, or with Looper, it would be kind of using the sci-fi element in this very kind of unreal situation of facing your own self from the future to get at that very recognizable and very human young-man-sitting-across-from-an-old-man thing, ‘I’m not going to turn into you,’ situation … the heightened is always a way of getting at the real.”
He continues, “In mind, that is a way of maybe bringing the real into even sharper focus than you could just by setting up a camera and letting it happen.”
Despite painting a heightened reality for viewers, Johnson was careful not to make the world shown in Looper too unrecognizable, as many films set in the future tend to do. He recalls reading about period design in films and notes the view of a designer who suggested that if a movie is set in 1963, the biggest mistake a filmmaker could make is to have everything in the movie come from 1963. Instead, there should be elements from the 1950s, 1940s, 1930s and so on.
“If I look around my apartment right now, for instance, I could pick out things that would be right at home in an apartment in 1980,” he adds.
Johnson approached the use of CGI with this same new-world/old-world outlook, taking a cue from such filmmakers as Nolan and Guillermo del Toro: “I looked at the work that they did, and it seemed like one of the keys was using as much practical as you possibly can and then augmenting it very smartly with digital.” For instance — spoiler alert — some characters in the film have a mutation that allows them to perform telekinesis. In most of these scenes, instead of using CGI objects, a real object was dangled from a fishing line and later removed during editing.
When Johnson’s not behind the video camera, he’s behind his own camera taking pictures on set. Before the filming of Looper began, he bought himself a new camera and had it on his shoulder throughout the entirety of the production.
“I ended up taking over a thousand film stills during the course of shooting,” he says. “It’s really nice to have a scrapbook memory of that period of shooting that’s in this really specific, arcane format.”
Asked if he has a favorite picture, Johnson cites one he took of Gordon-Levitt. In one scene, Gordon-Levitt falls off of a fire escape, and the picture shows the actor holding on to the ladder as he’s smiling and spreading his arms out in the air. Johnson remarks, “For some reason, just Joe in that face, smiling, in that pose, just made me so happy — cause he never really smiles in the movie … That photo captures a combination of the Joe who is my friend and the Joe who is the character in the movie that I thought was really cool.”
Johnson’s Tumblr page features more of his photographs, including one of him directing an episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad. In fact, he’s helmed two episodes of the hit drama (season three’s “Fly” and season five’s “Fifty-One”), as well as an episode of FX’s canceled Terriers (“Manifest Destiny”). When I ask him if it he approaches directing a TV series differently than he does a movie, he says with a laugh, “I’m really just there to try and use everything that I’ve got to bring that writing to life as effectively as possible and to get what’s on the page on the screen in the best way possible … The big difference for me is just that I didn’t write it, and so it’s serving somebody else’s material, which is honestly a joy. I love it.”
Since he loves directing others’ scripts in addition his own, and because he’s a huge fan of the franchise, I couldn’t resist questioning Johnson about the possibility of directing the upcoming seventh installment of Star Wars. Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) will be penning the screenplay, but a director has yet to be named. Johnson laughs at the mention of the idea and, like a true fan, remarks, “Oh, I highly doubt it, but I’m really excited to see more Star Wars movies. They’re going to be awesome.”
At the moment, Johnson is more focused of writing an original script, “chugging away on it and trying to figure it out.” Whatever the script is about — he’s not telling, and I, regrettably, do not have access to time-travel to find out — it’s a pretty safe bet, based on his last three films, that it will be unlike virtually anything else that anyone else is doing at the moment.
Tags: AMC, Back to the Future, Breaking Bad, Brick, Bruce Willis, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Dashiell Hammett, Federico Fellini, FX, Guillermo Del Toro, Inception, James Joyce, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Looper, Macbeth, Martin Scorsese, Michael Arndt, Nathan Johnson, Noah Segan, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rian Johnson, Star Wars, Steve Yedlin, Steven Zeitchik, Sundance Film Festival, Terriers, The Brothers Bloom, Todd McCarthy, Toy Story 3, William Shakespeare