'Looper' recognition throws filmmaker for loop

Rian Johnson writes, directs acclaimed sci-fi mind-bender

Published On: Jan 30 2013 02:44:03 PM CST   Updated On: Jan 10 2013 10:03:04 PM CST
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rian Johnson on the set of Looper

True, it was a huge letdown to fans of Rian Johnson's "Looper" that he was slighted for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination Thursday -- especially given the fact that's earned similar nominations from the Writer's Guild of America and the Broadcast Film Critics Association, as well as wins from critics' organizations in Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and the National Board of Review.

But truth be told, Johnson, who also directed the film, never expected any awards recognition for the film in the first place, so in many ways, he already feels like a winner.

"It's been unexpected," Johnson told me in an interview Tuesday. "Traditionally, it's not the sort of genre in the mix around awards time, so this has been an amazing surprise."

Besides, making a living in the business he loves so dearly is the biggest honor, Johnson added.

"I've been making movies since I was a kid. I was one of those kids who was walking around everywhere with a video camera that my dad brought home," recalled the 39-year-old filmmaker. "After I got out of film school, I spent my 20s really struggling to get my first film made and for a large chunk of that span -- from when I got out of college and when I got 'Brick' made (in 2005) -- I didn't ever think I'd ever make a living at it."

"Looper," new on DVD and Blu-ray, features Johnson's "Brick" star Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a hit man in a future where time travel is possible. Known as a "looper," Joe is assigned to assassinate targets sent back by mobsters from 30 years in the future to "close the loop."

Things become complicated, however, when the older version of Joe (Bruce Willis) is sent back and escapes young Joe's hit so he can proceed with his plan to re-write the future -- a plan that leads them both on a frantic trek to a Kansas farm inhabited by a tough mother (Emily Blunt) and her 5-year-old son (Pierce Gagnon), who are not all as they seem.

"Looper" is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which the extraordinary make-up used to make Gordon-Levitt look like the younger version of Bruce Willis. And even while Gordon-Levitt is the top-billed star in the film and Willis appears in a supporting role, Johnson said it made the most sense to make the younger star appear like the older one instead of vice-versa.

"I think Bruce might have gone along it with it. He showed up on board to whatever it takes," Johnson said. "But the biggest reason for me to do it the way we did is all we all know what Bruce Willis looks like and sounds like. As a culture, we just know it in our bones. We all grew up watching his films and it's a powerful thing recognizing a movie star's face. It made sense to me to only use that instead of fighting that."

Johnson said he wrote the initial two-page treatment for "Looper" about 10 years ago, and after eight years of sitting in a drawer, he wrote an entire script with Gordon-Levitt in mind to play Joe. As for the environment that helps shape the story, Johnson believes that the events of the times subconsciously crept their way in.

"The element of it specifically now that people seem to be catch onto is the design of the city and this notion of a future where there is no middle class -- it's either very rich or very poor," Johnson said. "Design elements like that, which took place during the pre-production phase -- you can't help but be influenced by what you see on the news every day and by what are the common fears in the air. It's impossible not to be influenced by the world around you."

Unfortunately, what happens with a film and its relation to news events once that film is released is completely out of a filmmaker's control -- and viewers will likely find one scene particularly unnerving in the aftermath of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn.

While he doesn't know what he would have done to reshape the film if the shootings had taken place while it was still in production, Johnson takes comfort in knowing that the purpose of "Looper" -- which was released more than two months before the Newtown tragedy -- was to take a stand against violence.

"This goes not just for the violence in that scene, but for the violence in the film overall -- it's something that I was very, very conscious of when making it," Johnson said. "It was something that I ultimately felt was necessary, and something I can stand behind because of what the film itself ends up saying about violence."

Ultimately, Johnson said, the violence is non-gratuitous -- and is a necessary means to the story's end.

"It uses violence as a very strong case against violence as problem-solving. It really ends up putting all its chips on that argument by the end of the film," Johnson said. "I think a frank depiction of that violence was necessary to get the film to that point."

That's not to say that Johnson isn't sensitive to the potential arguments against the way filmmakers use violence in film. Johnson said it's a responsibility that filmmakers shouldn't take lightly.

"The cultural context of the images you're putting out there -- it's not something that as a filmmaker you can just dismiss," Johnson said. "I think with art you have to take a look at the bigger picture. You have to look at what the piece of art is, what you're using it for and what you're trying to say."