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'Looper' Director Rian Johnson on Reuniting With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tackling Time Travel and His Love of 'Inception' (Q&A)

Johnson, who made 2005's "Brick," also wrote the sci-fi action movie, starring Bruce Willis and Gordon-Levitt as the same character from different time periods.

Rian Johnson vs. Jason Reitman
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Rian Johnson burst on the movie scene with 2005's Brick, a stylized film noir set in high school that starred a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was eager to break out of his Third Rock From the Sun shadow.

After making the quirky The Brothers Bloom, USC grad Johnson, 38, now has his biggest movie to date, the $30 million-budgeted Looper opening Sept. 28 from by TriStar/ FilmDistrict. The film, which is coming off being the first non-Canadian narrative film to open up theToronto Film Festival, is generating buzz with the festival and geek crowds alike, with Johnson singled out as a rising fresh and original voice in the film world. Ahead of the movie's theatrical release, Heat Vision's Borys Kit talked to Johnson about the movie, time travel and reteaming with Gordon-Levitt.

Heat Vision: Joseph Gordon-Levitt has blown up quite a bit since you first worked with him on Brick. How has he changed?

Rian Johnson: He's still the same Joe, maybe a little older and wiser, but hopefully so am I. He still chooses his projects for the right reasons, he has passions for the stories. I think because that has been his guiding principle through this part of his career, it's great to see the trajectory he's had. And it's also just wonderful seeing a friend succeed.

FILM REVIEW: 'Looper'

HV: He and Bruce Wilis play the same character from different time periods. What were the challenges of casting actors to play the older and younger versions of the same character?

Johnson: Joe bore most of the challenge on his shoulders -- he had to create a living, breathing character who you'd also buy as the younger version of another actor. No small trick. But Joe is incapable of approaching a part with anything but honesty, so I wasn't really worried.

HV: How different was it for you to tackle a time-travel sci-fi action movie compared with your previous films?

Johnson: In some ways, I guess it doesn’t feel too different for me because I have a group of friends that I have stayed consistent with, that I’ve made all three movies with. And although this was a bigger scale then Brothers Bloom, it was kind of made the same way with [Looper production company] Endgame Entertainment: I had my cinematographer, who has been my best friend since film school; my cousin Nathan did the music for it — we’ve been working together since we were 10 years old — and [Gordon-Levitt], of course, who I’ve known since Brick. It’s been like the family coming together to make another movie. It didn’t feel like a significantly different thing in terms of the process of it. The film itself, it’s definitely a different genre then either Brick or Bloom, but within that I think it’s trying to do the same thing: to connect to something that I care about.

HV: What are some of the biggest hurdles for time-travel movies?

Johnson: Figuring out how much to explain, figuring how to keep it simple. With this film especially, because even though it’s a time-travel movie, the pleasure of it doesn’t come from the mass of time travel. It’s not a film like Primer (a 2004 cult movie that deals in the complexities of time travel), for instance, where the big part of the enjoyment is kind of working out all the intricacies of it. For Looper, I very much wanted it to be a more character-based movie that is more about how these characters dealt with the situation time travel has brought about. So the biggest challenge was figuring out how to not spend the whole movie explaining the rules and figure out how to put it out there in a way that made sense on some intuitive level for the audience; then get past it and deal with the real meat of the story.

VIDEO: 'Looper' Clip Shows Bruce Willis Pummeling Joseph Gordon-Levitt

HV: Looper feels like it could have been a summer blockbuster a decade ago, but these days it’s independently financed. I don’t know about you, but I found this summer’s movies kind of lackluster.

Johnson: Well, there’s always enjoyable stuff, and I don’t want to slag off a big group of movies, but I do feel like just in general, with big films recently, it is increasingly difficult to sit down in a theater and be surprised. It feels increasingly like movies are being developed as properties — the same way you would develop a fast-food franchise. Those movies can be made to be really fun and really creative, but one thing that I find myself seeking out more and more is something where I sit down and I’m not sure what to expect. That’s what we were aspiring to with Looper, mixing actual surprise with some of the summer movie elements of the action.

HV: A few years ago when Inception came out, everyone was saying, “Wow, this is going to bring back originality to Hollywood!” But it hasn’t, has it?

Johnson: It feels dramatic to frame it like that. I think the truth is just that good movies get made and a lot of less interesting movies get made, and that has always been happening. The gap between them can be long or it can be short, but I think it matters that there are diamonds in the rough. I’m a huge Inception fan, but viewing it as a failed movement would be the wrong way of looking at it. For me, as a moviegoer, as long as a movie like that can bust through every now and then, as long as every year we get at least one of those — God, I’ll even settle for every two years if we get an Inception — I’m thrilled.

VIDEO: 'Looper' Star Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Getting Kicked in the Head by Bruce Willis

HV: Have you ever been approached to direct a big studio movie?

Johnson: I’ve had conversations about it, but they’ve never gotten very far, and I don’t know how seriously I’ve ever been in the running for anything. On one level, it’s always tempting, especially as a filmmaker just starting out career-wise. The notion of jumping on to something big like that and having those toys to play with and incredibly talented people involved with it and engaging a big audience — it’s great. I think great movies can be made in that mode. But for me specifically, I have figured out that at least for now, what really gets me excited is creating something from the ground up. It’s even less about it being original per se, it’s more about the fact that it’s mine. It’s more about that fact that I start with just a seed of an idea and take it all the way through to the end. I feel like I have this window right now where my producer Ram Bergman and I are actually able to get our own scripts made. However many of these we can get through, I want to take advantage of this window while it’s still here and get my own stories told.