Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Writer/Director Rian Johnson Talk LOOPER, Sci-Fi, and Transforming into Bruce Willis

     March 19, 2012


In the futuristic action thriller Looper, from writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom), the mob uses time travel to get rid of someone by sending their target 30 years into the past where a hired gun (known as a “looper”) is waiting to assassinate them. And then, one day, a looper named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) suddenly recognizes one of his targets as his future self (played by Bruce Willis). The film also stars Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo and Jeff Daniels.

Prior to their panel presentation at WonderCon 2012, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and filmmaker Rian Johnson met with press to talk about why they enjoy working together, the push and pull between how much to reveal about a movie and how much to keep secret, having Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis playing the same character at different ages, the nearly three-hour make-up process involved, how they would describe the futuristic universe of the film, the influences for the time travel, and whether this film could be the start of a franchise. Check out what they had to say after the jump:

Also, if you missed our recap of the Looper WonderCon panel, click here.

rian-johnson-imageQuestion: What draws you to keep working with each other?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: I just love working with someone that has a real voice as a filmmaker. There are lots of ways to make a movie and, let’s be honest, most movies follow a formula, which can be pretty boring. But then, you get certain artists who you can tell right away that it’s one of their movies, and Rian is one of those. It’s an honor to be in his movies. It was an honor to be in his first movie. And he wrote this role for me, which has never happened to me before, that I writer actually wrote a role for me to act in. That meant a lot.

RIAN JOHNSON: We did Brick together and we’ve stayed friends since then, so it’s that combined with the fact that he’s just such a phenomenally talented actor and such a pleasure to work with. With Joe, and with the other actors and crew, that’s the way that we work. We’re slowly building up a little family of friends that we like making movies with. I think it’s always better that way.

A lot of times, it’s hard to find the audience for a film and get people interested enough to go out and see it, but with this, people are clamoring just to see the first possible footage. What does that feel like? How gratifying is that?

GORDON-LEVITT: It’s nice. I love movies. I don’t just like them, I love them. So, to be somewhere like WonderCon, amongst other people who feel that strongly as well, is exciting.

JOHNSON: We were talking about the push and pull of how much you tell and how much you hold back. When I see a news story on a site, about a movie that I’m interested in, it’s like the mouse going for the pleasure button and I click it. But then, when I see the movie, it’s like, “Oh, I would have enjoyed the movie that much more, if I hadn’t known that.” For me, this is the first time I’m working with a movie where there is that thing of, “How much do we give away? How much do we tease?” It’s an interesting process.

looper-joseph-gordon-levitt-imageSo, what can you tease about this movie?

JOHNSON: The first big thing is how Joe plays a younger version of Bruce Willis, with the prosthetic make-up on him. We slathered his face with uncomfortable gunk.

GORDON-LEVITT: It took almost three hours to apply the make-up. It’s a different face, and that was obviously the foundation of the character. Well, that’s not true. The foundation of the character was just Bruce [Willis], and studying him, watching his movies and listening to his voice. For me, it was definitely one of the more interesting challenges I’ve ever tackled, as an actor. I think I could probably say that it’s my favorite performance of my own.

Since the role was written for Joe, how did you decide that Bruce Willis would be the right actor to play the older version of the character?

JOHNSON: I had already written it for Joe, and then we cast Bruce in it, and then we dealt with, “Okay, how do we figure this out?” As our ingenious make-up designer pointed out, they actually look very dissimilar. They don’t look alike, at all. So, our approach was to pick a couple key features and alter those. When Joe showed up on set and started shooting, I was still very, very nervous ‘cause we had committed to this extreme make-up and it’s not like we had totally transformed him, so that he looked like Bruce in Moonlighting, or something. It was a hybrid. But, when Joe kicked in the performance, I knew that was going to take it a long way. It was amazing how much of a transformation there was, once Joe started doing the voice. The other thrilling thing about it, for me, was that it wasn’t imitation. He created a character, but it was a character that could be a young Bruce Willis. It was an amazing high-wire act that Joe was pulling off, every day. For me, it was just really fun to watch.

looper-movie-image-bruce-willis-empire-01Did you and Bruce Willis meet and talk about how you were going to play the same character?

GORDON-LEVITT: I based my character on him. I watched his movies, and I would take the audio out of his movies and put it on my iPod, so I could listen to him. But, most of all, I just got to hang out with him, have dinner, have conversations and get to know him. It was a fascinating challenge because I didn’t want to do an impression of him. First of all, I’m not a good impersonator. Second of all, I just didn’t think that would be appropriate. It’s not a comedy. But, creating a character that was more him than me was fascinating. Then, we had this special effects makeup, every morning, for three hours, so my face is not my face. To look in the mirror every day and see someone else’s face was a trip. It was sort of a dream. As an actor, what I get off on most is becoming someone else.

What did you learn about Bruce as you were studying his work, and what was the biggest challenge for you?

GORDON-LEVITT: Bruce is actually a very understated guy. It’s interesting because he’s such a large personality that your first instinct is to try to be large. But, in fact, he draws a lot of his power from stillness, and he actually speaks quietly. It tricks you, at first, because you wouldn’t think that he speaks quietly because his voice makes such a powerful impression. It took me a second to figure that out. I do think that a lot of the closest moments that I got him were actually the quieter, stiller moments.

joseph-gordon-levitt-looper-movie-imageDid you discover how he carried himself physically and do that?

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, sure. It was pretty cool.

What was that three-hour make-up process like?

GORDON-LEVITT: Kazuhiro Tsuji is the name of the make-up designer. Ask any make-up designer in Hollywood about him and they’re like, “Oh, wow, Kazu.” He’s brilliant. Watching him work is like actually watching an alchemist. That’s so much fun because a lot of the great artists today are all about what they can do with computers, which is cool, and I love making art with computers, but Kazu makes art completely within the physical world. I’m not kidding you. He seems like a magician. He has a line of these different bottles, brushes, solutions and formulas, and it all went on my face. Once it was done, I literally looked like somebody else. It was bizarre.

Was the plan always to have two different actors for the older and younger versions of this character?

JOHNSON: Initially, when I cast Joe and we were talking about it before we had cast Bruce, we were talking about the option of just doing make-up or something else.

rian-johnsonGORDON-LEVITT: The egotistical actor in me was like, “Let me do both!,” but I’m so glad that’s not what we did.

JOHNSON: The reason that I actually came down against it was twofold. First, I think with aging make-up on younger actors, I don’t feel like I’ve ever seen it completely work. There’s been some tremendous work that’s been done, but I feel like, if you know what an actor looks like who’s young, as a movie-goer, I can usually see right through it. The bigger thing for me, and what emotionally pulled me into the movie, was the idea of a young man sitting across from an older man, who’s himself. You can make someone up. Joe is a fantastic actor. But, there’s something about a span of 25 years between two people that you can’t fake. That just buys you something that’s intangible and very essential to what this movie is basically about. And so, I thought it was really important to have two actors actually sitting across from each other, with that age gap between them.

GORDON-LEVITT: And there’s no way that I could have delivered the character that Bruce did. Bruce is magnificent in this movie. He gives a really strong performance. That’s not something I could have done, at all.

Rian, was science fiction something you had always wanted to do?

looper-rian-johnson-movie-image-set-photo-time-machine-01JOHNSON: Yeah, I love sci-fi, and I’ve always wanted to do a sci-fi film. Sci-fi is fun because it always goes with another genre. I don’t know what a straight sci-fi film would be. Blade Runner was a sci-fi noir. Alien was a sci-fi monster movie. I love the genre so much. In terms of switching it up, it’s because I write these things too and I’m a very slow writer. By the time I’m done, I’ve spent three or four years on each of these movies and I just want to do something totally different because I’m so sick of that previous one.

What’s the co-genre of this film?

JOHNSON: I actually just want people to see the movie. I could give an answer to that, but part of the fun of the movie is just figuring out what it is. But, it is something that, in that more meta way, keeps you guessing throughout the course of the movie.

Joe, are you a big fan of genre-style movies? Is this something you get excited about, as an audience member?

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, absolutely! I think a lot of my favorite filmmakers, like Kubrick or the Coen Brothers, take a genre and then put their own unique twists on it. That’s what Rian has done. On the title page of the script for Brick, it said, “A detective story.” And, on the title page for The Brothers Bloom, which I got to read, even though I wasn’t it in it, it said, “A con-man’s story.” On the title page for Looper, it said, “A sci-fi story.” I love that because genres give a vocabulary. They give a frame of reference for the audience to enter into a movie. Then, once they have their footing, that’s when you can start doing things that they don’t expect.

joseph-gordon-levitt-imageHow would you describe the universe of this film?

JOHNSON: Well, it’s the near future and it’s very, very grounded. It is 30 years in the future. It’s kind of dystopian. Everything has fallen apart a little bit. But, it’s not as completely conceptualized as something like Blade Runner. It is a little more grounded and a little more down-to-earth. The truth is that, even though we had some fun with the futuristic elements, the movie is very action and character driven. The world that it takes place in was less about making a very distinct future world and more about these characters really driving us through this thing. It was more about, “What’s a world that we can pull off on our budget that looks real and makes sense, as a future?”

Joe, were there any cool futuristic gadgets or things that your character gets to play with?

GORDON-LEVITT: It’s a different answer than you’re asking for, but what I thought was really cool about this future was that it wasn’t chalk full of shiny new toys. I thought it spoke really honestly to some of the dark truths about where our society is headed. We’re not doing so hot these days, in many respects. Seeing kids living in tents, and stuff like that, we don’t like to think about it here, in the United States, because it’s not happening so often here, yet. It’s happening in India. So, to see the future Kansas City and to see that kind of poverty, I thought was really powerful.

With time travel comes rules. Did you start from scratch to create your own idea of how time travel works, or were you influenced by other methods?

JOHNSON: The biggest influence, in terms of how to handle it from a storytelling point of view, was the first Terminator movie. I loved that film, for so many reasons. The genius thing about how it uses time travel was how it set up the premise and then got out of the way, so you’re not spending the whole movie explaining things on chalkboards. I also love time travel movies that do that. Primer is one of my favorite films. But, for this specifically, it’s really the characters and the action that drives it through. For me, it was about, “How do we use time travel without making the audience think about time travel, the entire time?”

Rian, as a filmmaker who wants to work in different genres, is it easy to convince the powers that be to let you make movies that go in an entirely different direction?

joseph-gordon-levitt-imageJOHNSON: I’ve been really lucky. I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of really interesting filmmakers working in sci-fi, right now. The stuff that Duncan Jones is doing is really interesting, and you’re seeing a lot of smaller sci-fi movies that take some risks that bigger ones maybe can’t. I think one of the things that’s appealing about it, besides just loving it and having grown up watching sci-fi and being a fan of it, is that there’s something about the sci-fi genre that gets an audience interested in it, so maybe you can take some risks that you couldn’t, if you were just doing a drama. It lets you maybe reach a little further and surprise people a little bit more because there’s still that little safety base of working on that genre that everybody loves.

Joe, you’ve worked with some pretty amazing directors. Is the director almost as important as your interest in a role?

GORDON-LEVITT: The director is more important. The director is the most important because, ultimately, as an actor, when you watch a movie, it looks like an actor is giving a performance, and they kind of are. But, what’s actually happening is that an actor has given a bunch of ingredients over to a director, who then constructs a performance. That’s movie-making. It’s different than theatre acting, when you’re giving a performance right to your audience. Rian is not only a great writer, he’s a great director and he’s also a great editor, and that means a lot. I trust him to take all this footage that he shot – tons and tons of footage – and put all those little pieces together and create a performance. He makes me look good.

JOHNSON: Well, the other side of that is that Joe is also a fantastic filmmaker himself. Hearing an actor articulate acting, as part of the whole process, and be so conscience of that and still be able to give such a great performance, is magical. It’s something that, in many ways, I don’t understand how it’s done. I get this child-like wonder, watching. It’s a much more complicated back and forth. When you get in the edit room, you’re assembling the performance and putting it together, but it also wouldn’t work, if you weren’t writing what the actor is giving you and finding what their performance wants to be and finding who the character is, based on using things they’ve given you. It’s not that one is steering the ship or the other. It’s this very strange, symbiotic relationship.

rian-johnson-image-2Have you thought about this film as a franchise or possible sequels, or are you just focusing on this film?

JOHNSON: I don’t think about it. I don’t think in those terms. Storytelling wise, you’ve gotta take it as far as you can possibly take it with each individual movie. If you’re holding out something for a sequel or some cliff-hanger, that’s not how I think of a satisfying story.

GORDON-LEVITT: It’s a very complete story. Rian doesn’t write stuff with money in mind. It’s not that kind of process.

Could you see the character continuing to grow, in additional stories?

JOHNSON: I’d be curious to hear your answer to that, once you see the film.

Joe, speaking of franchises, how do you feel about getting your own The Dark Knight Rises action figure?

GORDON-LEVITT: It’s really thrilling. There’s a Cobra Commander action figure, but I was in a mask. This guy sorta looks like me. It’s a trip!

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