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Rian Johnson Serves Up Scoop on <i>Looper</i>, <i>Brick</i> and <i>Breaking Bad</i>

Setting a Philip Marlowe-like detective story, complete with pulpy dialogue and a twist-laden narrative, in high school sounds like a recipe for disaster. But writer/director Rian Johnson somehow pulled it off in his 2005 breakthrough Brick, a movie that's acquired a devoted cult following in the seven years since its release. Johnson himself has gone on to acquire a significant fanbase as well, through his work on movies like The Brothers Bloom and two terrific episodes of Breaking Bad, Season 3's "Fly" and Season 5's "Fifty-One." His latest feature Looper, which opens on Friday, reunited Johnson with his Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Joe, a hitman living in a near-future where time travel is used by the Mob to get rid of any undesirables. These assassins -- or "loopers" -- are tasked with killing the people their bosses send back in time, a job that Joe carries out with relish... that is until he discovers that his next target is none other than his future self (Bruce Willis). On a recent publicity tour though New York, Johnson sat down to talk with us about time travel movies, whether he'll ever revisit Brick and if he'll be directing one of the finale eight episodes of Breaking Bad.

TWoP: The script obviously took center stage in Brick, but with Looper it feels like you're challenging yourself to tell a story visually. Was that something you went into this project wanting to do?
Rian Johnson: I did, actually; I set a goal for myself of using fewer words with this movie. I love words -- I love using them and overusing them. But because Looper is a time travel movie, that's the sort of thing where once you start putting some of these concepts into words, it's easy for the weeds to overgrow the garden. It's easy to keep explaining and feeling like you have to keep stamping out all these little exposition fires all over the place. So I was always fishing for visual sequences as a way to get the concept across.

TWoP: The only excessively wordy time travel movie I can think of that actually works well is Shane Carruth's Primer.
Johnson: Yeah, but even with Primer, it appears very dialogue heavy, but you take a closer look at it and you see how much Shane is telling visually. The dialogue is really impressionistic; it's made so you catch every other word in a way. It's that Michael Winterbottom style of the film being a montage of stuff melding together and you take away this kind of grand impression from it.

TWoP: Interestingly, even though you placed an emphasis on the visuals for Looper, the film itself isn't all that stylized. It's a very straightforward movie in terms of its images.
Johnson: That approach seemed right for this movie. Because we were asking the audience to absorb so much information in that first act -- with the time travel and the Loopers -- it made sense to me to create a world that was very recognizable, one where we could take a look at it and it doesn't take too much brain power to process what we're seeing. It also seemed fun to me to create a very grounded sci-fi world, especially when CG makes it so easy to go big and very sci-fi. We do use CG in this movie and it's a great tool, but I think there's something about making sure that the design cues and texture come from real world objects that's important.

TWoP: I got a Children of Men vibe from the future you depict, in that it resembles a more rusted-out, dilapidated version of the present day.
Johnson: I'll take that! I will take that and give you a big hug for it. [Laughs]

TWoP: I felt like there was some social commentary embedded in the movie as well, the notion that in the future, we'll have stopped trying to improve our surroundings -- our cities, our highways etc. -- and instead focus our energies on creating things that allow us to escape reality. One of the main technological innovations we're shown, for example, is a new drug that's ingested through the eyes. It's like the people in this future have given up trying to make a better world and just look for ways to tune it out.
Johnson: That's so depressing! [Laughs] And yet, it's absolutely true in terms of the world of this movie. There's that phrase, "When the society doesn't have a future, they look towards their past." I hope that's not where we're headed. I'm a pretty optimistic person and I actually think things are going to get better as we move forward. But for the world of this movie that's absolutely true.

TWoP: The way individuals construct and tell stories is a theme that runs throughout your movies and recurs again here. How did you shape it to fit the time travel premise?
Johnson: I guess you could say both older Joe and younger Joe are fighting for it to be their narrative and not the other guy's. The film literally follows two timelines -- there are two ways this life could go. And the basic conflict at the heart of it is it going to be the life I've lived or the life you're living? My story or your story?

TWoP: Was there something you felt was missing from past time travel films that you've seen that you specifically wanted to improve upon with Looper?
Johnson: I'm a big fan of time travel movies, but there was no motivation of turning this genre on its head. It was really just that this particular story I had come up with required that narrative device. And then I looked to other time travel movies that have done it well to see how they did it. You know, you find a great watch and want to take it apart to see how it works, how it ticks. The first Terminator was something I looked at pretty closely in terms of how time travel sets up the situation and then gets out of the way as opposed to creating a puzzle.

TWoP: Yeah, I did feel as though you could have gone -- to put it in Doctor Who terms -- much more "timey wimey" in your approach. But you seemed more interested in the emotional implications of time travel than the specific mechanics.
Johnson: That was always the idea behind it. There are movies I love that are about the mechanics, like Primer. But this movie specifically was all about getting to that emotional payoff at the end and what these characters are dealing with. So it was pretty essential to find ways of not having the time travel be a tricky timey wimey element.

TWoP: At any point did you consider flashing forward to the distant future to show us what life would look like in another 30 or 40 years?
Johnson: No, the time period was dictated by the means of the story and the story didn't require going any further than the point where Old Joe is sent back. There were various points in the screenplay where people would read it and say "Are you going to show more about this or that?" and it just made more sense to me to show the world through Joe's eyes. So it was always contained by that.

TWoP: The main reason I ask is because if you did travel further into the future, I was hoping you would have used your Breaking Bad connections to cast Jonathan Banks as the older version of Bruce Willis. That's an onscreen pairing we need to see, I think.
Johnson: That would be amazing, man! There's the sequel. Then we'll have to get a baby in there and do a Look Who's Talking thing as the third one. I love that, it's really cool.

TWoP: Speaking of Breaking Bad, did your experience directing those two episodes at all help prepare you for making a big-budget feature in terms of following a house style or satisfying a studio?
Johnson: Not really. Looper isn't really a studio film; Sony picked it up after the fact, but we made it the same way we made The Brothers Bloom and, in a way, Brick in that we really had a free hand to make the film. It was an entirely different experience doing Breaking Bad, because you're showing up to serve Vince Gilligan's vision. I'm such a fan of that vision, so I was thrilled. It felt almost like a vacation for me -- I got to show up and just do the fun part of picking where the camera should go and figuring out how to most effectively shoot this great writing.

TWoP: Some of your directing choices in the most recent episode you directed, "Fifty-One" were really striking. I'm thinking of that scene with Skyler in the pool in particular. How much of that was already on the page?
Johnson: You shoot the script word for word, so none of the ideas were mine. Your job as a director showing up on set is just to make sure the performances are feeling right and inevitably they are because these actors know their roles better than you ever would. And then you just have to tell the story as well as possible visually and make each moment land as effectively as you possibly can. I did come up with that image of Skyler's dress billowing around her in the pool. We actually created this specialized rig where we had the dress on a framework and when Anna [Gunn] was ready, she'd hold her breath and drop down into it like a piece of scenery and pose in it. And then that long sequence where she's looking at the pool and we zoom in on the waters was something I came up with during the storyboarding. But those sorts of things are just done to serve the writing.

TWoP: Will you be coming back to direct any of the final eight episodes?
Johnson: No, they've got a roster of really good directors lined up already. I'm really excited, actually, I just get to watch it as a fan. I think it's going to be a good one and I get to just enjoy it... without any spoilers. [Laughs]

TWoP: Looking back at Brick today, that film came out right before the indie movie model shifted away from theatrical release and towards a video-on-demand approach. Do you think you would have landed a theatrical distribution deal if you made that movie in 2005 as opposed to 2012?
Johnson: It would be very, very different today, I'd expect. There's a different model now. I don't think it's better or worse and it's kind of exciting that there are more avenues for smaller movies to be seen. Indie movies can get a theatrical release, but they're reaching more people than it ever would on VOD and iTunes, as opposed to a platform release followed by straight to DVD. It actually took Brick awhile to find its audience and maybe it would reached them a little more quickly if it had been on iTunes in the beginning.

TWoP: Now that it does have that passionate fanbase, though, do you see yourself revisiting the world of Brick in short form webisodes or one-off iTunes exclusives?
Johnson: I don't think so. I feel like we lucked out with that movie not being terrible. [Laughs] So many things had to go right for that thing to click. It captured this one little moment in time and I don't think I'd want to revisit it. Onward, forward!

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