[WARNING! THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR LOOPER SPOILERS!!!]
I don’t generally bring myself quite as fully into an interview as I’ve done with this one, but the truth is that I had a deeply personal response to Looper – one which brought up not only questions of a broad, societal and philosophical nature, but personal questions about my life and one specific choice I made, which, ultimately, may have sent me on a different path than the one I had been on.
There has been a large measure of online debate about the film since its opening; a response that speaks to Looper’s strengths. There are many who are engaging in discussions about the film’s larger implications as an exploration of violence, both in cinema and the world around us – and some who enjoy delving into the details of the seeming inconsistencies or time travel plot holes.
If you’ve seen the film you know the basic storyline and premise. Within that framework Johnson paints a dystopic portrait in which abandoned and starved children become easy prey to the seductive promise of security and wealth that the mob offers. Joe is one of these kids. A young man who hordes the silver he reaps with his gun, in the hopes that one day he will be free of a prison of his co-creation. He fantasizes that he will learn French, become a different man, travel, feel human. But instead, we see that even released of the need to kill for pay, he does so anyway (as Old Joe) – we assume because it is all he knows.
The most fundamental theme in the film, for me, is violence begets violence. It is fascinating that, in the world of cinema, the only way to really delve into the question of violence is via a blood soaked film – one which some have taken only at the most base, visceral “watching Bruce Willis shoot that place up was awesome!” level. So the question becomes: where is the line between adding to a culture of violence and holding up a mirror to one? I think Looper has done a remarkable job of the latter. But a filmmaker’s role in society at large is something that is of interest – particularly when (as a colleague of mine has pointed out) what is at stake in this film is the mental health of a child surrounded by apathetic brutality.
With all that in mind. I hope you enjoy and engage in our conversation with Looper director Rian Johnson.
SCREEN RANT’S ROTH CORNET: We spoke briefly previously, but I wanted to get into a little more depth. The first thing I wanted to talk about is the Meta nature of the film in terms of Looper as a violent film that questions, not just the morality, but the efficacy, of violence. I wouldn’t normally do this, but I want to tell a quick story just to illustrate my point:
When I was a senior in film school, I won a grant to make a documentary. I traveled to the Middle East, to Israel and the West Bank, to make a film about a girl who had been killed in Gaza. I can’t stress how crucial finishing this film successfully was to the path I was on and the future I wanted. But, I hit a wall that I just couldn’t get past. Because in doing my research and in shooting it, I realized that I could not find a way to make the film without somehow adding to a dialogue that I felt was a fundamentally flawed. It was this Kafkaesque self-perpetuating loop of rage, death, violence and trauma. And, most of what I saw from the media, even those with good intentions, was agitprop versus agitprop which fueled the flames and fed that cycle.
I couldn’t find a way through, so the only thing left to do was to remove myself from the equation. Now this is a very loose comparison, of course. But in Looper, Joe must remove himself from the equation in order to do his part to halt a cycle of violence. And that seems to work as a metaphor on a larger scale. So, in a world filled with violent cinema, in your mind, what are the parameters a filmmaker should use to decide to either remove, or add themselves to that equation?
RIAN JOHNSON: “Oh that’s interesting, I understand that Meta level your coming from. You know, I think maybe engaging on that Meta level is much more of a critical point, meaning talking from a critical standpoint, than I should try to engage with. Because that’s digging into the movie as a text, which I’m thrilled with and would love to hear the conversation of, but I’m not sure that it’s the healthiest thing for a filmmaker to engage in the conversation of. But in terms of a storytelling point of view, I wasn’t consciously thinking in terms of that Meta level of a filmmaker portraying violence and that being represented in Joe and that idea of taking yourself out of it. I was more just thinking of it on a human level and the place of violence in our world today. Part of that is in movies because it is largely in action movies that you see the most simplified and distilled version of fixing the problem by finding the right person and killing them. That’s something that I think we see very often in action movies, so much so that it’s just taken for granted. The good guy is going to find the bad guy and kill him and then the day will be saved.”
SR: Which is what typically happens in a Bruce Willis action movie and why that casting works so perfectly to highlight that Meta aspect of the film. We look to Willis to do what Willis does best: destroy folks, kill the baddie and then save the day. But Looper asks us to examine the assumption that the death of the “bad guy” (in this case the young boy who will become the Rainmaker) will solve the problem. When in fact, that murder will only create exponential increase in the world’s problems.
RJ: “Unfortunately that’s not something that’s created by action movies or that’s solely in action movies. It’s something that we sadly attempt to do on many levels in the real world. So that’s kind of the main thing that I was thinking of. Less of the Meta level of how films engage in violence and more just how we engage in it as human beings and the self fulfilling loops that just keep getting perpetuated by trying to use violence as a form of problem solving.”
It is kind of a distinctive choice to have Joe take himself entirely out of the loop.
“True, yeah. It’s interesting because the ending is very much the sort of thing where I think that the mature reading of it is definitely not a literal advocating of suicide. You kind of have to look at it in terms of moral choices… for me it was more about self-sacrifice versus sacrificing somebody else for what you want. It’s about giving of yourself rather than taking. And for me that was more the nugget that that choice at the end boiled down to. It was just starting in a very self-serving place where he was willing to kill others and take advantage of others in order for him to hold onto his thing, and his seeing that that’s maybe not the way to move the world forward and it’s not the way to bring about the greater good. So I guess that was kind of the terms in which I was thinking about that final choice.”
Well, as to loops, do you personally feel that cinema plays more of a reflective or an influential role on culture? In other words, is it fundamentally influencing attitudes and behavior or holding up a mirror to it?
“The answer is that it’s both. It’s this strange loop. It’s this bizarre kind of knot that you can’t really untangle. If there is a prevailing wind, or an overall tide, it’s for cinema and stories reflecting life. I do think that overall the stories that we tell, if they connect with us and if they are ‘influential’ it’s because we’ve seen something in them that we recognize and we respond to that as a culture. And I think there are movies that are influential and that amplify certain things in a way that effects the culture and effect the way that we think. But mostly I think that if it appears that a film is having a huge impact in culture and it’s making people act in a certain way that it’s more that people are seeing a way that they act in that film. They are seeing something that really resonates with them. And to me that means that they are seeing something from real life that they’re recognizing and they’re responding to that.”
I’ve talked to you about this previously, and of course it’s fairly obvious that you’re playing with genre tropes in your films. Tying that into this discussion: There have been moments, the French new wave for example, where filmmakers and critics looked at the cinema being produced and said: ‘This no longer feels honest to me, it’s become formulaic and stale to the degree that its no longer resonating.’ There are self-reflexive moments in Looper where you are looking at cinema in, again, what really feels like a Meta way. You are calling things out, certain storytelling tropes. Is that something you like to do, in part? To look at how we tell stories? What works and what doesn’t – what resonates and what doesn’t?
“Well yes, but that again is a critical perspective to which I guess I would just respond that – and this may get to the exact same end that you’re talking about – but from a storytelling perspective, I’m just trying to not be boring. I am obviously very aware of…you’re right there are specific call outs in the movie saying ‘we’re not going to do this and we’re not going to do that.’ But for the most part those don’t come from any desire to purposefully subvert those other films. It’s more a desire to make our story vibrant and alive and make the choice that seems more interesting in a given situation. So it comes around to the same end that you’re talking about, but I don’t sit down to write it thinking, ‘oh, all these boring movies do this, so lets do that.’ I’m just writing moment to moment and trying to make choices that keep me engaged and keep me interested in the characters and make the choices that feel the most alive to me.”
You are a filmmaker, but you’re also a member of the cinema-going public, so do you feel that there is some kind of responsibility to maintain some sense of integrity, for lack of a better word, to create something that is either more reflective or feeling, versus something that’s more manipulative?
“Well I think so yes, absolutely. For me it’s just impossible to imagine sitting down to spend three to four years of your life on something without it having that at the heart of it, you know what I mean? It’s not so much a sense of responsibility – although I guess you could frame it as that – it’s more a sense of necessity. If I’m going to spend all my time and my thoughts and put all of the things that I’m feeling and my personal experiences into this thing I’m creating, it’s hard to imagine doing that if there wasn’t something at the heart of it that I thought was really worthwhile. And something at the heart of it that I thought was really vital and something that I needed. And then you put all your chips on that and hope that it’s going to be there and that there are people out there like you and that audiences will find it and respond to it as well. So it’s less a sense of responsibility, it’s more where the whole thing starts from, at least for me. It has to start from a place of passion and usually the thing I’m passionate and exited about is doing something that has something to say. Something to say makes it sound like a message film, I mean something worthwhile on its mind, I guess.”
NEXT PAGE: Time Travel Philosophy…
In terms of the larger themes and what Looper has on its mind, you mentioned in one of our previous interviews that the question “would you kill Hitler” is kind of the least interesting question in the film to you.
So what is the most interesting question for you?
“It’s just ‘would you kill Hitler?’ is such a non-applicable question. It has nothing to do with real life. It’s a fantasy question that’s a false moral dilemma because it has all of these things that you have to take into account that have nothing to do with real life. To me, the real question at the heart of it is not a fanciful one, it is a very present and real one, which is: ‘if it seemed incredibly obvious and direct to you that you could solve a problem by finding the right person and killing them, would you do that? And would that work?’ Not even just the moral consequences of that, but the practical ones, would that work? And the other question, about Hitler, is just a variable of that, but it seems that’s kind of more of a party game question whereas there is a real and important question to be asked.”
It’s interesting, though, because I left the film not totally convinced that Joe had done the right thing. Well, let me rephrase. I don’t think you can kill a little boy, well obviously you cannot.
“(Laughing) Careful, you’re going on the record.”
But I just mean that I wasn’t entirely convinced that Cid wouldn’t grow up to be just as dangerous and violent. I more felt that, even if the risk is that great, it’s still the right risk to take.
“There are no guarantees that he wouldn’t, I guess, the same way that there are no guarantees in life. I like that ambiguity. Personally, for me, I’m an optimist. I have an optimistic view of the ending, but I love that fact that if people come out and have ambiguous feelings about it and have to chew on those. I think that’s really cool.”
I think it really speaks to Pierce Gagnon (who plays Cid) and the performance. I was legitimately terrified of him. He was what the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life” was trying to capture.
“We got really lucky finding Pierce. He was really something special. And it was terrifying looking back because it would have been easy for us to not get lucky and have to cast the best that we could. It was a little bit of a miracle that we found him.”
This is probably going to be another critical perspective, but what I thought was very cool about that was the idea of this immense power in the hands of someone so immature.
“Do you remember the sequel to ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’? ‘Honey I Blew Up The Baby’? It’s a terrifying film. It’s great because it is exactly that. They sort of flopped the concept of the first movie and it creates this thing where you have a baby wandering around with the power to smash buildings and you realize there’s something really terrifying about that. For me the touchstone for that was Katsuhiro Otomo’s Mangas, both ‘Akira’ and there was another one he wrote called ‘Domu’ that is more specifically that idea of kids with superpowers and their Ids being unleashed or their shadows being unleashed.”
I guess the larger metaphor, in my mind, is that I don’t see that as human beings, as functioning adults – that we are that far away from that. I really feel that we are, in a lot of ways, emotionally, ethically and morally immature beings that have a lot of technology at our disposal. And I don’t know if that’s a conscious metaphor or if that’s just something that’s in there in my reading.
“Yeah, no, I agree. And it’s the sort of thing that is important as a functioning adult to recognize. I think that it’s unhealthy to think that isn’t there beneath everything. It’s the sort of thing where if you ignore your shadow it’s going to grow stronger and stronger and start affecting you in ways that you’re not aware of. It’s the sort of thing you have to kind of acknowledge.”
Looper is getting a tremendously positive critical response, and rightly so, but there are people that sort of nitpick a little unfairly in terms of the logic of the time travel and sci-fi elements of the piece.
“Definitely. And I don’t begrudge anybody picking it apart or getting into the nitty-gritty of it. As a sci-fi fan, that’s one of the things that’s really fun to do. So I think it’s really cool actually, that people are digging into it whether they like the movie or not, or whether that effects their enjoyment of it or not, that’s their own individual experience. I just think it’s cool that it’s something that people can dig into.
I will say that a lot of the logic questions that have been coming up are things that I have answers to, but I will readily admit that I don’t present those answers in the text of the movie. There are things about the backstory or the future, or how technology in the future works. And broadly, just storytelling wise, my defense for not taking time out to explain each one of these things is that, that’s how you get these sci-fi movies where every other line is kind of a line of exposition that puts a patch on something. ‘Is the audience going to wonder why this, is the audience going to wonder why that?’ And I feel like that leads to boring movies.
I feel like it was worth the sacrifice of having a couple of details that we don’t explain, in order to have an engaging movie where every other line isn’t about having a character explaining something about how the future works. So for me it was something where it was a big decision. It was something I wrung my hands about because as a sci-fi nerd myself, I knew I had answers to these things that I knew would end up being lingering questions. But it seemed worth it to me.”
NEXT PAGE: Answering some of the lingering questions…
I’m curious, as a sci-fi nerd, what do you imagine that people are pulling out? What were you wringing your hands about, going, ‘Oh, I bet they’re going to question this or that?’
“There are two big things that I can think of. The first specific thing is kind of: why this system is set up specifically in terms of how the body technology works in the future. And I had a whole system where it was like, okay, so in the future there is this nanotechnology that everyone is implanted with at birth. And it’s not like the government is constantly tracking everybody. But in the event of your death a location tag is instantly sent to the authority saying you died and you died in exactly this spot. And then even if your body is incinerated or you’re melted in a vat of acid the police will still show up an hour later to find where that was done to find your ashes basically, or the soup that was you. So it’s kind of this indestructible technology that makes it very hard to have someone totally disappear. So the people that the mob is getting rid of are not just shnukcs that they want to dump on the side of the road, they are people that they really need to totally disappear.”
So older Joe’s wife was expendable in that way? As in they could afford to have her found?
“Yeah and if you see the way that scene is shot it’s obviously a fuck-up. It’s a big mistake that some guy accidentally shoots her and they kind of panic and do a shitty job of trying to cover their tracks by burning the house down. But the truth is that they’re all in a lot of trouble because of that. But typically the way that they do it is because of the tracking thing. And then the tracking thing kind of feeds off the person’s energy so once the person dies the tracking device dies after a couple of years. It’s got kind of a half life of a year or so, 30 years from then it would be totally untraceable.
But again, this is the kind of stuff…[that is] interesting to me as a sci-fi nerd, and part of me wants to explain it all just to show that I’ve thought of it all and that I’m clever enough to think of this stuff, but does it have anything to really do with the story? No. If you can be mature enough and make the leap that there is a reason that this stuff is this way, as opposed to saying that this makes no sense. I just thought that sort of what I was hoping is that if we say ‘look, there is this tracking technology in the future that necessitates this,’ then the audience will kind of hop on board and go with that and not need the full thirty second explanation of why. And for some people they might really miss that thirty second explanation of why and that’s perfectly fine. But that’s just the train I chose to hop on.”
I’m curious, what for you would be the second major thing?
“Oh, a really good question, and one I almost did a scene with Jeff Daniels to explain, is why do the younger Loopers have to kill themselves? Why aren’t they sent back to someone else? And the answer is kind of twofold. The answer is that even the people in the future don’t really know how time travel works, they just know that it’s really dangerous to mess with this stuff so having the Loopers kill themselves is a way of keeping it a contained, causal loop. So it’s completely closed and you’re not bringing anyone else into the equation. But I also thought of doing a scene where he (Daniels) says that he’s been complaining to his bosses that this is a stupid system and that they need to find another way. But at the end of the day, it didn’t end up making the cut. The one other thing, and we actually had a line that we cut out in the diner scene, is the fact that the time travel device is not adjustable. That fact that it is set to an exact time and you can’t change when or where it sends you back to. And maybe I should have left that piece of information in the diner scene. But it was part of this longer discussion that Bruce and Joe had that we ended up snipping out to get to the heart of that scene.”
As a viewer, I didn’t need a lot of those explanations – though like you I understand the fun of getting into those finer points as a sci-fi nerd. But I do have two character questions. One is about Bruce Willis, older Joe. I had a friend that said, ‘doesn’t he know that even if he does kill The Rainmaker, he’s not just going to pop back into his previous existence?’ And my answer to that was: why would a man who had spent the majority of his life as a drug addict/hitman know that? You are assuming he has omniscient information about how time travel works. In his mind he absolutely would have been zapped into the future because everything that happened there would be changed, it would have happened better, and he would be happier. Which is really the fantasy most of us have when we imagine what would happen if we could go back and change our past.
“Yeah, absolutely. That’s kind of the idea he has from his limited knowledge of how this works. Which is the only knowledge that we’re presented with as well. And it’s not a dumb assumption. It’s not like he has this information from a time-travel handbook. He’s kind of seen the mechanics of how this works and he figures ‘this is my one shot for doing this and for fixing this.’ The other thing to remember is that young Joe is the one that makes that logical leap. You never hear old Joe think that he’s going to be back with his wife. Which I guess is just a small point.”
That sort of leads into my second character question: I really believed that Joe was a selfish man and that he had spent his life that way. Not a bad person, fundamentally, but very damaged. But then he makes this choice at the end of the film and I did wonder how he was able to find a way to let go of his selfish nature.
“Well I’m excited if you watch the movie again with that question in mind. Because I have an answer, what I think is a very strong answer for that, but I would rather it be something that you think about and chew on, I guess. And maybe dig into a bit with that. I actually feel kind of bad just plopping my answer for that on the table. I know that sounds like a dodge. I will just say that was the crux of the movie for me. And that is something that, at least from my perspective as a storyteller, is definitely in there to be found and discovered. And whether you believe it or not is one thing, but that for me was the whole thing. Seeing this character’s arc from being essentially in a place where he is selfish to a place where he comes around to a truly selfless act.”
I guess the idea I had was that older Joe had this love for his wife, which saved him, and yet sent his younger self on a path where he could make another pure connection with the Rainmaker, the kid. And that connection between Joe and Cid actually became the primal, driving force of the film, the plot and all of their lives.
“And in many ways Joe – I mean there is a purity in old Joe’s love for his wife – but if you take a hard cold look at what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, it’s still selfish. I mean there’s the line in the diner between the two of them where young Joe says, ‘look, if your pure motivations are actually just to save your wife we can do that right here. Show me her picture and I’ll never meet her.’ And you kind of get a glimpse there of older Joe’s true motivation, which is not really a selfless or love motivation. It’s the same kind of selfishness that is driving Joe at the beginning. Wanting to hold onto this thing that’s his.”
I guess the irony is that older Joe’s motivations to hold on to his future lead younger Joe on the path that literally annihilates him. Older Joe ceases to exist entirely. And it was through young Joe’s contact with this very special child that he realized that as much as he (Cid) could be a destroyer he could also be a creator, if he (Joe) made a different choice. And in that way Joe goes from being a destroyer to a creator. A creator of possibility I guess. I think he saw the enormity of the decision to save or destroy this child. That’s what it felt like to me.
Bringing it full circle to Hitler, I’d heard that Mother Teresa was on a train, before she was a nun, and had a sudden realization that she had a Hitler in her, that she had that capacity for evil in her. So she chose a different path. And that’s what that moment felt like to me, creating the space for Cid to choose something other than becoming the Rainmaker.
“I like that. I like that a lot.”
Well closing out I just have to ask: what genre are you going to take on next?
“I’m figuring that out now. I like sci-fi. I’ve got a couple of other sci-fi projects that are very, very different than ‘Looper’. But I don’t know, I’m still kind of fishing.”
I think we’re all interested to see what Rian Johnson will bring to the table next. I’ve personally engaged in multiple conversations with a sharp-minded colleague who has as fascinating a take on this film – and the aspects that do or do not work for him – as anyone I’ve heard. What this has illustrated to me, is whether you would call yourself a fan or not, Looper opens the door to interesting dialogue. It is rich with opportunities to engage with both the broader and finer points of the screenplay and final film.
The idea of facing one’s past, reconciling oneself to a grim (or not) future of our own making and the opportunity to radically alter the course of said destiny are all in play. The film dances with standard cinematic tropes, pokes self-reflexive fun at the world of moviemaking by making reference to Joe’s outfits being “copies of copies” (as so much of modern cinema is a copy of a copy). It tells the audience that it is going to forgo the smaller details in favor of nailing the thematic core by having Bruce Willis openly acknowledging that if we get into the fundamentals of time travel we will “be here all day making diagrams with straws”. There are any number of debates and discussions that the film invites you into.
Looper is in theatres now and we really hope you have, or will, see it so you can join in the conversation.
Follow me on twitter @JrothC