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Johnson and Gordon-Levitt re-team, but with higher stakes

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Writer-director Rian Johnson, his crew and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt were preparing to roll out the director’s feature debut, “Brick,” to little fanfare almost eight years ago.

This week the director and his close friend and star introduce their second collaboration, “Looper.” Much of the crew is the same; they worked with the same production company, and Johnson says the feel on the production was similar to that of his first feature.

Of course, when the small-budget “Brick” made its debut, Johnson had never worked with professional actors and Gordon-Levitt was trying to reintroduce himself to movie audiences after a successful run on the TV comedy “Third Rock from the Sun.”

“He was really taking a big risk,” Johnson said of Gordon-Levitt’s choice to join “Brick.” “He was rolling the dice, I think.”

While “Brick” snuck up on festival audiences and critics, “Looper” arrives in theaters just days after “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” star Gordon-Levitt hosted “Saturday Night Live” to support the film in conjunction with a strong national advertising campaign.

“In one way we’re all kind of enjoying the, ‘Oh my god, this is kind of a different thing, this is bigger, this is cooler,’” Johnson said earlier this week while in town for Fantastic Fest. “On the other hand it feels really consistent. It doesn’t feel that much different than ‘Brick’ or (his second feature) ‘The Brothers Bloom.’ We kind of all made a movie that we care about and now we’re getting it out there.”

Johnson conceived “Looper” as a short film almost 10 years ago, before making “Brick,” a stylish genre-bending gem that mixed film noir elements with a high school drama. Like his first feature, the new film plays with genre conventions, wedding a science-fiction tale with a family drama and love story.

The first half of “Looper” takes place in a dirty urban cityscape in 2044, with flash-forwards to a sleek, futuristic 2074. Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a hired killer who dispatches criminals from the future who are transported back in time. When Joe is faced with the prospect of having to kill his future self, he takes flight, eventually taking respite on a farm with a single mother and her child.

Johnson envisioned the thematic duality of “Looper” as a puzzle, and he had to figure out a way to use the science-fiction elements as a hook to which he could attach a grounded human story.

“The theme is ultimately the horse that has to draw the cart. All the sci-fi stuff has to serve that at the end of the day, and not the other way around,” Johnson said. “In terms of where it all kind of starts from, it’s this weird mixture – it’s not like you come up with an abstract theme and then find something to serve that theme. It’s a weird back and forth.”

The science-fiction elements eventually blend seamlessly into the narrative of the film, but early on they can feel a bit weighty. The film deals with the complexities of time travel, a future quasi-lawless society and a unique system of justice.

Realizing that the movie would be introducing a complicated and foreign world, Johnson decided to just lay everything out for the audience early on, using a thorough voice-over to establish exposition at the start. He says the choice to use voice-over instead of weaving exposition into the story through a bunch of unbelievable and forced dialogue may be the lazier option, but he wanted to give the audience a clear point of entry to the story.

“I really wanted the movie to be accessible. I wanted it to be enjoyable. Even if you still had lingering questions, I wanted it to be satisfying on the first viewing, even for non-sci-fi fans,” Johnson said. “So I didn’t want the movie to be an intricate puzzle, I wanted it to be a ride that you went on. And then, maybe if you watch it again, there are things that you’ll understand that you didn’t get the first time.”

Johnson says he knows that the stakes have been raised since his first feature. That means more money and more expectations. But the director says he tries not to let those concerns intimidate him as he makes this giant step forward with his career.

“You’ll drive yourself nuts as a filmmaker if you keep your head in that space.”