Digital Spy caught up with Johnson to discuss how the script for Looper evolved from a three-page treatment into the critically lauded, Bruce Willis-headlined instant classic it became.
The plot of Looper becomes very complex and twisty, but what was the core idea that you started with?
"The very first thing that I came up with was about 10 years ago, I wrote a three-page treatment. And if you Google it, I've actually put that up on my website, so you can see it. It's kind of a short film that my friends and I meant to shoot on our own with a video camera. And it's the basic concept of the loopers and the assassins working for the mob in the future. There's none of the farm stuff in it, it's just the old man and the young man chasing each other. But it does have some of the same themes that carry through, and so that's where it began. And when I picked it up and tried to expand it into a feature, that's when all the other stuff started coming through."
How did the mother-son element of the plot develop?
"Once I started expanding it out beyond just a couple of minutes, I realised I needed a stronger and more expansive way to illustrate the difference between the older and the younger. So, presenting them both with the same powerful thing to deal with seemed like a good way of going about that. And that's when the notion of tying it into their childhoods, and to the issue of mothers and their sons, came from. And having this, what almost became like a transfusion halfway through the movie, of this other strong character [in Emily Blunt] coming into the mix, that seemed really appealing."
You've worked with Joseph Gordon-Levitt before on Brick, and he also appeared briefly in The Brothers Bloom. Did you always know he was the right guy for this role, or did you consider anyone else?
"When I wrote the original short I actually didn't know Joe, I wrote it back before we made Brick. But when I picked it up again after The Brothers Bloom, I was writing the part for him at that point. I told him, and was keeping him updated on it, and it just seemed like the perfect time to work together again."
How did you go about casting Emily Blunt? She has a huge responsibility, in that she has to come in halfway through and support this complete tonal shift in the film.
"Yeah, I met with a lot of people for the part. The thing about Emily - and I'm not saying anything that anyone who's seen her in movies doesn't know - she has this real magnetism to her. It's not just a charming, flash a nice smile kind of magnetism, there's something truly intriguing about her when she's on screen. She makes very specific and unexpected choices, she always zigs when you expect her to zag. I know for me, she's just one of those people that no matter what role she's playing I can't take my eyes off her. And as you mentioned, it was a real challenge, because if that role had fallen flat it would have been a real problem. The second half of the movie wouldn't have worked. So casting someone who I knew was going to surprise me and hopefully surprise the audience and keep them engaged was job number one."
In terms of finding financing for Looper, did you have any difficulty with retaining some of the darker plot elements? Some of the things your lead character does are really reprehensible, was that ever an issue with the studio?
"There was definitely stuff that was discussed. We made the movie with this company called Endgame Entertainment and the guy who runs the company, Jim Stern, we had worked with before on The Brothers Bloom and have a really good relationship with. So all of the discussions that took place were discussions that needed to take place. Like, the dark stuff, I didn't want it to be something that made the audience disengage, I wanted to have it draw the audience deeper into the story. And so I think they were very brave in letting us do it, and any 'How's this gonna work?' discussion was really productive.
When you cast Bruce Willis, was there anything he was concerned about in the script, because a lot of the more morally questionable moments come down to him?
"Yeah, I completely expected him to have a list of things he would't do when we sat down, but he had absolutely none of that, it was almost the opposite, I think part of the moral complexity of the character was something that he was really excited about. For somebody who has kind of a persona in the movies, an action hero persona, he didn't come out as an action hero at all. He came out as an actor ready to do the part, and it was pretty incredible working with him. I feel like I learned a lot. He never blinked with any of the dark stuff.
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There are 22 deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, with commentary from you. Are those largely things that were cut for time, or for pacing, or for other reasons?
"It varies, but it's mostly pace. I'm actually so happy that the deleted scenes are going to be out there, because some of the individual stuff, just personally, it's some of my favourite stuff that we shot. It really does come down to 'kill your darlings', it's frustrating - if you really love something you can bet you're going to be faced with putting it on the chopping board. So most of it was stuff where the plot is going from A to B to C, and in the edit you realise you can take out B and the audience can make the leap.
"It's your duty to do so, no matter how nice a scene B is. That's something as a writer, you always wish you could catch more of at the scripting stage. I hope as I learn and get better I'll be able to do that more and more, but with this film, there was definitely a lot in the edit room that we realised 'You know what, we don't need this' and as strong as this scene is, taking it out makes the whole scene a lot better.
"Then there's also a longer sequence - the very first cut of the sequence where Joe goes off to China, that montage. We put the very first cut of that on the Blu-ray, even though it's longer and it doesn't work nearly as well as the cuts in the final movie. I thought it'd be interesting for people to see the development of it and how it started. So there's a bunch of different stuff on there, I'm really excited people are going to get to see it."
Looper is out on DVD and Blu-ray today (January 28).