A conversation with filmmaker Rian Johnson

Martin Deer chats with writer-director Rian Johnson about his debut feature Brick, this year’s sci-fi action hit Looper, the filmmaking process, working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and whether he’d be interested in directing a Batman movie… 

Warning: Here Be Spoilers…

Martin Deer:  Hi Rian how ya doing?

Rian Johnson:  Good man, how are you?

[Rian proceeded to ask my about myself, we’ll skip that part…]

RJ: Before I got in to film school all I did was make movies and I feel I learned more doing that than I did in film school.

MD:  A lot of people say that, that just being creative and getting something done you learn so much more.

RJ: I think it’s true man, it’s true. Film school absolutely has its advantages, it’s great to have the time and space to watch a lot of movies and talk to people about movies and make a lot of movies but at the end, you go to film school you, make 5 or 6 short films during the course of your studies. It’s really about you know, or if you’re writing, it’s really about writing non-stop which is part of the fun of it I think, that’s what I found at least.

MD: So you’ve been making movies since you were a kid?

RJ: Yeah I was, my brought home the first video camera on the block and I just instantly started playing with it and I kind of wasted my youth.

MD: Not wasted.

RJ: Thank God.  I was always with that camera, all the way through High School, all through secondary school, that’s just what I did with my friends on weekends and I also learned at some point that you can get away with not doing a report on a book if you made a short about it instead and so I just started doing that constantly I guess.  So by the time I graduated High School I had 80 short films with my friends, we were just doing it all the time. And then after film school I wrote Brick and basically spent my 20s trying to get it made.

MD: Great film.

RJ: Oh thanks man, I appreciate it. Did you start writing early?

MD: No much later, I’m 28 and just getting in to it. Playing catch up.

RJ: Well it’s funny a lot of the big online writers started out doing exactly that, or less than that, just a commentator.  Who do you write for?

MD: Flickering Myth.

RJ: Oh Flickering Myth, I know Flickering Myth, that’s great man that’s a terrific site.

Martin:  Yeah so I’m playing catch up with my writing really, putting all I can in to it.

RJ: Well I didn’t make Brick until I was 30 man but more than that I always found it heartening to read about film makers who didn’t get going until they were even 40, so don’t think of it as playing catch up just think of it as you know…

MD: Getting it done.

RJ: Yeah exactly, just focusing on your craft and also the other thing is what you were doing before it, especially as a writer that all goes in to your knowledge of the world and it gives you a different perspective .

MD: Absolutely.  So what was the inspiration for Brick?  It’s such a strange, great film, with the film noir but it’s set in high school, such a unique film in that respect.

RJ: Thanks man.  It started with Dashiell Hammet’s books and me being in a place of reading all of his books.  And he only wrote a handful of them, he only wrote 5 novels, Red Harvest, The Dane Curse, The Glass Key, The Thing Man and The Maltese Falcon; he only wrote 5 novels and then basically drank himself to death.  So I read his books and I had been, obviously growing up as a film fan, I had been familiar with film noir and that was basically what I knew Detective fiction through, those stylistic distinct noirs, and reading these books I felt something really vital, it just kind of stirred something up in me and made me really excited and that was what I got out of his books.  And so for Brick the starting point was how do I get what I felt reading those books on to the screen without going through the standard film noir conventions, ‘cos I kind of realised it’s hard to do men in hats without people shutting off part of their brains today and it just instantly becoming parody. So initially the decision to put it in to a high school was just to get around that kind of blockage of the very familiar images of film noir.  Okay, so if we set it in a setting where you can lean on none of your pre-conceived ideas about the detective genre, but then once I started working with it, once I got in to high school and started working with that’s when the deeper connections started blossoming, that’s when I realising the connections between… I think we all kind of turn our memories of our teenage years into myth, and my kind of mythological memories of high school connect really well with the scary, very socially stratified world of detective fiction in these books, so I just got more an more excited as I connected the dots between those two worlds.  And that’s kind of how it developed, so it was those two things and then the decisions to do the very strange language in the movie, that was because there were a lot of high school movies coming out at the time, and I knew it was very important because of where the story was going to have the audience know that this was a heightened reality we were presenting. We didn’t have the money to do that with production design, we couldn’t create like a Tim Burton crazy high school world.  I knew when that first shot popped that we were just going to be looking at a high school locker cage from every other high school movie and so the language was a way of, very cheaply, anytime anyone opens their mouth in the movie you suddenly have to readjust and say, “oh this is a heightened reality that we’re in”. and hopefully that would cushion the audience for where the story was gonna go and the sort of level it was going to be playing on.

MD: That’s interesting. Well it really is a great little film.

RJ: Thanks man. We shot it at my high school, that’s actually the school that I went to, San Clemente, little beach town in Orange County down here in California.  I think that’s why we didn’t get kicked out of the school.  By the skin of our teeth we managed to hold on and not get kicked out.  We had a really quick shooting schedule but I have really good memories of it.

MD: So this interview came about because of Looper, saw it a few times, loved it.  One of the discussions I’ve been having with people since I’ve it is about Cid and the ending.  My interpretation of Cid’s fate and not knowing whether he’s gonna become the Rainmaker is that it’s Joe’s story that’s sort of the one that’s important, and the whole nature vs nurture aspect and it kind of leaves you walking out of the cinema asking that question, so if you could tell me a little bit about the end and Cid and how you saw the ending when you were writing it?

RJ: Yeah, it’s, well you’re dead on it was always about Joe’s arc, always about taking him from a place of selfishness to an act of pure selflessness and to me the key to getting in to that, well it’s definitely ambiguous with Cid at the end you can read it either way. I tried to seed it with a bit more hope than despair, a little more optimism.  The truth is there’s no guarantee in terms of what way it’s going to go, to me the important thing was that Joe saw himself in this kid and saw the things that he felt went wrong with his life in this kid and he sees a chance to at least fix those to give the kid the best possible shot. And the fact that the stakes are so high that just hopefully make the decision that much more crucial I guess.  It’s funny from a writing perspective that arc of Joe’s that selfishness to selflessness I was actually looking at Casablanca, that’s basically Rick’s arc.  If you revisit it you’ll probably see a lot of parallels – “lot of parallels” being code for a lot of stuff that I ripped off – or the decision to create this kind of dangerous broken down world in Looper and to kind of start by showing out on the streets how bad things are.  If you watch Casablanca that’s exactly what they do they kind of begin by showing how desperate things are in the world around Rick so that you know why he is the way he is.  It’s not cos he’s a bad person it’s because he’s very much a product of his environment, and that opens up the potential for his change I think, and starts you off at least understanding  him even if you aren’t entirely sympathetic to him.  And that’s another thing I like to do, even though Looper is a sci-fi movie, to look at other movies you wouldn’t necessarily connect with the genre for inspiration to draw from other sources like that, you know.

MD: There’s a lot of that in Looper where you’ve got the horror and the sci-fi it all works so well molded together.  It’s interesting that you mention the world around Joe from like Casablanca, because that’s one of the things that really stood out to me which I loved was kind of the little technological advances but really it’s just the same world, where we’ve fallen a little bit.

RJ: Yeah that made sense to me, because it was only 30 years in the future.  Well there were a couple of reasons for it, just from a futuristic point of view you think about 30 years ago from today it was 1982 and if you think about what really changed between now and then well the cars, the street signs, lights, phones, computers, but the streets themselves kind of looked the same.  The other things is, I thought  of about period design in film, I read some interview with the designer who was talking about  if you’re making a movie set in 1963, for example, a big mistake you can make is to have everything in that movie be from 1963 design.  You want stuff from the 40s, the 50s, you want hand me down stuff and so taking that approach but with the future to Looper made sense.  There was also a really distinct narrative purpose behind keeping the reality really grounded I know that we were asking the audience to wrap their head around a lot in that first half hour so the world was recognizable, where it’s not some crazy future world where every two seconds you have to be thinking “what’s that? what’s that?”, but that is basically recognizable  to cut down on the amount of energy the audience would have to expend in order to get it.  Which seemed expedient to me just cos there was so many other tricky concepts in the film.

MD: It works so well too with drawing you in to the story more and making it feel more real, especially with the tone of the film and what Old Joe is trying to do, it makes it that much more visceral.  And has much more impact.

RJ: Yeah well that makes sense, I’m glad for that.  At the end of the day you know it was about keeping the focus on the characters it just felt right for some reason.  There was all this premeditated stuff but a big part of it was also just going with your gut and keeping it grounded.

MD: Going in I had avoided pretty much everything, and so when Old Joe reveals what his plan is, to go after such a young child it’s shocking.  When that information comes at you, you’re not expecting, it’s pretty dark really.  So I wanna ask, was Cid ever an older character?

RJ: That’s a great question man, yes he was.  Cid was always the same age but in earlier drafts it was more The Terminator thing were he had a name that he was going after so the other people he was killing in the city called Cid were adults.  So it was a change during the writing, realising that I wanted the audience to make a moral pivot, the “oh my god this is what he’s doing” realisation that you just described.  When I had him just killing adults in the city it wasn’t getting it there, and it certainly would not have gotten it there had I known Bruce Willis was going to be in the movie because we’re used to seeing him.  I think even if you’re showing him cold-bloodedly murder people it’s, I dunno… one intersting thing even as the movie was written even when we were in the editing room and had the scene where Bruce kills the kid, we found that in earlier cuts, in earlier cuts of that scene we went relatively light on it, like we didn’t play the gunshot,we played it very abstract.  And we found that audiences were not making that moral turn, that they were either refusing to believe that he did or making excuses for him, like “oh he must know what he is doing,” just ‘cos audiences are trusting Bruce Willis. We found that we needed to make that moment heavier and heavier an really smack that gunshot and really play that moment hard, in order to make that kind of brake for audiences.  For them to take a step back and say “wow maybe I don’t trust Bruce Willis” in this situation.

MD: Yeah that gunshot, when that happens it’s one of those moments in cinema where you’re completely drawn in to the story and just shocked – in a good way – you can’t quite believe it.

RJ: Well that’s great to hear, because that was my main fear, because also it’s a moment where, if it felt inauthentic or felt like the filmmaker was trying to do this in order to get a rise out of you in order to shock you, I can see an audience disconnecting from it.  So it was a really critical moment, ‘cos I wanted what you were describing, I wanted to draw you deeper in not to make you sit back on your hands and say, “well fuck you.”

MD: It’s gut-wrenching on the first viewing, especially, so yeah it definitely worked.

RJ: Yeah it was a tricky moment to play with we definitely ended up adjusting it, but that’s really perceptive asking if Cid was always a kid, that was definitely something we found during the course of writing.

MD: Well it was the Terminator thing that I was thinking of, obviously John Conner is older, he’s a young teen but he’s very adult in his manner, where as going after such a young child it’s, it’s a bold move.

RJ: Yeah and having it be an actual, not just a human being but a guy that we’re used to seeing as the good guy in movies. Not only that but to have him acting out of reasons which when they’re stated initially you agree with them, it’s like all the best reasons in the world he’s gonna save his wife, and then actually presenting the reality what it means to go through with the plan, that turn always seemed really interesting to me.

MD: When Cid blows up, in front of Joe and Sarah, you’re kind of there with Joe when he decides “I’m gonna kill this kid”, you’re right there with him thinking yeah that kids gotta go.  But then when he sees him out in the corn, you’re right there with him again, he’s just a kid, that was a great sequence. There’s all those emotions, He’s gotta go, but he’s a kid.

RJ: Well thanks man. From the outset that was something I was very keen on doing, seeing whether we could ride the audiences allegiances, their moral allegiances back and forth in kind of a Hitchcockian type way.  That was something that was really deliberate when I sat down to write, and I wanted that genuine conflict, I wanted there to be that same kind of righteous let’s go get them fury to then be countered by actually seeing what carrying out that fury entails.  That’s really gratifying to hear that it landed like that.

MD: Yeah it was a great sequence.  I know you’ve talked about the overall message of violence begets violence, the self perpetuating nature of it, and that scene captures it so well, that we’re capable of such violence but then if we step back we can be a little more logical about it, what does it achieve.

RJ: Yeah well in the abstract violence as a tool feels really good to think about, the same way that’s it’s very easy to support a war when you’re sat in your arm chair at home reading the paper.  That’s something to me which was really interesting not even as a message or a position but just for me something to wrestle with ‘cos myself, I think all of us, we hear about an event in the news we hear about something and we feel the blood rising.  When some atrocity happens or some terrible person is out there you feel that blood boiling and it feels good to think lets go an get that guy.  Just for me, I know I feel that, it’s not something begrudge you know it’s something that – you know the conflict between that and not only morally taking a look at that but just practically takign a look at it – even if it’s the right thing to do, to go after and try and kill that person does it work?  Or does it just perpetuate this loop, that was just kind of the question that I was wrestling with when I was writing.

MD: I was talking about that with friends.  And there’s that, hypothetically, if time travel were ever possible to the past, do we go back and kill certain people, which what does it achieve, how far have we come?

RJ: Exactly, but even more than that it’s applicable to now, forget like the fantasy idea of going back and killing someone, it’s the notion of going out there and making the world a better place right now by killing someone.  Does that get us where we want to be?  Again it’s why it was so important to have some ambiguity in there, it’s a complicated enough question to where I can kind of arrive at the end and it’s a hopeful answer but it’s not something where I’ve got the moral authority to be didactic about, in the end it made sense to me to have that ambiguity in there just because otherwise you’re making a very definite statement about something that is a very complicated issue, and that doesn’t seem honest to me.

MD: He takes that positive action in the hope that Cid will make the right choices, and that’s really all we kind of can do.

RJ: Yeah absolutely.

MD: There is someone though who the rage hits you and you do just want to punch, Kid Blue.

RJ: He’s so pathetic though, he’s so sad.

MD: Completely, kind of makes you wanna punch him more.

RJ: Totally.

MD: He’s a good character Kid Blue, good performance from Noah [Segan], he didn’t sort of feel suited to the Gatman position, seemed a bit above him, so I’m wondering if maybe we’re meant to infer there’s something between him and Abe, a connection Kid Blue wasn’t aware of?

RJ: It’s interesting, it’s hard for me, I’ve had people who went so far as to ask if Kid Blue was a younger version of Abe or something

MD: He smashes his hand though.

RJ: Yeah exactly, and in the original cut of that scene he then had him dragged out to be shot and Kid Blue escapes.  There’s like a deleted scene on the DVD were you see that happen but I chopped that out of the movie.  But for me I think it’s more just about the kind of father-son dymanic, just a reflection for me of the kind of older man younger man relationship that Joe and Old Joe have which you see reflected in this unhealthy version of Kid Blue and Abe.  But it also that kind of pathetic, sympathetic villain, he’s not like a badass.  Joe and Noah we talked about how Kid Blue was probably a Looper at one time, like a retried Looper who stuck around because he wasn’t good at anything else, so Abe tok pity on him and gave him this job.

MD: There’s some good performances in the film, one of which is Pierce Gagnon (Cid). What was he like to work with?

RJ: It was crazy ‘cos a lot of times you expect with a kid actor you’re going to be drawing the performance out of them line by line, kind of tricking them in to giving a performance.  I’ve never seen anything like it, Pierce was the exact opposite, he was 5 years old when we made the film so he was really a kid, and this 5 year old kid would come in and just sit down across from Emily Blunt and give an incredible straight through performance of a 3 page dialogue scene.  Just front to back.  Then you would tell him a couple things to change and he would do the whole scene again and change those things.  But then the trade off was you got maybe 3 or 4 complete run throughs of the scene and then he would start getting tried and fidgety, and you would start losing him cos he was 5 years old.  Usually with kids you have to budget a lot more time to shoot the scene bu with Pierce it went really quickly.  It’s extraordinary, he’s just a kid who can act.  He’s just had it in him to act.  The scene that I can still watch and still be amazed is the scene where he and Joe are in the hole waiting for the Gatman to go away.  In that scene Pierce doesn’t have many lines in it but the amazing thing is you can see him listening to Joe, you can really see him listening you can see in his eyes.

MD: Yeah you can really see he’s just acting with his eyes, which all the great actors do.

RJ: Yeah exactly he’s just listening to Joe, he’s not waiting for his turn to say the line that his Mom has told him to, he’s actually listening to what Joe is saying and absorbing it, you can see it behind his eyes.

MD:  Just really responding in the moment.

RJ: Exactly, it’s acting, he’s acting it’s what real actors do.  That’s the only explanation for it he’s a 5 year old terrific actor.

MD: He’s definitely someone to look out for in the years to come.

RJ: Yeah I wonder what he’ll end up doing. He’s got a great Mom I should say.  Like Joe and Noah were both childhood actors and they turned out great cos they had terrific parents, Pierce is the same way, I know he’s going to be alright I’m really excited to see what he ends up doing.

MD: That’s good to hear.  Obviously there’s another actor, who this year has been on everyone’s radar, been a great year for him, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  What’s it like working him again, I suppose it gives you both a chance for a bit of self-reflection after working together for such a long time?  How do you see yourself having developed over those years?

RJ: Well I dunno, it’s tricky for me to answer cos we’ve stayed really good friends over the years, he’s one of my closest friends.  It’s not like we worked together and split apart and then came together for this, ‘cos we’ve been tight for all those years, it’s kind of hard for me to gauge his development just ‘cos I’ve developed so much myself over those years.  You know it’s very different working with on Looper than it was on Brick, most of that is how I perceive how I’ve changed, grown more confident just being on set and just as a person, you know you age ten years a lot of stuff changes.  So it was the same but different working with him this time but it’s – seeing the year that he’s had, been in a fucking Batman movie – seeing a good friend do well on that level, you know, what they’re great at, obviously with any friend no matter what they were doing it’s just incredible to see.

MD: So what’s next for you, is there an idea that you’ve got, couple ideas, are you working on something or just chilling at the moment?

RJ: No chilling man.  When I finished Looper I don’t have anything in the bank idea-wise, and so I just started thinking and I came up with a few different ideas and now I’m at the point where I’ve narrowed it down to one and I’m bearing down on it and starting the writing process.  I’ve gotta try and get faster at writing.  I wanna get this one turned out.  It took me a year and a half to write Looper, and also Brothers Bloom, I’ve been really slow so I wanna see if I can turn this one out quicker and be making a movie sooner.

MD: Well it’s working for you so far.

RJ: Well yeah but at the same time it ends up being a few years in between movies, and I had so much fun making this one I wanna get back to that and there’s also, ya know this is the first time I’ve had a movie that’s done well in theatres and so there’s a certain amount of feeling need to strike why the iron’s hot, I guess.  You can’t really go by that but that’s something that’s deep in the back of my head, but the truth is at the end of the day the script will take the time it takes.

MD: So do you find writing an easy process or is it something that is a pain?

RJ: It’s painful man, it’s terrible.  I don’t know if you feel the same, but I love having written, but actually writing is not fun.

MD: Yeah I feel the same, so many ideas but actually writing it, yeah it’s a pain.

RJ: Yeah actually sitting down and doing it it’s just like it feels like it’s getting harder.

MD: My friend says it’s like running, you’ve just gotta make ya self go and do it.

RJ: Yeah you need that self discipline.  And I’ve never worked as a professional writer, you know I’ve only written my own movies so I really envy my friends who are working screenwriters who have that discipline of sitting turn every day and turning out pages.  I never developed that and it’s something that I feel I kind of need to figure out.  But I guess also doing what you’re doing writing on assignment for a website that gives you that same kind of discipline of whether you feel like doing it or not.

MD:  It’s got to be done yeah.  Procrastination is my middle name though.

RJ: Me too man.

MD:  Well we’ve mentioned Batman, and I am a huge Batman fan. Hypothetical situation – Warner Bros. rings you up, next Batman movie, would you do it?

RJ: I like that hypothetical.  You know I love Batman, I didn’t grow up reading the comics but Batman movies, when that first Tim Burton Batman movie came out that kind of defined, in kind of like a weird way for the generation that I was in, that first Batman movie in a way it defined what a blockbuster was for me, more so than any of the 70s movies.  When that first Batman movie hit it was like this cultural volcano that defined what the superhero blockbuster was in a way that was just completely drew me in as a kid.  So Batman is definitely the one superhero movie franchise that I’m 100% just completely in love with, and I love [Christopher] Nolan’s so much man.  Right now I’m just focusing on doing my own thing.  And that hypothetical that you mentioned has so many variables to it in terms of what kind of movie they’re looking to make and all of that so, you know, that call hasn’t happened in and in the meanwhile I’m not gonna sit by the phone I’m just gonna keep writing my own stuff.

MD: Well I do look forward to whatever comes next.  Just one question before we go, what’s your favourite time travel movie?

RJ: Oh let me think.  I don’t know if I have a favourite. I like different ones for different reasons and like my top 5 are such different movies.  Primer is definitely in there.  It’s pretty tremendous.  But then Back to the Future, the first Back to the Future couldn’t be more different.  Or Twelve Monkeys.

MD: Donnie Darko is one of my favourites, it’s a little different.

RJ: Yeah I guess it does have time travel, absolutely.  It’s funny I went to school with Richard Kelly, we were in the same class making Super 8 movies.  Oh have you seen Timecrimes, look that up on Netflix it’s a brilliant little Spanish movie, it’s kind of like a great contained time travel mouse trap, it’s really worth looking up.

MD: Well thank you for your time Rian, I really do appreciate it.

RJ: Thanks so much Martin, take care man.

Many thanks to Rian Johnson for taking the time for this interview. You can listen to the audio here…

Martin Deer

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