Writer/director Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt worked together on Johnson's critically acclaimed high school noir, Brick, and are reuniting with 2012's sci-fi action thriller, Looper. The two have remained friends since working together back in 2005, and Johnson says he specifically wrote the role in Looper for Gordon-Levitt.
Johnson and Gordon-Levitt presented the very first footage from the film ever screened to the 2012 WonderCon crowd, showing off the time-traveling hitman story to an appreciative audience. The two also teamed up for our interview to chat up the film, discussing how Gordon-Levitt underwent three hours-worth of makeup to totally transform into a younger version of Bruce Willis. Johnson and Gordon-Levitt also talked about their working relationship, the sci-fi genre, and Joseph's extensive research into how Willis talks and moves.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rian Johnson Looper Interview:
Rian, this is a totally different genre for you and a total departure. What was the appeal?
Rian Johnson: "I love science fiction movies and I love time travel movies, and so that seemed really appealing. And because I have written in both of the other movies that I’ve done, it ends up being three or four years working on each of them. I think that just to not get bored doing something very different next time feels good."
Are you a big fan of genre-style movies? Is this something you get excited about as an audience member?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of my favorite filmmakers - Kubrick or the Coen Brothers - they sort of take a genre and then put their own unique twists on them. That’s what Rian has done. You know, on the title page of the script for Brick it said ‘a detective story’ and the 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’ and 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."
And you play a younger version of Bruce Willis?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Well, he plays an older version of me." [laughing]
Did he copy you or did you meet and talk about how you were playing it?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "No, no, no, that’s sort of a joke. I was basing my character on him. I watched his movies and I would take the audio out of his movies and put them 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 and second of all, I just didn’t think that would be appropriate. It’s not like a comedy, you know? 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 is a trip; it's sort of a dream. As an actor that’s what I get off on most is becoming someone else."
What did you learn most about Bruce as you were studying his work and what was the biggest challenge for you?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Bruce is actually a very understated guy. It’s interesting because he’s such a large personality; 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. Again, it sort of tricks you at first because you wouldn’t think he speaks quietly because his voice makes such a powerful impression. It took me a second to figure that out. I do think that actually a lot of the closest moments that I got to him are the quieter, stiller moments."
Did you discover how he carried himself physically and copy that too?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Yeah, sure."
Wow, it’s going to be a trip to watch.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: [Laughing] "Yes, it's pretty cool."
Why do you have to be in three hours of makeup? Your character never looks like you at all - ever?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Yeah, it’s a different face. We're going to show the teaser so you get to see for the first time. Kazuhiro Tsuji is the name of the make-up designer. Ask any make-up designer in Hollywood and you say his name and they're like, 'Oh wow, Kazu.' He’s brilliant. Watching him work is like actually watching an alchemist. And that's so much fun, too, 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 just these different bottles of things and brushes and solutions and formulas and things, and it's all going on my face. Once it's done, I literally look like somebody else. Yes, it's bizarre."
Did you always plan to have two different actors playing the younger and older versions of this character?
Rian 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."
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "The egotistical actor in me was like, 'Let me do both!,' but I’m so glad that’s not what we did."
Rian 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."
Joseph 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."
As a filmmaker who wants to work in different genres is it easy to convince the powers that be in the world to let you make movies, to let you go in an entirely different direction?
Rian Johnson: "I’ve been really lucky. My producer Ram Bergman and I have worked now on Looper we’ve worked with a couple of great companies, End Game Entertainment and FilmDistrict, who took a chance on it. But I think that’s one of the great things about...and 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 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 is besides just loving it and having grown up watching sci-fi and being a fan of it, 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 you're working on that genre that everybody loves."
You’ve worked with some pretty amazing directors. Is the director almost as important as your interest in a part?
Joseph 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. They kind of are. What's actually happening though is an actor has given a bunch of ingredients over to a director who then constructs a performance. That’s moviemaking. It's different than say 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 you shoot, tons and tons of footage, and I trust him to take those little pieces and put them together and create a performance. He makes me look good."
Rian Johnson: "Well, the other side of that is Joe is also a fantastic filmmaker himself. I think hearing an actor articulate that, articulate acting as part of the whole process and be so conscience of that and still be able to give such a... I don't know. For me, watching an actor like Joe, it really is magical watching a great actor work. It's something that in many ways I don’t understand how it’s done. I get this child-like wonder watching. I’m not sure where I’m going except to just say, yeah, he’s articulating it very well but it’s also a much more complicated back and forth with it. The extent to which he does create the performance, when you get in the edit room, you're assembling it, you're putting it together but also it wouldn’t work if you weren’t writing what he’s giving you and finding what his performance wants to be in the edit room and finding who the character is based on using things he’s given you. It's not that ones steering the ship or the other; it’s this very strange symbiotic relationship."
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Looper hits theaters on September 28, 2012.