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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.

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