I first became aware of Rian Johnson by accident. I stumbled into a screening room at the wrong time and didn't realize it until the word Brick
was sitting in front of me. But if there is ever a right time to run into a brick wall I had found it. Before I realized what was happening movie magic had knocked me unconscious. I remember thinking I didn't want it to end. The patois, the look of the film, the magnificent performances and the triumph of watching so much young talent embrace a great screenplay and run with it into those shadows of light and circumstance that I as a member of the audience could only pay tribute to by watching was an amazing experience.
Since then of course Johnson has gone on to make The Brothers Bloom,
an even better received old school screwball bit of fluff that has some serious wonder at heart and that, elevates itself beyond the genre it references to tell a great yarn full of rich characters. Hell someone should have given Johnson a medal just for getting Adrian Brody back off his butt to make something worthwhile (Brody's participation in Splice
seals the deal. It exemplifies what Johnson does; love on genre without putting putting the cart before the horse. Instead he chooses to make movies that people will watch for decades A chance to talk to Rian Johnson was not a chance I would ever miss. TWITCH: So here you are three films right and you haven't got one wrong. It's a great run. But as different as those films are they have existential appeal, they're really thoughtful.
RJ: Well, certainly science fiction is specifically good at those sorts of questions, at using bizarre or magical constructs to get at something primal and human, to plumb mystery. That to me is storytelling. Ray Bradbury is the master at that. On the surface he could be telling you a story about a kid growing alien mushrooms in his cellar but really he's getting at the dark side of childhood and the bond between parents and children and the scary part of family and our need for family. Whatever the hook is you wind up caring about something else that's deeper and more important and far reaching. Looper
starts out with this bizarre idea, a construct that allows a young man to sit across from future old man and have the conversation we all wish we could have with each other. The young man is saying "I'm not gonna turn into you." and the old man says, "You're such an idiot I know what you're thinking and I know where you're going to wind up and you are wrong!" Anybody whose ever been on either end of that conversation knows where that comes from. TWITCH: It's an interesting time for sci-fi cinema generally
RJ: Yeah, I mean look at movies like Moon
it's been a little golden age for independent science fiction again. Those are just a few. For me Looper
almost seems like a throwback to the seventies. It's more redemptive but it posits man grappling with dystopia, fears of the future.
I'm really excited that you can watch all the trailers for Looper
and still not know where the movie ends up, where the story is headed. The story arrives at it very organically but the audience is asked to choose sides, to examine motives without assigning traditional good guy bad guy genre roles. That may work better for some folks than others.
I worked on this for a long time and it didn't really take off until I understood where the story was set. Half of the film takes place in a city full of orphans and the other half takes place on a farm with a family. And the audience is asked to take sides, to think about what the right thing to do is against starkly different visual landscapes that mirror the characters and their own fears about the past and future. TWITCH: There are a lot of twists and turns. Were those ways of getting unstuck in the writing process?
RJ: Man, it's sure easier to count the times you get unstuck than the times you get stuck. Writing is a getting stuck everyday kind of thing, at least for me. But I didn't want the twists to involve or depend on gimmicks. For every unusual turn the story takes I need a reason why the characters are doing what they choose to do. Without that humanity it wouldn't have any impact, at least emotionally. But there's no doubt when you get some twonky idea and you are able to integrate it into the mix successfully you are helping yourself stay inspired and enthused. What you have to avoid is, I heard this phrase used in a screenwriting class, putting a hat onto a hat onto a hat. TWITCH: I love that you said hat!
RJ: [laughs] You got me.TWITCH: Obviously you have a real love of slang and patois and hats.
RJ: Yeah. I mean obviously Brick
and Brothers Bloom
are more mannered than Looper
but in those movies it was central to the story we were telling and the world the story happened in was the way it was for a reason. In Brick
I knew that the first shot was of a high school and I had no way, no money, to do anything other than show the high school . Language became a way to define the world and especially the inner life of the characters. It was a way of informing the audience that this was an elevated world. It was also cheap. [laughs] Brothers Bloom
is about a guy who feels trapped in the suffocating storytelling of his brother. Hence the framing and the stylized nature of the costumes etc. I wanted the audience to feel that they were trapped inside these meticulously designed notebooks of Steven's. It was all designed to make the audience feel that I want to break out of this, it's all around me I need something real.
So as much as I love those sorts of elements I get most excited about them when they contribute to why I want to tell the story, what I want the story to say. TWITCH: It's interesting that you bring up the idea of characters feeling trapped because in a way that's what all your characters are. Bloom is trapped. Brendan and the Pin are trapped. Brick certainly suggests the idea of being trapped. And in Looper everyone is walled in by everything from their environment to secrets they feel they have to keep
RJ: Yeah, in Looper
I play a dangerous game because it's really a battle about who will define whose story it is. Whose narrative is it? I see that thru line in my stuff definitely. I'm completely fascinated by this idea that life itself, on some level, is an act of storytelling. That self is the stories we tell via our actions and even our thoughts. And yet our story is also part of many others. Isn't it great how pretentious this can quickly get. [laughs] TWITCH: So was the move to sci-fi deliberate in the sense that you wanted to dabble in the genre?
RJ: It's funny. I definitely didn't have some burning itch to do a time travel movie. In fact dealing with that in the narrative was a real pain in the ass. Time travel is this thing that fights you in a story from day one and it ha to be tamed to serve the story. But about ten years ago I discovered Phillip K. Dick and I was just blowing through his books and it was around that same time that I planted the seed of Looper
by writing this three page short film treatment. I never wound up shooting it but my head was so steeped in sci-fi at that point it was probably inevitable I would at least write something. It sat in a drawer for eight years and I didn't do anything with it until after I shot Bloom
. TWITCH: Did you write this particularly for Joe?
RJ: Oh yeah. It's funny, there's nothing drawn from my friend Joe in the character but I wanted to work with him again and I knew it would be a role that would require a huge amount of transformation which Joe always gets off on as an actor. He loves disappearing inside a role, putting on a someone else's face. I knew he'd have a good time. TWITCH: Did Bruce Willis react well to the time travel aspect of the film. His presence does bring the specter of Twelve Monkeys with it.
RJ: We didn't talk about it that much. He did express a lot of excitement about where his character winds up in the story and how he winds up there. His character in the film is really fleshed out and he loved being able to navigate those emotional and psychological highs and lows, especially the really dark, dark places. TWITCH: So you felt confident about those narrative choices? There was some really dark stuff going on there especially with his character.
RJ: Well I think that as a filmmaker I need to know better than to provoke the audience for it's own sake or just to get a rise out of them. Looper
certainly wasn't going to be that kind of movie. But I think we were all committed to it. Those things are there to advance a story that goes to some really light places as well. There's a strong redemptive element in the film and I think it's all the stronger because of those moments. You see the effects of choice in this movie as well. Nobody does anything without having to count the cost, the movie takes cost very seriously. TWITCH: So you think it's fair to describe you as a filmmaker with a distinct point of view? Perhaps in the sense of Christopher Nolan.
RJ: I am so inspired by watching Chris Nolan do what he does. Inception
, in particular, is such a smart, uncompromising but personal vision. That something so big could be so simultaneously intimate and have that kind of success. I absolutely aspire to that. I think the question right now is can we reach a broader audience, make a big summer tent-pole movie and have it be that smart and that compelling and inspire that much deep conversation.
The word entertainment has been co-opted by spectacle. People assume you mean the one when you say the other. But real entertainment, and I think there are a lot of movies even big movies, that engage on different levels. That is entertainment to me. TWITCH: You think audiences are on board for that?
RJ: Absolutely. Inception
would never have been as big a hit as it was any other way. Audiences are ready and even more I think they are thirsty. There s a speech that Andre Gregory gives in that movie My Dinner With Andre
about the rich old woman who ate nothing but chicken morning noon and night because she loved chicken. She was well fed in the sense that she ate three meals a day but she starved to death because she was malnourished. That's how I often feel as a movie goer. I can gorge myself on these big spectacles but what I'm really hungry for, what my spirit really needs, is more. TWITCH: When we talk about Utopia in cinema aren't we really talking about the desire to live forever? In other words, if I don't have to die and I can have all the stuff I want and the people I love shouldn't that be enough? But Looper seems to suggest it's only peace with the flawed here and now as the only way to not be haunted by the past or hunted by the future.
RJ: Time travel movies definitely have an appeal in the sense that they allow us to flit back and forth over this thing that we feel we have no control over and that is, leading us all to this great sort of unknown called death. But Looper
reframes the question. If you can't hang on to what you've got what does that tell you about selfishness and selflessness. That's what the moral compass of the film spins on. In a way the time travel is irrelevant. That's what most great sci-fi does it confronts the moral elephant in the room in the middle of the spectacle. The trick is not getting distracted.