I first encountered Rian Johnson on the radio — we were both USC cinema students at the time, and worked on the student radio station’s entertainment staff, which entailed regurgitating showbiz news from other sources (the Internet being in its infancy, this was easier to do and get away with), and coming up with comedy bits for a free-form program. Rian’s genius with words was apparent then, but his abilities as a filmmaker have grown greater.
Following an early look at the trailer for Looper, I caught up with him to discuss what had been shown; Now that it is available for all to see, our subsequent conversation over scotch and grape/goat-cheese pizza can be revealed:
Luke Y. Thompson: I liked the tweet you put out a while ago where you said Looper is the third installment of your “I made three movies” trilogy, because everybody always seems to say that such-and-such a movie is the latest installment in so-and-so’s trilogy of whatever…
Rian Johnson: Yes, the “Set on the Planet Earth” trilogy…
LYT: But if you look back on all three of your movies, do you see any commonalities between the three thematically, or do you have that distance yet?
RJ: I don’t think I have the distance yet. I don’t even really think I have the distance from The Brothers Bloom to be able to sit down and watch it yet. I’m not a neurotic person in that way, but it is actually weird after being so close to something for so many years. You have to step away from it for a while. I don’t know, I also am not sure how much thinking about your own stuff in that detail, how healthy that is. I think it might be better to just keep moving forward, and if you’re lucky enough to make enough of these things, maybe down the line someone’ll figure out what the common thread is, but for now it’s kinda whatever’s on your mind at the time.
LYT: I’ll tell you one minor common thread I’ve noticed…
RJ: Whattaya got?
LYT: You can’t sum up the plots in one sentence.
RJ: That I will take [laughs]. Much to my chagrin, as I was doing the TV press line, because they would say, “What’s the movie about?” and then, as the sentences wore on and on, I just could see that it was bad television.
LYT: Do you ever have studio people say, “You need to simplify this log line; we don’t get it”?
RJ: Well, no, luckily, I haven’t worked with a studio yet so I don’t know what that experience would be like. This movie, Sony’s putting it out, but it was these companies Endgame and Film District that financed and made it, so I haven’t really had to deal with it on that level yet. I’ve been incredibly lucky in terms of having quote-unquote “executives” who are really creative people, who just are really supportive and have taken risks on these movies.
LYT: What is it like doing these press lines, answering the same questions over and over and trying to be enthusiastic every time like you’re saying it for the first time?
RJ: You know what? I really enjoy it. It’s bizarre, and maybe at some point, again, if I get to keep doing it maybe I’ll stop enjoying it, but I actually really like it because today is basically the first time I’ve talked to people about the movie who aren’t in the movie or working on it, and there’s a real process where you learn how to talk about the movie. And so, doing interviews over the course of the day, it’s really interesting to me, the process of refining how you answer these questions and figuring out how you talk about it, and in a weird way, you start to define what you made for yourself, if that makes any sense? You start to boil it down, and in a bizarre way it defines the movie for you after the fact, talking about it over and over and figuring out what the thing is, I guess. It’s strange.
RJ: That’s really interesting. I think the last…Well, I don’t know. I would hate to have the first interview, because it really is like a thing where you haven’t learned how to talk about the film yet, and you in some ways haven’t processed what the film is for you yet. So in that way I think the last interview is always the best, or if not the best, the most focused. Maybe the first interview is the most interesting, because you’re floundering, but the last one is always the one where you know specifically what you think about the movie and how to say it.
LYT: Another commonality I’ve noticed, certainly between your first two movies and maybe this one, is that you create a completely new world. They’re not set in our world, but more stylized worlds, it feels like.
RJ: Yeah, yeah.
LYT: And I feel like the people who don’t get your movies feel like that puts them at a distance from the characters, and the people who do like the literary-ness of it. Is that a conscious thing on your part, or just something that happens?
RJ: No, it’s not conscious at all, and I have to say, I think for Brick and Bloom it’s a really accurate description. For Looper, in a weird way, it’s less so; I think the way that Looper is stylized is mostly in a science-fiction way. It’s set in the near-future, it’s built around this time-travel concept, but unlike Brick, which had the weird language everyone talked in, or unlike Bloom, which was about storytelling so it was told in this very deliberate storybook-type fashion, Looper is much more straightforward. I figured, because we have these big time-travel concepts that we’re working with, we needed to ground it. So in that way it’s maybe less so what you’re talking about. Maybe not. I dunno.
LYT: I always figured after the stuff we did on the radio in college that you’d be making comedies.
RJ: But, I don’t know, I think that…
LYT: I’m not saying your movies don’t have funny elements…
RJ: Yeah, yeah, I guess so. I’d love to make a comedy someday. But yeah, God, what was the…
LYT: You were sort of the proto-Stephen Colbert, before he was.
RJ: Is that true? Oh my God…
LYT: Yeah, on our radio show The Master Debate, you were always playing the crazy right-wing dude, calling everyone socialist bastards.
RJ: That’s right! I completely forgot about that.
LYT: Last time I spoke to [the host] Kyle Yaskin, he was actually a working actor. You should hire him.
RJ: Are you serious? I gotta get in touch with that guy. Kyle Yaskin – and this HAS to be included in this interview, by the way, this whole thing about Kyle Yaskin who nobody knows – Kyle Yaskin wrote short scripts for our screenwriting class about talking dogs that literally had me laughing so hard, like, I would be the one chosen to read his script out loud, and I would be laughing so hard I couldn’t finish. I couldn’t breathe; I had to leave the class. He is one funny motherfucker.
LYT: I try to find him on Facebook occasionally.
RJ: I’m not on Facebook any more, man, I quit it. But I don’t think I ever figured out how to use it. It’s cool, though, because it feels like social networking, the way word gets out via Twitter these days is hard to manufacture or control, which I like. I like that it is people getting genuinely excited about stuff and telling their friends about it.
LYT: I noticed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has talked a lot about how he imitated Bruce Willis; did Bruce Willis try to imitate him at all in return? And tied in with that, Bruce Willis has a reputation for sometimes steamrolling over directors – was he difficult to work with in any way?
RJ: No, he didn’t. It was really Joe taking on Bruce’s mannerisms, just because Bruce is so iconic, it made a lot of sense for us to kind of wrap Joe around Bruce instead of Bruce around Joe. And I had heard all those stories too; I didn’t know what to expect going into it, and I had a fantastic experience working with Bruce. He was just awesome. Not only was he wonderful to work with and a super-cool guy – we had a really good time – but he was so into the part and so focused on it, he really worked his ass off, man. He really dug into this part; I’m excited for people to see the performance he gives in this. I think he’s given some fantastic performances on film and I’m really excited for everyone to see what he did in this.
LYT: I have to say, for all the talk of Joseph wearing makeup to look like Bruce Willis, I didn’t notice it, it’s that subtle.
RJ: Good. It is, it’s fairly subtle, that’s the thing. It’s just enough. Our approach was that we were going to pick a few features and change those; we’re not going to totally transform him. We didn’t want, I mean, I enjoyed Dick Tracy in that the makeup is something you’re staring at the whole time, but for this character, we wanted it to be something to blend in, where you almost forgot about it during the course of the movie. Dick Tracy is such an outmoded reference, isn’t it? But it’s such a good movie. Gorgeous movie. What else ya got?
LYT: Well, you probably can’t answer specific questions about the time travel, but I was going to ask the South Park question: is it Terminator rules, or Back to the Future rules?
RJ: It is Terminator rules. It exists as a technology in the future, and the time machine sends whatever’s inside it back, but doesn’t take itself with it. And actually the first Terminator is the best, that’s the template that I used in terms of how to use it even in the plot: just figuring out a way so that it sets the story up, sets events in motion and gets out of the way.
LYT: So does he become his own dad?
RJ: [robot voice] I cannot reveal any…[normal voice] He becomes your father. Specifically. LYT’s father.
LYT: According to everybody I meet, that would be Darth Vader.
RJ: Wowwww. Yes. Holy shit. I didn’t say it, but I agree with it.
LYT: So, you talked about how cracking the time-travel thing was like using the secret ingredient on Iron Chef. What was the secret to finally cracking it for you?
RJ: Well, I don’t want to say that I cracked it; There have been incredible movies already done with using time travel. But the approach that I figured out, that I decided to take with it was, basically, accepting that time travel doesn’t make sense. It’s never going to make sense. You’re never going to build a series of rules about time travel that make sense that you can incorporate into a two-hour movie and still have room for the amount of plot that I wanted to have. I’ll qualify that as I always do by saying “unless you’re Shane Carruth and a genius.” But I’m not, and so my approach was it doesn’t make sense, so my job as a screenwriter is to do some misdirection so that the audience doesn’t notice it doesn’t make sense. And so, the Terminator structure really helps in that the technology exists in the future, so all your people in the present don’t understand the technology. And then it’s just a matter of figuring out how to use it in the way that the plot needs, and let it get out of the way.
LYT: One thing I’ve noticed lately with John Carter and movies like that is that when you make a big-budget genre movie with a plot that’s complicated in any way, people who have no problem with something like The Tree of Life will complain that it’s too complicated. Is that something you worry about at all?
RJ: Well, but how about Inception?
LYT: It got the Christopher Nolan pass, I think.
RJ: I don’t know about that.
LYT: But Inception was also quite clear about its rules. Average moviegoers who don’t want to analyze too deeply could still follow it.
RJ: But see, there, I would say that there’s a difference between something that’s smart and complicated, and something that’s poorly told. And I think that something that’s smart and complicated makes sense. I think audiences are hungry for that. I think at this point, a smart, complicated, well-told movie where you understand it by the end but it’s taken you places you didn’t expect… I place a premium on that, especially when I go to big movies. I think too often “convoluted and confusing” is something that to me is poor storytelling – that’s not a good thing. And so I like to think that the notion of something that is complicated is not something that’s incompatible with being a big movie.
LYT: It seems like there are some filmmakers who deliberately leave out information so audiences will have to work for it, and sometimes there are some who over-explain things – is it a tough balance to come by?
RJ: No, I think you just have to – it’s tricky, because you can get really close to it yourself, it’s hard to know what an audience is going to understand and not understand. But I think ultimately you want to hit the sweet spot: everything has to serve the story, first and foremost. So if you’re intentionally doing something to confuse the audience, if it’s not directly because there’s something very integral to the story where the audience needs to be confused then but they’ll be caught up five minutes later, that’s a mistake, I think. At the same time, I think it’s just as much a mistake to – and this can happen when you start getting into films where there are too many cooks in the kitchen, where people start worrying, “will they understand this, will they understand that,” and you end up over-explaining everything, that’s just as big a sin. So it’s this weird process where you try and find the middle ground. And to a certain extent, it takes rolling the dice, saying we understand this, we’re going to bet that an audience will follow it also, you know?
LYT: You’re actually name-checked in the trailer, which is cool and rare for a director – even with Tim Burton movies, they don’t always say the name, they say, “from the director of Batman and Beetlejuice.” So how cool is that?
RJ: It’s pretty cool. It’s probably because I’ve never made anything as recognized as Beetlejuice or Batman, but it’s pretty darn cool; This is new territory for me. Like even at WonderCon, sitting up in front of that huge group of film fans… this is the first time around for me.
LYT: How was that whole convention experience?
RJ: It was awesome. I was doing interviews for most of the day, and then we went into the panel, and did the panel, so I had a very limited experience of it, but the energy in that room was pretty incredible, y’know, just feeling how many people who are jammed into that space together because they love movies and because they want to see this stuff about movies that they’re psyched about. This is the first one I’ve ever been to. I’ve never been to Comic-Con, even as just a moviegoer.
LYT: That’s ten times the size.
RJ: I’ve heard. I think we’re gonna be there.
LYT: It’s also interesting that every questioner clearly knew their stuff about your movies, which doesn’t always happen at these panels.
RJ: That’s true, man, that was really encouraging.
LYT: So how was directing all the action in this? That’s obviously got to be a big change. I mean, there’s a little bit of action in The Brothers Bloom, but this looks like a whole new level.
RJ: It was so much fun. I mean, in the way that everything in this movie is bigger than Bloom or Brick, our resources to make it bigger were also there, and so for me it was like getting to play with a new box of toys. In reality, the basics of what you do with an action scene, like the sequence in Brick where Brendan is being chased by the guy with the knife through the high school, you know, that’s very similar to a car chase through a city, just cinematically and in terms of how you keep the audience oriented, how you cover it, how you build tension, it’s really the exact same fundamentals – just bigger toys. And none of that is difficult, because you have the big support group of a great crew who knows what they’re doing, so it was really comfortable and I just had a lot of fun.
RJ: Oh yeah, yeah. That’s the fun part. You can’t give that up. There’s a lot of great second-unit directors who do terrific action sequences, but no, that’s the part I really enjoy.
LYT: What’s the next thing you’d like to tackle? Another action movie? Go back and do another small movie? Or something completely different the next time?
RJ: I’m figuring it out right now. I really, really loved working in sci-fi, and that might be something I try another thing in, but I don’t know. I’m cooking a few things right now, assuming this isn’t a massive disaster and I’m never able to make a movie again. We’ll see.
LYT: If your editing instincts are anything to go by, you’ve got quite a sense for horror [Johnson was an editor on Lucky McKee’s May].
RJ: You know what’s weird? I love Lucky’s movies, I love Chris Sivertson’s movies, I loved working on May [but] in my heart I don’t know if I could make a horror movie. I don’t know if I have the gut for it, because really good horror, by its very nature, is something that’s disturbing and dark, and I just think I might be too big a pussy to make a really good horror movie. I don’t know. But God, I admire the people who can.
LYT: Will your next movie be in 3D?
RJ: Uhh… not if I can help it. I don’t like 3D; Just personally, as a moviegoer, I don’t like it. And I know that a lot of filmmakers are really excited about the potential of it, and are exploiting it in different ways that seem cool, and I get that, I think that’s awesome – I don’t want to say it’s bad for anyone else’s movie, but for me, I don’t like how it looks.
LYT: Is part of it for you having to put glasses over glasses?
RJ: No. I don’t care. If it looked awesome and I had to wear glasses, I wouldn’t care; I would think it was great. I just don’t think the technology is to a point where it makes a better-looking image. I think it just looks like shit. Yep.
Looper‘s new trailer is available on iTunes as of today.