Director's Cut: Rian Johnson on 'Looper'

Rian Johnson is only three films into his career, but it's already clear that the writer/director is a fan of high concepts. His acclaimed debut, "Brick," was an American noir thriller that upended the genre by taking place in a high school. His 2008 follow-up, "The Brothers Bloom," was a heist comedy with enough twists and postmodern riffs to set it apart from "Ocean's Eleven" and its ilk. Now, with his first stab at sci-fi, "Looper," Johnson is putting his own stamp on the finicky time travel genre by casting stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis to play the same guy. Yeah, you heard that right.

Set in the near future (well, 2072), "Looper" takes place in a world where the mob uses time travel to carry out its hits. This slick system means their enemies are sent back into the past to be killed — for easier body disposal, of course — by hit men called "Loopers." You can imagine Joe's dismay when his latest assignment is an older, balder version of himself (Willis), meaning it's time for Joe to "close the loop" and knock himself off.

The morning after the film kicked off the Toronto International Film Festival with a lot of fanfare, Johnson sat down with us to explain how he dreamed up this visionary tale.

How did "Looper" come to be?

I wrote the initial idea for it a while ago, about ten years ago. It wrote it as a short film I never ended up doing. It had the basic hook of the movie. The short was a foot chase between the two of them across the city. So I wrote this thing, and it just sat in the drawer for eight years, but I had always thought about it. After "Bloom," it seemed like a nice thing to try because it was so tonally different.

LooperIt's tonally different, but all three of your films deal with pretty high concept material. What draws to such complex stories?

Well, I really love genre. I love how genre movies give you a game board to play on. They give you limitations. They give you rules. They also give you a shared grammar with the audience, which lets you go out on some limbs that you might otherwise not be able to go out on. I feel like there's something kind of thrilling when you break the rules and get away with it – and both you and the audience are aware they're being broken. It's fun to surprise an audience when you're working in an established tract.

In terms of complicated plot, I'm actually trying to get simpler. With this movie in particular, even though it's a time travel movie, I didn't want it to be algebra homework. I wanted it to be fun in the way that you have to untangle it, but I also wanted it to be accessible.

You achieved that by laying out the groundwork of the future in the opening voice-over and then letting the action take center stage. The film just takes off from there.

Thanks, I hope so. The time travel, that's the other tricky element to keep simple. What I did was come up with this elaborate system for how all this stuff works, and then you figure out how much of that you can bury under the skin of the movie. That's kind of the dance – figuring how much to give the audience.

The characters are just as fully realized as the world they inhabit. Was it challenging to bring that human element to a story so seeped in sci-fi wonder?

It starts with the emotional element. I had this plot, but it really didn't take off until I had these bigger themes attached too. For me, at least, the human questions it poses are the foundation. And then, making sure that's cohesive and making sure that draws through – that's just pounding your head against the page and re-working it over and over. I tried to be really disciplined with this script.

LooperIt's fascinating you wrote this with Joseph in mind, and that the casting of Bruce came later. Bruce looks nothing like Joseph (the prosthetics help), but his status as an action icon is so invaluable to what he brings to the picture. It's really a great meta casting coup!

Bruce was the first person we got on board for the older part. He was somebody I hadn't really thought of until the casting process. Like you alluded to – we talked earlier about playing with audience's expectations in genre – there's a certain expectation the audience has when Bruce Willis shows up in a movie.

That he's going to blow sh*t up…

That he's going to blow sh*t up, but also that he's going to save the day by finding the bad guy and killing them. That plays in a really meta type of way. We end up using the weight of that against the audience at a certain point to help spin their moral compass. So that was exciting. I also think Bruce is a fantastic actor.

I got really excited to cast him, but like you pointed out, they look nothing alike. I felt very strongly that we should do something with Joe's face. So we just picked a couple of details and slightly altered them. He did nose, upper lip, lower lip and had him wear these really uncomfortable contacts.

Given that you wrote this around ten years ago with Joe in mind, you can say you were the first to see him as an action star.

I'm biased 'cause he's a good friend of mine, but I feel like he can pull off anything. I would feel comfortable casting him as a ballerina if it came down to it [laughs]. In fact, that's not a bad idea. That might be our next movie together.