Time killers: Rian Johnson delivers wild sci-fi thrills in 'Looper'

Time travel, a secret band of assassins, telekinesis…they’re all part of the mix in Looper, the third feature from 38-year-old writer-director Rian Johnson. Following Brick (2005) and The Brothers Bloom (2008), this impressive sci-fi thriller should propel Johnson’s career when TriStar Pictures brings it to theatres on Sept. 28.

In Johnson’s wild conceit, time travel has come to the 21st century—and been declared illegal. But gangsters from the future (2074, to be exact) use it as a handy way to dispose of bodies, sending victims back 30 years, where young hit men called “loopers” await delivery in a remote location and blow them away with old-fashioned blunderbusses. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the lead in Johnson’s Brick, plays one of those loopers, Joe, who is stunned to discover that his latest intended target is his older self, embodied by Bruce Willis. Joe’s failure to “close his loop” (i.e., off himself) is compounded by the fact that 2074 Joe is determined to hunt down the telekinetic young boy who became “The Rainmaker,” the mysterious crime kingpin who is now systematically eliminating the brotherhood of loopers.

Interviewed by phone five days after Looper’s successful premiere as the opening-night film at the Toronto International Film Festival, Johnson reflects on the risks of embarking on a project some might deem “loopy.” “The only type of thing worth jumping into is something that you’re not sure you can pull off or not. But what gave me the confidence to try it—and this is what I love about science fiction—[is that] it uses those outlandish concepts and those big ideas and sci-fi hooks to get out and serve really recognizable human emotions and themes. For me, sci-fi authors like Ray Bradbury, for example, are the masters of that—someone who can take a far-out-there concept and set their story on Mars and have it be about cloning or space travel or wormholes or whatever, but at the end of the day it’s all leading you towards and supporting and propping up a human thing. You finish a Ray Bradbury story and you’re crying by the end of it.

“For me, this whole hook of the older self/younger self that this magical concept of time travel allows,” Johnson elaborates, “lets you give this amplified situation where an older self is sitting across from his younger self, saying, ‘Why are you making these stupid choices? I’ve been there, I know where you’re going to end up.’ And the younger self says, ‘I’m not going to turn into you—screw you.’ For anyone who’s either been a teenager and argued with their father or vice versa, that’s a very recognizable conversation. That is the strength of sci-fi—it lets you use these things to amplify stuff that really hits home.”

Early in the film, Johnson inoculates his story against potential nitpickers with a character’s joke about using “diagrams with straws” to explain the implications of time travel. “I love the nitpickers,” the director volunteers. “I’m one of the nitpickers myself. I’m actually looking forward to hearing all the nitpicking—I think that’s part of the fun of one of these movies. For me, it was a little bit of a direct expression as a writer in that moment, saying, ‘You know, we really don’t want to go into a 20-minute chalkboard diagramming conversation about all this stuff.’ I hope also it’s an expression of something the audience is feeling: We don’t want to listen to that at this point, we want to see how this situation plays out and how these two go head-to-head with each other.

“I did create a really solid set of rules, or as solid as it could possibly be, for why all this stuff happens and how the universe deals with paradoxes. But then the movie’s not really about that. It’s just having faith that if you see the effects of those rules play out onscreen, if you care about it, you can reverse-engineer and figure out what the rules are. But we’re not going to have a scene where we explain it to you like a math class.”

Apart from his fantastical vision of the century ahead, the greatest gamble for Johnson was in the casting of two Joes who look nothing alike. Willis’ participation accelerated financing and the director was committed to Gordon-Levitt, so Johnson opted to alter the younger actor’s face with the help of makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji. “It’s a leap, it’s a risk,” he admits, “it’s one of those things that you roll the dice on. I think the makeup is cool and fun, but at the end of the day it’s really Joe’s performance that carries the day, to the point where you can make the argument that we probably could have gotten away without the makeup. It’s really his mannerisms and his voice and the way he embodies that character that carry it through... Part of making a sci-fi movie is having fun and playing out the concept, and so for me doing something radical like this with the makeup was very much in the genre. Why not do it? I’m sure it will work better for some people than for others, but at the end of the day you’re asking the audience to make a leap anyway. And hopefully with the story we’re telling, the audience will decide to get on board and go with it.”

Johnson says he and Gordon-Levitt “became really good friends and clicked creatively” while working on Brick. In recent years, the actor has had high-profile roles in the Christopher Nolan blockbusters Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, but “this is definitely the biggest transformation he’s ever made on film,” Johnson declares. “I like to say he’s a leading man with the heart of a character actor. What he loves doing is disappearing into a part, and to have the opportunity to do this, where he’s literally putting on another actor’s face, is tailor-made for him… On the one hand, he does nail all these specific elements of Bruce, but on the other hand, he’s creating a living, breathing character who you would believe as a young Bruce, but he’s not just imitating him. That to me is just magic, that’s just Joe doing what Joe does.”

Back in May, Willis told Esquire magazine that Looper is “better than anything I’ve ever done.” Johnson responds, “As a Bruce Willis fan and as someone who wrote and directed the movie, I can’t endorse that comment or I’d look like a real jerk. I’ll say this: I am really, really happy that he’s so proud of his work in the movie, and I think he should be. He gives a tremendous performance. I learned so much watching him work. When you cast him, looking at his name on that piece of paper you get butterflies, because you’re casting an icon. But when he shows up to work, all of that vanishes very quickly and you’re just working with a great actor. He’s all about getting to the emotional truth of each scene. He’s just fearless, especially with this role where the character goes to some very dark places. Bruce never shied away from any of that, he jumped in with both feet.”

Johnson points to several influences on his jump into the sci-fi arena. “When I wrote the initial idea, I was reading a ton of Philip K. Dick. I’d just discovered him and was blowing through all his books. In terms of movies, the first Terminator is probably the thing I look to the most, just structurally, because it’s a movie that’s very deft at using time travel to set up a situation and then having time travel step back and letting the situation drive the movie. But the second half [taking place largely on a farm run by Emily Blunt’s gun-toting character] probably owes more to Witness than it does to any sci-fi movie. That’s a movie I really admire. I studied it to see how they kept the tension up once they got out to the farm. It’s fun to look for influences outside of the genre you’re working in.”

One of the more striking aspects of Looper’s futuristic design scheme is its recognizably rundown locations and contemporary costuming. “If you look at the way we dress today,” Johnson observes, “it owes so much to the past. You can see the past in the present constantly. And it seemed right to me that the future should not be any less than that. But it’s also kind of a dystopian future, it’s a future where there isn’t much hope in the society these guys are living in. And there’s the old phrase that when a society has no future, they look to their past. So the notion that these guys would be romanticizing the past and these loopers would be dressing up like people in old movies made a lot of sense to me.”

Johnson is himself rather old-school when it comes to the use of computer-generated imagery. “Filmmakers like Chris Nolan and Guillermo del Toro use it really intelligently as a tool,” he notes. “But I think it’s best used to augment practical stuff. For instance, with this film, I was very adamant that with the telekinetic stuff, whenever we were floating objects, we actually hang them from strings and then just paint out the strings instead of creating a CGI object after the fact. For myself, sitting in a theatre, whenever anything starts floating, all my scrutiny goes directly towards it. Especially with a limited budget, I didn’t want to be in a place where I had to be backed into a corner of doing CG—I’d rather have an actual object there. CG is an amazing tool, but I think it can have a tendency to be overused. It’s so easy when you’re in the middle of production to say: Well, we can just create that in post. The filmmakers I love are the ones who don’t do that, who do as much practically as they can and use CG as augmentation.”

Lending a 19th-century fillip to Johnson’s 21st-century story is his loopers’ use of archaic blunderbusses. “It stems from a really practical thing,” Johnson explains. “These loopers are not trained assassins, they’re kind of young yahoos. They’re not very well-respected. Who knows if they’re going to show up to work hung over or whatever? So they give them a gun where if they’re generally aiming in the right spot, it’s very hard to miss as long as they’re not too far away. That’s the sort of thing as a sci-fi writer you’re always fishing for, something that has a cool visual hook to it and also makes perfect sense in the context of the story.”

Johnson is no stranger to unexpected juxtapositions. His first feature, Brick, was a noir crime film set in high school, while The Brothers Bloom turned the con-man comedy on its head with a trio of extremely eccentric lead characters. And lately, he’s also entered the singular world of a high-school teacher turned meth kingpin as director of two episodes of the acclaimed cable series “Breaking Bad.”

“It’s such a great show, and I felt really privileged that they had me back this last season. For me as a writer-director, it’s almost like a vacation to be able to show up and just be serving somebody else’s vision and try to bring that great writing to life as effectively as possible.”

What’s next for Rian Johnson? “I’m writing, I’m trying to figure out what the next one is. I had a lot of fun working in sci-fi, so a few things I’m juggling right now are very different from Looper but maybe still in that sci-fi world. It’s a pretty fertile world.”