In order to simplify the concept of time travel, you’ve got to think a LOT about time travel. At least, that’s what writer/director Rian Johnson had to do with his new – excellent – movie “Looper“, which opens this Friday in theaters everywhere.
Without getting into spoilers too much, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, an assassin who kills men who transgressed against the mob, sent thirty years back in time to effectively dispose of the bodies. Can’t solve a murder if the guy murdered hasn’t been born yet, right? Into that scenario enters Bruce Willis, who just happens to be Joe sent back thirty years in time… To be killed by, well, Joe.
I imagine some of you already have a bit of a headache from thinking about how all this works. Luckily, Johnson is a smart enough film-maker to know that would happen, so he dialed down the tech talk as much as possible in order to focus on the characters, as he told us when we spoke on the phone in advance of the film’s release.
“It was important to me to come up with a system of rules that we could actually stay consistent to,” said Johnson. “End of the day, if you dig far enough into the construct of any time travel movie – even the best constructed one… If you dig deep enough you’re going to hit a point where the paradoxes add up, and it just doesn’t make sense. As a storyteller, your job is to make a matrix of rules, stay consistent to them, and just go by that. You’re asking the audience to make the leap with you.”
That meant coming up with an approach that Johnson admitted was “slightly magical.” So in the movie, if something happens to the younger version of a character, and the older version is in the present, say young Joe gets cut… A scar appears on Old Joe. “We have that kind of causality,” continued Johnson. “It’s almost like the older version who has come back is in this envelope of causality. If the surface tension of a pond were very strong, and you put your fist down in it, but your fist didn’t get wet… It just pushed a bubble down with you, that’s sort of how the older self is coming down into the past.”
The other problem? Paradoxes, of course, which Johnson basically tried to ignore as much as possible. “There’s a temptation to treat them as if they’re equations, and there’s a one to one reaction in the universe… You do this, it triggers this, it triggers that,” said Johnson. “I look around at the natural world, and that doesn’t seem to be the way that things happen. It’s a big, messy, organic world. It made sense to me to make the paradox effect of time travel similar. The universe kind of deals with a time travel paradox much more like an organic body dealing with a foreign substance injected into it. It either attacks it, or rejects it.”
Ah, but what about memories, you say? Or rather, Johnson continued… Those posed a far different problem than just physical changes to the characters. “That’s where it made sense to me to make it a littler hazier,” said Johnson. “Literally hazier, where his brain is fogging up with all these different possibilities. The character is fighting to hold on to this version of the timeline that he originally came from.”
All that aside, for Johnson, tackling the script starts with the characters, rather than just the neat time travel devices. “I came up with the initial idea for it,” said Johnson, “and the initial realization that this sci-fi hook could support these themes I cared to talk about, these characters that seemed very interesting to me… And then I had to deal with making sure the time travel elements worked. It’s both the fun part, and the hard part.”
After that, we chatted a bit about Shane Carruth similarly excellent “Primer,” a time travel movie that does the opposite of “Looper”: does nothing but lay out diagrams. It came up because Johnson and Carruth are buddies, and rumors had Carruth helping with some of the effects sequences in the latter film. Turns out that didn’t work out because of time, though Carruth did give a little input into the script for “Looper” “In ’Looper’ we were largely going after the model of the first Terminator film,” said Johnson. “Where time travel sets the situation of the film, and then steps back. But that’s not to say there aren’t movie like Primer that I love, which delve into it more fully.”
Next up, again without delving too much into spoilers, we talked about the tricky nature of developing an entirely new future world, with all the concepts and world-building that implies. “It was all just about serving the story,” said Johnson. “It’s tricky when you start introducing several sci-fi elements into one story. The danger is, the great screen-writing phrase, ‘Putting a hat on top of a hat.’ That’s describes the danger of putting a clever element on top of a clever element, or asking the audience to make one too many leaps. I was very conscious of that, so it took a lot of work to iron these things into the fabric of the story and make them harmonious, as opposed to multiple hats, I guess.”
Johnson also added that it was going step by step. For example, setting up a world where the middle class has pretty much disappeared was all about, “motivating Joe’s character,” said Johnson. “He’s in a very self serving place, like Rick at the beginning of Casablanca. Hopefully seeing this world around him informs a little bit why he’s in that selfish place, and let’s you know where he’s coming from.”
From there, we talked about guns. In the movie, there’s two main types of guns: the Blunderbuss, a short range weapon Loopers use; and Gats, a more Western firearm held by Gat Men, agents for the mob. While the Blunderbuss was custom designed, the Gats are actually just real revolvers. “They’re huge,” said Johnson with a laugh. “They’re things that should not exist, but do.”
The Gats are actually called – in real life – BFRs, or Big F**king Revolvers. The Blunderbusses, on the other hand, were custom designed, once again based on story rather than just cool factor. “These Loopers are not highly trained assassins,” said Johnson. “They’re young f**k-ups, and so they give them a gun where if they’re even vaguely aiming it in the right direction, it’s hard to miss anything that isn’t too far away.”
Why only these two guns? Because of Blade Runner. “What makes that gun iconic?” asked Johnson, referring to Rick Deckard’s firearm from Blade Runner. “It’s a beautifully designed gun, but it’s the only gun in the movie that you get a good look at. Very often there’s credible design work done to create dozens of guns in any given movie, but I feel like the fact that there’s dozens of them, your eye just glazes over. Paring it back, and having just one designed gun in the movie was a way of making it a little more iconic.”
Continuing to get as nerdy as possible, I asked a question I’ve always wondered about with scifi movies: how much thought is put into what year the movie is set? For Looper, which is set in 2044, and 2074, the answer might surprise you.
“I think I was going to set it straight up thirty years in the future,” said Johnson. “So originally it was going to be set in 2042, but then I realized this was too obvious a call out to Douglas Adams, so I changed it to 2044. What’s the line in Back to the Future where he says, ‘Why thirty years,’ and he says, ‘Eh, it’s a nice round number.’ That was kind of the feeling! Far enough forward that something could have happened, but not so far forward to where you’re wondering why there aren’t flying cars.”
Johnson then brought up the scene in Back to the Future II set in ‘Café 80’s’ where a café in the future is nostalgically looking back at the time period when the movie itself was released. “I love that someday, hopefully this movie will still be around when the year comes up,” said Johnson. “I love when a movie catches up with its timeline.”
Moving on, I asked about continuing the world of “Looper,” either in another movie, a comic book, or otherwise. “I don’t think so,” said Johnson. “That’s not really where my head’s at. From my point of view, I created the world to specifically support this story, and I feel like I told this story. I’m ready to think about something totally different.”
And wrapping up, I asked about Johnson’s next steps. Though he doesn’t have, “an idea sitting in the drawer the way I did with ’Looper,’” he’s looking around, and trying to generate new ideas. Even given that, would Johnson want to take on a pre-existing property? Say, a superhero movie?
“I wouldn’t rule it out, but right now for my features I’m still really digging home-growing my own stuff,” said Johnson. “I’m enjoying growing my stuff from a seed, all the way up until the end. It feels like a little vacation when you go and do something like Breaking Bad, where it’s great writing, so I can just show up and support somebody else’s vision. But it’s also very defined and compartmentalized thing, where I’m going off and doing that. But for my features, I’m still keeping to my own visions.”
Then I decided to be a little less subtle, before our time with Johnson ran out: would he take on directing a new Batman movie, with his frequent star Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead? Laughing, Johnson said, “I’m not saying I would turn it down! It would be a hard thing to turn down.”
“Looper” hits theaters everywhere Friday, September 28th from Tristar Pictures.