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'Looper' Director: Memory A Form Of Time Travel

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play different versions of the same character in the time-travel thriller Looper. (Sony Pictures)

Looper is a time traveling action flick set in the year 2044. Star Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a paid assassin who makes the startling discovery that his next target is actually himself — an older version of himself from the future.

After that it gets a little timey-wimey — but basically, Bruce Willis plays the older, supposedly wiser assassin — and he's been sent back in time by a criminal syndicate to be erased from history. Director Rian Johnson tells NPR's Rachel Martin that he originally wrote the script as a short film, inspired by the writings of Philip K. Dick. "I was reading all of his books, and I think my head was just kind of in this soup of time travel ideas," he says.

Time travel is a notoriously tricky plot to work with. Johnson says he looked back at classic time travel movies like 12 Monkeys and Back to the Future, and was reassured to find things even there that didn't make sense. "But the magic trick of those movies is, it constructs this story where it really is like a magician with a deck of cards," he says. "It fools you into believing it makes sense for two hours, so that you can go along on this ride."

Anyone who's thought about time travel has probably dreamed of doing something like killing Adolf Hitler — but Johnson says that's not what he's interested in. "It's such a fantasy, kind of false moral conundrum," Johnson says. "It's something that has very little to do with real life, whereas the basic question of, does it work to solve the problem by finding the right person and killing them, or does that just create this self-perpetuating loop, that's unfortunately something that is very applicable to the world around us. That's the more interesting question to me."

Johnson adds that time travel stories are intensely relatable — most people wonder about their past and future selves. "I think the most powerful form of time travel is memory," he says. "Every day ... we'll kind of go off in our heads and revisit moments in our lives, and wish that we had done them differently." And time travel stories can also be a warning, "the same way that Frankenstein stories are kind of a cautionary tale, sort of a 'yes, you think you want that, but it actually wouldn't help, it would actually make things worse' ... you think you want to revisit the past, but in reality you should just be living in the present."

For Looper, though, Johnson had to live not in the present, but the future — a place he imagines as looking relatively like the world we know now. "It's not a big, shiny sci-fi world, it's something that is ... everything is just broken down, so it's kind of a dystopian future," he says. There's no middle class, just rich society types and poor street people — though Johnson describes himself as an optimist, and says Looper's grim future was driven by character decisions.

"Our main character, Joe, much like a movie I looked to for inspiration was Casablanca, much like Rick in Casablanca, he's beginning the movie in a very kind of isolated, self-serving place," he says. "And it made sense, much like in Casablanca, to build a world around him where you saw that that kind of selfishness didn't come from him being a bad person, but was because he has to exist in this world."

Johnson adds that, were he to be able to travel in time, he would want to see the future — though maybe a little further out than the future depicted in Looper. "I'd say a hundred years is a good round number," he says. "That's far enough ahead to where it would make the journey worth it, to see what they've got, but not so far that you're going to show up and be just like on a charred piece of earth, floating through the cosmos."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a new movie out this weekend that does indeed have a future. It's called "Looper." It's a time-travel action flick set in the year 2044.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LOOPERS")

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (as Joe) In the future, time travel is outlawed, used only in secret by the largest criminal organizations. When they need someone gone and they want to erase any trace of the target ever existing, they used specialized assassins, like me, called Loopers.

MARTIN: That was actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He plays this paid assassin in the film who makes a startling discovery that his next target is actually himself, the older version of himself from the future. Now, stay with me here, it gets tricky. But, basically, Bruce Willis plays the older, supposedly wiser assassin, and he's been sent back in time by a criminal syndicate to be erased from history.

Rian Johnson wrote and directed "Looper," and he joins us from our studios at NPR West. Welcome to the program, Rian.

RIAN JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So this is your third film that you've written and directed. Your first two were really different from this one; "Brick," which was this kind of murder- mystery and "The Brothers Bloom" was a caper film. How did the idea of time travel come to you as the basis for a film?

JOHNSON: Well, I actually - I wrote the idea for this about 10 years ago as a script for a short film that I never ended up making. But at the time, I just discovered Philip K. Dick and so I was reading all of his books. And I think my head was just kind of in this soup of time travel ideas and this idea popped out.

MARTIN: So, there's this tense scene in a diner in the film, when the main character, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is sitting across from his future self, Bruce Willis. And basically, Bruce Willis says, Time travel is complicated. So don't ask too many questions.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LOOPERS")

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Joe) So, do you know what's going to happen? You done all this already as me.

BRUCE WILLIS: (as Old Joe) I don't want to talk about time travel. Because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Joe) We both know how this has to go down. I can't let you walk away from this diner alive. This is my life now. I earned it. You had yours already. So why don't do what old men do and die?

WILLIS: (as Old Joe) Why don't you just take your little gun out from between your legs and do it, boy?

MARTIN: There's at least one other scene in this film where a character is kind of reassuring the audience, that if they don't get it, it's OK. Just don't think that hard.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Don't try to figure out all the time travel stuff. But I still found myself trying to figure out what looked like holes in the plot, you know...

JOHNSON: Sure.

MARTIN: ...mapping out this kind of time travel thing Do you look at the film and say, oh yeah, there is a little hole in the narrative there?

JOHNSON: Well, one of things when I was writing it - 'cause time travel is a tricky thing to deal with when you're writing. And one of the things that was really liberating is looking at some of the old-time great time travel movies, like "12 Monkeys," or like "Back to the Future," and seeing that if you look at those movies - and you don't even have to look that closely - you can find stuff that doesn't make sense.

But the magic trick of those movies is, it constructs this story where it really is like a magician with a deck of cards, that you kind of fools you into believing that it makes sense for two hours, so that you can go along on this ride.

MARTIN: The movie's time-travel concept also brings up this kind of classic what-if scenario, this question. If you could go back in time and kill a bad guy, kill Hitler, before he gained power, would it change the course of history for the better? But it seems like you're trying to tackle something different. You're asking in this film whether such a pursuit is even a good idea at all.

JOHNSON: Yeah. The whole would-you-go-back-and-kill-Hitler conundrum is such a fantasy kind of false moral conundrum, I think. It's something that has very little to do with real life. Whereas the basic question of, does it work to solve the problem by finding the right person and killing them, or does that just create this self-perpetuating loop? That's unfortunately something that is very applicable to the world around us. That's the more interesting question to me. That's kind of what we try to chew on a bit with this film.

MARTIN: So, can I get a little personal?

JOHNSON: Please.

MARTIN: Sure.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Have you kind of looked back on a younger version of yourself and said, oh man, you screwed that up?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Or do you kind of sit in anxiety about what your future self might do?

JOHNSON: I think the most powerful form of time travel is memory. And I think maybe that's why time travel stories are so relatable. Every day, we kind of - whether we're sitting in traffic or whatever, we'll kind of go off in our heads and revisit moments in our lives, and wish that we had done them differently, or just kind of revel in them and wish we can live them over.

You know, part of the appeal of time travel stories is getting to do that. But also, kind of the same way that Frankenstein stories are kind of a cautionary tale, sort of a, yes, you think you want that but it actually wouldn't help. It would actually make things worse. And most time travel stories kind of give you that message, as well, that you think you want to revisit the past, but in reality you should just be living in the present. And you can't really do anything about the past except learn from it.

MARTIN: So I have to ask you, where would you go if you could travel in time?

JOHNSON: The future, right? isn't that the - what's the great Babbage quote? He said he'd trade the rest of his life to see one day of the future.

MARTIN: How far? The future is a big place.

JOHNSON: The future is a big place. I'd say a hundred years.

MARTIN: You've already been to 2044 in your mind.

JOHNSON: That's true. I filmed that already. I'd say a hundred years is a good round number. I think that's far enough ahead to where it would make the journey worth it, to see what they've got. But not so far that you're going to show up and be just like on a charred piece of Earth, floating through the cosmos.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And I wonder, do you look like Bruce Willis in the future, is my question?

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: I hope so. Dear God, I hope so. Please.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: That would be wonderful.

MARTIN: Rian Johnson wrote and directed the new film "Looper." Rian Johnson, thanks so much for talking with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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