Playing Three-Dimensional Chess: “Looper” Director Rian Johnson On Making a Time Travel Movie

Writer/director Rian Johnson’s Looper, which opens on September 28, is the latest in a long line of time travel movies. Here, Johnson talks to Co.Create about continuity, character, and making up the rules of time travel.

Playing Three-Dimensional Chess: “Looper” Director Rian Johnson On Making a Time Travel Movie

Back to the Future. The Time Machine. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The pantheon of time-travel movies is packed with many different flavors of visceral, brain-bending fare, some of it more enriching than others. Any filmmaker throwing his or her hat into that ring has a lot of movie history to live up to, and, with Looper, writer/director Rian Johnson has added a compelling new wrinkle to the cinematic space/time continuum.

Rian Johnson

Johnson got the idea for a time travel film about ten years ago, after binge-reading the Phillip K. Dick oeuvre. He wrote a draft of a short film and filed it away in a drawer, where it would sit for years collecting dust. Eventually he told Joseph Gordon-Levitt about the idea when the pair were at Sundance premiering Johnson’s debut film, Brick. Now, seven years later, Looper has finally made it to the screen, with Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis in starring roles.

Grappling with the space-time continuum presents a unique set of challenges for any director, though. The thorny issues of paradoxes and butterfly effects make ripples in nearly every aspect of a production, complicating matters. Of course, one of the great things about directing a time travel movie, as it turns out, is that you get to make up your own rules.

Research the Science… Of Great Storytelling

In terms of researching the science of time travel, it’s fun and it’s cool to dig into but the real task ahead for a screenwriter is figuring out how to use movie time travel; how to integrate it into your narrative without it taking the whole thing over. So I didn’t dig into the science–it’s not really applicable to how you’d use it in a movie. I more took a look at how great filmmakers and storytellers tamed the concept and put it at the service of their characters and their stories; not the other way around.

Primer is one of the all-time great time travel movies. It’s one of those ones where the real pleasure is digging into it, and tearing it apart. It kind of demands multiple viewings. 12 Monkeys too, obviously. Back to the Future, the first one, is almost a perfect movie. The script for that, I’m just in awe of how tightly everything fits together. Time Bandits is a sentimental favorite. But the movie I looked at most closely for Looper is probably the first Terminator film. That movie does a really good job of having time travel set the situation off and get out of the way.

Be Prepared for Continuity Issues

You always have continuity concerns in a film, but in a time travel movie it’s like playing three-dimensional chess: you have to be thinking on multiple levels. I think about a movie like 12 Monkeys, and I’m in awe of what they must have had to go through to keep everything straight, since there’s so much jumping back and forth in that movie. Our film is pretty simple and pretty linear by comparison, and even so, it was more difficult than your typical story. In a drama you’re just tracking these characters and making sure how they react makes sense from moment to moment. But now you also have to see through the cloud of all the time travel stuff and realize what are these characters’ experience in each situation. That’s part of the pain in the ass of making a time travel movie.


Make the Story Character-Driven and Relatable

Looper at the end of the day is much more about these characters and how they deal with the situation they’re in. It’s not really about the intricacies of time travel. What it comes down to is, if you were sitting across from your older self, what would you say to each other? It’s a magical situation, and something you’d never find yourself facing in real life. What’s interesting about it, and this is what sci-fi is good at, is that the situation sets up in a very heightened way, a younger man saying to an older man, “I’m not going to turn into you,” and the older one saying back to the younger one, “You’re so stupid. I can see all the mistakes that you’re going to make if you do things differently.” That’s a very relatable situation which at one point all of us will be on one side of in our lives. That’s really what doing these kinds of outlandish sci-fi concepts are all about. What you’re striving for is to have them connect to something human and relatable.

Set Basic Rules For Time Travel

One of the big decisions was that the characters in the movie don’t have access to time travel. Time travel exists in the future and doesn’t exist in our characters’ present. They don’t know how it works, they don’t have to interact with it, they just have–like the first Terminator–this situation chucked back at them. We didn’t have to start hopping back and forth and we didn’t have to have a scientist come in and explain everything. We just had to deal with the effects of time travel. That having been said, I did do a lot of work to come up with a set of rules.

One of the main ones I came up with was that when time travel paradoxes are introduced into the universe, the universe deals with them in a very organic way. And by that I mean, it’s not like a set of dominoes where if you do this, it triggers that, which triggers that, which triggers that. It’s much more like a virus entering an organic body, where the body does its best to either assimilate it or reject it. But it’s kind of a cloudy process in terms of how it tries to do that. For instance, Bruce Willis’ character is sent back into the past, and he inevitably starts disrupting the timeline. Now his future is in danger of being in flux. So the way I reflect that in his head is that things start going cloudy. He has to fight to hold onto the memories of his wife for instance, in the future, because him never meeting her is now a threat. It’s still a possibility, so it’s there in his brain, but it’s clouded with the other possibilities, so he’s just pounding Advil and trying to hold onto that memory as best as he can.

Don’t Over-Explain the Rules, Though

The time travel element is difficult to tame just because it takes a lot of discipline to not explain everything about it. You have to sit on your hands a little bit as a storyteller and remind yourself what’s important from moment to moment in the story rather than just explaining all these time travel rules. We ended up cutting out a lot of explanatory stuff because when we screened it, we realized it was weighing the movie down and it wasn’t what the audience actually cared about.


But even during the scriptwriting phase, I tried to be really disciplined. The thing that you stick to and what I kept coming back to was “What is our story ultimately about?” And every moment of film-time, every frame of film that’s going through that projector has to tell that story in some way. If something is off the path of that, even if it’s interesting, you have to take a hard look at it and cut it out–even if that includes some of the time travel stuff. There are plenty of tangents we can go into in the movie to explain things, but they’d feel like tangents. Even if they’re little things–a line here, a line there–they add up and end up detracting from the overall power of the story.

Anticipate That Your Logic Will Be Picked Apart

Part of the fun of any sci-fi movie is digging into it, and I’m definitely looking forward to people picking apart the logic in Looper. That’s the fun part for me, because I do that with films I see. But that rarely impedes my enjoyment of a film. The only crime I think a movie can really be guilty of is bad storytelling. Sure, there are time travel movies that have not hit the nail on the head storytelling-wise, or are boring. As long as they can pull the wool over my eyes and make me enjoy the ride for two hours, though, I will totally flow with anything they toss at me, time travel paradox-wise. Even if it’s fun to pick apart after the fact, I’m not going to hold it against the movie if the time travel “doesn’t make sense.”

I think there will be nerds like me who will dig in, pick Looper apart, and inevitably find stuff to pick at. I don’t foresee that as a bad thing at all. The truth is you can do that with any movie, even time travel movies you love. If you dig deep enough you’re going to hit a level where the paradoxes add up and something just doesn’t work or make sense. I think that will inevitably happen, but I’m looking forward to it.