Before Joseph Gordon-Levitt starts blasting time-traveling marks with his giant gun in Looper, there was a Vagrant War that turned most of the citizens into street urchins who would kill each other over a solar panel.
We sat down with Looper director Rian Johnson and delved into the details of his futuristic dystopia. (And pushed him hard to make Vagrant Wars into his Clone Wars project. Plus, we talk Back To the Future paradoxes, and why a good time travel movie is like a magic trick.) Minor spoilers ahead.
How tedious was it to construct the scenes where you're just showing glimpses of this future dystopia? There's a lot of action in the background at all times — the vagrants in the street, they've taken over buses and made them homes, and more.
Rian Johnson: I wouldn't necessarily say tedious [...] but my brain does start to get a little tired when I start thinking about that stuff. I guess that the answer is — it's kind of the "how do you eat an elephant" joke. "Bite by bite." Each little decision piles up on itself and creates this broad world. When you step back and see the whole matrix of everything, it seems like an exhausting task to create it all.
But the truth is, it's just a thousand little choices, and it's a matter of making each of those little choices honestly, making sure that each of those choices feels right for the story. Everything from the design of the guns to [how] the tents look in the street to the way Sara's farm looks. That there's the same solar tiles on hood of the barn that there are on the cars. All those little details — over the course of preproduction and months — it's just choosing that bit by bit. So in retrospect, it looks like a tedious, exhausting thing seeding all that stuff. But in reality you're just showing up to the production office everyday and sitting down with your production designer and just playing. The sum total of that stuff creates this soup that you see on screen.
I missed the solar panels on the farm!
Rian Johnson: They're also on some of the tents. People have portable things laid out on some of the tents. It's pretty subtle. I kind of wish they were a little more [...] my thought was that, that would be always be the thing that slightly tied the farm into the city. They're there if you look closely.
What other dystopian elements should we be looking for?
Rian Johnson: There's a lot seeded in there, if you look closely at the cars it has this reclamation system that kind of hints that there's another kind of engine jury-rigged into the chassis. The phones I'm quite proud of, although it's a very subtle thing. Do you remember the Rubik's puzzle? The flat thing that you folded into different shapes? When I was a kid, I remember having one of those things. I imagined the phones sort of like that, [which] you can fold into different shapes depending on what you're using them for. As a gadget geek, I liked that.
It's more about the dangerous feel of the world. It was also important to me that the world, to a certain extent, was created to be a shorthand. Because we're asking the audience to absorb so much in that first act. And it comes so fast and furious with the time travel and the [telekinetics] and the Looper and the Gat Men. You're absorbing so much information, I sort of wanted to the world to blend. I didn't want you to be like in Blade Runner picking out [things]. [I didn't want] the design of the world to be something you're spending brain energy on. I wanted you to glance at it and say, "Okay dystopian near future — I get it." It's a version of stuff that we've kind of seen in other movies, intentionally in order to get that across very quickly.
So what happened during the Vagrant Wars?
Rian Johnson: Oh my God, I'm going to have to write my Clone Wars right? Call it the Vagrant Wars! I gotta write a whole backstory. I think just the notion that there are gangs of vagrants, I think about that Cormac McCarthy book The Road, that's a toned version of that is how I always imagined that. The same way the Mafia runs the city, there are probably gangs of roaming vagrants who have banded together, and I would imagine that several of them, at some point, had a turf war out in the rural elements. We don't really delve into it too much just because it's not attached to the spine of our story. But yeah if you want to see some Hobo Wars I can...
HOBO WARS! Was the decision to call them "vagrants" a PC move?
Rian Johnson: It would be like if we decided to make the blunderbusses brass, it would be just a little too precious and steampunky. The word "hobo" is the equivalent of making your technology brass, it's just a little too cute.
What did you learn about science fiction while you were making this?
Rian Johnson: Because I was specifically wrapping my head around the time travel element of it, that was really the scifi element I was spending the most brainpower on. I can speak specifically to that. The big thing that I learned from watching all of these time travel movies and just giving it a lot of thought was, the best time travel movies are like a magician performing a trick. Especially any time you're going to send somebody back. Any time you're traveling back in time, the logic of everything is going to collapse on itself if you take too close a look at it. You're just going to get paradoxes that are not going to make sense.
So you realize that your job as a storyteller is, to a certain extent, to create a set rules of rules that you stay consistent to, but also (for lack of a better word) fooling the audience that this makes sense for two hours. And that I can understand, the notion of it being like a card trick. You're presenting what looks like a unified thing that's happening, but in reality there's all kinds of machinations going on underneath. And in reality if you think about it for two seconds, really delve into it, you're going to see where the flaws in logic are. That was the biggest thing I learned about time travel movies, to a degree the best of them are essentially magic tricks.
What past time travel plot hole bugs you the most?
Rian Johnson: I'm not typically bugged by that, I'm bugged by bad storytelling, and I'm not going to call out any movies for bad storytelling. When I think of bad time travel holes, I guess I'm thinking about bad storytelling, stopping and saying, "Why is that character doing that?" If you dig into it and think about it, Back to the Future which is one of the most perfect, not just time travel scripts, but scripts ever written. It's just so incredibly tight and satisfying.
If you think about the classic photo thing in Back to the Future, it really makes no sense at all. If you are changing the timeline and your brother wasn't going to be born, it's not like he wouldn't start disappearing limb from limb from the photo, suddenly another reality would exist where that photo never would have been taken and the piece of paper would vanish. But that doesn't bug me in the slightest, because when you're watching it, you understand what's going on, and it makes sense to you. Even if thinking about it, it seems not logical, makes sense on a storytelling level. And that at the end of the day is what matters.