The time travel movie has become something of a subgenre in the science-fiction field, so much so that one would think that it's been played out.
But with "Looper," which opened nationally Friday, director Rian Johnson has found a new angle to explore as he focuses on an assassin who's been sent to the future to kill his older self. It's an intriguing premise that allows the filmmaker to not only put an interesting twist on typical science-fiction conventions but also delve into existential matters.
"I think that good sci-fi uses magical constructs to get to something that's primal and human," Johnson said during a recent stopover in Chicago. "Any story I do has to start with something human. 'Looper' is a sci-fi flick and has a young man hunting his older self. But ultimately, it allows us to have that young man sit across the table from his older self and the young man saying, 'I am not going to turn into you' and the old man saying, 'You're such an idiot. You're doing everything wrong.'
"This mirrors any conversation between a teenager and his parents. This is my way to help amplify what's human."
It's during these moments in the film, which stars Johnson's frequent collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the young and older versions of the killer Joe, that the filmmaker is able to explore how we deal with the regret that comes from impulsive decisions and the unforeseen impact they can have. And while it's an inspired piece of work, it wasn't one that came easily or immediately.
"I didn't have a yearning to do a time travel movie," Johnson said. "It was actually a pain because trying to tame the elements of that genre was a real challenge.
"I had been reading the fiction of Philip K. Dick and was steeped in all of these sci-fi conventions, and I wrote the original seed for this film as a three-page summary. Then it sat in the drawer for eight years before I turned to it again."
If anything, this long gestation made it even harder to continue with the story as Johnson had seen many more time travel films in the interim and became aware of the narrative difficulty they pose as far as the story following its own internal logic or overcoming matters of common-sense plotting. Yet, in the end, these problems led to unexpected and fortuitous developments.
"Every single day!" Johnson said when asked how often he would get stuck during the movie's writing process. "It's easier to count how many times I worked smoothly! To keep going, I tried to integrate as many new concepts as possible in the story, and it took me and the story to unexpected places.
"The danger is that you might put too many odd things in, and it ends up not all fitting together. You have to make sure that these things don't obscure the main theme of the movie."
While Johnson was uncertain of particular plot elements as he wrote the script, the one thing he was sure of was that he would create a character that good friend Gordon-Levitt could tackle. Having worked previously on the modern film noir "Brick" (2005), the director was eager to work with the rising star once more. Johnson ended up creating a character that he knew would appeal to the actor because of its complexity and the inherent challenge of bringing him to life.
"He's not a hero," Gordon-Levitt said. "He's a bit of a lost soul, and it's a redemption story in a way. But what I like about the story is there are no good or bad guys. It can be fun to root for heroes and villains at the movies, but this is more of a drama, more like real life.
"We all have shades of gray and that's one of the most fascinating things about 'Looper' as you're trying to untangle it and figure out who to root for."
This is one of the most intriguing elements of the film as Johnson presents a premise in which you understand why each character does something — in this case the same person doing different things during different stages of his life. Deciding who's acting in the most morally sound way is a completely different issue.
"Everyone thinks they're doing the right thing," Gordon-Levitt said. "The young man is looking out for his nest egg; the old man is looking out for his wife, which is selfless in a way but selfish as well because he has to do so many horrible things to meet this end."
While tackling such a complex role presented its share of challenges, the actor also had to emulate one of the recognizable film stars of the late 20th century.
"I didn't want to do an imitation as I am no good at that, and I didn't think it would serve the story," Gordon-Levitt said. "I watched most of his recent movies so that I could match up to what he's like today. I ripped some of the dialogue from his movies and put it on my iPod so I could listen to him over and over. He was gracious enough to record some of the lines from my voiceover so I could hear what it would sound like. The most important thing was just spending time with him and getting a handle on how he moved and sounded."
His efforts pay off handsomely as his performance, aided by some facial prosthetics that took three hours to apply, help put forth the illusion that the two actors are in fact the same person. It's an uncanny trick that works far better than any sort of CGI effect might have and lends the film a sense of authenticity.
While it's a unique entry within the genre, Johnson knows "Looper" will be far from the last word on the subject of time travel.
"I think that time travel movies appeal to us because the characters cheat time," he said. "We know that we only have a finite amount of time on this earth, and being able to elongate that is quite a fantasy.
"For me, the biggest question is as humans are we selfish or selfless in wanting to do so? That's the question I wanted to explore and hopefully did the audience's satisfaction in the film."