[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…
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