Morals, future uncertain in ‘Looper’

By Trevor Ballanger

People can attempt to change their pasts for the rest of their lives, usually in vain. However, most people don’t have time machines. In the futuristic thriller “Looper,” director Rian Johnson gives his audience a chance to experience the consequences of altering history.

The film, opening Sept. 28, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a hit man, or “looper,” working for mob bosses in 2044 who use time travel to erase the existence of evidence against them.

The plot assigns Joe the unenviable task of assassinating his older self, Bruce Willis, but his intended target escapes. After the reprieve, young Joe is aided by a lonely farm girl to prevent a violent moral battle that could unravel all their lives and redirect the future to that of a pleasant existence or a

catastrophic dictatorship.

The Chronicle talked with Johnson to see what inspired the film’s futuristic vision, as well as the influence of science fiction in film and the issue of character development.

The Chronicle: You’ve made three genre films in a row that have been well-received, deeply human and rooted in science fiction. I don’t think I’ve seen a movie like this since “12 Monkeys,” which used time travel in an existential manner. It seems like that’s a really important storytelling device for you.

Rian Johnson: Well, it always has to start from—and that’s why I think my favorite [science fiction films] always do really well—these bizarre concepts and magical constructs to get at something very primal, human and recognizable. Ray Bradbury, for me, is the master of that. [He] uses a [science fiction] hook to get at something that has you crying by the end of [his] short story. To me it always has to start from something human, and with this it’s time travel. It’s this odd concept of a man hunting his future self. For me, it’s a way of amplifying the human, hopefully, instead of obscuring it. I actually think it’s a really good time for [science fiction] right now. I feel like for whatever reason we’re in this little golden age of indie [science fiction]. As a [science fiction] fan, I think it’s an

exciting time.

Where did the idea for this movie come from? Have you always had a fascination with time travel or the semi-apocalyptic future?

No, I definitely didn’t have a yearning to do a time travel movie. Quite the opposite. It seems like it was a real pain in the ass, actually, integrating time travel into a story. Taming that element is a really difficult thing. About 10 years ago, I discovered [author] Philip K. Dick, and I was just blowing through all of his books. And around that same time I wrote this initial seed of an idea. I wrote it as a three-page short film that I never ended up shooting. So, I think my head was just kind of steeped in that [science fiction] idea-type world, and this was the thing that popped out. And then it sat in the drawer for eight years, and then after I finished [“The Brothers Bloom,”] I took it out and developed it into the thing it became.

You’ve worked with Gordon-Levitt in the past. Was this a role that you wrote with him specifically in mind?

Yeah, I wrote it for Joe. There’s nothing drawn from my actual friend Joe in the character, thank God. First of all, I wanted to work with my friend. We had stayed really tight, and I wanted to work with him. But I knew it was going to be a part that would require a huge transformation. That’s something Joe specifically gets off on as an actor—disappearing inside of a role. He was literally putting on somebody else’s face. I knew he’d have a good time doing it.

You have an incredible sequence with Bruce Willis and Gordon-

Levitt in the diner scene. How does this scene affect the

film’s plot? [SPOILER ALERT]

When you have those kinds of moments—and I’m talking around, I guess for spoilers—you know the moment, the big dark moment. That kind of moment is a really dangerous [one]. As a storyteller, if you’re going to that place, you have to respect it, and you have to make sure that it is a really authentic moral choice this character has to make and then deal with. Because as an audience, if I see that type of moment in a movie, and if I sense at all that the filmmaker is trying to provoke me with it or trying to get the reaction out of me, I’m likely to sit back and say, “Well, fine. I feel awful that you did that. You win. Screw you.” So, to me, it was absolutely essential that it was woven into the moral fabric of [the movie], and it felt not just justified but inevitable that you saw him deal with the effects of it. And Bruce’s performance, especially right after that scene where he breaks down, is really what saves our butts and earns us

that moment.

It’s unusual to see Emily Blunt in such a dark and gritty role. What drew you to her?

Well, I mostly wanted to see how—for all those reasons—she would pull it off, because I knew she would somehow. I just didn’t know how. She’s such a good actress and she does something so different in each part, and I’ve never seen her do this. And I’ve wanted to work with her for years. I mean, she’s such a good actress. She constantly surprises you when she’s on screen in any role. So I didn’t know what she’d look like or act like as a Midwestern farm girl, so I cast her in order to find out. She showed up blonde and tan with a flat Midwestern accent that she got from listening to a bunch of Chris Cooper movies, and I was like, “This is awesome! Let’s do this.” We rolled the dice, I guess.

How do you think audiences are going to receive the aspect of romance between Blunt’s and Gordon-Levitt’s characters? Was it incidental?

It’s interesting, and I think I actually know what you’re talking about, when they actually do connect. For

me, it’s not a love story. Even in that moment when they end up physically connecting, it’s not because it’s a grand love story, and these two are meant to be together. She’s been isolated on the farm for many years. She hasn’t smoked a real cigarette in a while, if you know what I mean, and he’s there. There’s this person whom she’s deciding to trust. It’s two very lonely people connecting in this fleeting moment. I hope that’s the way it ends up playing.

The payoff at the end of the movie is not really about these two falling in love, it’s about Joe seeing himself in Syd and making a decision to hopefully make the kid’s life a good one.