It’s an interesting time for fans of science-fiction out there. While many of the biggest movies purportedly in the genre have tinges of sci-fi, they’re mostly action-adventures in disguise, with fantastic CGI embellishments. But we’ve also had a string of lower-budget films in the last few years that have embraced the more idea-led aspects of the genre — think Duncan Jones‘ "Moon," Gareth Edwards‘ "Monsters," or Neill Blomkamp‘s "District 9." And the latest director to join them is a man who’s already made something of a specialty out of deconstructing genre tropes with his teen-noir "Brick" and meta-caper "The Brothers Bloom" — director Rian Johnson.
Although to hear him tell it, reinventing sci-fi wasn’t his primary intention with "Looper," his imminent new film which impressed at Comic-Con over the weekend, and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt. We spoke to Johnson on Friday, and he told us that the film "wasn’t so much about coming at it wanting to tweak the genre, it was just this basic idea I’d had, of the old man and a young man; Joe working for the mob in the future, and them sending them back his older self to be killed. I’d had that very basic plot idea like ten years ago, and wrote it down as a short film that I never ended up shooting, it just sat in a drawer for ten years. And over the past couple of years, some bigger ideas attached themselves to that, and I realized ‘oh this little cool plot device can make a movie that’s about this.’ It was nothing as conceptual as trying to do something with the genre. But having said that, I love sci-fi . When i wrote the short, I was in the middle of reading Philip K Dick’s books, and I’d wanted to do something in that world for a while."
Of course, time-travel films are notoriously tricky to plot, and Johnson made a particular effort to keep things as simple as possible. "One of my big priorities in writing the script," the director said, "was to make sure that it didn’t feel dense, it didn’t feel like homework. I put a lot of shoe leather into going over the script, and making sure the story worked, and ticked, without the sci-fi elements complicating it too much. Making sure the time travel did its job and got out of the way. So hopefully at the end of it, it makes sense, you don’t have to think about it too deeply."
Helping with advice and notes in the early stages was Shane Carruth, the man behind indie time-travel gem "Primer," a friend of Johnson. Despite some reports, however, Carruth didn’t actively work on the film, although it was mooted at one point: "I was a huge fan of ‘Primer,’ and I met Shane just randomly through another friend, and we’d been friends for a few years. But really, Shane’s only involvement was showing him the script, and getting some really good feedback from him. We talked about him doing the effects for a specific sequence in the film, and it never ended up happening, for a number of reasons. None of them bad, which is for the best, because the sequence got cut from the film anyway. So he ended up not having any direct involvement in the film."
One of the film’s biggest challenges was finding a pair of actors who could plausibly play the younger and older versions of the same character, and Johnson says that, due to the older star’s iconic nature, he felt that it was up to Joseph Gordon-Levitt to match his older counterpart, rather than the other way around. "If I’d put it to Bruce that we wanted to transform him," Johnson said, "I know he would have been into it, he was really gung-ho about the part, no ego at all, he was ready and up for anything. But I felt people know Bruce Willis really well, so if you try and transform him, they’re gonna see right through it."
Fortunately, transformation is something that Gordon-Levitt loves, and he rose to the challenge. As the director told us, "Joe really loves transforming himself into the part. Working with him on ‘Brick,’ one of the first things we found was the voice, this really flat accent, listening to a lot of Tom Waits. Joe really finds his foothole into characters by finding these exterior things. The jacket he wore in ‘Brick,’ stuffing his hands into the pockets to create this shell. So doing a physical transformation is, in my experience, part of how he works. And this was the opportunity to do that on a grand scale. But in addition to the mimicry involved, he’s giving a real performance, and creating a real character, who isn’t young Bruce Willis, it’s a character believable as a young Bruce Willis. But it’s completely Joe’s character, and I’m really excited for people to see the movie as a whole."
Unusual for a film of its profile, "Looper" was made and financed independently, with Sony and FilmDistrict acquiring the film for the U.S. a year ago. As Johnson explains, his existing relationship with the financiers gives him a good deal of freedom. "Endgame Entertainment financed it, and the way they work is that we pre-sell the foreign, based on the cast and the script, and then they cover the gap in financing. Sony are putting it out, but they picked it up after it was done. So we were just dealing with Endgame, and the guy who runs Endgame, Jim Stern, is a filmmaker himself, we have a great collaborative relationship with him, and it’s not at all like we’re approaching a board of directors or something."
What this did mean, however, is something that’s likely to become more common over time; the film was partially shot in Shanghai to help attract Chinese financing and distribution, and Johnson confirmed reports from a while back that the country will get a slightly different version of the film. "There’s a scene in the film that takes place in China, that we actually went over to Shanghai for. It’s a sort of montage sequence, a sequence unto itself. We went over there and shot for two weeks and cut this sequence, and then during the normal course of cutting, everything gets trimmed down. So in the finished film, the final sequence is about half of what we originally had in there in the original cut, and it works best as the shortest version. But our Chinese distributor asked if we’d be cool having an earlier version of that sequence in the film, which is a little longer and you see a little bit more of China, just for a Chinese audience. It was still my cut of the sequence, it was just an earlier cut, which had a little bit more in there. And just that specific sequence. And I didn’t see any harm in it, but the American [cut] is in my mind the stronger one."
And while that scene probably won’t be seen on the DVD, there’ll be plenty of material for the home video relase: "There’s a lot of deleted scenes on the DVD, nearly an hour’s worth of stuff, stuff I was really proud of, that we cut just in trying to get the movie as tight as possible. I don’t think the original China montage is there, though."
The film’s finally hitting theaters at the end of September, although it’s been virtually completed since the start of the year. We asked Johnson if the distributors had hung on to the film to capitalize on Gordon-Levitt’s role in "The Dark Knight Rises," but the director suggested that wasn’t the major reason: "There’s that, but more so than that, we wanted to avoid summer, ’cause there’s all these huge movies. It made sense for a lot of reasons."
As for what’s next (you can read more about that here), Johnson did helm another episode of "Breaking Bad" for the fifth season that got underway last night. Don’t go to him for spoilers on how it might end, though: "One of my favorite memories of this episode I did," Johnson told us, laughing "was sitting around the monitor with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, arguing with them about how we thought the show was going to end." That episode will be on in a few weeks, and you can catch "Looper" in theaters on Friday, September 28th.
— Interview by Jeff Otto