Rian Johnson is always a great interview, and that's because he cares about the films he's writing and directing. He's thought them through, considered every possible shortcoming or contradiction, and goes about fine tuning his work until it's, well, about as perfect as LOOPER, his crime drama melded with science fiction, action, westerns, and even a family drama. It's certainly one of the smartest, most thoughtful films I've seen all year, and there's really no excuse for you not going to check it out.
I've known and been interviewing Johnson since his feature debut, BRICK (like LOOPER, it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt), was making the festival circuit; and we got another chance to talk when the second movie, THE BROTHERS BLOOM, was making that same trek. In between features, he's directed a couple episodes of "Breaking Bad" and the great lost series "Terriers." He's a regular attendee at Butt Numb-a-Thon, so our paths have crossed more times than I can count--the last times being at San Diego Comic-Con and most recently just last weekend at Fantastic Fest in Austin. This interview, however, took place right here in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, the day after Johnson and Gordon-Levitt did a great Q&A screening of LOOPER.
And with that, I give you one of my favorite folks to converse with about films--his and others. Enjoy my talk with Rian Johnson…
Capone: Forgive me in advance if we cover some of the same ground we covered during the Q&A.
Rian Johnson: I forgive you nothing!
Capone: Although I pretty much managed to not cover any of the same stuff with Joe.
RJ: Yeah, well we shall see. [laughs]
Capone: Rather than ask you about just time travel movies, what are some of the science-fiction films that you thought handled building strong characters the best?
RJ: That’s a good question. It’s funny. The thing is though, I’m tempted to rattle off the same ones that I do for the time travel stuff, beginning with the first few TERMINATOR movies. This is for the same reason that I would give if I was referencing them from a time travel standpoint, but the fact that the sci-fi element does its job and then steps out of the way, and you're really just rooting for these characters you care about to escape this situation that they have been placed in.
I think any successful sci-fi--like any other genre--lives or dies at the end of the day not by its sci-fi concept or by the world it creates or the gadgets; it lives or dies based on whether you care about the characters and the story. That’s from Luke Skywalker up through Ridley [Scott's films]. I think it’s a universal thing with any genre that you talk about. So I don’t know that I would necessarily reference different stuff than I would talking about time travel movies that I love.
Although I would say in terms of books, Ray Bradbury for me was the gold standard in terms of using sic-fi concepts to get at incredibly emotional human places. He more than any other, I remember some of my first exposure to sci-fi as a kid was reading his short stories and reading "The Martian Chronicles" and reading his books, and that’s something that has always stuck with me where you’re reading a story that’s set on Mars or has these grand crazy sci-fi concepts, and you’re sobbing by the end. That’s what you're aiming for, I guess.
Capone: You take this great risk, where you have this story that is charging forward with lots of violence, and then you completely change the setting to this quiet farm and the tone, and that’s really where we get to know to the younger Joe [Gordon-Levitt] and his past. There’s a lot of character development in those scenes. It’s such a different tone than the rest of the film. What made you want to try that out? That could have gone very wrong in different hands.
RJ: Yeah, and I’m sure even with all of the work we put into it to make it work, it’s still a big gamble and it may not work for everybody. My thinking was that the whole movie, at the end of it, is about presenting this big moral choice between old Joe’s [Bruce Willis] way of solving things and Sara’s [Emily Blunt] way of solving things. So it made sense to me to have the two worlds be as distinct as possible and to have the city be as different from this farm-like setting as possible and to have the movie be presented as these two halves that you have to choose between at the end of it.
That having been said, when you’re making that distinct a narrative choice, you’ve got to take it really seriously, and I did. It wasn’t something where I wanted to just let myself off the hook by saying, “Yeah, this is a big, weird thing we’re going to do, and if the audience can’t roll with it, then tough.” I wanted to make it feel as tense in that back half of it on the farm as it did on the front side in the city. And I wanted the whole thing to feel as a piece. I wanted it when it’s finished and you step back from it or maybe after you see it a second time, the two pieces should feel of one organic whole, and that was just a matter of doing a ton of work in the script phase. I also studied the movie WITNESS. I probably owe more to the movie WITNESS than I do BLADE RUNNER for this, to see how they handled getting out on the farm setting and still keeping the tension.
Capone: If a director makes a great drama or a great comedy, people are like “That’s good.” But when you do science fiction right, people never want you to leave that genre. Did you feel like you’ve stumbled upon something here that maybe you’d want to explore again?
RJ: [laughs] Oh yeah.
Capone: Or are you going to go do a musical next?
RJ: I’m still figuring out what I want to do next, but the couple things I’m chewing on both have sci-fi hooks to them, and I loved working in this sci-fi world. It’s such a broad genre, I feel I could do something entirely different from LOOPER and still have it be essentially sci-fi. But it’s a place I might stick around in, at least for the next one. I really had a good time doing this.
Capone: I remember talking to Duncan Jones with SOURCE CODE and I said to him, “Keep doing this, please. You’re so good at it, just keep doing it for a while.”
RJ: "Please stay in this world!" [Laughs] And you jinxed him. Now he’s gone off and is going to go do that Ian Fleming thing.
Capone: I can live with that; it's close enough. I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about this--and tell me if I’m reading into it--but the scenes with Jeff Daniels [playing a crime boss from 30 years in the future] I particularly love, because once you realize how the universe works that you've set up, he’s very sequestered. He doesn’t want to screw around with people from the outside world, presumably because you don’t want him mingling with the rest of the world.
RJ: I don’t think we made it explicit, but he never really leaves that cave.
Capone: Yeah, I noticed that. I love seeing Joe and Jeff work together again.
RJ: Scott Frank's movie THE LOOKOUT is a big part of the reason I went straight to Jeff for it, it’s just the chemistry that they have. They have really good banter. I love watching that scene, bouncing back and forth with each other.
Capone: The first two films that you made had as a key ingredient very heightened dialog, and here you’ve gone almost in the opposite direction. You minimize it, it’s very simple, every word means something and is important. Was it tough to dial it back?
RJ: It was really tough and it was something that I very explicitly set forward for myself at the beginning of the writing process as something that I wanted to do, say more with less. I wanted to use fewer words and really for the specific means of this story it seemed right to pare it all back. It wasn't about language; it was about trying to communicate these concepts as visually as possible actually. And also just for myself as a writer, I think my tendency is to put everything into words. And so to try and push myself to use fewer of them and be more economic, I found the writing that I was increasingly admiring was the stuff that said more with less.
Capone: That’s remarkable that you came up with that before you knew that Bruce Willis was going to be involved. He seems like the kind of guy that would look for places where you could say something in half the words.
RJ: Yeah, exactly. Thank god I had that approach, because otherwise he would have gone through with a red pen.
Capone: I love the concept related time travel, this idea that your memories get shifted in old Joe as young alters the timeline.
RJ: I’m sure it’s been done before. Everything has been done before, and I’m sure the Talkbackers will list off other films that have done it.
Capone: Yeah, maybe so.
RJ: Not only that it shifts the memory, but there’s a line in the movie where they're talking in the diner, and Joe asks Bruce all of these questions about time travel, and Bruce says “It doesn’t matter.” The thing is, that was a way of just not spending 20 minutes explaining all of the intricacies of the rules, but I don’t want that to indicate that time travel didn’t matter to me, and I didn’t actually come up with a really structured way that all of this stuff worked. I did actually, just tried to use it as a foundation and let the rules play out without explaining them.
One of he things that I ended up putting my chips down on time travel-wise was the way that this universe interacts with these time travel paradoxes that are coming up. It’s not in a mathematic “one-to-one” fashion; it’s more of an organic way. It’s more like the universe is an organic body, and when a foreign element is introduced, it tries its best to adapt to it. So that’s how the memories work--the brain is trying its best to adjust to a new set of eventualities that are now in place of its memories, and it’s cloudy and it’s messy, and old Joe is trying his best to hold on to these things that he cares about, but they're always in danger of slipping away.
Capone: I love that scene where he’s trying to hold on to that one memory, and he’s repeating "first time I saw her face" as if that will help him hold onto it.
RJ: Yeah, and the idea that he’s in this constant pain as his brain tries to resolve itself to this new whole realm of possibilities for his future, which are now his memories. I don’t know, that sounds to me like that would be messy. That seems to me like that would be something that wouldn’t have an absolute, clean cut-and-dry way it would happen; it would be much more organic.
Capone: I was talking to Joe about this, but the characters of old and young Joe are these deeply damaged guys almost from birth, and when we find out about his childhood, that’s the moment he becomes fully realized, because who among us could come out of something like that unscathed? Yet when we see that that wonderful montage where we follow Joe across the next 30 years of his life, we see this humanity injected into him.
RJ: Right, before it’s ripped away violently.
Capone: In any other movie, Joe is the villain. So where do you want us to find his humanity?
RJ: For me, all of the characters in it are flawed. All of them have good and bad in them, and for me the important thing is to know why Joe is doing the things he's doing and why he's a selfish person at the beginning of it. A big part of that was the world that we built around him. That’s why it’s a dystopian future. That’s why the streets feel the way that they do, where there are people shooting each other in the streets. It gives you this sense that you either have your piece of the pie, or it's straight to the bottom; there’s no cushion underneath you.
And once you take that into account and once you learn that he had been in that world of barely surviving since he was a little kid and never had anyone protect him and nurture him through it--he had to survive. Suddenly all of these selfish, terrible things he does day to day start making a little more sense, and it becomes less about seeing them as bad and more about seeing them as a bad place that this character’s been put in
And the same thing goes with old Joe. I hope it’s the same thing with all of the characters from the movie, from Abe to Kid Blue, you can all see where they are coming from. Having that said, there is at the end of the day ultimately a moral choice that’s presented to Joe, and there is the notion of staying in this loop of violence begetting violence, or taking a cue from Sara and “putting your hopes in raising our kids right” and that being a way to move the human race forward.
Capone: The creative partnership that you have with Joe is something special. I love that he said last night that he had given you the first draft of his script [his writing-directing debut JON DON'S ADDICTION], that makes me feel good, just the idea that you’re finger prints are on it, even just a little bit.
RJ: I don’t know about that.
Capone It passed before your eyes.
RJ: Well, and back and forth. That’s something where even when we haven’t been making movies together over the past eight years, we're getting together and we're talking about the stuff that we're working on and bouncing it off of each other. We’re really good friends and we're friends who both do creative work for a living, so inevitably that’s what’s going to happen; there’s going to be a back and forth like that. And that’s really, really nice, especially when it comes to working on something like this, the fact that you’ve got that foundation to build on and that level of trust between you and that shared grammar. There’s nothing better than that.
Capone: There’s nothing better than watching it. There are a lot of guns in this movie. And I'm not even talking about the violence in the film, because we’ve all certainly seen plenty of violent movies. But the sheer number of guns in this movie is staggering.
RJ: Although there are only two types of guns, the Gat and the Blunderbust, but there are a lot of them, yeah. [Laughs] When I first finished the script, and I’ve done this with all of the scripts, I asked my cousin Zach just to do a tiny little pencil sketch for the cover of the script, and what he chose to sketch was the gun. Up until recently, that was the Twitter symbol for the movie.It’s still on the Tumblr site, and that was always the central image for this movie. For me, that is a very clear symbol of the world that Joe has found himself in at the very beginning of the movie. That’s a symbol for that moral compass that he swings back and forth,--the life of the gun versus the female energy of Sara out on the farm. That was always a really poignant thing.
Capone: That’s the third gun, by the way, her shotgun.
RJ: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s true, I guess.
Capone: And you’ve got your NRA membership all up to date…
RJ: My dues are all paid. [Laughs] But honestly, because I know it is a topic these days--gun violence--but I feel like the reason that I felt comfortable having the guns and the violence that there is is because the movie is really on a deep fundamental level about that cycle of violence and about not just the moral issue of solving a problem by finding the right person and killing them, but the practical issue of “Does that work?”
There’s a reason you hate somebody, and they're causing a problem in your life, so you find them and kill them, and then you’ve killed this person who has someone who cares about them who you’ve now caused a problem for, so they fight, and just on and on and on. I feel like too often you see a lot of movies where there’s a ton of violence in them, and the justification for the violence from the filmmaker’s point of view is “Well obviously, it’s an anti-violence movie really, because I’m a nice guy and I don’t like violence.” But there’s nothing in the actual text that portrays the violence as anything more than a means to an end. So it was very important to me that if we're going to have this amount of violence and have it baked in there, that we were saying something about them.
Capone: One of the my favorite sequences--actually they are two but the same one--at the very beginning when Bruce gets away. You show it from two different ways. The first way very much makes Bruce look like a badass. The second way makes Joe look like an idiot.
RJ: [laughs] Yeah, the first one is from Joe’s perspective where everything is confused, and then you see what actually happens. I like that, and that’s a BACK TO THE FUTURE thing. Yeah, I’m happy to hear people laugh at that second moment. I always do when I watch it.
Capone: We haven’t really talked much about Emily in all of these conversations. In addition to being this very natural beauty, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her do anything like this before where she’s really been tested to this extent. How did you decide she was the right one? I’ve never seen her that tan either.
RJ: Well the thing is, Joe’s physical transformation is obviously the big flashy one, but Emily made no less of a transformation for this movie, and it was all her. She showed up blonde and tan with a flat Midwestern accent that she'd gotten from listening to Chris Cooper movies. So yeah, she made a big physical transformation. I was a huge fan of her work and I had never seen her do anything like this, and I couldn’t picture her as a Midwestern farm girl, and that’s part of the reason I cast her, because I knew she would pull it off somehow. I was just interested to see how she would do it and so it made a lot of sense to me to cast her.
Also as someone who writes his own movies and writes them very slowly, unfortunately by the time you get around for casting, you’ve had this movie in your head for a couple of years and you want to hire an actor who is going to surprise you and who's going to come at it from an angle you wouldn’t expect, and Emily always does that in every role that she is in, so she had a lot of appeal.
Capone: Outside of Joe, do you tend to write with certain actors in mind?
RJ: No, not at all. I rarely do. It’s very rare with any character that I have an actor in mind. With Joe for this one, it was a real exception, and even then it’s not like while I’m writing I’m thinking of Joe in the part. I’m really writing it as a character, and then I know in the back of my head that I will be working with Joe on it. So that’s not really something that I do in general.
In writing female characters, there is something about it where that element of wanting to cast someone who’s going to bring it to life and surprise me is more present in the casting process and wanting to find someone who's going to surprise me with the choices they make. I guess that’s true of every part that I cast, but the women particularly. That’s what was so special about Rachel [Weisz in THE BROTHER BLOOM] and it’s what is so special about Emilie [de Ravin in BRICK]. I can’t predict how they are going to play any given moment and I don’t want to. I want to see where they take it to.
Capone: We definitely have no preconceived notions of how she’s going to play this part. You give us two different versions of the future, both near and far, and especially in the far future, it's just glimpses. Even still, you get a chance to world build a little bit. Was it fun working with designers to put it together?
RJ: It was really fun. Even in the far future, a lot of my job was pulling them back though. Even in the far future, I didn’t want suddenly to be in a shiny CG…
Capone: MINORITY REPORT world?
RJ: Yeah. I love MINORITY REPORT. That’s a beautiful world, but this was just not that movie. So even when we went to the far future, when it was supposed to be a little bit shinier or a little bigger, I still wanted it to be realistic. I just didn’t want it to be totally outside of the world of this movie. But yes, it was really fun and besides even just effects, going over and shooting in Shanghai and having that visual scope of that city. It was also something that made sense storytelling-wise, because it’s supposed to be a young man going out to make his way in the world for the first time; it should feel like at Comic Con when they open the sides for the screen for the widescreen footage. You should feel that a little bit when you go into this new world. It made sense for the story.
Capone: That would have been funny if you'd reserved widescreen for just those scenes.
RJ: Exactly, like WIZARD OF OZ, but with aspect ratio.
Capone: Since I have never been on one of your sets…
RJ: [Laughs] Next one!
Capone: I don’t know how fast you work, that was my point. Do you find that some of the TV work that you’ve done suits your style?
RJ: It’s good to have the chops or hone those chops of being able to prioritize and be creative in terms of how you get coverage, and TV absolutely demands you do that or something like a schedule with BRICK demanded that you do that. The truth is, on some level, every movie demands that you do that whether you have 10 days to shoot or 50 days. I'd assume even if you had 100 days, you would feel like, “God, I could really use an extra week.” I think gas kind of expands to fill a container in some way, but time is the ultimate luxury. If I had my choice between having 10 days or 50, I’ll take 50. I’ll take 100 if they give them to me. Just spending more time to get everything right and having that leisurely pace is ultimately a good thing.
Capone: So the way your work in film transfers pretty well to TV?
RJ: What translates well is I do storyboard my stuff and I tend to shoot for the edit. Because I started out editing my own stuff, I tend to shoot with a very clear idea of how it’s going to snap together in the edit room. The thing is, unless you’re working on something like "Breaking Bad" or working with [creator] Ted Griffin on "Terriers," where you can get away with that. It’s not necessarily well suited to television in some ways, because with TV, it’s all about the producers and the writers, and as a director you are given a specific thing that’s going to lock together a certain way. That’s great if they like what you are giving them, but I guess I could see a situation where they don’t, and you didn’t give them the coverage that they need. I don’t really shoot traditional coverage, I shoot what I need for the edit and get that right.
Capone: So how soon do you move to digital?
Capone: Have you looked into it at least?
RJ: Oh of course, and my DP, Steve [Yedlin], he loves digital. He’s shot a couple of movies on the Alexa. I don’t know man, it’s whenever I can’t do film, I guess we transfer over. But digital is getting much better. I don’t shoot film because I have some religious alliance to film. I shoot it because it’s the best looking format right now, and digital is constantly improving, so hopefully when film literally becomes impossible to shoot on, digital will have improved to the point where it looks as good.
Capone: Alright, well cool man, it was great to see you again.