The Looper script isn’t running in circles

Spoilers ahead.

Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

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Why I chose this script

I make no bones about my love of everything that Rian Johnson does. The inaugural post for this site was an analysis of his first film, Brick, and it was inevitable that the Looper script wasn’t going to be far behind. Johnson’s ability to have a complex but heartfelt story drive a pace-y, action-packed sci-fi flick like this is astounding. So let’s dig right in and see if we can tease out some lessons for our own writing.

Keeping the heart at the heart of your story

I’ve mentioned before how even the most spectacle driven films, such as Gravity, need to have an emotional core in order to sustain an audience’s interest. We create these worlds with our writing which are often totally alien to our viewers own experiences and lives. To get audiences “in” to those stories we need to give them an emotional hook to grab onto.

The Looper script contains as fine an example of this as you’re going to find anywhere. Despite being full of high concept sci-fi, action sequences and socio-economic musings, the film doesn’t expect its viewers to get by on spectacle alone. In fact, just when the questions around the mechanics of time travel start to pile up, Johnson hangs a lantern on them to keep everyone focused on the important parts:

JOE

Do you know what’s going to happen? Have you already done all this, right now, as me?

OLD JOE

I don’t want to talk about time travel shit, because we’ll start talking about it and then we’ll be here all day making diagrams with straws. It doesn’t matter.

JOE

When I hurt myself now, it changes your body. Do my actions change your memories?

OLD JOE

It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is establishing an emotional connection with your viewers. Doing that requires characters for your audience to relate to. They need to feel like real human beings that people can live vicariously through. Johnson does some stellar work in the Looper script of fleshing out his characters, even the smaller ones.

Abe (Daniels) is the head of the mob who orders bloody torture and murder on a daily basis and only appears on a handful of occasions in the story. Despite that, Johnson makes sure that he’s given enough humanity to prevent him becoming a caricature:

KID BLUE (CONT’D)

Please just give me one more chance, I’ll bring him here alive and hold him and you can put a bullet in his brain yourself-

Abe grabs the hammer. SLAMS it on Kid’s bad hand, crushing it. Kid howls, the Gat Men grab him. Drag him out.

Abe’s head droops, weight of the world.

You’ll note, from that last example, that I don’t consider relatability to be the same as likability. In fact, in the world of the Looper script, there’s not a lot of likability to go around. Even our “hero” – Joe (Gordon-Levitt) – is far from a saint:

SARA

If he comes here will you stop him? If I believed all this – I’m asking can I trust you

JOE

I don’t care if you trust me, I don’t care about your son. I’ve lost my life. I kill this man, I get it back.

His future self – Old Joe (Willis) – is probably even less likable. But you can see how the bones of his psychology are set in young Joe (i.e. “I will hold on to what’s mine”) and then just allowed to mature through age, love and potential loss. This drives him to kill a child in order to reclaim what is his. Then Johnson shows us his reaction:

Old Joe emerges from a backyard fence, walks across a park. Map in his hand. Children play in the distance. Children’s voices all around.

Old Joe spins, his breath up into his head.

The map falls to the ground. The park around him, green and full of children.

He keels over onto his knees and cries. Grabs the grass, holds it in his fingers, thick and green.

This is the difference between relatable and likeable characters. The first is about understanding the relative costs and benefits of the actions that they take, the latter is more about whether you would make the same decisions in those circumstances.

Before having read the Looper script, I thought Brick was the most complex of Johnson’s works by quite a large margin. I based that opinion on the layers of story that were used to build up the mystery for Brendan to solve. Now, having read the Looper script, I’m not so sure. The depth of character development and the way their motivations interact to push the story to its end is nothing short of spectacular, and every bit as complex as all the intrigue and plotting in Brick.

To turn all of the above into a lesson for our own writing, I’ll say this: no matter how rich in character you think your piece is, I’m willing to bet there are opportunities to stuff even more of it in. To find them, step through your script scene by scene and ask yourself questions like “How does each character here feel about what just happened? Is that reflected in something they say, do or decide? If another character had to fulfill the same role in the scene, how would it change?”

Cultivating clarity of vision

I hope you’ll indulge my fan-boy-ism for Rian Johnson’s work for one more point before I get down to some more concrete lessons from the Looper script. As someone who, outside of writing, dabbles in photography and videography I am always incredibly impressed by people who don’t just capture things which exist in the world, but can visualize and create before capturing it.

My favorite sequence in Looper is the moment where Cid (Gagnon) manifests his telekinetic powers and kills one of the gangsters who comes after Joe. It is a stunning piece of filmmaking in every respect – editing, sound, cinematography, special effects, etc. A sequence like this no doubt requires a great production crew firing on all cylinders, but you really get the impression here that it was Johnson’s hand on the tiller that guided this masterpiece.

This is further evidenced when you look at the script and you realize that so much of the end product was envisioned by Johnson before they even started production. Here’s a snippet:

INT. FARMHOUSE FOYER / LIVING ROOM (OLD JOE’S MEMORIES)

Sara pulls Joe through the front door, and he looks back and sees Jesse suspended in the air and Cid on the ground screaming like an animal

INT. APARTMENT 205

Old Joe’s face. Remembering.

INT. FARMHOUSE FOYER (OLD JOE MEMORY)

Sara pulls Joe across the threshold, and looking back he sees this:

Jesse explodes in a bright red fan of blood.

Frozen in a tableau – Cid screaming, raw power. Jesse EXPLODING. A bright red fan.

This is part of the reason I wish that readers and other industry types who evaluate scripts would be more tolerant of a little directing on the page. This talent is a rare and beautiful thing, and it shouldn’t be discouraged just because of some archaic perception that it’s not the writer’s job.

Establishing shots

Ok, I’ve made it abundantly clear why I think Rian Johnson is one of the most exciting filmmakers active today, now I’ll get back to some tangible lessons from his Looper script.

If you’ve read a few scripts already you might’ve come across the concept of an establishing shot. Usually this is a short scene which serves to show where the characters are after a cut, or how the location of the following scene fits into its environment.

Establishing shots used to be called out in sluglines much like this:

EXT. CITY – ESTABLISHING – DAY

Helicopters sweep by.

INT. ABE’S OFFICE

Abe stands fuming, flanked by two Gat Men. Kid Blue sits like a kid in detention.

Now if writers like Rian Johnson are still using a notation like that, it’s certainly not a wrong thing to do. But the fashion in Hollywood scripts seems to be going towards letting shots and scenes speak for themselves. An extreme example would be the scene on the I-95 which I mentioned in my Requiem for a Dream analysis.

So, do use establishing shots in your writing to set the scene, but you don’t necessarily have to describe them as such.

Moving perspective within a scene

One thing that comes up fairly frequently in screenwriting is the necessity to shift perspective within a scene. I haven’t entirely decided on my favorite way to do this, but at the moment I tend to use the character’s name who I’m shifting to by itself in a slugline. For example:

The creature’s foot breaks through the door.

JIM

sets his back to a table and pushes it in front of the door.

COURTNEY

gathers heavy items to put on it.

In the Looper script, Johnson goes about it as follows:

EXT. FIELD – WITH CID & SARA

The wide bare field. Cid runs ahead towards the cane, Sara not far behind. The earth soft, their feet sink in, like a nightmare.

EXT. FIELD – WITH OLD JOE

Old Joe crosses the road and chases them onto the field, firing at them on the run.

EXT. FIELD – WITH CID & SARA

Bullets thunk in the earth. Sara stumbles, exhausted. Cid turns, about thirty feet ahead of her.

My only issue with that way of doing things is how much of the information is redundant. As I mentioned in my Requiem for a Dream analysis, I’m a big fan of anything which gets sluglines out of the way of the reader.

On the other hand, you’re probably going to have to move your cameras, lights and crew to get those other shots, so maybe it’s better to be clearer about that shift.

I haven’t quite made up my mind on this one yet, so I’m going to take a note to pay specific attention to it in future scripts. For now you’ve at least got Rian Johnson’s example to go off and that’s not a bad place to start, in many respects.

In summation

Creating an emotional hook for your audience is all about creating characters who are relatable, even if they aren’t necessarily likeable. If you can clearly visualize every last detail of a scene before anyone even touches a camera, you have a rare and great talent which will stand you well if you ever decide to become a director. Establishing shots serve a useful purpose in a script, but these days it’s not expected that you label them as such. One way of moving perspective in a scene is to split it out by shots with a slugline like ‘INT. <LOCATION> –  WITH <CHARACTER>’.

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