“I can imagine a young actor having a leading role in this big action movie saying, ‘What do you mean? You’re casting me but you want to change my face?’” says Rian Johnson of his awesome sci-fi thriller “Looper,” for which Joseph Gordon-Levitt endured daily three-hour makeup sessions. “Absolutely zero of that with Joe. That’s actually specifically what he loves, is vanishing on screen.”
The writer-director says their well-established working relationship and friendship (since the two collaborated on the fantastic “Brick”) helped the filmmaking process. “It maybe gives you the confidence and gives you the foundation to take some creative leaps that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to take, knowing that your friends have got your back,” he says. “Knowing that if you’ve got something like this, where you’re asking your actor to put on another actor’s face, they’re going to say, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”
In “Looper,” opening Sept. 28, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) must chase down his future self (Bruce Willis) after failing to follow through on his assignment as a looper—and assassin tasked with killing people from the future.
At the Peninsula bar, 38-year-old Johnson talked about the likelihood of time travel, writing for Gordon-Levitt and accidentally referencing “The Terminator.”
In “Looper,” time travel is illegal. If time travel were discovered tomorrow, what do you think would be the result?
I hope it would be instantly outlawed. [Laughs.] Although I guess it didn’t really work in the world of the movie. I started actually researching the scientific reality of time travel and where we’re at with it when I started writing.
Like if we’re almost there?
We are not almost there. We are nowhere close to being almost there. It’s fun to talk about, but when you look into the science of it, the things we’re getting really excited about are sending a subatomic particle back in time a millisecond. Which is really fascinating, amazing stuff, and it’s cool, but in terms of writing a time travel story, it was very useless.
I can see you pitching, “It’s a movie about a subatomic particle.”
Exactly. “He’s a regular guy!” From a moviemaking point of view, what you study is not time travel; what you study is how other stories use time travel. So you watch time travel movies, you read time travel books and you try and figure out how they manage to take this very complicated concept and tame it into the fabric of the narrative and have it serve the characters and story and not the other way around.
You wrote this part for Joseph. How did that shape the role?
Well, there’s nothing of Joe in this actual part. Thank God. My friend Joe is a completely opposite person than the character in this movie. So it didn’t shape the part in that way. Besides just wanting to work with my friend, it made a lot of sense to me because I knew the part was going to require a total transformation on the part of the young actor. I knew no matter who we cast as the older actor, the young man was going to have to wrap himself around that older man’s persona. And Joe, that’s his bread and butter. That’s what he loves to do, and that’s what he’s really good at. He loves to disappear into a part, to use the external to really find the internal and vanish inside of that. This was that on a big, big, big scale.
How tempted were you to cast Morgan Freeman as the older Joe and say, “Make it believable”!
“Make it work. Go for it, buddy. It’s all on you.” We obviously had to get it so we could get it close enough without it being ridiculous. That having been said, we set ourselves a pretty impossible task casting Bruce Willis. I was really excited about it because he’s a fantastic actor and he’s Bruce [bleeping] Willis, but really they couldn’t look more dissimilar. So in that way we had quite a conundrum on our hands. So we kind of placed our chips on, yeah, we’re going to do a little bit of makeup, it seemed like it would be fun, and hopefully would help a little bit at least doing some subtle adjustments using prosthetics to his face, but the big thing was trusting that Joe could pull it off with his performance. I think that’s what makes it tick.
“Looper” has a really interesting view of the future: The economy fell apart, there are problems with the auto industry. Where would you get ideas like that?
[Laughs.] It’s speculative fiction! It’s all fantasy, obviously. [Laughs.] No, it’s interesting to me too because obviously it’s not a political movie. It’s not making any kind of real social comment directly, but it is interesting to see how this world we created, where the middle class is totally gone and it’s just you either have your piece of the pie or you’re absolutely destitute—that just kind of exists in the background of this movie. But to see that resonate with people is just really interesting.
You talked about how people in the past would have their minds by modern technology. How do you think some events of the past would have been different with current technology? Like WWII with Facebook?
Communication in the era of WWII or WWI, it’s fascinating to read stories from those wars and to see the insane stuff that happened just because you couldn’t send a message across the world or across the country [laughs] very quickly or very accurately. But it’s not like we don’t have wars and violence today with that technology. If anything it’s maybe the killing has just become more efficient I guess. That’s a whole ‘nother genre right, alternative history. So that’s something, “Man in the High Castle” stuff. Maybe that’s for the next movie.
Does that interest you, alternative history? I always thought it was a little strange to view things that way.
It’s interesting. It doesn’t grab me the way that—for me the sci-fi that I really love is stuff that illuminates human stuff you can deal with in the present. So even if it’s a far out-there concept, “What if?” is less interesting to me than something that can actually show you for the world around you and the way that you deal with it now, this is something that you can relate to. I feel like I’m not articulating this very well. For instance, in “Looper” the time travel element of it is this big fantasy element, obviously. And having an older self and younger self is a very out-there sci-fi concept, but what it gets to at the end of the day is an older man sitting across from a younger man and the younger man saying, “I’m not going to turn into you,” and the older man saying, “What the hell are you doing? You’re doing everything wrong. I’ve seen where you’re going to end up.” And anyone who’s ever been a teenager and had an argument with their father or been a father and had an argument with their son can relate to that, can get hit in the heart with that. Any good sci-fi, that’s what I love about it, is when it can get to the present moment.
Some characters in “Looper” have TK mutations that allow them to elevate objects. What’s a mutation you wouldn’t mind having?
Well, you’d have to do some sci-fi magic, manipulations to figure out how this could be done with the generic mutation but I guess flight is the thing. The TK thing would be fun. It’d be nice not to have to go across the room for the remote. [Laughs.] You start thinking to superpowers though when you start thinking about genetic mutation, so obviously invisibility vs. flight, isn’t that the big, classic question it comes down to?
I feel like if there was someone in that position of having to make a snap decision, they’re like, “Oh, no, do I want to fly or get the remote faster, um …. Remote! Oh, no!”
[Laughs.] As a kid, that’s what the force would be useful for right now. “Click.”
I interviewed you on a red carpet for “The Brothers Bloom” a few years ago. You told me you were only going to stick to “B” movies and said it would be “berfect.” Why not make “Blooper” and stay on that track?
[Laughs.] We gotta have a blooper reel on it, right? “Blooper,” I like that. Or “Booper.” That’d be pretty good. It sounds like a baby word for belching. It’d be a whole different movie. Maybe the next one I guess.
Or a movie about Betty Boop’s fans.
Oh!!! I’m surprised someone hasn’t done “Booper” and transposed Betty Boop’s head onto Joe on the poster. We had a Pokemon one that somebody did; you see that one? It was, shoot, what was the name of it? One of the Pokemon characters sounds like “Looper” and they changed it and they put the Pokemon thing upside-down, the two things that Pokemon transforms into.
When I found out Emily Blunt’s character’s name in “Looper” was Sara, was it fair to wonder if that was a nod to “Terminator”?
You know what’s funny, it was a few weeks into shooting that, this is going to sound ridiculous, that I realized, “Oh, shit, yeah, Sarah Connor. [Bleep].” Actually, I think I might have changed it if I had realized earlier because it seems like such a big, obvious nod to it. But I don’t know, very different characters, so hopefully people will let it slide or take it as a good thing. We do owe quite a lot to the first “Terminator” in terms of how we use time travel.
Is it possible that it could have been a self-conscious thing?
Sure, yeah, absolutely. It’s funny the things you figure out after the fact. Years after you make a film where you’re like, “Oh, wait a minute, that came from there.” … I can’t think of any specific example. It feels like they happen frighteningly often, though. You’ll be remembering the name of a character and you’ll say, “Oh, wait, that was my best friend in high school.”
On memories of Chicago and Mundelein, where his mom’s side of the family is from: “I went to [Marriott’s Great America and] Cubs games with my mom and my grandma. Mostly I got memories of Mundelein. Bill’s Pizza up in Mundelein. I just have really strong childhood memories of coming here and those sweltering Chicago summers. It was all through when I was growing up. My grandparents lived in the house that my mom was born in. Not born in but grew up in. Since early early age up through when my grandparents’ passed I was coming here. I got uncles and cousins who still live in Mundelein. They actually came to the screening last night, it was really fun.”
If he had 30 free years to live after his loop was closed: “I would try and get a few more movies made. I would make a documentary about the fact that my [previous] self will be coming back in 30 years to kill me.”
On “Looper” bonus footage: “There’s going to be like 45 minutes of deleted scenes on the DVD. And really good scenes, I think. Stuff that individually is my favorite stuff that we did, but just didn’t end up being required by the narrative so we had to lose ‘em.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “I feel like even the stuff is termed as a guilty pleasure movie, it’s stuff that you genuinely enjoy, so the term guilty pleasure … ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre,’ but I can’t claim that as a guilty pleasure. I’ll look like an asshole. Or ‘Topsy Turvy,’ I guess I put on all the time. ‘Man Who Would Be King.’ Music-wise I’m a big Billy Joel fan. I love Billy Joel stuff. I don’t even know if that’s a guilty pleasure, but I will unabashedly cruise down Sunset Boulevard blasting ‘Big Shot’ …” (Only ’80s Joel, like ‘Step Brothers’?) “I will run the gamut, man. I will listen to ‘The Bridge,’ I will listen to ‘Stranger,’ I will listen to ‘Cold Spring Harbor,’ I will go all the way through.” (Even after ‘River of Dreams’?) “I will go post-‘River of Dreams’ on your ass, are you kidding me? Yes! His Russia period. ‘Goodnight, Saigon.’ ‘We will all go down together.’ Yes! I will absolutely put my chips on Billy Joel any day of the week.”