Rian Johnson, writer-director of the new genre bending sci-fi actioner Looper, explains why, when it comes to time travel movies, storytelling is more important than logic.
Written by Rob Feld
(September 27, 2012)
Rian Johnson does not make life easy on himself. The intricate stories he tells are as laden with key plot information to be doled out with precision while he cleverly interweaves visual cues, metaphors and echoes, which deepen the expression of his characters’ experiences. There are many odd sized balls to be kept afloat in a Johnson film, but he has proven himself an apt juggler. The first film he wrote and directed, Brick in ‘05, an indie detective noir set in high school, won a special jury prize at Sundance. His second effort, the far underappreciated The Brothers Bloom in ‘08, was a stylized caper comedy about two con man brothers and the epic dramas they weave for their marks as well as for themselves. His latest film, Looper, is half sci-fi, half Western noir and utilizes one of the great writing bogies, time travel, to spin another thematically rich yarn.
Looper follows an assassin, a “looper,” Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who works for a crime syndicate that sends him people to kill from the future. When a looper’s contract is terminated, however, he might find himself face to face with his future self, and be expected by the syndicate to pull the trigger on the new arrival for a golden payday. This is exactly what happens when Joe’s older self (Bruce Willis) appears before him and has no intention of going gently into that good night, and a chase ensues from the city to farmland. Johnson is meticulous in all things in his films, from the verbiage of his characters to the visuals he crafts. In approaching the challenge of time travel logic, he was no different.
Despite how plot or detail heavy your stories can be you always manage to keep them subservient to character, and that’s no different in Looper, time travel or no.
One thing all my favorite sci-fi has in common is that it always uses the sci-fi elements to amplify very human emotions, themes and characters, and not the other way around. Ray Bradbury was the first sci-fi author I was ever exposed to as a kid, and is still for me the most masterful example of using outlandish sci-fi concepts that have nothing to do with our real lives to get at stuff that strikes right to the heart of our lives. Characters are hugely important to me when I'm writing, so that naturally ends up being what leads the whole process.
You are a literary guy in your sensibilities; Brothers Bloom certainly represents that. Would you say your influences are more literary or filmic?
Photo: © 2012 Looper, LLC
Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt In Looper.
It's a big mixture. There's a lot of Bradbury, but when I first wrote the idea for Looper I was devouring all of Philip K. Dick's books. When I was finishing up the script I had just discovered Haruki Murakami so the kind of weird, surrealist casualness with which he integrates sci-fi elements into these noir worlds was something that was very influential. At the same time you can look at Looper and spot obvious things it owes a huge debt to like Blade Runner and Witness. That's a beautifully made movie. When I was writing the script I actually sat down and diagrammed the structure of Witness to see how they kept up the tension once they were out there on the farm.
What did you discover?
The big thing was how often they check back in with the city. I diagrammed that, took a step back and said, “Oh, there you go! Every 6 minutes or whatever, like clockwork they check back into the escalating dire situation in the city.” It was also seeing how they kept that present, even in the farm stuff; how often they would have a tense moment that reflected Harrison Ford getting ready for what is coming. I got mechanical stuff like that but obviously the visuals of that movie are so gorgeous. Days of Heaven was also a big reference once we got out onto the farm.
You were very successful subtly integrating the sci-fi elements into the Looper world without bogging down with too much exposition. Can you tell me how you approach those elements?
We've all seen a lot of sci-fi movies and read a lot of sci-fi books. I feel like there's a lot that we cannot explain and take for granted. We never explain why the city is the way it is. I just figure we've seen enough near future dystopian worlds to where we get it, and it would actually be boring to talk about the great crash or whatever it was.
Can you put your finger on what an audience needs to know and what it doesn’t? In Looper, you have a conversation in a diner where they deliberately refuse to start explaining time travel. But you get away with it. Is it that we’re so familiar with it all we don’t care? Or do we not truly care about as much as we think we might?
It's the second one. It's just a matter of keeping yourself honest in terms of what your story is and what actually matters, and realizing that anything that veers off of that is going to feel like what it is, which is a tangent, even if it's an interesting tangent. The truth is, I kept being surprised. A good example is in that diner scene. That line, “We’re not going to make diagrams with straws all day,” was originally the setup for a gag where two minutes later we had him get frustrated trying to explain something, so he grabs the straws and starts diagramming it out. We actually shot that, and it was only when we put it in front of friends and family in screenings that we realized we didn't need it. We realized it was explanation; as little explanation as I thought I had in the movie, we found the audience didn't even need that much. We were stopping to explain something we didn't need to. If there were one magical power I could ask for it would be to know in the writing phase what is actually necessary and what I'm going to cut in the editing phase.
How did you approach the logic problems that time travel movies always face?
That's just elbow grease. It's a matter of working on it and making sure you've got your tracks covered. I looked at a lot of time travel movies that I respect, and one unifying thing I saw that took a lot of the burden off was realizing there are things in all of them that blatantly don't make sense from an actual time travel logic point of view. But, even when something doesn't make sense logic-wise, it makes sense storytelling-wise. An example from one of the great all-time time travel movies is Back to the Future, when the family starts disappearing from the Polaroid. Just from a time travel geek perspective, that makes no sense at all. But its genius because from a storytelling point of view it makes absolute sense, and intuitively the audience says, “Yes, I know exactly what's happening. He's changing the timeline so he’s losing his future life.” So, giving myself permission to have your real yardstick be the storytelling and not the intricacies of time travel logic, that was the first step. Then it's a matter of creating a set of rules for yourself and trying to stay consistent to them.
You lay out visual echoes which come back through your stories. One thing that jumped out at me is having Emily Blunt pretend to smoke in a wistful moment alone then to later see her smoke for real with Joe. Are you scripting those things early on and what to do they do for you?
When I’m writing I’m big into structure and outlining, so I’ll spend the first 80 percent of the process working in notebooks and working out the big picture in a space where I can see it. I love connections, I love seeding stuff in that’s going to pay off later, and figuring out ways to do that in ways that make sense and feel organic. All that stuff, including the smoking thing with Emily, was baked into the script. But obviously it’s all got to serve the character, showing that she had a past she’s given up, that she misses and thinks about. Then drawing the connection between that and getting together with Joe, which is another element of her past she misses. If it makes sense, it’s always fun to link one thing to another thing.