Roundtable Interview with Rian Johnson on Looper

Rian Johnson’s latest movie, Looper, is already receiving tremendous praise for its clever combination of the science fiction and noir genres. The movie takes place in the year 2044 where time travel is both possible and illegal, and the mafia uses it to eliminate agents from the year 2072.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who previously appeared in Johnson’s movie Brick, stars as an assassin whose job it is to kill those agents that are sent back to 2044 as soon as they appear. Things get seriously complicated however when one of those agents turns out to be his future self (played by Bruce Willis).

We recently got a chance to talk with Rian Johnson when he appeared for the Los Angeles press day for Looper at the Four Seasons Hotel, and he couldn’t have been nicer or more cordial in talking about a movie he spent many years working on.

Join us as we discuss with Johnson what influenced him, his experience shooting in Shanghai, budgetary concerns and much more.

Check it out below.

We Got This Covered: The whole time travel concept has been explored in many movies. Were there any time travel movies in particular that influenced you while writing the script for Looper?

Rian Johnson: When I was writing it, a movie I looked to a lot was the first Terminator because that uses time travel to set up the situation but then time travel steps back. It’s not about zapping back and forth and multiple timelines. The puzzle of it is just about the characters dealing with this situation they’ve been presented, and that was kind of my model.

It still took a lot of work to try to tame it and make it as simple as possible, but I tried to work that all out in the script so that when we actually showed up to work with the actors we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about time travel. We could focus on what was important and we could focus on moment to moment why these characters were doing the things they were doing. At the end of the day I hope that’s what really drives the movie; these desperate characters dealing with this situation.

We Got This Covered: You have to admire anybody who writes a time travel story as they can seem so complicated to work out. Did you encounter many difficulties in writing this script?

Rian Johnson: I hit brick walls, one after the other (laughing). You work it all out in the script hopefully before you get on set. Time travel is such a beast and that’s why it’s such a hard, hard thing to tame, largely because it’s easy to come up with a complex system of rules for how it works in your movie. What’s tough is coming up with a simple couple of rules that you can present to the audience as a system that kind of makes sense.

One thing that really helped me was looking at other time travel movies that do it well like Back To The Future or 12 Monkeys, which is a little more complicated but does it tremendously well, and realizing as a storyteller that you can cut yourself loose from the idea of having to create this dense web of stuff that you can talk about for hours and make sense. All you have to do is present something to the audience that feels intuitively right and the storytelling flies from moment to moment.

So I was thinking about in Back to the Future that famous moment where the family in the Polaroid starts disappearing piece by piece and fading away, something that a time travel nut like myself would say doesn’t make sense. The truth is that’s not how it would actually happen, and if you change the timeline the people wouldn’t start fading away.

Instead the Polaroid would never have been taken because it would have been something different. But storytelling wise it makes absolute sense and intuitively in that moment you see it and you’re like “ah, I get exactly what’s happening there. He’s changing it and so he’s losing the future.” And that’s one thing I kind of held onto with this; as long as you understand in the moment what’s happening, it feels like it all makes sense and that’s what’s important.

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