Rian Johnson | Interview
The director works intriguing variations on time-travel conventions with Looper.
In Looper, a zippy time-travel thriller with some novel ideas about the effects chrono-jumping would have on memory, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays an assassin in 2044 Kansas. His marks are sent to him from even further in the future; after each execution, the hit man need only dispose of a body that doesn’t yet exist. The character enjoys this mercenary work—until he’s assigned to assassinate an older version of himself, played by Bruce Willis.
Back up: Gordon-Levitt + 30 years = Willis? “Yeah, it was actually a problem,” the 38-year-old director, Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom), says when we meet at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. “Because I wrote this part for Joe. And then I got really excited about casting Bruce, and we cast Bruce, and then had a moment of ‘uh-oh.’ They could not look more different.” The solution involved using prosthetics for Gordon-Levitt’s nose and lips—no computer effects, notes Johnson, who has nothing against technology. (Still, when it comes to a shooting medium, he prefers 35mm.)
In a way, the leading men’s dissimilar appearances are appropriate for one of the movie’s most original ideas: If you met your older or younger self, you’d instantly butt heads. Johnson feels that if he encountered his double from 30 years in the future, there’d be a conflict. “There’s so much stuff that I’d want to know,” he says. “My older self would probably not have that patience to explain it to me, either. It would probably end with my older self punching me.”
With echoes of Blade Runner, the Terminator films and 12 Monkeys, Looper shows its influences. But according to Johnson, none of that is intentional. “I think it’s best to just stay as unconscious of that as possible, because that’s going to be in there,” he says. “I grew up watching those movies. I love science fiction. Your brain is kind of steeped in that stuff. Just assume that that stuff will be there, but come up with a story that you care about.”
It’s clear Johnson is a cinephile: Our conversation begins with friendly chatter about other films at the festival and how we’re both excited for that evening’s screening of The Master. Johnson is very much in conversation with critics—a rarity for a director, or at least a filmmaker with the clout to cast Willis, Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt. He tweets as @rcjohnso (where he’s made reference to being an item with a well-known L.A.-based film journalist). And while working on Looper, he got notes from one of his early champions, former Time Out New York critic Mike D’Angelo.
To Johnson, conversing with people who write about movies is just an outgrowth of his interest in cinema. “I’ve been on the Internet just socially since college,” he says. “It’s just always been something that I’ve loved, and I’ve been reading movie sites and reading film criticism also since I was in college. If I wasn’t making movies right now, I’d probably be writing about them.”
And though he expects certain friends will recuse themselves, he’s ready to take criticism from reviewers he knows. “I would rather read a bad review written by a writer that I respect and that I’m in conversation with than a good review from somebody I don’t,” he says.
Fittingly, our chat ends with my own doppelgänger—Time Out New York film editor David Fear—entering the room, ready for the next interview.
Looper opens Friday 28.