Rian Johnson almost didn’t make it into film school.
I first met the writer / director in 1993 at the University of Southern California, where we lived in a row of dorm rooms colloquially termed “The Cinema Floor.” The goal of nearly all the students residing there was to attend the university’s renowned film production program — the same one that produced a young George Lucas — but getting in was notoriously difficult, even for those already accepted to the university itself.
Johnson received rejection letter upon rejection letter, all the while making short films with his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Steve Yedlin. The film school cut-off was during a student’s junior year, when the production track began. Up against the deadline, Johnson put together one final application — topping it off with what he now calls a “screw you, assholes” essay — and in the second semester of his junior year, he got the answer he was looking for.
11 years later, he took his first feature to the Sundance Film Festival.
Brick was a high-school riff on the noir genre, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a student investigating the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, and was written with the slick, rhythmic patter of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It received critical raves, but disappeared off the theatrical radar only to find an afterlife on DVD. Johnson followed it up with The Brothers Bloom, a globetrotting madcap adventure about a con man, played by Adrien Brody, trying to free himself from a lifetime of lies and schemes spun by his older brother (Mark Ruffalo).
Johnson’s latest film is Looper, a sci-fi drama that features Gordon-Levitt as a hitman that takes out targets sent to him from the future — only to discover that the next victim on his list is his future self, played by Bruce Willis. I got together with the filmmaker to talk about movies, gadgets, and technology — and how the internet has created a world where movie lovers can interact with filmmakers like never before.
We sat down in Johnson’s backyard the week after Looper was named the opening film for the Toronto International Film Festival. TriStar Pictures is putting significant marketing heft behind the movie, and with Looper set to have the widest opening of any of his films to date, I asked him the obvious first question: where did it begin?
It was a short that I wrote. It was before we made Brick. Steve and I, we had just been thinking of nothing but how to get money to make a movie for so long. I decided "This isn’t healthy. Let’s just start making some movies." And so, that’s when we made that short, The Psychology of Dream Analysis. We just went out on a weekend to shoot something. And it was that exact same phase when I wrote Looper, to make the same way... we were just going to shoot it on weekends in LA.
I think it was at the same time that I was reading all of Philip K. Dick’s books, so that probably played into it somewhat. But just that basic premise I got down on paper way back then. And then it was just a few years ago, after Bloom... it was really appealing just because tonally, it was very different than Bloom. I feel like I can’t even really remember the writing process, but I really feel like fairly quickly the themes that ended up expanding it from a short into a feature attached themselves to it. And it was, you know, we’re off to the races with it.
Photo courtesy of Rian Johnson
Looking back at your movies, you’ve made a noir, a madcap comedy, and now a sci-fi film. Is genre a focal point for you when you get started?
Well, it’s strange, because I want to say no, but the thing I’m working on now is also a genre thing. I do really just feel comfortable and enjoy working in genre, at least for the time being. But the reason my instinct was to say no is because it’s not the thing that actually ends up driving the process forward. It’s not the thing that gets me excited. It’s the themes of it, and the specific idea and everything that goes into it. That is to say, I could really easily imagine getting just as excited about something that was not a genre film at all, but they just happen to have been genre films so far.
And another part of that is just that besides it being fun, it does give you just a foundation to work off of. It gives you some limits... a game board to play on. Which is really appealing when you’re just looking at that blank sheet of paper.
You mentioned reading Dick when writing the short. Do you try to steep yourself in genre influences when putting something together, to hone in on the sensibility?
Yeah, during the writing process I guess you do. During the filmmaking process I tend to do the opposite and watch stuff that is explicitly not in that genre. Just to get some other stuff in there. Because you know the stuff from your genre is going to be in there, because you grew up watching it, and you’re steeped in that anyway. So watching stuff that’s out of left field, that’s gonna infuse some kind of fresh wind coming through. The same way, like with Brick, it was watching spaghetti westerns instead of watching noirs, to try and get like a visual sensibility that’s a little bit off from what you’d expect.
The minute you say "science fiction," the question of world creation comes up. Was that something you were thinking about when you were writing?
No, that was the production designer. When I was writing I was really just disciplining myself to focus on getting the narrative as tight as possible. To tighten the screws on everything, and to make sure that it ticked and that it ran from start to finish and that it had a solid spine.
And so I was focused on that and I wasn’t even thinking about the world-building elements at all. Which I think was good because it meant the designers and I just worked together. Every design decision, it wasn’t preconceived, it came out of the needs of the story. And so making the world seem like such a desperate place was a way of accentuating that feeling of "you better hold on to your slice of the pie, or else it’s destitution," you know?
"We were just trying to go, like, 10 degrees off from our reality."
In the trailer there are moments at night that call up Blade Runner, and immediately set a mood of "the future." But there’s also daylight, there’s Emily Blunt in the fields...
There is something dystopian about it. It also is very grounded. It’s not as designed as something like Blade Runner, even. Which is still very grounded and very gritty, but it has such a specific and overwhelming design aesthetic to it. And this, we were just trying to go, like, 10 degrees off from our reality. And so much of it was just about degrading what is already there and picking a couple of key things to tweak.
And it was also — narratively — I felt like the audience had a lot to absorb already, and so I didn’t want them to have to wrap their heads around some big concept in terms of the world. And so keeping it kind of just recognizable as a slightly dystopian future... in a lot of ways, I feel like it’s a world that we’ve seen before. And that was intentional. Just so the audience can kinda look and say, "Okay, I know where we’re at. We’re in near-future, and stuff is broken down. Okay, I get it."
The online filmmaker
Johnson’s films have a distinctive, handmade quality — and that touch permeates his online presence. He turned his personal website into a proto-Tumblr in the years following college, and in the lead-up to Brick’s 2006 release took things a step further: setting up a bulletin board for those looking to find information on the fim.
The initial motivation was going to all these Q&As at all these festivals, and just all these people with questions about the movie, and so thinking... because I enjoy being online, I enjoy talking to people about the movie, why not make a place where people can come and we can talk about these things? And talk about other things, and you know, to form this little community. And that ended up happening with that BBS. It’s funny, there’s still kind of this small core group of people who are on that BBS who I’m still in contact with.
So it’s still live?
Yeah, yeah. I’ve been grossly negligent of it for the past year, I need to go back on there more. But it’s still going. It kind of at this point doesn’t have anything to do with me. There’s still like a group of people that just use the BBS to talk about movies and stuff. I’ll go back there, and I won’t even be able to catch up with all the threads because they’ll have been talking about all this different stuff.
How did you continue that idea with your next movies?
I feel like Bloom was one of the first movies to have a Tumblr account, and we made a Twitter account. And it’s just something that, because I enjoy doing it, and it’s a world that I like having my head in, it’s just made sense to have it. And I’ve always maintained control over it, too. Like the Tumblr account for Looper and the Twitter account for Looper, I mean that’s me just doing them. It’s not somebody’s department or whatever. It’s something that is very important to me, to be the one who decides what’s posted on there and how it’s worded and how it’s phrased and reply to people on the Twitter account. It’s just something that I enjoy doing.
"Twitter specifically is a fundamentally honest thing."
And it’s the sort of thing where it’s weird because I have, like, a one-sided view of it. Because that didn’t exist when I was not making movies and was just a fan. I can’t imagine the filmmakers that we were watching, like back in the day, if Sam Raimi had had a Twitter account, and we’d been able to fire something out to Sam Raimi telling him something about the movie or whatever? It just seems like something that would have been really cool to us.
It definitely feels like the internet is enabling this back-and-forth between filmmakers and fans that wasn’t possible before. When I think of Twitter, I think of you, Edgar Wright, Duncan Jones... Are these tools helping filmmakers establish their own voice better, or help their brand in the industry’s eyes?
Oh, I don’t know. I feel like the people who are most successful at it, like Edgar or Duncan or John August, are not doing it to create a brand. They’re doing it because it’s something they would be doing even if they weren’t making movies. I feel like — and you can tell from their Twitter account — they are actually just using Twitter the way anybody uses Twitter. And that’s the way I use it. I don’t think of it as a promotional tool. It isn’t really a promotional tool, not really. I tend to not really do a ton of tweets promoting the movie just because I use my Twitter account for my own personal purposes.
I think that’s the only way it’s effective. I think that’s the only way you can really keep up with it, is if you enjoy it. I feel like you can tell the Twitter accounts that were created by filmmakers because the studio marketing guys said "you should create a Twitter account," and then they do a flurry of tweets around the time the movie’s coming out, and then they disappear. And the truth is, it’s either something you’re either into or you’re not. And it’s fine to not be into it, too. I mean, [Christopher] Nolan has nothing. Nolan, I’m told, doesn’t even have an email account or something crazy like that, you know? You can be that way and still grow your career and grow a brand, but I just really happen to enjoy and be into having that kind of interaction.
It’s a medium that feeds off authenticity.
Yeah, and what’s nice is that it’s genuinely something you can’t fake. Twitter specifically is a fundamentally honest thing. Like you can tell if somebody is on it and using it because they are enjoying doing it. I think it’s just this wall of glass where you can see right through somebody’s motivations for being on it.
And you can connect with people that you, you know, like Edgar, for example. I met him because we, I think, initially we connected on Twitter. It’s like you do meet people that are professional peers that you respect, and you do form like a cloud of people online in this universe that you get to know other people through. You actually end up forming real relationships because of that.
Digital, 3D, and the future of film
Even back in 1993, the debate between film and digital was already raging; one night on The Cinema Floor two mutual friends made a friendly bet on whether digital formats would replace film in the next 30 years. Johnson has been outspoken about his love of shooting on film, even publishing an article with Yedlin addressing problems with the original Red One camera.
"I tend to bristle a little bit when film gets put in the realm of nostalgia."
I mean for me, I’ve shot film, I’ll hopefully shoot the next one on film, because I just feel that film is still the highest-quality capturing format that we have, and it’s just the best looking. I tend to bristle a little bit when film gets put in the realm of nostalgia, where that ends up being assigned as its main merit. I think digital is moving forward at a very fast pace and it will overtake film, just in terms of quality I think, and luckily it’s moving very quickly because film is going away very quickly. You know the [Arri] Alexa is a great camera, and the stuff shot on it looks fantastic. But it’s still, I just don’t think it looks as good as film.
It’s so hard to quantify. You start getting into very subjective descriptions of it. Because at this point it’s not about resolution. I guess color depth, you could argue; just the way that film handles color. But I dunno, at the end of the day it’s just the quality of the image. And I don’t mean the quality in terms of, again, quantifiable quality, but I mean a very subjective quality to the image, where it looks so much more beautiful than digital and it has more depth to it.
What about digital projection?
Digital projection bugs me less... we did an interesting thing with Looper where we actually got to see the DCP [the digital version of the film that most theaters will screen] and then a film print side-by-side. And then a film print struck from an interpositive and an internegative, so one generation down, like a release print. And it was interesting, because the DCP looked exactly like what we had been looking at in the DI suite when we were color timing; it looked fine. And the film version, when they first put it up, they split-screened it with the DCP, and the film version looks fucked up at first. There’s a registration jitter to it, it’s slightly crunchier, the color has a slight shift to it just because of the organic process of striking a print. But then they take away the DCP and you look at the film and it’s gorgeous.
My favorite of the three ended up being the film that was knocked down a generation because it felt the most like a movie... it had this kind of organic crunch to the image and it had that grain to it, and it was really beautiful.
You wrote an interesting post on 3D, suggesting that adding depth likely is the future of film, but that current 3D technology won’t be what gets us there. You compare it to the advent of color movies, and the hand-painted film frames that preceded them.
Yeah, I wrote that post, I mean largely it was to be able to talk about stereoscopic photography in a way that recognizes all of the problems with it, and is not on its side, but is not angry about it. And as opposed to seeing it as an invading army, seeing it as just a step or a stab at something interesting in movies, that probably won’t be around forever, but may end up influencing the path film ends up taking.
Do you think you’ll ever use 3D as we know it today?
No. [laughs] No, I just don’t think it looks good. It’s just hard to look at for two hours. And it also, and I cover all this in the piece so I don’t want to regurgitate it, but even calling it 3D bugs me. It’s stereoscopic. But the truth is that traditional photography is more 3D than stereoscopic photography, I think. And traditional photography mimics how our eyes and our brain see the real world in a much more organic and more accurate and better way than stereoscopic does.
What about 48fps photography?
I’m curious to see it. From the second I heard about it, I anticipated all the stuff that people are complaining about. I mean, everybody who knows what it is, technically, did. I mean Steve and I, we were just, "That’s gonna look like a British TV series badly translated from PAL." It’s just gonna throw your eye off.
There’s part of me that thinks, well, it’s going to be uncomfortable pushing the medium forward, and it is true that our eyes are just used to 24fps and that’s why the new thing looks weird. And then there’s part of me that thinks, what’s the benefit of 48fps? If it looks bad to our eyes, why do it?
Do you remember that Onion story, that’s like a fake letter by the president of Gillette, saying "Fuck it, we’re doing 5 blades?" I kinda come back to that a little bit, where it’s just, "If 24 is good, 48 is better," you know? The truth is I haven’t seen it. I don’t know enough about it. Anything that pushes the medium forward is gonna be uncomfortable at first, so I don’t know.
James Cameron did an interview a few years back, and his whole pitch on 3D and higher frame rates was that they’re more immersive, more like real life.
Anytime anyone makes the "it’s more like real life" thing, I don’t know. Maybe it is. I haven’t seen it. And Cameron has seen it, and he’s James Cameron. I don’t want to dismiss it, because it could very well have merit, and it could be a great tool to be used by people. Personally, I’m not sure when you go into a theater that the ultimate aim is to have real life right in front of you. It’s to have something beautiful put in front of you. It’s the reason why a Van Gogh painting of a flower can be so much more emotionally impactful than a photograph of a flower.
Not that that technology couldn’t be used to create an impressionistic effect, but putting forward the goal as having it look like looking through a window to real life, that doesn’t carry much water for me. It’s not something that gets me excited enough to pursue it, but I’m not going to argue with anyone who is.
What do you think of online distribution? Is it changing the game?
Well I think it’s fantastic that with movies, unlike music, not just studios but filmmakers have found a way to harness it versus letting it take their business away. Did you see what Louis C.K. did?
With his special?
Yeah, exactly. The fact that that exists. And I think especially for smaller movies it’s just been a fantastic thing, and being able to self-release in that way. I haven’t, just because when we made Brick that wasn’t around yet, and so we did the more traditional route of going to Sundance and selling it to a distributor. I don’t know the finances of it, I don’t know how effective it is. It seems like if it makes sense for your movie, it’s a fantastic thing, right?
It seems like it’s tailor-made for micro-budget movies. But online distribution also brings up the question of piracy.
One thing I did see when I lived in Europe when we were making Bloom, I feel like nobody really appreciates how phenomenally lucky we are that movie pirating has not taken off here the same way it has in Europe. And I know that there is a community that pirates movies. I know it happens. And obviously, it’s a bad thing. But the fact that there’s still a barrier between the average person getting on their computer and torrenting a movie... The way it is in Europe, when I lived in Belgrade, that’s just the way people would get movies. And not just people that knew their way around the computer but, you know, kids, parents, mainstream audiences. People like my mom.
And you’re not talking bootleg DVDs...
Yeah, I’m talking about torrents, bootleg torrents. To the point where in Spain, there is no home video market in Spain, you know? It’s just been completely decimated by pirating. And it exists here, and it’s a problem here, but it’s nowhere near the scale of what it could be. And I think that’s just the dumb luck of it never crossing the threshold and becoming a mainstream thing where parents know how to do it.
The industry’s put out some initiatives to try to defend against that, things like UltraViolet, but they can come off as pretty convoluted to a regular human.
That’s the thing, you have to make it better than the pirating option. There was a thing that was going around online that had a lot of resonance, I think, where it was like: here’s what you have to go through to watch a legally-purchased DVD. And it had eight trailers you can’t skip past, a minute-and-a-half fucking idiotic animated menu, a promo from whoever, they are telling you not to pirate movies on the movie you’ve just purchased. And then when you pirate a movie, it’s just the movie and the movie starts.
And not like that justifies pirating, and not like that’s a reason to pirate movies at all, but in general the solution to beating piracy is to make the legal version better. And then people will pay for it.
"I’m not sure when you go into a theater that the ultimate aim is to have real life right in front of you."
The next challenge
As the day grew late, we returned to Looper, and the expectations that come with such a high-profile release. I asked him if it's changed the way he sees the movie.
It is still just the movie we made, because no one was paying attention to us when we were making it, and we made it independently. Now, after the fact, yeah, it’s definitely a little daunting. Just that there’s going to be more attention focused on it when it comes out. That just makes you nervous in the natural ways of, "are people gonna like it or are people gonna hate it," you know?
Do you think you’ll ever do a studio film?
I hope so, yeah. I really hope so. I think it’d be really fun.
What interests you most about that idea? Scope?
Yeah, in terms of scope. In terms of being able to just play in a bigger sandbox and do bigger visual things, and to reach a bigger audience. To see if we can do what we do and have it be bigger in every sense. That’s why Nolan gets me so excited, you know? Seeing something like Inception that’s so obviously his voice and of his thing. What we do is very different than that, but seeing that that can happen and reach a huge audience? To me that’s the real next creative challenge.
Looper opens in the US on September 28th. Rian Johnson is on Twitter at @rcjohnso.