The Causality Loop: Rian Johnson on Looper

The time travel rules that didn't make it into the movie and talking to Joseph Gordon-Levitt about doing a musical.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


I actually met Rian Johnson in the airport before the flight to Toronto two weeks ago. I saw Noah Segan and introduced myself, since we’d only met by phone, and Segan introduced me to Johnson. At 6am on two hours sleep I wasn’t coherent enough to talk to Johnson about Looper so I’m happy I got a proper chance to interview him about all the ins and outs of his time travel thriller. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis both play Joe, a hitman who has to assassinate his older self, but his older self remembers and escapes.


CraveOnline: Have you made it, being the opening night film of the Toronto Film Festival?

Rian Johnson: [Laughs] I’ll say this. It was a huge honor and I was kind of in a daze. I went into a bit of a fugue state I think during the screening. It was a lot to process and what an honor. They were such a great crowd. That festival specifically has such movie-loving crowds, as a filmmaker to show your movie for the first time in front of a crowd like that, it was just pretty f***ing cool.


Your script manages so many fascinating themes about time travel. Were there any you had to leave out because it would just be too cluttered or too many tangents?

Oh yeah, a thousand. It’s really a process of pruning, of looking at exactly what your story needs and then paring it down to just the information and the stuff that you need to go into to tell your story. That’s the danger of it because especially for me I’m a sci-fi fan, I love time travel sh*t, I love time travel movies and the temptation to explore all these different avenues is so strong but you just have to be disciplined. You have to realize what his story is about and really stick to that spine, kind of have to sit on your hands a little bit and rein it in.


As a fellow geek, what are one or two directions you would have liked to go?

Oh man, well I know that Bruce has a line in the diner where he says, “I don’t want to be here all day talking about time travel.” I could’ve written a half hour scene in that diner where we did just go into all the intricacies about how it all worked and I would’ve been happy as a pig in sh*t. I would’ve loved that. Originally that diner scene was actually a lot longer. Originally he did pull out straws and start diagramming out how some of the memory stuff works. It’s tough because I actually did spend a lot of time coming up with the rules of how my time travel was going to work in this film. But then you have to realize that the movie’s not really about that and you have to discipline yourself to explain as little of that as possible. Also I would have been tempted to show the far future world and show maybe the rise of the Rainmaker a bit more but it just didn’t make sense for the story.


When dealing with the exposition, was it important to set up that the characters who time travel don’t want to talk about time travel?

Well, the really important thing is that they don’t know how it works. That was the really important distinction is that time travel exists in the future but it doesn’t exist in our present. These people who are in the story have sort of the worm’s eye view of time travel. None of them could explain how it works to you even if they had a gun to their head. They just know what they see in front of them. They know the effects of time travel and the situation that time travel has dumped in their laps and they have to deal with it. So that was really the important starting point and that’s where I wanted to put the audience’s head at the beginning of the movie. That’s where I hung my hat.


Was the rule about how the memories are affected a response to frustration with movies that dismiss how someone’s memories would be affected by living through two different timelines?

No, it wasn’t really a response to anything like that. It was more just something that made sense for this story and something that just made sense to me in general. It felt good to take a more organic approach to the time travel paradoxes and to say that it would be much more like a cloud forming in your brain, this confusion of your memories trying to deal with all these new eventualities. It made sense to me that that wouldn’t be like clockwork, that that would actually be much more chaotic than that. So no, it wasn’t really a response. It was more just the way that I felt it would actually work.


Were there some questions that you definitely wanted to answer? Mine were: Who came back to make the deal with the loopers? And don’t future loopers remember closing their loops? You answer those.

That’s the other thing I guess. There are 100 questions like that that if you’re not careful you can put in little exposition lines and spend the whole story stamping out these little fires and you really have to pick your battles. I would have loved to explain in more detail the whole system of how the loopers work. Why the loopers close their own loops is something that I almost wrote a scene to go into as opposed to having them sent back to someone else. For me it was first and foremost, Fred, they wanted to keep the causality loop as tight as possible, the idea that even the people in the future are very scared of using time travel. They figure if they keep this loop closed where the younger self kills the older self and he’s the only person that’s interacted with him, that would help cut down on the potential paradoxes. I also had a scene in there originally where Abe (Jeff Daniels) was complaining that he’s been complaining for years that this is a stupid way of working it and the loops keep running, why won’t the guys in the future change it? Anyway, you have to pick your battles. You have to remember what your story’s about and you have to just give yourself the freedom to not explain every little nook and cranny of the world, because otherwise you’ll just be doing nothing like that.


Are some of these deleted scenes that might be on the DVD?

There are a lot of deleted scenes. Most of them do not involve that. Most of that kind of stuff I pulled out in the script stage. A lot of the deleted scenes, there’s a lot of connecting the dots stuff. For instance, there’s a lot of Kid Blue (Noah Segan) scenes where he’s tracking down Old Joe (Willis), stuff that was really, really cool but we didn’t really need in the story when we got it all together. Or, there’s a scene where after Joe  (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) shows up on Sara (Emily Blunt)’s farm where she makes a decision to keep him for the night and she makes him a cot and puts him in the barn. We realized once we put the film together that we didn’t need that. We could skip right to him waking up in the morning. Stuff like that where you realize you can ellipse it and be fine.


From Brick to Looper, is there a Rian Johnson style of action?

[Laughs] God, man, I don’t know.


I think there is. Obviously I see something.

All right, that’s cool, man. All you try and do is make it as good as possible. I’ll say this. To me the golden standard in terms of action is still Raiders of the Lost Ark. The way Spielberg shot that action where it was dynamic, it was exciting but you’re always oriented. You can always tell what you’re looking at and as much as possible stuff plays out in front of your eyes where you feel like you’re actually seeing it happen instead of the shaky cam variant. That for me is what I’m always striving for with action. Maybe it reflects that but the truth is I don’t know, I just try to make it as cool as possible.


What I notice is you use the camera to show the action, rather than as we see now shaking the camera to obscure it.

Yeah, I mean, that makes a lot of sense to me. [Laughs] That’s what the camera’s for. The stated purpose of the camera is to show you stuff so it makes a lot of sense to me to use it. And using camera movement in very controlled and dynamic ways again is something I think Spielberg is just a master at. Kurosawa also, if you go back and watch Seven Samurai it’s a similar thing. John Woo also. I was a big fan of John Woo’s Hong Kong movies and the way he shoots action and just lets it play out so you can actually see it was something I was always a big fan of.


So are long single takes important to you too?

When they’re right. When they’re right for the story, especially when something big and outrageous is happening, I think it’s really nice to just be able to see it. I feel like if you feel the big single long take, then maybe that’s then a flourish and you’re just doing it for the sake of doing it. But when it suits what’s happening on the screen, then yeah, absolutely. Fun to do.


To use a film school term, do you think about the mise-en-scène in each shot?

Yeah, that just refers to what’s on screen, right?



That’s the design of everything working together. That’s pivotal. That’s what you’re shooting. That’s what’s up there. On that note, it’s important to get all the departments working together. It’s important to get the talent of the film consistent, to get the costume  design people on the same page as the set design. This is just basic moviemaking stuff. This is not unique to anything we do but it’s something you’ve got to be conscious of.


The longer I do this, the more I notice what happens in a shot and when something’s missing.

Yeah, absolutely, and it really is an organic process when you get on set. I storyboard out my movies. I show up on set with storyboards for everything, but then I’m prepared to throw those away if we come up with a better idea on set. Or if in the actual physical space, you walk in and you can’t just have your boards in your head. You’ve got those as a visual idea but you’ve got to also take a look at the space, take a look at how the scene’s playing out with the actors and really figure out what suits it best.


How did you come up with the future technology that we do see, like video screens in the air?

That just seems like where we’re headed. I feel like we’ve seen that in sci-fi movies before. It felt like it made a lot of sense. One little performance thing I love when Bruce is looking at a screen in the library, he kind of pulls the plastic thing up. It’s a little bit awkward for him. I talked with him about there just being a quick moment where it’s like someone trying to figure out how to work an old Tandy computer or something like that. The clunky old technology.


It is so perfect that Bruce Willis is older Joe because of the iconography he brings to the genre. Did you ever have a backup in case he wasn’t available or interested?

Not a backup. When we went to him, I had no idea if he’d say yes or not. I hoped he would. He was the first person we went to but I was still pretty shocked when he came back and said, “Yes, let’s do it.” But yeah, that iconography that you’re talking about, Bruce and I talked about this. First and foremost I cast him because he’s a great actor and he just goes to these emotional places that feel very honest. He’s a terrific actor, but also the fact that he’s Bruce Willis and the audience has a certain amount of expectations when he shows up in a movie, I think specifically in this film the way that we use that with his character made it very interesting to have him in the part.


Were you willing to go to an R-rating to use F-words and show actual red-colored blood?

[Laughs] It was always, from the first draft of the script, it was always a given that it was R. That was nice. Everybody was on that page from the beginning so there was never even a discussion about it.


Being a writer/director is so involved. Do you have your next film planned yet?

I wish, man, I wish. I’m writing right now and I’m hitting the notebooks and just trying to come up with some different ideas and figure it out. It’s tough. It’s like fishing. You just have to absorb a lot of stuff and read a lot of books and walk around a lot and see when the next thing hits you that’s going to take you off on the next path so that’s what I’m working on right now.


You did three different genres so far. Is there a fourth you want to explore?

Oh, there’s plenty of them. I would love to see Joe do a musical, whether I do it with him or not. I think Joe needs to be in a musical. Man, there’s so many although I’ve got to say, sci-fi is such an expansive genre, I really had a lot of fun working in it. I can see myself exploring some different avenues of that for a while. But I don’t know. Picking the next one has less to do with picking a genre. It’s more just about figuring out what story ends up grabbing you next.


Will you always be a writer/director?

I think so. I don’t know. It’s hard to say always, but I know for right now that’s what gets me going about the process is starting from the seed with an idea and growing it all the way to the end. Right now I’m in a very lucky spot where I’ve been able to get these scripts made. God knows that’s not going to last forever so I feel like I should take advantage of it while I’ve got it and tell as many of my stories as I can.


Interesting that you referenced Spielberg, who is not a writer, and he’s one of the greats.

Well, there’s a lot of my favorite directors aren’t writer/directors. Scorsese obviously. I don’t know, it’s just different for every director but every director that I love is a storyteller and every director has their own specific style and their way of telling stories. I wouldn’t say it’s greater or less being a writer/director or a director or writer or whatever. It’s all storytelling.


I agree Joseph has to do a musical and I’d love to see a Rian Johnson musical.

Yeah, he does, man. We’ll see, man. Believe me, we’ve had plenty of conversations about it.


How do you look back on Brothers Bloom, which I quite like… but are second films just hard?

I don’t know about second films being hard. I’ve only made one second film. I don’t know, Brothers Bloom was a really personal movie for me. It’s a movie I really care deeply about. It didn’t hit in the theaters. It didn’t connect with audiences the first time out in the theaters but it’s been really gratifying over the past few years to get really kind e-mails and tweets form people who have discovered it and to see people find it and really care about it and care about it the same way I care about it. That’s really gratifying. I’m an optimist in that way. I really feel that any film is going to find its audience if it’s out there long enough.