Q&A: Looper director Rian Johnson

What started out as a three-page script almost a decade ago has turned out to be writer-director Rian Johnson’s most successful film to date, Looper. The time-travel tale stars frequent Johnson collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, both playing the same character from different points in their lives. “It was less (about) taking 10 years to get it done and more kind of writing it and thinking it up eight years later,“ he explains. Johnson recently spoke with AwardsLine about why it’s fun to work with friends and how he’s learned that directing is more about listening than anything else.

AWARDSLINE: When you expanded your initial three-page script into a feature, you wrote with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in mind for the main character. What makes collaborating with a lot of the same people on your films work well for you?

RIAN JOHNSON: The main benefit of it is just that level of trust that’s automatically baked into working with someone who’s a friend of yours. What I hope that leads to is giving you the comfort level to take some risks or try some things you may be otherwise afraid to. Because you have leapfrogged putting a lot of energy into forming a new relationship, you can redirect that into just making the movie better. But our sets don’t feel like cocktail parties; our sets tend to be really focused places.

AWARDSLINE: When did Bruce Willis get involved in the film?

JOHNSON: I’d thought of the part for Joe, but when we started casting, Bruce was the first person we went after. I really didn’t think we would get him, just because some of the darker elements in the script. I mean, in the movie, he does some very un-Bruce Willis-like things. (But) he responded almost immediately to it and then set up a lunch. I was terrified and shaking like a leaf, but I went to lunch with him, totally expecting him to say, “Well, I’m interested, but we’re going to have to change this and this”—and there was absolutely none of that. He was just really into it and ready to get to work. It was kind of disconcerting, actually.

AWARDSLINE: There’s actually a scene in Looper when Willis’ character is shooting up an office that made me think, “This is the Die Hard scene they just worked in. This is what everyone wants to see.”

JOHNSON: (Laughs). It’s funny, that scene was there before we even knew who we were casting, but Bruce coming into that role adds an extra dimension to it where it feels like it was written for him. Besides the fact that Bruce is just a great actor, I thought it would be very interesting—particularly with this part and with this script—how his action-movie persona and how audiences’ expectations of that would interact with his character’s arc.

AWARDSLINE: As a writer and director, do you generally go into production with a locked script? Or are you fine-tuning while you’re shooting?

JOHNSON: With something like this, there’s not a ton of improvising that you can do, just because it’s an interlocked puzzle to some extent. But at the same time, by the time I get on set, I feel like I’ve had a version of the movie in my head for a couple of years, and it’s not that interesting for me, so I’m looking to find people who are going to surprise me. I’ve come from the mode of storyboarding everything out, having everything very planned, that low-budget kind of filmmaking. But one of the things I’m trying to do to grow as a filmmaker (is) get better at being open to the moment on set. So there were a lot of scenes in Looper where if a moment didn’t feel quite right, we would be sending the crew away and taking half an hour to talk it through with the actors. So much of directing is not directing but just listening and being present in the moment and just keeping your eyes open.

AWARDSLINE: Did you consciously decide not to get too caught up in the details of time travel when you were writing?

JOHNSON: Time travel from a writing perspective is such a beast, and I knew that. Even if you take the approach that we took with Looper, and you don’t have a “chalkboard” scene—you don’t have a scene where they explain it all out—that doesn’t mean that you can’t have your system for how all this works. I did spend nearly a year working out my set of rules. Then that just serves as an invisible foundation. The tricky thing is once you spend all that time creating all those rules, the temptation is to explain them. The temptation is to lay it out and show the audience how clever you’ve been. There may be a segment of the audience that may miss it not being there, but at the end of the day, it’s not what the story’s about.

AWARDSLINE: Were there any scenes during production that were particularly difficult to shoot?

JOHNSON: The scene that surprised me in terms of its difficulty, or just how intensive it was, was the diner scene. We had two days to shoot the conversation between (Willis and Gordon-Levitt’s characters). Just a couple of cameras, and two guys sitting in a booth talking. But in its own way, (it was) a lot more intense than any of the action stuff.  It was of surprising to me that that was the scene that was the most draining to shoot—and the most exhilarating. Seeing those two actors play off of each other for two days was fun. We actually, in those two days, burned more film than we did for the entirety of Brick.

AWARDSLINE: What’s changed for you since Looper’s release? Are you getting more or better offers to direct and write?

JOHNSON: It’s really cool to be having conversations with people at studios, but for me not a lot has changed—I’m doing the same thing I was doing after the last movie. I’m sitting down to write the next one. Not that there’s not great material out there, but, for me, I’m really just focused on telling my own stories right now, figuring out how to do that. So, yeah, it’s the same thing. I’ve got my head down again in notebooks, hanging around the house and trying to figure it out.

AWARDSLINE: (Laughs). Procrastinating…

JOHNSON: Procrastinating the hell out of it. And I’ll panic in a few months. My house is never cleaner than when I’m writing.

Q&A: Dwight Henry From Beasts of the Southern Wild

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor.

A 20-minute phone interview with Dwight Henry—better known to his New Orleans neighbors as “Mr. Henry”—seems wrong, somehow. A conversation with Henry should be long and slow and surrounded by the luscious comfort-food smells at his restaurant, The Buttermilk Drop Bakery Café. You need a strong cup of coffee and maybe a couple of the house specialty doughnut nuggets. What’s your hurry, Hollywood?

Mr. Henry, 45, is telling the story of how a baker with no acting experience landed a leading role in a surprise-hit independent movie called Beasts of the Southern Wild, the story of little girl Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Henry), struggling to preserve their life and their bayou land in a Katrina-strength hurricane. That little film is certainly gaining the attention of some Oscar voters, and this Southern gentleman is going to let the tale unfold at his own pace, in his own way.

Dwight Henry waves to the crowds at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

AWARDSLINE: So you had no acting experience before this?

DWIGHT HENRY: None before. It’s just some sort of natural ability. The guys from Core 13 [Ed. note: the New Orleans-based production company behind the movie], they seen some sort of natural, magical, mystical abilities in me.

AWARDSLINE: How did they discover you?

HENRY: I own a bakery. When I first actually met them, I owned a bakery called Henry’s Bakery, right across from the actual studio where they used to do the auditions at. And a lot of the guys in the company used to come over to the bakery and get breakfast and buy doughnuts. And then one day, (producer) Michael Gottwald came in there and said, “Mr. Henry, can I put these flyers in your bakery?” And I said: “Yeah, that’s cool.” And the flyers read: “If anybody wants to audition for this upcoming feature film, just pull a number and give us a call.”

I used to stare at the flyer every day, being in the bakery, and I’d watch people pull a number, and jokingly I said, “One day, Mike, I’m going to come over there and audition for you. “ But time went by; I never had time.

Then me and Michael Gottwald, we were sitting in the bakery, and I said, “Michael, I’ve got some time, I’m going to come over.” He said, “All right!” So I went over there; he had a script for me. We sat down, and he interviewed me on camera. I talked about my whole life—how I stayed back after Katrina, and talked about family. I didn’t expect to get the part; I was just going over there, being friendly like I am. So they called me back about two weeks later: “Mr. Henry, Mr. (Benh) Zeitlin, our director, he loved what he seen in the reading, and he wants you to do another read.” I said, “Hey, Michael, that’s a callback—when you get a callback in this industry, it’s serious!”

AWARDSLINE: What happened then?

HENRY: I went in and did another read, (then) I went back to the bakery like nothing happened again. So it was about a month and half, two months—I had moved my business from across the street where the studio was to across town, to a bigger location. The neighbors told me (that) they were asking, “Where’s Mr. Henry?” They wanted to give me the part, but nobody couldn’t find me.

Two days after I opened up my new location, Michael Gottwald walks in through the door and says, “Mr. Henry, we’ve been looking at you for a month now to give you the part.” I was overwhelmed, ecstatic, glad, grateful—but I couldn’t take it, because I had just opened up my business two days ago. I had to turn them down for the part because I had worked so hard to build this business to pass down to my kids, and I just couldn’t see myself sacrificing my children, who I love more than anything in the world, for a possible movie career for myself.

To make a long story short, I turned them down three times, but they believed in me, and eventually I was able to work things out.

AWARDSLINE: It must have been a surprise to get anything, much less a lead role.

HENRY: Never in a million years that I thought that I would get the lead part in a feature film. But Mr. Zeitlin thought I was so perfect for the part. If you brought in someone from Hollywood or New York, (the actor would have) heard about what a storm is, but never been in a storm, never been in a flood, never experienced 130-mile-per-hour winds coming at you, with your roof flying off. It makes us tougher. Some people on the outside, they don’t understand why when a storm’s coming, we’ll throw a party in the middle of a storm. We’ve got a Category 5 storm coming, and people throwing a party.

AWARDSLINE: Your co-star, Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 6 at the time, also had no acting experience. What was it like working with her?

HENRY: It was great, we developed a bond, and I have a daughter her age. We’ve endured a press tour; we’ve been all over the country together. We do interviews together, she actually called me Daddy, and I really look at her like she’s my daughter now. [Ed. note: Henry’s real family includes a 10-year-old daughter; three sons aged 3, 5, and 17, and wife Carmell Anderson Henry, a lab technician].

AWARDSLINE: Do you plan to continue acting?

HENRY: Yes, I’m back at the bakery, but I do plan to continue acting, yes. I did Beasts, and after that I did Twelve Years a Slave (directed by) Steve McQueen. That’s it for right now. I’ve been going to places that I never dreamed I’d be going. But the one thing about New Orleans, compared to every major city in the world, the one thing I appreciate when I come home is the food.

AWARDSLINE: What does your success mean to you?

HENRY: Hollywood is the glamour life, everything is peachy, but if you go on the other side of that water from Hollywood, across the ocean, they have people who don’t even know what running water is. We take a bottle of water, take one sip of it, and just throw it away. I’ve always hoped if I ever hit the lottery and win $100 million dollars, I am going to be a philanthropist and give it all away. I would get more joy from that.