Rian Johnson on his writing process and the appeal of alternate-history films

Rian Johnson on his writing process and the appeal of alternate-history films

Writer-director Rian Johnson launched his career in 2005 with Brick, a remarkably smart, ambitious movie that mashes a ’40s noir mystery into a high-school setting, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt starring as a hard-bitten, hard-jawed detective archetype who also happens to be a slouchy teenager. Johnson followed up in 2008 with the less well received but still impressively original The Brothers Bloom, starring Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo as con-men brothers out to take advantage of weirdo heiress Rachel Weisz. Since then, Johnson has directed an episode of Terriers and two of Breaking Bad (including the memorable, divisive, but stylish bottle episode “Fly”), while working on his latest feature film.

Looper is a significant departure for Johnson: an action-focused time-travel movie starring Gordon-Levitt as a thug hired to murder prisoners sent back into the past for disposal by a ruthless criminal syndicate operating 30 years into his future. When they send back his 30-years-older self (played by Bruce Willis) to be murdered, Willis escapes and starts trying to change the past to eliminate the criminal syndicate, with Gordon-Levitt in hot pursuit. The role, which Johnson scripted with Gordon-Levitt in mind, required the actor to wear facial prosthetics to look more like a younger version of Bruce Willis, and to imitate his vocal cadences and movement—all of which Johnson alluded to when The A.V. Club sat down with him in Chicago to discuss guest-directing for TV, why the killing-Hitler time-travel conundrum is boring, and how much he’s looking forward to the Internet picking Looper apart.

The A.V. Club: Looper was more than a 10-year process, right? Where did it start for you?

Rian Johnson: I wrote the first seed of the idea as a short film that I never ended up shooting about 10 years ago, and I’d been reading a ton of Philip K. Dick at the time, so that probably informed some of it. It was before we made Brick, and I was in this place where we were still trying to get the money to make Brick, and I found that all I was thinking about all day long was just getting money to make a movie, and it was getting really frustrating. So my friend Steve [Yedlin], my cinematographer, and I just started making shorts on weekends, just to start making movies again. With no agenda of getting into film festivals or anything. Just to be making movies. And this was a script I wrote to do that with. We never ended up shooting it, but the idea stuck around, and eight years later, after I made Brothers Bloom, I pulled it out and expanded it.

AVC: How did the process of developing the story compare to your work on Brick or Brothers Bloom?

RJ: Well, I don’t know. The thing is, it’s so different. With Brick, I wrote the script when I was 23 and didn’t make the movie until I was 30. So that was a thing where the script as a whole was in my head for that same amount of time. Brothers Bloom was a much quicker process, but then this, the seed of the idea was written, but I didn’t write the script until right before we made it. So I don’t know, it’s different. I do think that I’m a big believer in having an idea or having ideas and just tucking them away in the back of your brain. Even if you aren’t consciously thinking of them, I think they simmer. You’re working on them, even if you don’t know you’re working on them, and I think having something in your head for a while is a valuable thing. I hope it is. 

AVC: This is the first time you’ve had a movie that’s really been heavily backed by a studio. Did that change the process for you?

RJ: Well, not in making it. We made it independently, so the process of making it felt strikingly similar to Bloom, and even to Brick. It was a lot of the same people. My DP is my best friend since college, my composer, Nathan [Johnson], is my cousin, and Joe [Gordon-Levitt], obviously—it felt like this little family we make movies with. So that didn’t feel very different. But this process that we’re going through now, and the fact that people are actually paying attention to the movie and it’s actually going to get released, it’s night and day. I’m still kind of adjusting to it. It’s good. [Laughs.] I like this better.

AVC: Are you ready for the kind of thing that happened with Primer and Inception, where the Internet starts dissecting the story and the science in minute detail?

RJ: Oh man, I’m so ready for that! I can’t wait! I mean, I know I’m screwed, I know people will be coming up with stuff that I never thought of, that invalidates the entire film, but I love it. As a science-fiction geek myself, that’s one of the real pleasures of the genre, is when you can dig into it and get your teeth into it. And if this is the type of movie people are compelled to do that with, nothing would make me happier. 

AVC: Did Inception give you hope that Looper would have mainstream appeal, that people would be able to follow a complicated, multi-threaded—

RJ: Absolutely. Inception specifically. It was a revelation for me, seeing a movie that was as uncompromising and obviously personal a vision, also as narratively complex, but told in such a deft way that an audience could absorb it. It’s less about the audience… the fact that an audience would accept a complex movie. It’s more seeing that [Christopher] Nolan was able to take a complex subject or concept and tell it in such a way to where it could be mainstream. And that just really excited me. And for me, even moving forward, the biggest creative challenge for me and the thing that’s most exciting is, can we go bigger? Can we do something more mainstream that still has the stuff we care about in it? Can we tell stories that are important to us and that give the audience credit and give them something to really chew on and really engage with, and still have eye candy and still make it big and fun and create the kind of movies we went to when we were kids over the summer?

AVC: Your movies are always dense and fast-paced. Do you have a philosophy about challenging viewers to keep up, or to take in a certain amount of material?

RJ: No, not specifically. Because that makes it sound like that’s where something originates, and it always has to come from a purer place than that, I think. I think it’s probably more like a function of what’s interesting to me. I mean, a lot of my favorite movies are films where you do have to watch a few times, you do have to take them apart. At the same time, with Looper for example, even though it has a lot packed into it, and even though you can dig into it, it was very important to me that not only did the film not feel like algebra homework, that it was incredibly entertaining, but that it was satisfying on the first viewing. Even for a non science-fiction crowd, it was satisfying on some level on the first viewing. Even if there were questions at the end, even if there was stuff you wondered about or argued about on the way home in the car with your friends, on some fundamental level, you understood the whole thing. You saw why it ended up in the place it ended up. 

AVC: You scripted it with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in mind as the protagonist. How did that affect the process?

RJ: Well, the writing process, it didn’t really affect, because it’s not like there’s anything of Joe in this character, thank heavens. My friend Joe was not the inspiration for this character. I just really wanted to work with Joe again. We’ve stayed really close friends since we made Brick, and we get along really well and we work together really well, so it made sense. But I guess one thing that maybe gave me permission to go down the road of writing this movie was knowing I had Joe for it, and knowing that this was going to require a real intense transformation on the part of the young actor. And knowing that Joe would not only be up for that and be good at it, but be genuinely excited about putting another actor’s face on. That’s a lot to ask from a young actor, I think, with leading-man looks, to paste a bunch of shit over that. [Laughs.] And do someone else’s voice. But I like to say Joe is a leading man with the spirit of a character actor. What he loves is disappearing inside a role, so this was something he was excited about. 

AVC: What went into the decision to remodel his face with practical effects instead of CGI?

RJ: I just don’t think CGI is up to manipulating the human face yet. I feel like you can get away with it with aliens or monsters or something that’s intentionally foreign, but I have yet to see anything digital to do with the human face that doesn’t just look ridiculous. Especially with the budget we were working with, I didn’t want to get put in a place where we had given that as our only option, and we had to try to make it work. I felt like I would be much more comfortable looking at it on set and judging how well we did, and then just shooting it. But that said, we were taking a big risk. We were placing our chips down on this, and even when I was shooting it, I was still a little bit nervous. Although when Joe showed up and started doing the voice and the mannerisms and really did the performance, that’s when I relaxed a little. I realized, “Well, as long as the makeup doesn’t get in the way—and hopefully for most people, it won’t—I feel like we might actually pull this off.”

AVC: You’ve said in the past that your films are all about unresolved questions for yourself. That Brothers Bloom was about the intersection of reality and storytelling, and Brick was about resolving some of your adolescent feelings. Is there a central question in Looper, or a central problem you’re trying to fight? 

RJ: Yeah, there absolutely was, that I was chewing on, and I don’t know how… I feel like I was really open about what that was with Brick and Bloom, and it seems less interesting to me to just spew it on the table in a couple of malformed sentences. [Laughs.] With this one, it seemed, I feel, a little more… It’s there in the movie, and I think it’s probably… It’s not like it’s a complicated text. The themes are right there on the surface. But it has to do with—having said that, I’ll now just spew it on the table in a couple of malformed sentences—it has to do with violence, and the fundamental question of approaching the world’s problems by finding the right person and killing them, vs. by raising our children right, I guess. That’s what was on my mind when I started really developing it. Hopefully it gets to something.

AVC: Did you start with the old time-travel question about whether it would be moral to go back and kill Hitler before he came to power? 

RJ: No! And it’s funny, because on some level, you can say that this is a form of that. But I actually… That is such an uninteresting question to me. That would be the dullest thing in the world to hinge a movie on, from my perspective, because it’s this fanciful, completely inapplicable moral question that’s also kind of a false moral question, because it has so many assumptions to it. The thing that’s interesting to me is not “Would you go back in time and kill Hitler?” but “Would you go out and kill a man whose death would profit you right now?” And that’s something that is directly and morally applicable, unfortunately, to our times, and to being a human being. And that, I hope, is the question the movie poses, more than a pie-in-the-sky alternate-history one. 

AVC: You’ve done some directing for TV, with Breaking Bad and Terriers, and TV episodes are the only thing you’ve directed that you didn’t write yourself. Is there a reason TV is different for you?

RJ: Well, yeah. It’s quicker, first of all. It’s a commitment of a couple of weeks. And both the things I’ve done, working with Shawn Ryan and Ted Griffin on Terriers and Vince Gilligan and the great writers on Breaking Bad, are shows I’m a big fan of. And it’s almost like a vacation for me to show up and serve somebody else’s vision. To show up and just do the directing, and kind of do the fun part. I mean, writing is a pain in the ass. Writing is not fun. [Laughs.] So to have someone else do all the sweat work and then just to get on set and be able to create the world they’ve written, and to serve their vision, it actually is a really nice respite.

AVC: So much has been said about the process of TV direction—you show up and the script’s in place, the set and the tone and the characters have been determined, you can only deviate so far from anything—it makes it sound like there’s nothing to directing.

RJ: No, and I don’t want to give that impression. Obviously, there is quite a bit to it. I guess what I mean, though, is, there are so many creative decisions that are made day-to-day on set, and you are forging the content to be seen, in a way, when you’re on set. By serving their vision, I mean that you’re focusing all of that energy, hopefully, on giving them what they want. I guess it’s just that you’re trying to tell the story that’s on the page, and you’re trying to make sure you’re creating the world they’re setting out to create. I guess that’s the only distinction I mean. You’re still moment-to-moment picking the shots and you’re figuring out how to do that, it’s just your eventual aim is serving a master, instead of creating your own work. 

AVC: Are you interested in doing more TV?

RJ: I love it, really, but I love doing it when it’s something I’m a fan of. It’s not something that… I feel like I have this little window right now where I’m able to get movies that I’ve written made, and I don’t know how long that’s going to last, and I kind of want to spend my time sneaking as many of those in as I can before they figure me out and shut me down. [Laughs.] There’s that sort of being-a-bandit-and-getting-away-with-something feeling right now. So I want to focus on that, but then something like Breaking Bad comes along that I just can’t resist, and I’ve got to go out to Albuquerque.

AVC: Do you have any kind of mental shortlist of shows you’re a fan of, where you’d come running if they called?

RJ: Oh, boy. No, not really. I don’t have a pie-in-the-sky thing. I mentioned before that I’m friends with the guys that do Game Of Thrones, and I love fantasy stuff—that would be incredibly fun. But who knows if that will ever work out. But no, I don’t really have a list in my head like that. I guess Breaking Bad would have been on that list, but I just kind of—whatever ends up getting tossed at me, if it’s fun, I’ll jump on.

AVC: Do you know what’s next, while you’re in the window of getting movies made?

RJ: I’m figuring it out right now. I’m writing, and I’ve got a couple of things that I’m juggling, and they’re both… Yeah, it’s early days, but they both have kind of science-fiction hooks. They’re very different from Looper, both of them, but I really enjoy the opportunities that science fiction gives you, storytelling-wise. I might stick around there for at least the next one. But who knows, we’ll see… Cut to… [Claps hands.] Musical! Cut to courtroom-drama musical.

AVC: That’s funny, the last thing Joseph Gordon-Levitt said when I interviewed him for this film was that he wants to be in a musical someday.

RJ: God, man. He would be so good in a musical. He should direct a musical, is what he should do. He would be fantastic at it. 

AVC: These two ideas you’ve started working with, are they the same kind of situation, where you’ve had the ideas on the back burner for a while?

RJ: No, I got out of shooting Looper, and I had nothing in the tank. I had nothing in the drawer, and I kind of panicked. And the nice thing is, I’ve spent the last eight months or so of this year brainstorming, and I now have five or six little seeds of ideas that I think will carry me through for a while. But no, there was a sense of panic coming out of Looper that I didn’t have one of those. So I’m feeling a little bit better now. At least I have a wall to beat my head against.


Don’t miss our interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt about Looper, imitating Willis, comparing Johnson with Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan, and his online art collective.

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