The works of Phillip K. Dick have been enormously influential on the world of filmmaking for decades now, not just because Hollywood keeps returning to his books for new ideas, but because the themes and concepts he explored have shown up in countless movies. So it’s no real surprise that the director of Looper, the time travel thriller starring Joseph-Gordon Levitt as a futuristic assassin tasked with exterminating his own future self (Bruce Willis), cites Dick as an influence on the new film.
Looper is writer/director Rian Johnson’s third theatrical film, following Brick and The Brothers Bloom. But Johnson has actually been tinkering with the story for years, since long before he made either of those movies. It actually originated as an idea for a short film, and Johnson was reading many of Dick’s books at the time. As he explains to The Verge, it was less about trying to riff off specific ideas from Dick’s books than simply wading in the genre in particular to make his brain think that way:
…during the writing process I guess you do [immerse yourself in similar genre sources]. During the filmmaking process I tend to do the opposite and watch stuff that is explicitly not in that genre. Just to get some other stuff in there. Because you know the stuff from your genre is going to be in there, because you grew up watching it, and you’re steeped in that anyway. So watching stuff that’s out of left field, that’s gonna infuse some kind of fresh wind coming through. The same way, like with Brick, it was watching spaghetti westerns instead of watching noirs, to try and get like a visual sensibility that’s a little bit off from what you’d expect.
Aside from the core storyline of a man tasked with fighting his older self, Looper also introduces an intriguing world where time travel is criminalized and controlled by the mob, and where telekinetic powers seem to be involved in some crucial but as yet undetermined way. Surprisingly, however, Johnson credits much of the “world building” to his production designer (Ed Verreaux). He thinks that collaboration made the world of the film better realized in the end: “Every design decision, it wasn’t preconceived, it came out of the needs of the story. And so making the world seem like such a desperate place was a way of accentuating that feeling of ‘you better hold on to your slice of the pie, or else it’s destitution,’ you know?”
Johnson says that some influence from Blade Runner can be seen during Looper‘s “future” segments, but that he wanted to keep it closer to the world audiences are familiar with. “We were just trying to go, like, 10 degrees off from our reality,” says Johnson. “And so much of it was just about degrading what is already there and picking a couple of key things to tweak.” Keeping the future from veering too far away from the familiar was also a decision grounded in the fact that the movie is already asking audiences to suspend their disbelief regarding the entire core idea, so a more mundane future kept it from feeling like too much.
Keeping it kind of just recognizable as a slightly dystopian future… in a lot of ways, I feel like it’s a world that we’ve seen before. And that was intentional. Just so the audience can kinda look and say, ‘Okay, I know where we’re at. We’re in near-future, and stuff is broken down. Okay, I get it.’
Looper opens in theaters on September 28th.