There’s nothing more fun that getting down and dirty with a filmmaker about their work, and their career – that is, if they’re game for such an exploration. As one of the smartest young filmmakers in Hollywood, not only is Rian Johnson interested in getting underneath what makes his movies tick, he’s exceptionally gifted at providing real insights about not just his work but the medium itself. Nevertheless, Comic-Con is less a place for intimate soul-searching than for populist celebration, which is perhaps why Johnson was more eager to talk about his new film Looper’s impending release than the ramifications of it if it becomes a commercial phenomenon in the way that his previous works Brick and The Brothers Bloom became cultural ones.
That said, Johnson was typically articulate – and candid -- as he discussed his collaboration with actor and icon Bruce Willis, and waxed poetic not only about his future in filmmaking, but his approach to the medium as he combines sci-fi concepts with pure, compelling storytelling to create these indelible, irresistible movies.
Movies.com: What kind of footage did you bring to Comic-Con, and how are you strategizing about what you want to reveal about Looper?
Rian Johnson: The thing we’re showing is like a four or five-minute piece that Sony cut that I think is really good. It kind of takes some of the scenes that you see in the trailer and expands them out. So you see a little more of the dialogue between Joe [Gordon-Levitt] and Bruce [Willis], and between Joe and Jeff Daniels, and it just kind of lets some of the moments play out longer. It gives you a little bit more of a sense of the tone of the movie I think. It’s a cool little piece, actually – I’m curious to see how people will dig it.
Movies.com: How do early screenings like the few you did earlier this year shape the editing process and finalize what the movie is or will become?
Johnson: Well, it’s a weird balancing act, and I’m still honestly learning what that balance is. It’s a really complicated thing because you’re showing it to a lot of really smart people and you want their feedback, but at the same time, you’ve got to know what your movie is. You can’t be precious about it, so it’s like these two poles that kind of pull you back and forth. So it’s just kind of feeling it out note by note and decision by decision, and really I think it comes down to holding yourself against the standard of “Is this what’s right for the film?” with each choice.
Movies.com: As much as I love Bruce Willis, it feels like he maybe hasn’t been as invested in acting in the last decade as he previously was. At the same time, there’s his pedigree as a guy who will work with independent filmmakers, and then on top of that his reputation as a movie star. How would you characterize your collaboration with him, given all of these points of view?
Johnson: You try and not think of any of that when you’re going into it – or I that’s how I approach it. It’s my first time working with somebody who’s a star the way that Bruce Willis is a star, and my approach was to clear everything out of my head, both in terms of all of the stuff you were just talking about, but also in terms of my memories growing up with his movies and just what he wants to be as an actor. And to me, I felt that the way to be the most fair to him and give him what he needs is just to show up as director – to show up as his director, and not have any baggage at all. That ended up being exactly the right way to play it, and we had a great time working together on it. It ended up being this fantastic experience; he came in ready for anything, just up for anything, and he threw himself into it. But I don’t know – I guess the answer is, you can’t think of any of that stuff when you’re going in to work with your actors. What you’ve got to look at is the script that’s in front of you and the scene that you’ve got for the day, and work with your actors.
Movies.com: Does his muscle as a star give you creative leverage over the movie?
Johnson: Well, luckily I wasn’t in a position where that had to come into play. We were in a really cool spot with this movie where we did it independently – a kind of great company, Endgame, financed it – and the guy who runs Endgame, Jim Stern, we have a really good creative relationship with him. So there wasn’t a big, bad studio breathing down our necks that I had to use my stars to stonewall in any way, and I actually think that contributed to the good environment on set and the good working relationship. There really were no producers hanging around; it was just me and the actors. And every decision that was made was between us and was just based entirely on what’s for the scene.
Movies.com: You, Neill Blomkamp, Duncan Jones and Gareth Edwards seem to be leading a charge of young filmmakers working in science fiction and trying to leave your imprint on it without taking on a tentpole franchise film. How difficult is it just to pursue your own muse without considering the expectations of the public or the challenges of increased visibility?
Johnson: These are the scariest questions [laughs]! This is honestly all of the s**t you just try and not think about. I don’t know – I think it’s kind of poisonous to try and think in those terms or strategize in those terms. Or I don’t even think of it in terms of movement in sci-fi or something like that; it’s just a story that is something you care about, and believe in, and you want to tell it, and it has these sci-fi elements and so you get out there and try to do it the best you can. That said, obviously all of that stuff you said starts to come into play, and this is the sort of environment where the rubber starts hitting the road and you do start thinking about some of that stuff.
We’ve kept our group of people who make these movies a pretty tight crew. It’s a pretty insulated bunch, so when we actually come around to doing the work, there’s this really nice kind of cocoon-like feel of our environment where we are disconnected from some kind of buzzing feel of Hollywood or expectations, and we’re able to go off into our corner and make this story, make these movies. And looking at the movies that Neill and Duncan made, I’m guessing it’s the same thing, just because their movies reflect a personal voice and they feel very untainted by any kind of bigger thing. I think that’s the trick – as long as you can get away with that, I don’t know why you would want to make something where you could not do that. I don’t know what the temptation would be to make something that’s just bigger that’s just for the sake of making it bigger. The goal is to make something that’s yours.
Movies.com: What is it about conceiving an idea within the context of science fiction that appeals to you? Some filmmakers use sci-fi as social commentary, others explore it as hard science, and others use it as a metaphor for some emotional need. What is your entrée to genre material and how do you like to apply that to storytelling?
Johnson: For me, when I wrote this story, it was 10 years ago when I wrote the initial thing, and I had been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick. My other big touchstone author was Ray Bradbury. The heart of it for me is really using what sci-fi lets you do, which is use an interesting hook in order to exploit very basic human emotional conflicts. And that’s the best of what Bradbury does – using the context of this alien world where the sun only comes out once to tell this story of a little girl who gets trapped in the closet during it, and it just striking you right in the heart by using this fantastic thing.
That’s the goal, and that’s what really drove Looper. I had this basic idea for the movie – it was really just the plot device – but it sat in a drawer for 10 years and wasn’t that interesting, until some bigger ideas, some bigger emotional things attached themselves to it, and I realized, oh, this plot device can be used as a dagger to drive home the other things that are on my mind. That’s a big part of the appeal of sci-fi – it lets you use some very grand things to get at some very specific, personal issues.