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Joseph Gordon-Levitt And Rian Johnson Explain Looper's Time Travel Laws

One of the greatest things about the science-fiction genre is that it allows the creator to build a world from the ground up. Whether they want it to reflect the world we live in now, or be completely unrecognizable, the author has the chance to do whatever they want. The drawback of this is that rules of the universe need to be created, and that’s particularly important in the case of time travel. So how does writer/director Rian Johnson handle it in his upcoming film Looper?

A few weeks ago I attended WonderCon in Anaheim, California and was given the opportunity to participate in a roundtable interview with Johnson and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and with the release of the movie’s first trailer yesterday I wanted to share it with you. Check out the discussion below in which they talk about making Gordon-Levitt look like Bruce Willis, why they continue to work together, and the movie’s co-genre.

Counting the cameo in The Brothers Bloom this is now the third time that you two have worked together. 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 the film. Here you have people clamoring just to see the first possible footage that they can feast their eyes on. 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.

That being said, what can you tease about this movie?

Johnson: I guess the first big thing is how Joe plays a younger version of Bruce Willis. We did some prosthetic make-up on him.

Gordon-Levitt: Some prosthetic make-up?

Johnson: [laughs] We slathered his face with uncomfortable gunk.

Gordon-Levitt: It was two-and-a-half hours every morning, but it was so worth it. 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, 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 kind of say that it’s my favorite performance of my own.

Given that the role was written for you, Joe, how did you decide that the best actor to play the older version of the character was Bruce Willis? Because you don’t immediately make that connection?

Gordon-Levitt: You don’t? [laughs]

Johnson: If Bruce worked out a little… [laughs]. We cast Bruce in it, because we I had written it for Joe and then we cast Bruce and then we dealt with, “Okay, how do we figure this out?” Because as our ingenious make-up designer pointed out, they actually look very dissimilar. They don’t look alike, at all. So, our approach was we’re going to pick a couple key features and alter those. But what really amazed me was 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 I knew that 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 not only doing the voice – the other thrilling thing about it, for me, was that it wasn’t imitation. He was creating 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.

Were there particular nuances or mannerisms that you kind of keyed in on?

Gordon-Levitt: Yeah. The answer is yes, but if I start to articulate them it would sound silly [laughs].

Rian, your first film, Brick, was very much in the noir spirit and Brothers Bloom sits firmly in the con genre. Was science fiction something you had always wanted to do? What makes you keep wanting to evolve through genres.

Johnson: 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. A straight sci-fi film, I don’t know what that 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: You know, that’s interesting. I actually just want people to see the movie. I could give an answer to that, but part of the fun of the movie, I think, is just figuring out what it is. But it is something that, specifically in that one meta way, keeps you guessing throughout the course of the movie.

With this type of film you have to think that studios are thinking franchise right away. Is that something you would be up for 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 [laughs]. 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.

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.

Gordon-Levitt: The egotistical actor in me was like, “Let me do both!,” [laughs]. 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 the big hook of the movie for me, what emotionally pulled me into it, 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 a performance, 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.

We’ve never seen this universe before. How can you describe the universe to fans?

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, for me, it 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?”

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 – it’s set in Kansas City – and to see that kind of poverty, I thought was really powerful.

This is a time travel movie and 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 handles time travel was how it set up the premise and then time travel gets 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?”

Speaking of Primer, Shane Carruth worked on this film as well, did he not?

Johnson: You know, he ended up giving some notes on the script and we started to collaborate on the concept for some effects, but it was a sequence that ended up getting cut from the movie. So he’s a special “thank you.”

Eric Eisenberg
Eric Eisenberg

NJ native who calls LA home; lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran; endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.