Roundtable Interview with Rian Johnson on Looper

We Got This Covered: Do you feel that the main rule when writing time travel stories is to keep it simple?

Rian Johnson: Yeah.

We Got This Covered: Do you also need to separate yourself from other time travel stories so that you could do your own thing?

Rian Johnson: No, quite the opposite actually. I find that you have all those references. You don’t want to directly call out to them. You don’t want to have the theme to Back to the Future come on suddenly or have the De Lorean show up, but the audience has this matrix of rules they know from watching time travel movies and you would be a fool not to use that.

You use that as kind of a rope ladder to grab onto to give yourself some shortcuts like the thing we have in our movie, that slightly magical thing, which makes sense where the younger character and the older character are in the same time zone. When the younger character gets cut, the older character suddenly has a scar. That’s something that I think the audience understands so immediately because they’re familiar with it from other time travel movies.

We Got This Covered: Summer Qing plays Bruce Willis’ wife in the movie. Was her character originally meant to be Chinese?

Rian Johnson: Well no, originally that whole sequence was going to be set in Paris and she was gonna be French. It was when DMG Entertainment, our Chinese distributor, said we can actually bring you to Shanghai to shoot this that we set it there instead, and I was so relieved because we were looking at having to fake Paris in New Orleans which we could have worked but wouldn’t have been great. So that’s when we met Summer and we cast her in the movie and she was just fantastic. She was tremendous.

We Got This Covered: How was the experience shooting in Shanghai?

Rian Johnson: It was great, it was just an adventure. It was after we finished shooting the whole movie that we went over there with Joseph [Gordon-Levitt] and a couple of key crew members, but mostly we used the Chinese crew.

We just shot for two weeks in Shanghai and it was my first time ever being to China and I was just trying to take everything in. Shanghai is an extraordinary city and I feel like visually what they let us get in the film and the way that you feel that film and the way the film visually opens up, it’s something we never would have gotten if we shot in New Orleans.

We Got This Covered: Would you say that the Chinese film crews are ahead or behind us in terms of technology?

Rian Johnson: Well it’s not ahead or behind really because it’s the same technology, but it is very different. Film sets are such tightly constructed mechanisms. You watch the credits of a movie and you see a million different credits with all these names that you’re like “what does that person do?” And even if you’re on the set of a movie it looks like there are 200 people standing around and doing nothing.

But the truth is it’s that way for a reason. Everyone has a really rigid job description where they do one specific thing because a film set is like an office of 200 people where everyone has to show up to work on day one, having never met each other, and know exactly what they’re there to do and operate on a 100% efficiency from the first minute of the first day.

So because of that there are not very many interchangeable things. Even if you take part of the film crew from the US and work in England, you’re gonna hit conflicts and you’re gonna hit things where they’re gonna rub up against each other.

So yeah, the Chinese have their own way of doing things like any other film crew, and there were cultural things that we had to adjust to in terms of how they worked. But they weren’t better or worse, it was just different.

We Got This Covered: In addition to dealing with the sci-fi genre and time travel movies, Looper also feels kind of like a western or has western movie influences. Could you talk about that a little bit more?

Rian Johnson: Yeah, it does feel like a western especially in the back half of it. It starts kind of in the sci-fi noir realm and kind of goes into sci-fi western a little bit. That’s one of the things that I intentionally thought would be a fun thing which is keeping that footing a little loose, and part of the fun of the movie is seeing where it all ends up.

Also it’s very intentionally constructed with these two very distinct halves because I wanted the whole thing to kind of present a clear moral choice at the end of it for the Joe character. And to be slightly reductive, that choice kind of comes down to the city’s way of doing things versus Sara’s (Emily Blunt) way of doing things.

So making those two environments as tonally different as possible, even down to having them feel like they’re different genres, but then having them hopefully sewn together in this coherent way where you step back and it almost feels like the yin and the yang of the story. That was always kind of the intent.

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