In this day and age, most directors rely on special effects to tell their story. From the many who have emerged over the past decade, Rian Johnson stands above the rest. He continues to showcase his sharp skills in his new sci-fi film Looper. ScreenCrave recently spoke with the rising filmmaker about his creative process, his directing idols and his friendship with Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
You previously mentioned that you wrote the main character with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in mind. What is it about working with him that clicks?
Rian Johnson: Well, we’ve been really good friends since we made Brick together so a big part of it is wanting to work with your friend. Not only because you enjoy being around them but that gives you a certain amount of automatic communication and trust. I think the basis of any actor/director relationship is just communication and trust. So that’s really appealing. Having a big first step of that already when you show up on set. The part also requires specifically a transformation and that’s something Joe is particularly good at and loves doing. He loves finding the interior through the exterior, whether it’s the voice that he does for a character, the costume that he gets into or the way he carries himself. This was a very extreme example of that. He’d actually get to become another version of a different actor. So he’s putting on another face. I knew he’d be really into it. I knew he’d be really good at it.
You’re really good at jumping from one genre to another. What is it about sci-fi, time travel movies, and TV shows that is now being done right? Time travel is a really tricky subject.
Rian Johnson: Yeah it is. At the same time I find that if I don’t enjoy a movie that has time travel in it, it’s almost never because the time travel doesn’t make sense. I don’t really get picking apart time travel and not enjoying a movie because of that. If the storytelling’s bad, if it’s a boring movie or if it feels derivative like something I’ve seen before then I won’t like it. But if it’s a great story and its pulling me through it, I’ll swallow just about anything time travel wise. I think most of us will. In fact if you look at some of the best time travel movies, if you look closely at their time travel mechanics, it makes sense on a storytelling level but time travel doesn’t really make sense. You don’t have to dig too deep into any movies to find any paradoxes that don’t add up. So it really boils down to good storytelling vs. bad storytelling.
For me it was much more productive to look at good examples, to look at The Terminator, which was a very big influence on how I structured this. Because similar to The Terminator, I wanted the time travel in this to set the situation in motion and then just step back out of the way and let these characters deal with that situation. So yeah, that or looking at how Back to the Future kind of used that Polaroid where their arm started disappearing for an example. Using that shorthand and piggy backing on that ended up being our one basic rule. If the younger self gets hurt and the older self goes back in time then suddenly you’ll see the effects on the older self. So it was more looking at positive examples rather than looking at negative ones. [laughs]
Your storytelling techniques, filmmaking techniques are so distinct and admirable. Why do you jump from one genre to the next? Is it the challenge of it all?
Rian Johnson: I’m a really slow writer so I’ll spend a few years writing a script. Then it takes you a year to get the movie together and another couple of years to make it. So by the time you’ve gotten to the end of the process you’ve been concentrating on this one thing for sometimes three or four years, sometimes longer, so it really is just that you’ve been doing the same thing for awhile. When you have the opportunity for a fresh slate, doing something totally different next, it’s really, really appealing. I think it’s more that than any conscious choice of ‘It would be nice to shake things up’ or ‘They’ll never expect this.’ It’s just that you’re bored with one thing and ready to try something new.
When it came to creating the characters of Looper, did you draw on any particular films for inspiration?
Rian Johnson: There is stuff that you end up drawing from in the writing process. For example there’s a lot of Joe’s character arc has in common with (Humphrey) Bogart’s character arc in Casablanca. There’s stuff like that. When it comes time to actually make the movie, you try and get your head out of that as much as possible. You want to be creating something, even if it’s informed by other things you want to be creating something that feels real, feels present and it feels if not original because original’s a really tricky term, but at least feels alive. You don’t want to burden the actors with a bunch of references to other things. You want them to be living these moments onscreen as if its actually happening to them. So I guess in writing it’s really useful but then when you get into production its best to kind of tune that stuff out and just focus on just bringing the scene to life in a really honest way.
How was it creating the world through the production design?
Rian Johnson: We did know we wanted a really grounded world but beyond that it started from the small and expanded to the big. We didn’t start with a big picture thing that we want the world to look like this and start designing it. We just started with bit-by-bit. Okay, this is the world that these characters live in, what would the cars look like? What would the street signs look like? Why? What would the guns look like? It was just making decisions bit by bit. By the end of the whole process you step back, look on screen and it creates this whole world that if you made the right decision from the right perspective hopefully creates this cohesive world that sticks together.
The one thing that stands out for some is the very rich and the very poor in this future.
Rian Johnson: Yeah, it’s weird because that, for example, came out of a story I made. Joe is coming from a very selfish place in the beginning so motivating that with the world he lives in is just interesting to see how people are responding to it. It leaves a kind of resonance [laughs]
Well, we are in an election year.
Rian Johnson: Yes we are where the middle class has vanished unfortunately.
When you first started out, what directors did you look up to? And whose career do you hope to mimic?
Rian Johnson: There’s a lot of directors that I just love. I even feel presumptive to point to anyone and say I want to do kind of what they did. I think we’re all kind of on our own on the path. All you can focus on is making and trying to kind of get the next movie made. The one thing I’ll say is I want to, knock on wood, I hope to keep on doing this for awhile. So I look at guys like Terry Gilliam, Martin Scorsese or I look at Akira Kurosawa, guys who are making work throughout the span of their entire lives and never dropping off in terms of creativity. Never dropping off in terms of passion and making movies that are reaching for something new each time. That’s one thing that I point and look at and I want to emulate or at least try to.
Looper is out in theaters everywhere.