Rian Johnson's Looper is not only one of the best movies of the year, but it's also one of the best time travel movies ever made. It's smart, action-packed, romantic, philosophical, mind-bending, and fast-paced, with terrific performances and solid visual effects. I can't recommend it enough, and you can read my full review here.
Just as a quick refresher, the film follows a man named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is a "looper," an assassin in 2044 Kansas who kills people the mafia send back from the future. (It's impossible to dispose of a body in the future, so they send them back in time to have the dirty work done then.) When Joe discovers that he's supposed to kill the older version of himself (Bruce Willis), things get a bit more complicated as the mafia comes after both incarnations of the same man. That's the very, very basic plot, and that's all I'll say so I don't spoil any key reveals for you. (Seriously - go see this film as soon as possible.)
On Tuesday, I joined a few other journalists at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to interview some of the talent behind the film, which hits theaters tomorrow, September 28th, 2012. Writer/director Rian Johnson, actor Noah Segan (who plays Kid Blue in the film), and lead actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt sat down with us to talk about time travel, becoming Bruce Willis, and the moral conundrums the film presents.
As the writer/director behind the 2005 high school noir Brick and the fantastic 2008 con man film The Brothers Bloom, Johnson has proven adept at bouncing around between genres. But did tackling a science fiction story - more specifically, a time travel story - give him any pause?
As a writer, time travel is a real tricky thing to jump into. Especially when, as is the case with this movie, your goal is to have it not feel complicated. My model for this was kind of the first Terminator in that time travel sets up a situation but then I wanted time travel to get out of the way. I wanted it to be about the characters dealing with the situation and not be about the intricacies of timelines. I didn't want it to be a puzzle, I wanted it to be a ride, I guess. That actually requires more work. It's a lot harder to make something simple than it is to make it complicated. A lot of the writing was figuring out: "how little of this can we explain, how can we telegraph this? How can we boil this down?"
Tackling those intracacies may have been tough in the writing process, but his pains were well worth it, because Johnson totally nails it in the film. A string of exposition early on never feels overwhelming as it sets up the film's universe, doling out just enough information for the audience to keep up with the story as it launches forward.
But as a director, how did Johnson approach the complicated task of convincing the audience that two actors are actually playing the same character at different points in his life?
I had always thought that we would do some kind of makeup to Joe (Gordon-Levitt) whoever we had, because I wrote the part with Joe in mind, but we didn't know who was going to play the old part. So I figured we'd use some kind of makeup application no matter who it was, and for some reason that just made a lot of sense to me. I figured, we're making a sci-fi movie and this is a really distinct premise, so let's take it all the way there - let's actually make the leap. But then when we cast Bruce Willis, Joe looks nothing like Bruce. It actually restricted us in terms of how much we could do. We ended up having to go much subtler than maybe we would have, and used practical prosthetics to just alter a couple key features, but really it was just relying on Joe's performance. On the mannerisms, and what he could bring to it to bring this character to life that you could buy as a young Bruce Willis.
And how did the actors bridge that gap?
It was really Joe wrapping himself around Bruce. That was a decision we made early on and it made a lot of sense to me, because we all know what Bruce Willis looks like. In the way that you know what your mom looks like, you know what Bruce Willis looks like. I figured instead of fighting that, let's use that. Let's give that to Joe, and give that to our makeup artist as handholds to grab onto to fill that recognition.
Kevin Smith had a very public falling out with Bruce Willis after Willis reportedly didn't take kindly to Smith's directorial style on the set of Cop Out, but after Willis said that this movie is "better than anything [he's] ever done," it seems like there was nothing but love on the Looper set between the superstar and his director:
Bruce was the first person we went to, and for me, I was really excited about him for two reasons. First, because he's a great actor. I think that there's a reason that filmmakers love working with him. If you look at the places he's willing to go to. This movie required him to go to some very dark places, some very "un-Bruce Willis-like" places, and he just completely dove into that. He never gave any resistance to anything in the script. He was actually really excited about doing the things where he would be most vulnerable, most morally ambiguous. Also, though, the fact that he is Bruce Willis. That the audience is used to seeing him show up in a movie, and fix the problem by finding the bad guy and killing him. That's, on the surface, what he shows up to do in this movie, and then we actually dig a little deeper into the real moral consequences of that. So that was really interesting, kind of using the weight of that back against itself.
Johnson is not only an incredible filmmaker, but he's also very humble. When praised about the originality of Looper in a studio landscape filled with remakes, reboots, sequels, and franchises, Johnson dismissed the concept of true originality and cited some influences for his sci-fi flick:
When you talk about originality, you can look at Looper and even though it's not based on any specific property, it doesn't take too much looking to see where a lot of this stuff came from. You can say, "I see Blade Runner from this, I see Witness from this, I see Akira here." It has stuff that it draws from. I get a little queasy using the word "originality." It's kind of a loose term at this point in our culture with anything we're creating. I think the more important thing is creating something - whether it's based on an existing property or not, whether it's "original" or not - is it surprising? Does it take that and give it to you in a way that surprises you constantly and engages you on multiple levels? That, for me, is a rarer coin than originality right now, and if there's anything that's lacking, it's that, I would say.
Johnson is also a very technical filmmaker, having edited Brick on his own personal Mac computer back in '05. After hearing the amazing sound design in that film and in Looper, I asked him about how he approaches sound design in his films:
I'm a big fan of the Coen Brothers, and I think that [sound design] is one of the first things that I really took from watching something like Barton Fink or Miller's Crossing. How the sound design would actually drive the storytelling in a lot of the sequences, to such a degree that you have to be thinking about it while you're writing the script. In Brick, there's the chase scene that's entirely based on the rhythm of their footsteps, so that was my kind of first stab at that. It's something that, for me, has to be baked into the storytelling and the scene, to the point where the scene might not make sense without it, as opposed to being an afterthought. Nathan Johnson's music, my cousin's music, is a similar thing melding those two. Nathan recorded real world sounds, he recorded the sounds of [Noah's] gat gun.
Noah Segan, who's mostly been content with sitting back and letting Rian take most of the attention in the room, gets excited to tell me about the way that Rian's cousin Nathan crafted the film's intense and atmospheric score:
He created a lot of the instruments for the music with real-world sounds. There's this technology now that exists where you can take a sound, a foley - whether it's a footstep, or something rhythmic, or the chime of a bell, or whatever - and create a scale. Create a playable scale on a keyboard. He did this with a lot of the sounds that he heard while we were shooting. He showed up in New Orleans during production with a field recording device and would go around hearing that stuff. One of the instruments is actually sounds from my gun. The cylinder rotating and the hammer going back and the trigger being pulled, and he turned that into a drum kit.
Along with the score, one of the other lesser-discussed aspects of this movie is the performance of a young man named Pierce Gagnan, who plays Emily Blunt's character's son in the movie and delivers an astounding performance. Johnson was clearly impressed:
Pierce Gagnan was five years old when we shot this movie, and he would sit down and do three page dialogue scenes with Joe and Emily, and hold his own.
As a former child actor himself, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was also very impressed with Pierce's acting, and he spoke a bit about their on-set dynamic:
It brought back a lot of memories, because I started working when I was six and Pierce was five when we shot. First, I'll just say he did such a great job. Made me so proud. And, the other thing I'd like to say is, he's nothing like [his character in Looper]. He's a really fun, jubilant guy. I wouldn't give him advice, because I wouldn't talk down to him that way. He earned my respect as an actor and so I just treated him like a colleague, a peer. I remember when I was that age, liking people who would treat me like that. I never appreciated it when people kind of talked to me like a child. It's like, "Look, I've gotta do this the same way everybody else does, so why are you treating me like a little kid?" So I tried not to treat Pierce like a little kid, and he didn't need to be treated that way. He really came through.
JGL and Rian Johnson are anything but strangers, considering Gordon-Levitt starred in Brick and cameoed in The Brothers Bloom, and he's no stranger to sci-fi, either, having starred in one of the biggest science fiction films in recent memory, 2010's Inception. It's safe to say he knows how Rian works, and their past relationship certainly helped the process of filming on Looper:
We've watched countless movies together, we've spent endless hours talking about movies. He's one of my best friends in the world. That absolutely helps when you're on set, to understand how he thinks. That's, I think, my job as an actor: to understand what the filmmaker has in mind, and deliver the ingredients that he or she needs to cut the movie together. Rian is able to very definitely communicate to me what he wants.
He was also excited about the possibilities of Johnson taking on a sci-fi story because of the opportunities the genre inherently provides to grapple with big questions.
The Matrix [is] one of my favorite movies of all time. The whole trilogy, actually, I really like. Why? I think the best sci-fi isn't so much about the sci-fi. It uses the genre as a springboard to get at very basic, human questions. The Matrix gets at a lot of very basic, human questions, like, "what's the point of being alive? What's the difference between an individual and a society?" Anyway, lots of questions like that that get dramatized in really interesting and fun ways, and Looper does the same thing. It's the basic human question - about identity and fate, what you would say to your future self if you could have that conversation - [being] dramatized in a really fun way using the genre of science fiction and the device of time travel.
For the past few years, Gordon-Levitt has been leading a collaborative website called hitRECord where people can remix other works of art into something completely new (read our recap from this year's Sundance panel here for more info). In public appearances, you'll often see him wearing a red button on his shirt, which is a symbol for the organization. In Looper, there's one quick flash of Bruce Willis' future Joe wearing a red button, and I had to ask JGL if that was an intentional shout-out to hitRECord.
It's a funny coincidence, to be honest. Those red buttons. If you look closely at them, they're different than the hitRECord buttons. They have a Chinese character and this kind of mafia symbol. But they do, kind of from afar, look like hitRECord buttons, you're right.
Theory: disproved. In any case, during his time at hitRECord, JGL has been directing and acting in a ton of short films, but he also just finished his first feature directorial debut. He's also worked with some of the biggest directors in the world over the past couple of years on The Dark Knight Rises and Lincoln, and he gave a monster answer when I asked what he learned from those guys and applied to his own directorial debut:
That's a great question, thanks for bringing that up. I wrote one called Don Jon's Addiction, I directed it, and we just finished shooting it a couple months ago. Scarlett Johansson is in it, Julianne Moore is in it, Tony Danza plays my dad. One thing I noticed with Rian, as well as Chris [Nolan], as well as Steven [Spielberg], that I really tried to pay attention to was, they strike a great balance between two ends of a spectrum. On the one hand, they've really done their homework and have a very thorough preconceived vision for what they want the movie to be. On the other hand, they are all open to spontaneity and collaboration. And that spectrum I think is right at the heart of what makes a good director. At what point do I stick to my guns and say, "nope, we're doing it the way I always envisioned it" and at what point do you say, "all right, I'm letting go of that, and I'm going to go with this new idea that just came up right now"? [Is that tougher to do when you also wrote it?] It is hard to do, but getting to watch Rian do that every day, and Chris, and Steven, you know, they're all three...they're really good at striking that balance. All three of them have the movie in their head, they can watch it in their head. But also, all three of them are really good at encouraging all of the other artists around them to bring new ideas, and when they encounter something that they hadn't thought of that they like, they're willing and excellent at saying, "OK, we're changing this. I like that. Let's do this." I think that's why all three of them are able to make movies that really feel alive.
So how's the editing coming on Don Jon's Addiction?
We're in the middle of editing it now. It's going great. I love editing. I've been editing for about ten years. I got myself a copy of Final Cut Pro and made lots of little videos. That's a big part of what we do on hitRECord. So getting to be editing this movie - I'm working with a great editor named Lauren Zuckerman - it's so much fun. The truth is that any movie, the performance that the actor gives is not just made by that actor. It's a collaboration between the actor, the filmmaker, the editor, the writer, and so much of the timing especially, is really dictated in the edit, more than on the day on the set. So it's different than like a live performance, where the actor is directly in front of an audience, and what the audience experiences is what the actor gives them. In a lot of ways, I think theater is much more the actor's medium. On film, it's gotta be a collaboration between the actor, the filmmaker, and many other people. So every facet of the process really fascinates me, and it's been a blast.
In case it wasn't clear from this entire interview, JGL is a big fan of Johnson as a director, and when asked if he thinks audiences are ready to tackle the big questions this film brings up without being spoon-fed the answers, he didn't miss a beat with his response:
Absolutely. That's one thing that I really admire about Rian. He doesn't talk down to his audience. It's something that he has in common with Christopher Nolan, who's a very different filmmaker and a very different guy and I love them both for very different reasons, but one thing they have in common is that they never condescend to their audience. They're not afraid to make a movie with some intelligence. They're confident that an audience will enjoy thinking about the story. When Inception came out and was such a success, I remember the conversation that I had with Rian, because we had already been talking about Looper for quite a while at that point, and he was just so ecstatic that Inception sort of proved that even in today's culture, you can have a movie that really asks the audience to think about some things, and audiences dig it. We felt like that would really help us get Looper made.
I have no intention of spoiling anything for anyone, but I will say that the movie ends in a way that will have you thinking about it and talking it over with your friends, and we wondered if Johnson was ready for all of the speculation and fan theories he is about to be inundated with once the movie comes out:
I cannot wait for that to happen. That's kind of why you make a movie like this. Being a sci-fi nerd myself, that's part of the fun of all this. I'm going to try to say as little as possible to those people while not being a dick...it's a tough line to ride, because that's part of the fun of it, you know? You don't want to shut that down...I am so curious to hear what that's gonna be for people. That's what I'm really excited about. I'm not in the mindset of, "Oh, I hope everyone gets it right," I'm of the mindset of "God, I can't wait to see what people come up with when they chew on this and what they spit out at me that I never would have thought."
So what does the future hold for Rian Johnson? Considering his answer here, we're guessing he's probably not taking on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which he was rumored to be on the shortlist for:
I wanna keep telling my own stories. That's what I'm in it for, at least for now. I'm already working on the next one and what really gets me excited about this is starting with the seed of an idea and growing it through all the way to the end. Nothing against franchise movies - I really enjoy watching them - but for me, that's what I want to do.
Please do, Mr. Johnson. And thanks for what you've given us so far.
Looper arrives in theaters September 28th, 2012.