Looper, the ingenious new sci-fi drama from writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick), has one hell of a setup. The year is 2044, and time travel hasn’t been invented yet — but it will be. And when it is, it immediately becomes illegal. But in the bombed-out dystopian American future of Johnson’s imagining, time travel’s illegality just means powerful crime syndicates are the only ones with access to it. Due to implanted tracking devices, disposing of bodies in the future is impossible. So the mobsters dispatch their targets back to 2044, bound and hooded, where they are immediately shot and killed by assassins known as “loopers,” who then incinerate the remains. But a new crime boss known as The Rainmaker has risen to power, and he is determined to “close the loops” by finding the future versions of the assassins from 2044, sending them back in time and having them killed — by the younger versions of themselves. Got that? The loopers are understandably perturbed by this, and a moment’s hesitation can lead to the older version of themselves escaping and creating quite a time-space conundrum. Such is the case with Joe, played in 2044 by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and in the future by Bruce Willis.
All that craziness that I just described? That’s just the first act. For as much jaw-droppingly daredevil fun as Looper has with time travel as a plot device, it is ultimately not about time travel. Rather, it is an unexpectedly intimate and moving film about unloved men, the endless cycle of violence, and the power of a single selfless act. Once old Joe gets loose, he becomes hellbent on finding the younger version of The Rainmaker and killing him, whatever age he is, to prevent his own execution. Young Joe attempts to cut him off by finding the target first and intercepting him; he gradually comes to believe that The Rainmaker might be a little boy named Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who lives with his hard-ass mother Sara (Emily Blunt) on an isolated farm. Despite Sara’s protests that she doesn’t need his help, young Joe camps out in the barn to keep a constant watch for his older self, while old Joe doggedly searches for his target and The Rainmaker’s henchmen continue to close in on both of them.
With a supporting cast featuring Jeff Daniels, Piper Perabo, Garret Dillahunt, and Noah Segan, Looper is distinguished as much by the strength of its performances as its clever setup and emotionally earnest message. Gordon-Levitt, sporting facial prosthetics to look more believable as the younger version of Bruce Willis, pulls off a particularly remarkable feat, given that the two actors are totally dissimilar. He disappears into the role so completely that it is easy to forget you’re even watching him. It is the latest remarkable performance the former child star has delivered since his startlingly adult turn in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004), and whose matinee idol status was minted by films like (500) Days of Summer and Inception. This summer he’s been damn near impossible to avoid, and the year of JGL isn’t over yet: he’ll appear as Robert Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated Lincoln this winter. Below, Spinning Platters sits down with Gordon-Levitt to discuss his epic summer, learning how to act like Bruce Willis, and his upcoming directorial debut. And below that, we chat with writer/director Rian Johnson about reuniting with his Brick star Gordon-Levitt, what it’s like having Bruce Willis on your set, and how he came up with this crazy idea in the first place. [Transcripts courtesy of the generous and very decent Mel Valentin]
In Looper, your version of Joe isn’t much of a killer. He’s a killer in a fish-in-a-barrel kind of way. Bruce Willis’ Joe is a real killer. Did you feel constrained by body language to show the difference between the two?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Well, I wouldn’t say constrained, but that’s an astute observation. Joe is not a hero. He’s sort of a lost soul. He’s low on the totem pole, just making his money. I like that about him. At the center of an action movie isn’t a particularly admirable guy.
How was it portraying a morally ambiguous protagonist and still making him likeable?
Gordon-Levitt: There really aren’t good guys and bad guys in the movie. I like that. In real life, there aren’t good guys and bad guys. Even though it can be fun to root for the heroes and villains in a movie, in real life, I don’t think anyone is black or white. Everyone is some kind of shade of grey. I think it’s particularly intriguing to cast Bruce [as that character] since we’re used to seeing him as a hero. Everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing. I love that. I think that’s how human beings really are.
I noticed a balancing act between when you portrayed the Bruce Willis side of your character in terms of the physicality, more than just the prosthetics. They’re really not that similar. They’ve obviously had different experiences. For most of the movie, they’re trying to kill each other, so when did you decide to exaggerate the portrayal Bruce Willis side of yourself?
Gordon-Levitt: The whole character was based on him for sure. I studied him. I watched his movies. I ripped the audio off his movies so I could listen on repeat. He even recorded some of my voiceover monologues and sent me that recording so I could hear what they sounded like in his voice. And just getting to know him, spending time with him, letting it seep in. It’s a really fascinating way to create a character. That’s always my favorite thing, to transform, to become someone else. If I watch a movie [I was in] and see a moment that reminds me of myself, I always feel like I messed that up. I want to see someone different. The premise of Looper presents a unique challenge in that way.
This is practically your summer. You’ve had three movies come out in three consecutive months. Of the three movies, which one did you find the most challenging?
Gordon-Levitt: Well, they were all challenging in totally different ways. Looper‘s probably the most transformative movie I’ve ever done. Physically, Premium Rush was probably the hardest work. The Dark Knight Rises is such a grand thing in all of its psyches. Batman is such a sanctified character. To be in that movie, it had its own kind of stakes.
How do you go about bringing vulnerability to these kinds of characters?
Gordon-Levitt: You have to love your character, even if they’re doing terrible things. It’s sort of the way a mom loves a child. If you judge your character and approach [him] from the outside, it’ll be lost, it’ll be false. Everyone tries to be the best person they can be. You have to have to have that empathy [for your character].
It’s so fascinating to see this character 30 years apart and look at both halves and how they came together. Is there another character you’ve played that you’d be curious to see 30 years down the road from when you portrayed him?
Gordon-Levitt: [laughs] I’ll say Hesher.
You think he’d still be alive?
Gordon-Levitt: That’s a good question. If he is, I’d like to see how he pulled that off.
To shift gears, working with Rian again after working with him on Brick six or seven years ago?
Gordon-Levitt: We’ve been really close friends since then. He really is one of my dearest friends in the world. To work with someone like that is rare and a pleasure. It makes it fun. Obviously, there are differences between Brick and Looper. This is a much bigger-scaled movie. He and I have both grown and done a lot of other things. But I think the similarities are more striking than the differences. Even though this is a big sci-fi/action movie, we’re still making something that we thought would be cool. There was never any desire to cater the movie to commercial market-research nonsense, and that’s a real testament to him. He just tells the story that he wants to tell. He never talks down to his audience. That’s something that Rian and Chris [Nolan] have in common. They never talk down to their audience and they’re not afraid to challenge their audience. I think that’s a big part of why people love Chris’ movies and a big part why people will love Looper.
Did you and Rian talk about the time travel component?
Gordon-Levitt: A little bit. Not that much. It’s pretty simple. It’s a movie that uses time travel, but it’s not about time travel and I like that. Most of my favorite sci-fi [movies] are that way. It can be fun to watch sci-fi movies that are about the shiny objects, but I think the best sci-fi for me uses [time travel] as a springboard to get at really basic human questions. The Dark Knight Rises is a drama. It’s a superhero movie, but it’s ultimately a drama. Looper too. It’s about what you would say to your future self if you could have that conversation. Obviously, that can’t happen in real life, so Rian used the sci-fi genre and the time-travel device to dramatize that question. That’s really its place. Beyond that, it gets out of the way.
What can you tell us about your upcoming directorial debut?
Gordon-Levitt: I wrote a script called Don John’s Addiction. We just finished shooting it two months ago and we’re in the process of editing it. I wrote myself a fun part. I wrote Scarlett Johansson a really fun part. She liked the script so much that she did it, which is an honor. She’s fantastic in the movie. She’s really funny and really different than any character I’ve seen her play before. Julianne Moore is also in the movie. I think she’s one of the great actors alive. Tony Danza plays my dad. It’s turning out really well. It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The first person I showed a draft of my script? Rian. He’s been really, enormously supportive.
The three female characters are all very independent and strong. How vital do you think that was to the narrative and the thematic structures?
Gordon-Levitt: The two main guys in the movie are being selfish. The only example of a character not acting out of selfishness is Emily Blunt’s character, Sara. Even though Older Joe, Bruce’s character, is trying to protect his wife, I think he’s doing it out of selfishness. He’s trying to protect what’s his. Young Joe, same thing. He’s trying to protect what’s his. Sara’s the only one who’ll put herself in front of a gun to protect herself, even though Cid is kind of thankless, even though her job is kind of thankless. He won’t even call her mom. She still loves him. She still cares for him and wants him to grow up good. That to me is the heart of the story. It’s actually with Emily’s character. That’s the part that always makes me cry. It’s her bit at the end. It’s a real testament to Rian that he didn’t just write a couple of pretty girls. They’re actually characters that are fundamental to the story.
I found it interesting that the change in your character didn’t really occur when you met your older self, but came through Sara and Cid. Do you feel that they were the catalyst for your character’s change of heart or do you think it’s a little more complicated than that?
Gordon-Levitt: I think that’s well put. [Young Joe] finding a connection with other people that he really didn’t have before, rather than just looking out for himself. He does something selfless at the end. That’s the endless cycle that the movie’s describing. If everyone just looks out for themselves, you get a perpetual loop of everyone pointing fingers, everyone blaming each other, everyone killing each other. It takes an act of selflessness to break that [cycle].
How was it like to have Bruce Willis kind of enhance the film – because Joseph [Gordon-Levitt] said that Joe is just based off of Bruce Willis.
Rian Johnson: Yeah, he wrapped himself around [Bruce Willis]. If you picture in your head what you hope working with Bruce Willis would be like, that’s what he was like. He showed up just ready to commit himself entirely to the part. He was cool, but he was focused and just entirely in it. And that was really nice because, as someone who obviously grew up watching his movies, he’s like a hero and kind of an icon. There’s that nervous feeling like when you’re going up the hill in a roller-coaster leading up to production looking at his name on the call-sheet. You cast an icon but when you show up to work on set, that dissipates very quickly and you’re just working with an actor, a really great actor who is just all about getting to the emotional truth of each moment. So yeah, I had no idea what to expect and it just ended up being a total joy.
How did you coordinate with both Bruce and Joseph on how similar or dissimilar you wanted them to be?
Johnson: It was pretty one-sided because Joe was the one who wrapped himself around Bruce. There wasn’t a lot that went the other way, so that helped, and Joe could start getting to work very early before he even met Bruce. One thing that I think was really smart that Joe did was he didn’t look at Bruce when he was Joe’s age, he looked at him today. He watched Sin City quite a bit. That seems like a slight distinction but was really critical, because he was basing his performance on Bruce today instead of imitating Bruce as a young man. He was creating a new character who [the audience] could buy as the Bruce who’s on the screen, instead of doing an imitation of what Bruce was actually like when he was younger.
With a sci-fi movie featuring something so complex as time-travel, you run the risk of slowing down the narrative and entertainment value. What was your approach of pushing the mythology of time travel while maintaining the entertainment value of the film?
Johnson: This movie uses time travel, but at the end of the day it’s not about time travel. So it was wanting time travel to do its job, set up the situation, and then to some extent get out of the way. For me the model of that I really looked to was the first Terminator [film]. That movie is so deft with its use of time travel, it’s easy to forget that it’s a time travel movie. That’s a great example of it; time travel lights the fuse and then steps back. This situation that time travel has created is the thing that drives the film until the end.
So that setup helped quite a bit, but I’m also a big sci-fi fan myself, I’m a big time travel nerd, I love time travel movies. I didn’t want to use those marching orders to myself as an excuse to be lazy with the time travel element of it. I did spend quite a bit of time coming up with what my rules were for how the universe dealt with the time travel paradoxes and what the particular logic of this was going to be. I can’t say that it makes sense. No time travel movie makes sense if you look at it hard enough, but there was a consistent set of rules that we stuck to for it. Then it was a matter of disciplining myself to not explain those rules, but to just show the effects of them.
Even though we don’t have a chalkboard scene where we describe the rules for twenty minutes, my hope is if you’re really into that you can take a look at the cause and effect, how it plays out, and reverse-engineer to realize there is a net of a thought-out system underneath.
I’m curious in your original conception of this, what was the first seed? Was it the idea of creating an amazing device to tell a story through? Or was it being able to close those loops of revenge and chasing love against all odds?
Johnson: Actually, the first thing that I wrote was this three-page script that I meant to make as a short film. This was ten years ago, back before we made Brick. At some point I’ll put the short out on the internet–
Did you actually film it?
Johnson: I never filmed it. I don’t want to put it out now because it actually spoils the ending. It was voiceover-driven, basically the opening narration of the film, and then when his older self shows up the whole short is a foot chase across the city while he talks through the moral conundrum he’s going through. Then they reach the beach at the end of it and there’s a confrontation between them. And it does have some of the bits that ended up being in the finished film, but it doesn’t have any of the Sara and Cid stuff. When I pulled that short out of the drawer a few years ago after The Brothers Bloom, I latched onto that stuff and realized how it could be served by that kind of setup. Then it just took off and expanded into a feature.
You mentioned Brick, which I know was heavily influenced by Dashiell Hammett and spaghetti westerns. Were there any similarly big influences for Looper?
Johnson: Not as directly. There is nothing I can point to with the directness of the way that Hammett is to Brick. But when I wrote [the Looper] short I had discovered Philip K. Dick and I was in the middle of blowing through all of his books, so my head was kind of steeped in that. Also in just a general sense, I always think of [Ray] Bradbury. Bradbury, for me, is the master of that thing I love most about sci-fi. It uses a concept like this, it uses this kind of magical construct, this phony technology of time travel or what have you, to amplify this very human emotion or theme to get to something that is going to leave you crying at the end of it.
So I guess in a general way those two authors, and then I mentioned Terminator. One movie I studied that I probably owe more to for this movie than any science fiction movie is the film Witness with Harrison Ford, actually. Particularly once they get on the farm, that movie is just masterful, seeing how it keeps the tension up even when they get to the farm. I studied and diagrammed that script and tried to figure out how they did it, basically.
You said the original genesis was the short story, but it felt that the 2044 future – the backstory was that there was a massive economic recession or depression and that influences how people behave, the haves and the have-nots. When did you start writing that element into the script?
Johnson: It’s funny, that conception of the future was, for me, a practical consideration. These characters, especially Joe at the beginning, are acting out of a desperate self-interest. And showing why he’s acting that way, it made sense for me to put them in a world where there was no cushion, there was no middle class. You either have your piece of the pie, your stack of silver, or it’s straight to the bottom and just dangerous destitution.
And Joe’s arc in the movie – another film that has nothing to do with sci-fi that I looked really directly to is Casablanca, you know Rick’s arc of going from, “I stick my neck for nobody,” to the selfless act that he does at the end of it. It also starts with a montage showing the desperation of all the people that are in this world and why they’re acting that way. Hopefully to give you a cushion to realize he’s not a bad guy, he’s just in a situation where this has to happen.
As the film moves along, there’s this constant debate surrounding Cid that eventually comes to the forefront. Is that kind of question something that you always intended to explore through a sci-fi movie?
Johnson: Yeah, it’s something that developed as I started working on it. It was pretty early in the process of expanding it to a feature, that’s really what I grabbed on to. There’s obviously this old-man, young-man thing, and the notion of using that to set up this moral choice between – in many ways Joe at the end of the movie sees old Joe not as who he’s going to be, but who he was, he sees the selfish actions that old Joe is doing. Now old Joe has this view of his actions, he thinks he’s justified by love, he thinks he’s grown beyond his younger self and he’s found true love. Now in reality you look just beneath the surface, he’s doing exactly what Joe did at the beginning, he’s killing people in order to hold on to what he says is his. So old Joe represents where young Joe was in many ways, more than where he’s going. And Sara is really the other side of the moral compass. The whole thing is constructed to give this moral choice at the end between old Joe’s way of solving problems, finding the right person and killing them, versus Sara’s way of nurturing and raising your kids right to help the future.
Looper opens on Friday, September 28.