Rian Johnson, 'Looper' Director, On 'Breaking Bad' And The Problem With 'Star Wars'

Back in May, Rian Johnson -- who's currently at the Toronto International Film Festival promoting "Looper," a movie that he wrote and directed -- participated in a tribute we published on the 35th anniversary of "Star Wars." On that day, Johnson took to Twitter to rail against the absurdity that the movie we were honoring is not available to watch in its original form. Lamenting that George Lucas, such an ardent supporter of film preservation, has done the exact opposite with one of the most popular movies of all time.

Needless to say, I kind of like Rian Johnson.

In the aforementioned "Looper," Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a man who gets paid a handsome sum to kill people sent back in time by a futuristic criminal organization. (In the future it's hard to dispose of bodies, so these unfortunate souls are sent into the past to be executed.) This all goes swimmingly until Joe recognizes his latest would-be victim as his older self (Bruce Willis). Here, Johnson discusses the confusing aspects of time travel movies, revisits the polarizing "Breaking Bad" episodes that he directed and explains why the original "Star Wars" should be made available. (And, also, why the urge to tinker with his own films is tempting.)

Time travel is a tricky thing. Was that always something you wanted to tackle?
Yeah, I know. The goal wasn't to sit down and write a time travel movie. I just did it. For whatever reason, like 10 years ago when I came up with this idea, it happened to require a time travel, and I wrote the idea when I was reading a bunch of Philip K. Dick's books. I kind of just discovered him. And so I was blowing through all his novels so -- not that this was a specific reference to a Dick thing -- but I was just kind of seeped in this sci-fi concept world. But no, time travel was, I mean, I don't know -- it's fun, and that's part of the danger of it. You know, it's so much fun that it's tempting to want to explain and dive into it, and there are films that do that that I love, like "Primer," for example.

Oh, "Primer" is great.
It's a great movie, and a big part of the pleasure of "Primer" is digging into it, but this was distinctly not that, you know? The pleasures of this film kind of lie elsewhere. So I don't know, it's the sort of thing where I came up with a really complex, and, I think, pretty solid set of rules for time travel.

What were your rules that you made up?
Well, first and foremost, and this sounds like a cheat, but, in reality, this is the only thing that made sense to me: I feel like so often the paradox element of time travel is approached from a chart perspective, or from a timeline perspective -- from a mathematical perspective where "A" happened so "B" happened so "C" happens. In my mind, it made much more sense to look at the universe and the way the universe deals with these paradoxes. To look at it as an organic body and to look at it ... it's almost like you push a foreign object into an organic body. It doesn't have a machine like response to it. It kind of figures out what it is and tries to do its best to adjust to it. And, so, that's why when the older self is back in the present, a physical thing, like a scar, that's kind of like more of a one-to-one simple thing -- so that happens and then that appears on the younger person. But, in terms of the memories changing ‑‑ and there was originally a longer thing in the diner, where the old Joe character went into this in more detail -- but the memories are kind of doing their best, and so it kind of gets really, really cloudy when things are still in flux. And in the present moment where they're defined, they become sharp again. But the main thing is, the memories are just trying to adjust and trying to figure out how to deal with this paradox. Which, to me, is how the universe actually works. You know, it's a big, organic mass.

I'm glad it stayed away from the whole, "Don't do anything in the past, because it'll just mess up everything."
Exactly, yeah, yeah. And that was also part of the approach to it. And, again, it's the sort of thing that sounds like a shortcut, but, to me, it also just sounds like the way it would actually be, which is the scientists don't know exactly how it works. There is nobody who can draw, "don't do this, don't do that." They know it's dangerous and they know the less you mess with it, the better. And that not only seemed like a good way of just kind of explaining everyone's take on it, it also seems pretty realistic to me in terms of the extent we would actually know about time travel.

You mentioned "Primer," is that the movie that does time travel the best?
Oh, there were so many that ‑‑ I mean, the first "Back to the Future" is kind of a perfect script, I think. In terms of handling time travel the best, it depends on your definition. To me, that means it effectively uses it in the story. I think that I'm not really on the wavelength of people who pick it apart in terms of whether the time travel "makes sense" in the movie, because time travel never is going to make ... it doesn't make sense. It's just a matter of whether the system they've come up with is consistent and plays its role in the narrative without overwhelming the narrative. "Twelve Monkeys" is a tremendous film. And, like I said, "Back to the Future," "Primer" ... the first "Terminator" is probably the closest model that we had, just because it's easy to forget the first "Terminator" as a time travel movie, because it so deftly sets up the situation and then gets out of the way.

For a movie like this, does having a lower budget actually help? It's got a gritty look to it that's cool. The fact that there's not a ton of special effects makes this movie better, in my opinion.
I appreciate that. Well, I don't know.

There's a realism to it that I think if you have $200 million and you throw too much CGI, it's going to be like, "Oh, whatever."
Right. Well, I don't know. Even if I had $200 million, I'm very wary of overusing CGI. I think it's a great tool and it can be used really effectively, but I feel like it does tend to be overused and especially in sci-fi stuff. It's so easy to create the shiny futuristic world that you do a virtual camera move through at the beginning. It's so easy to do that -- so it's tempting to do that. It seemed more interesting to me to create a much more grounded, recognizable world that's, like, 10 degrees off. You're right, though. To some extent, I wouldn't say it's a function of budget, but that was just the more interesting approach, I guess. I don't know. I also have no idea what I would do with $200 million. It seems like an ungodly amount of money. I think I would make eight movies with it.

What was the hardest thing to get your mind around? Like, "OK, how do I make this part work?"
Well, honestly, it didn't have to do with time travel. The hardest part to me was getting the back half right, once we get on the farm. And that's where I put the most work into it. Actually, writing the script ‑‑ I hate rewriting. I'm so bad at it that I really try to discipline myself to bear down on it with this one ... to the extent where I actually wrote the script and I didn't feel like the farm part was working in the first draft, so I threw out the last 60 pages and just started from scratch with them. I really, really wanted to get it right, and it was important to me that the movie felt cohesive and that the themes drawn through from the beginning to the end felt all of a piece, even though there is this tunnel, kind of shift in the middle of it. And it was also important to me that it stayed as entertaining through the farm parts as it was in the first half -- when we're in the city with the sci-fi. So, I guess that was the biggest challenge for me: Just figuring out how to make that tick. And for that, I studied "Witness" more than I did "Blade Runner." Yeah, I actually went through and diagrammed out how they ... because I think "Witness" is a brilliant film.

Harrison Ford's only Oscar nomination.
Yeah, there you go. Yeah, seeing how often they trek back into the city from the farm, seeing how they structured it. So yeah, that was actually the biggest challenge.

I get the feeling from some dialogue in this movie that you hate "future clothes."
Oh! [Laughs] I don't know. No, I don't hate them. If they're done well, I think they're really cool. I just kind of didn't want to deal with them. There is a line where Jeff Daniels says, "Why don't you put a rubberized thing around your neck," or something.

Yeah, a glowing collar, or something like that.
Yeah. Well, the notion of it, just telling the younger generation to do something new without being ridiculous made me happy, I guess.

Jeff Daniels' character is from the future. Is his younger self cruising around somewhere?
Well, Jeff never leaves that den. That's one of the restrictions and that's why he's always dressed in super comfortable clothes. I don't know if we even made this explicit in the movie, but he never leaves that den area -- although he has created this criminal empire ... so he's probably fucked a bunch of stuff up anyway.

Joe, our main character, is not really a nice guy.
No. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

You root for him, but, at times, you're rooting for the older one -- but by the time the end of the movie comes, you don't like him anymore.
And that was the other fun thing for me, is using the audience's moral compass as a dramatic element in who you're rooting for at what point. Yeah, and Joe's arc is very much ‑‑ again, looking at a non-sci-fi movie for inspiration -- is very much drawn to Rick's arc in "Casablanca." From Bogart's arc in "Casablanca," where he starts as an essentially selfish person and ends up with this act of unselfishness. And that's why we named the club "La Belle Aurore," actually, which was a "Casablanca" nod. But, anyway, who you root for, who you hope ‑‑ who your moral compass aligns with -- having that swing wildly, to me, was always built into the structure of the thing.

I remember the day my "Star Wars" piece, which you participated in, ran. You went on a Twitter rampage about how we can't see the original "Star Wars" today.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Does that make you angry?
Well, you know, we all grew up as "Star Wars" fans. I feel like too often -- and look: Lucas ... it's his movie. If he wants, he can obviously do whatever he wants to it. And I love his work. I think too often the discussion about the special editions gets put in the ghetto of fanboy anger and "you ruined my childhood," and blah blah blah. Whereas, I feel like there is a real, legitimate issue with it, which is ‑‑

The movie that was nominated for Best Picture, we can't see anymore.
And this watershed event in effects. I mean, think about if we couldn't see the original "King Kong" and see that original effects work because someone in the '50s had decided that that looked phony with the stop-motion and they've rotoscoped over it with a man in a suit. Imagine wanting to do effects and wanting to study the work of those guys, wanting to see how it was done then and literally not being able to. So, it goes beyond ‑‑ I mean, it's film preservation, in my mind. And it's a pretty dire one. I guess we all kind of assume and hope that there's prints in a vault somewhere that will come out. I'm sure there are, but I don't know. And I don't know Lucas. I'm sure he's been asked about it. I'd be curious to hear his take on that, because he's been such a champion of film preservation. He came out against the colorization, so I know that his heart's in the right place about it.

His own words have been used against him many times.
I'm sure -- and I'm sure it's something that he's probably sick of dealing with. Like I said, I love the guy's films so much, so much admiration. It just makes no sense to me that the work of all these great artists would be pasted over and then treated as if they don't exist anymore. I feel like just for film preservation's sake, it's an important thing.

But as a director yourself, is that temptation there? I'm sure there had to be a scene in "Looper" that you just couldn't get exactly right. But maybe someday it's like, "You know what? I could fix that." Is that temptation there?
Yeah, you can totally relate to it. Absolutely. But, at the same time, I don't know. And again, that sort of leads it over into a creative rights discussion, which is a totally different thing. So, yes, that temptation is there. The argument against that temptation of once you put a movie out there, it belongs to the audience, not you, that's kind of an entirely different realm. That's a different discussion in the fact that this original thing that was created is something that is actually from a film preservation standpoint -- a thing of value and a thing that should be studied in the future and should be accessible. So, I don't know, they're kind of two different arguments. And, too often, they get melded, I think. Yes, the filmmaker has the right to do whatever he wants with this material he created, but, I don't know. I guess what gets me is just trying to make the original disappear. That's the problem.

You seem very embedded in the online community. The Internet likes you a lot.

But can that come back to haunt you at times? Has that ever happened? You know some journalists pretty well. Can that create awkward situations?
Well, I don't know. I'm figuring it out as I go along. I mean, the truth is the reason that's so is just because it's a world that I really ‑‑ the truth is, if I wasn't making movies, I'd probably be writing about them. It's a world that I love and that I've been in since the early days of the Internet. It's always just been something that I engaged in and enjoyed, so I guess the answer is, "I don't know." I'm slowly figuring it out, beat by beat, I guess. And I know what you mean. And the truth is, like I said, I'm kind of dealing with it for the first ‑‑ you know, we're all kind of feeling our way through this new paradigm where we're all accessible to each other and we're figuring out how to make it work. I mean, at the end of the day, in terms of ‑‑ on a basic level -- I know the journalists and the film writers that I do know, they're really good writers and they have enough integrity to where I know there would never be anything in terms of journalistic ethics that would get violated. But, you're right; it's a complicated situation. I don't know. But I just, I mean, I love having conversations with smart people about film and that's where it's happening right now. And I don't want to have to disengage with that, but, I don't know.

You have directed two of the most popular episodes of "Breaking Bad."
Oh, I don't know about that. I've been lucky to direct a couple of them.

The two that people talk about often. So, the "Fly" episode -- how does an episode like that happen? Because I just streamlined this show in July.
Oh, did you? You just went through it?

Just went through it on my way to Comic-Con and back. But when I got to your episode, when you're mainlining it, it really stands out because this show moves so fast and then it's just comes to a screeching halt for one episode. I don't mean that in a critical way, I just mean it was so different.
The truth is, I had nothing to do with it. They assigned me the episode

That's how it works?
It's not like they gave me a stack of scripts and I picked one, they sent it to me. And when they first sent me the treatments, they sent it for the whole season and I started reading from the beginning so I did the equivalent of what you did. And I had the same reaction when I got to the "Fly." I was like, Oh, really? No plot, they're just sitting and talking? And oh, all right, well. And I had that same reaction a lot of the fans ... well, I don't know. It tends to be a very divisive episode and split people one way or the other. But the more I dug into it, the more I really appreciated what they were going for with it and obviously, we had a lot of fun with it.

You learn more about Walt and Jesse in that episode than probably any other episode.
I mean, you're trapped in a room with them. You really get to dig into their relationship, and, I mean, the writing on that show is just so brilliant. But, creatively, I'm just there to make it visually interesting and keep things moving on set. It's really the writers -- it's Vince Gilligan -- it's just stepping in and facilitating their vision.

Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

"Looper" Press Conference - 2012 Toronto International Film Festival

Looper Press Conference