Interview: 'Looper' Director, Rian Johnson, Talks Kid Blue, the Rainmaker and the Future of Film

Rian Johnson Looper Interview
Photo: TriStar Pictures

In September we saw the release of one of the more talked about films this year in Rian Johnson's time traveling feature Looper. The debate roared on as with regard to the film's plot holes, the themes and just who exactly was Kid Blue (Noah Segan). Well, with some time and plenty of discussion between the film's release and today I felt it was a good time to revisit the feature and discuss some of these things once again, only this time I'm bringing Rian into the conversation.

Written and directed by Johnson, whose previous work includes Brick and Brothers Bloom, Looper not only inspires conversation regarding its theme, story structure and character motivations, but is an example of what you can do with a limited budget and a lot of imagination. I discussed getting the film made with Johnson, the makeup work applied to Joseph Gordon-Levitt to more closely approximate the look of his 30-years-older self played by Bruce Willis and the film's production design.

On top of that I asked him about some of the film's themes and got him to reveal some details regarding a deleted scene that clears up at least one theory regarding one of the film's characters.

And with all the talk of the death of movies and their cultural relevance recently I decided to put the question to Johnson, who seemed one of the best people to ask considering that not only does he have a career in film, but he also recently directed a couple episodes of the hit television show "Breaking Bad". Does he see the death of film on the horizon? I'm sure you already know the answer, especially since he does give me a slight hint as to the next project he's working on.

I did my best to leave virtually no stone unturned and I hope you enjoy my following interview with Rian Johnson...

The first thing I noticed watching the film was the number of production company logos before the film starts. Was it difficult to get Looper off the ground?

I do need to figure out if there's some way of writing into my contract that some logos can only be two seconds long and not animated, [but] for the amount of steps, it was by far, of the three films I've done, the easiest of the three in terms of it coming together. A lot of that has to do with Bruce Willis signing on fairly early in the process I guess.

Speaking of that, how did the casting evolve. You've worked with Joseph Gordon-Levitt at least to some extent in all of your films and I was wondering was it always Joseph and Bruce or did you have other duos in mind to make that casting work?

I wrote it for Joe, so I knew it was going to be Joe in that main part, but I had no idea at all who we'd cast for the older actor and it wasn't until we started pre-production -- and that was obviously the first thing we looked at -- and we looked at a list of names that seemed right for it, but could get the movie going, and Bruce's name popped off the list to me.

I actually thought, There's no way we'll get him. There's no way he'll say yes to this, but let's give it a shot. And he said yes almost immediately. He really responded to the material and once he said "yes" we went and had a lunch and I went in expecting he would say, "Yes," and then ask for all these changes to the script. There was none of that. He was entirely all in for what was on the page.

Then we had Bruce Willis in our modestly priced sci-fi movie and we were off to the races.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper
Photo: TriStar Pictures

When it came to deciding how much makeup to use on Joe to make sure he began to somewhat resemble Bruce where did you draw the line? Because that is something that can really go haywire if taken too far.

We were limited based on the fact their faces are so different and so we couldn't push it too far, we just had to do a couple subtle things and at the same time it was important, to me, to do a couple subtle things. I felt very strongly [about that] -- we're working in the sci-fi genre, let's take the extra steps and actually do something, makeup-wise, to bring them a little closer.

We hired a tremendous makeup designer, Kazuhiro Tsuji, and we worked very closely with him and dialed it in to the point where we felt right about it. I was still terrified. I was really frightened at the idea of putting a bunch of shit on our beautiful young actor's face for the whole movie, but once I saw, on the first day of shooting, Joe's performance combined with the makeup, that's when I relaxed and realized, Okay, I think this is going to work.

Until time travel exists, films that use time travel will be scrutinized. You're active on the Internet so you see this happening daily with films so when you were writing Looper how intent were you on trying to make sure it all make sense, without sacrificing the story?

Well it's got to entirely be the story, but at the same time that doesn't mean you can ignore the "logic" of it. But, and I'll preface this by saying I'm a sci-fi nerd myself and I would never begrudge anybody the pleasure of picking apart a sci-fi film's logic, to me that's one of the added pleasures of a movie that I enjoy. It never effects my enjoyment of the film at all, I'll say that was a great movie and dig in afterward and say, What about this logic thing here, that logic there?

At the same time, especially with time travel, when I started writing it and looking at a lot of the time travel movies that I love, something that was very liberating to me was the realization that time travel is not so much a science fiction element as it is a fantasy element. It's the same thing as with unicorns or dragons, there's no possible way for a two hour movie to create a logical matrix that makes time travel impenetrably grounded in real world logic. It's just not possible. So your job as a storyteller, the same way you would deal with a fantasy element, is to create a frame and in that frame create a set of limited rules where time travel makes sense using these rules and stick to those rules.

Within that I did try and be really, really tight. I didn't want to just shrug time travel off and say, "The emotional logic of the story carries you through and if you want to analyze it screw you!" I did want to have it make sense and I think it does if you dig into it actually, but at the same time, it makes sense within those constraints. It's obviously a complicated thing.

Jeff Daniels and Noah Segan in Looper
Jeff Daniels and Noah Segan in Looper
Photo: TriStar Pictures

Now I have to ask about Noah Segan's character, Kid Blue. I have to know, is he at all related to Jeff Daniels' character?

[laughs] That's exactly the kind of thing I'm not sure I should answer, but as soon as I say that it makes me wonder if I'm being repressive --

Oh, come on, let's hear it.

Yeah, exactly, Oh, come on though, it's nothing.

I know what my answer is to it, but, I don't know, I mean, but I'm actually putting this question to you. When there is something like that out there, do you think the filmmaker should respond with his take on it? Or is that the magician telling you the answer? You think you want to know it, but it's actually more fun to chew on it yourself. What do you think?

Well, I'll tell you what I think about the character. I mentioned it in an article I wrote talking about Looper and that I had a theory Kid Blue was the younger version of Jeff Daniels' character, but then you run into a problem with the scene where Abe hits Kid Blue in the hand with the hammer and Abe isn't hurt...

Well, I will say this. There's a deleted scene that will be available on the DVD where after he hits him with the hammer [and after that], we originally shot a scene where one of the Gatmen then drags him out into the alley to shoot him and Kid Blue escapes.

To that point then, where did the character's need for approval come from? He definitely looks at Abe as something of a father figure.

Absolutely, and in that way his relationship is kind of a reflection of Joe's relationships, just kind of a very unhealthy echoing of some of the very unhealthy father/son motifs that are going throughout the city stuff in particular. For me, also, I needed an active foil who was going to be investigating throughout the course of the film and, to me, that kind of very pathetic, flawed sort of villain is always the most interesting.

That's always the most powerful villain, it's one who is genuinely sympathetic. It's not that he's the total bad guy and you throw out some story about how his mom died or something, but moment-to-moment you can actually see and emotionally relate to why he's doing what he's doing.

  • Winchester

    That was a good read. I'm definitely warming up on Looper after having seen it and I enjoyed it when I saw it anyway.

    I totally agree with his Back To The Future remark, as well. The time travel should be a tool of the story but doesn't always have to BE the story. Similarly to Twelve Monkeys, which Looper also continues to remind me of post viewing.

  • Ian

    Great interview Brad. I love being able to hear insight from the filmmakers, especially on more complex films like this one.

  • Driver

    Awesome interview. Its a great to read this with some time between the film's release and now, it keeps the conversation about the film interesting.
    'Looper' is the best film I've seen this year, I saw it twice and I'm thinking about having a third screening with Johnson's commentary.

    Great job Brad.

  • adu

    Great stuff Brad.

  • Randall McMurphy

    Nice interview, but I'm pretty disappointed to know now that Abe couldn't possibly be an older version of Kid Blue because of that deleted scene he mentioned where the gat men try to kill him but he escapes, if Abe were Kid Blue that would mean that if they did kill him they would also kill Abe, their boss so I guess that theory is now proven not to be true, but by deleting that scene the film kind of leaves it to interpretation. Rian Johnson seems like a really interesting guy, even though I've seen the film twice now this kind of made me want to go watch it a third but I don't think I will until its out on blu-ray.

  • Criterion10

    I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't seen Looper yet, and so I kind of had to skip around this interview. Regardless, it was very interesting. Rian Johnson is an interesting filmmaker. I found Brick to be a very original, entertaining take on the noir genre. I read some other interviews with him and quite liked his thoughts on filmmaking, so he's definitely someone I'll keep an eye out for.

  • Kai Sacco

    Great interview Brad.

  • G-Man

    Finally got around to reading this. Very interesting. Well done, Brad.

  • Richard Monk

    How perfect did Jeff Daniels play that part! If you're from the future, and the future is not a bright place, you're gonna be bored and a little depressed. It's not a powerful performance, but it's a GREAT performance. I love that line he gives when Gordon-Levitt is insisting that he's going to learn French, and Daniels responds, "I'm from the future: learn Chinese."