Rian Johnson Talks Working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt on LOOPER, Hollywood’s Lack of Originality, Future Projects and More

     September 24, 2012


With Looper set to bow in theaters this weekend, director Rian Johnson took some time out of his busy schedule to participate in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) at Reddit.  What followed was an absolute deluge from the writer/director in a back-and-forth that encompassed everything from his box office expectations for Looper, to working with long-time friend Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to his favorite episode of Cowboy Bebop.  Hit the jump to see what Johnson had to say.

Looper, also starring Bruce Willis, Jeff Daniels and Emily Blunt, opens September 28th.

rian-johnson-reddit-amaCheck out a sampling of the Q&A from Johnson’s time on Reddit’s AMA below.  Be sure to head over to the post for much, much more from Johnson, including insight on his writing process, his work on Breaking Bad, his love of lens flares and what it feels like to hug Gordon-Levitt. Here are a few of the Q&A:

What’s it like working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt?  As a writer/director, why do you think Hollywood produces so few original films these days?  Favorite Cowboy Bebop episode?

Johnson: Joe’s been a close friend since we made Brick, so it’s nice to have that shorthand. But when we’re on set together we’re both pretty focused, I think that happy sets are ones where everyone feels like they’re doing their best work. That happens when everyone knows what you’re gunning for. Working with your friends just helps the communication.

That’s a really good question, but it’s encouraging to see original stuff bust through now and then. Also, I think maybe “original” isn’t the real golden egg we should all be after. If you look at Looper for instance you can see the wide range of stuff I drew from, from Terminator to Witness to Akira… “original” is less important than just focusing on telling a story that hits the audience hard.

Pierrot le Fou :-) [Editor’s note: Best. Answer. Ever.]


This morning in Raleigh there was a bank robbery, a resturant kitchen fire and a major downtown power failure within the same block. This was clearly a heist. What could possibly be in the loot in this scenerio? Nazi diamonds, Soul in a suitcase, Confederate Acapulco Gold? Also, I love your fucking movies. Thank you. Have a nice day.

Johnson: My alibi is airtight and you’ll never break me, ndyjones. You’ll never break me.

rian-johnson-reddit-amaHow’d Brick get started, production wise? Did you just decide you wanted to make a movie and made it happen?  Your /Filmcast episodes are some of my favorites, have you ever thought about starting your own podcast or the like?  What’s your script writing process? Scene cards, checklist, wing it?  Can I have a job on your next movie?  Anything you’ve got… seriously

Johnson: I wrote Brick when I was just out of college, and basically spent my 20s trying to get it made. We had a producer break down the script, and we said “ok we need X amount to make it.” Then we started looking for that amount. And after years and years of failing at that, I met my producer Ram Bergman, who told me I was doing it wrong. I should see how much money I can scrap together right now, and then figure out how to fit my film into that amount. So that’s what I did. It wasn’t easy but we were able to get it made, we shot it in 19 days on 35mm for about $450k. This is before digital was really an option or at least before it saved you any money.

haha – I’m glad to hear that, I figured I annoyed most people with my David Chen baiting. (Dave is awesome by the way, I just love giving him shit for some reason.) I love so many podcasts, like WTF and Bullseye and The Memory Palace, I don’t think I’d come close to doing what those guys go. I’m happy just to listen.

If I spend a year and a half writing a script, the first year will be outlining in notebooks. I really spend as long as I can sketching everything out and working on the structure before I sit down to type out scenes. Just the way I work, definitely not necessarily the best way. At some point in the process I’ll go to Staples and get really excited and buy notecards and sharpies, and lay them all out or put them on the wall. It’s a nice way to procrastinate for an afternoon but inevitable they just end up sitting there for the next month, and I don’t really use them. I find notebooks much easier to work in fluidly.

Very flattering of you to ask, I’ve got no idea what we’re doing next though, I’ve got to write it. In the meanwhile, keep making your own movies. That’s way more important than working on sets.

rian-johnson-imageAfter three features would you consider shooting a film without Steve Yedlin as your DP?

Johnson: I really hope I never have to. I’ve had a great time working with Michael Slovis on Breaking Bad, but Steve’s one of my closest friends, and we’ve got a great mind-meld on set.

How was the jump from a tiny budget like in Brick to a much much much larger one like Looper/Brother’s Bloom been?  What surprised you most about dealing with these larger budgets?  What was the best thing and worst thing to you with larger budget films?  What overwhelms you most about making movies, or what moment in making them do you feel like it’s never going to work out and you feel like giving up?  And lastly, how exactly did you get your start in the business, and would you have any advice for the young filmmakers/dreamers?

Johnson: Weirdly, a bigger budget doesn’t really change much. Or at least doesn’t change what’s important. Everything is easier because you have more time and more resources, but you’re still using the same basic tools to the same basic end – choosing where the camera goes and working with the actors in front of it to make things feel real. That’s the same whether you’re making a Bruce Willis movie or a short with your friends.

The momentum of production keeps you from giving up, so it’s really the editing and writing phases where things can look bleakest. When you’re writing is when the “god should I just drop this” feeling can hit. When you’re editing is when the “god this is awful and I’ve wasted everyone’s time and money and will be revealed as a fraud” feeling can hit. So, uh, I guess editing is worse.

I got my start by making Brick for a small budget, basically what we could get our hands on from friends and family. The only advice I can really give is to be persistent, don’t give up, and keep watching and making as many movies as you possibly can. Generic and boring I know, but that’s honestly what I think counts.

What is the best advice you could give for a budding filmmaker?

Johnson: Watch and make as many movies as possible. :)

looper-movie-image-rian-johnson-joseph-gordon-levitt-set-photoYour work on Breaking Bad is unparalleled. What is it like working within the set confines of an arced story, while trying to create something that you’re satisfied with on a personal level? (bonus: What do you think of Albuquerque?)  I really loved the in-theater podcast for Brothers Bloom.  Made me see it a couple more times. Can we get one of those for Looper?  Who can we bug to get Brick on Blu-ray?


  1. Thanks – I loved it, the writing on that show is so damn good, it was just fun to come in and try to make each scene land as well as possible on the screen. You don’t come into it wanting to put your personal stamp on it, you just totally are serving the material and trying to tell the story on the page as effectively as possible. Your natural voice may come through, I guess that’s inevitable, but I try to just create Vince’s world when I’m directing for his show.
  2. Thanks for reminding me – I need to try to do it this week!
  3. Focus Features, I guess – last we heard from them they had no plans to release one.

What’s your next project?

Johnson: I dunno, I’m working on a few things now. They’ve both vaguely sci-fi, but very different from Looper. I’m a pretty slow writer. It’s sort of a problem.

I would pay actual folding money for you to collaborate with Shane Carruth. Folding money.

Johnson: I would pay money FIRST. Fat stacks.

How well do you expect Looper to do at the box office?

Johnson: I’ve got no idea – I want our financiers to be happy but just the fact that sci-fi fans seems to be digging it is all I hoped for. If we do well it’ll be easier to get the next one made I guess, so it does matter. But from Brick and Bloom I’ve learned to keep my expectations low, and to not rely on that measuring stick for any sort of personal fulfillment.

I think you are a pretty groovy dude. I was wondering: what does it feels like to hug JGL? And how can I experience it myself? I like to think it’s like hugging a gentle rain shower with a beautiful rainbow above.

Johnson: It’s like hugging a rainbow made out of sincere kittens.


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