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Rian Johnson talks “Looper”, Bruce Willis’ voiceover, and “Breaking Bad”

Rian-Johnson

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Rian Johnson may have been a critical darling with the release of his previous films, “Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom”, but with the Oscar buzz surrounding his “Looper” screenplay and the critical success of the film, the young director is about to become one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt, “Looper” is a poignant and heartfelt story wrapped up in a time-travel, science-fiction universe. It’s also one of the very best films of 2012.

Hot on the heels of the “Looper” Blu-ray and DVD release, Johnson sat down with IFC.com recently to chat about his most personal film, working with Bruce Willis, and the possibility of a return to “Breaking Bad”.

IFC: You’ve had critical success before with your first two films (“Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom”), but nothing on level of recognition and attention that “Looper” has received. Did you ever expect that type of reaction to the film? Did it feel any different making this one?

RIAN JOHNSON: That’s a good question. No, essentially you never expect anything. By the end of the process, you are just hoping that you’re not run out of town shamed on a rail, I guess. You go from these high hopes when you’re writing to just a desperate want of not making a complete fool of yourself by the end of it. So, no, there’s definitely never the expectation of “wow, this one is really going to get them.” You’re just always hoping that it works. In terms of it feeling different, it did, but I think maybe that’s the case with every new thing that you do. Hopefully with each thing that you do you’re learning something, you’re growing, and you’re pushing yourself a little harder in some way or another. So I think you’d be in real trouble if each new thing that you create didn’t feel like “Oh, wow. I feel like I’m doing something a little different this time.”

IFC: Of all your films so far, “Looper” feels the most personal. Is that the case? Does this one feel more personal to you than the others?

JOHNSON: I appreciate that. I think that’s a good sign. Again, yes, but with a qualified answer because it feels the most personal to me because it’s the most immediate to what’s on my mind right now and to my experience of what I’m going through. It’s the last thing I wrote. When I wrote “The Brothers Bloom,” that was where I was at that point, and the same thing for “Brick.” It’s really gratifying for me, though, to hear you say that because I think “Looper” has the veneer of an action movie, and of a time-travel movie, and there are a lot of things which one could very easily see and assume that it isn’t a very personal film. And, for me, it very definitely is so it makes me feel very good to hear that it struck you that way.

IFC: You’re talked previously about this “loop” of violence that manifests violence and how “Looper” was your way of addressing those issues. Other writers and directors might have just made a straight drama about this, but you chose to wrap it in this time-travel, sci-fi picture. Is that your way of dealing with heavy topics like that – to make it something interesting and accessible in other ways as well?

JOHNSON: Yeah, it is for me. You never want to make a “message movie,” but you always want to be talking about something that you care about, and talking about something that hopefully people can dig into and really relate to and that really matters. The thing about the movies that I grew up watching – the ones that really stick with me through my life – are movies that work on two different levels at the same time. They hit me on the gut level that a good genre picture can hit you on, but then have a lingering something that you keep chewing on after the credits roll. To me, that’s an incredibly powerful thing. I know, just in relation to sci-fi, that it’s something that sci-fi is specifically good at. Think about Ray Bradbury’s stories or Philip K. Dick. They’re writers that use these outlandish sci-fi concepts not to talk about, but to dramatize stuff that’s very vital and very human. To me, there’s nothing more powerful than that.

IFC: After all the “beef” you’ve had with Jason Reitman, how did it feel to read his essay in Entertainment Weekly?

JOHNSON: [Laughs] I guess I should make it completely clear that there was never any real beef with Jason. [Laughs] It’s funny that, because of that silly thing that I wrote, it’s led to my meeting Jason a couple of times and he’s really a great guy. That thing that he wrote just kind of blew my mind. I told Jason, and this is really true, that all this awards stuff is easy to get caught up in all the drama, but what it really just boils down to is your peers saying “good job” and appreciating your work, which just feels really good. In that way, reading the thing that Jason wrote felt like winning an Oscar to me. That was a really special thing.

IFC: Did you have any idea he was going to do that?

JOHNSON: No, no. He just emailed me out of the blue and said, “Hey, I’m doing this.” [Laughs] I was like, “Holy shit.” [Laughs]

IFC: Bruce Willis has said that “Looper” is probably his favorite film that he’s been in. We’ve all heard the “horror” stories from people like Kevin Smith about how hard Willis is to work with. How was it, for you, working with him? Were you nervous about that before you started filming?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, Bruce was definitely the biggest “movie star” that I’ve ever worked with. He’s so iconic. And, so, you’re always nervous when you’re showing up to work with one of your heroes, but he was a dream. He showed up ready to work. He was completely dedicated to the project. Besides just giving what I think is a tremendous performance, he also was so ready to dive into the darker elements of the script. He had no reservations at all and no ego. He had no interest in protecting any sort of movie star persona on the screen. He was just really down with digging into what this character needed to be. I had a fantastic time working with him. It was kind of like what your fantasy about working with Bruce Willis would be like. He was super cool.

IFC: Tell me how you approached him with this script. You basically have this film that says “We’re going to use makeup to turn Joseph into a younger version of you and he’s going to do this awesome impression of you as a younger guy.” That’s got to be a nerve-wracking conversation.

JOHNSON: It’s funny now that you say that. I’m thinking of our first meeting and we talked about the story and that was our first big connection point, but I don’t think we talked about that element of it. It was more about how we were going to approach the storytelling elements of it. In some way, it was probably a little bit of a surprise for Bruce when he showed up. He did hang out with Joe a few times though and let Joe watch him talk. He actually recorded all of Joe’s voiceover lines and sent the recordings to Joe so he could study how he said them.

IFC: That’s amazing.

JOHNSON: Yeah, it was really cool of him. And so, Joe has a recording somewhere on an iPod of Bruce saying those opening voiceover lines.

IFC: Could you imagine if he gave that to you to put online as an alternate audio track?

JOHNSON: That would be pretty incredible.

IFC: You’ve talked about your connection with Joseph plenty of times so I want to ask about Pierce. He’s amazing. Where did you find this kid and how quickly did you know he was just right for this part?

JOHNSON: We found him in Atlanta and the instant I saw the first words out of his mouth, on the first video audition that he did, I kind of leaned forward and said, “Oh.” Then when I met him and saw him work, and saw him do what he does, I was like, “Oh my God. We got really, really lucky here.” He’s an actor. If there’s something that feels different or amazing about his performance, I would attribute it to the fact that he’s not just saying the words in a practiced way. He’s not reciting them in a way that his mom has told him to recite them. He understands what the words mean and he’s saying them to the person who’s sitting across the table from him. He’s acting. As much as Emily and Joe and Bruce or anybody is acting, Pierce is just a great actor and he was five years old when we shot the movie. That combination is not something you see very often. We got really lucky.

People like to think that you have to trick kids into giving a performance, but there are kids out there that can act as well (and sometimes better) than adults. I feel like I’ve been lucky to work with some really good kid actors.

IFC: “Looper” has this kind of lo-tech, hi-tech approach to the future element, which I really love. It reminds me of films like “Brazil” and “Dark City” in a way. Did you watch any films, or show any films to your crew, before shooting as inspiration or reference for your film?

JOHNSON: No, not really. Just because I was very conscious of wanting the world to feel organic and not wanting it to feel like a pastiche of other sci-fi movies, we kind of took a different approach. And I love those films that you mentioned so much that I knew there was a danger in that even if we didn’t explicitly reference them. I wanted all the design decisions to be coming from what makes sense for the story and what makes sense for the script and the world. I wanted to intentionally avert our eyes from all the movies that we love, knowing that they would seep in there anyway. I think if you watch the movie, you can see echoes of “Blade Runner” and “Children of Men”, but I didn’t want to explicitly look to them. I didn’t want to overdue that element.

IFC: Is there any chance we’ll get to see you direct one of the final “Breaking Bad” episodes during the show’s upcoming, final run?

JOHNSON: [Laughs] Oh… [Laughs] Eh, I, um… I don’t know, man. We’ll see. [Laughs]

IFC: [Laughs] I’ll take that as a good sign that we may see you back! [Laughs] Other than that, do you have anything else coming up that fans can look forward to?

JOHNSON: No, I’m writing my next script right now. I’m writing another original and I’m a slow writer so I apologize that it’s taken a while, but that’s what I’m doing right now. Digging into the next one and hopefully I’ll get it done sooner rather than later and we’ll be off to the races.

Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is available on Blu-ray and DVD now.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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