Looper reunites writer/director Rian Johnson with his Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt for a futuristic action tale in which the mob sends their enemies 30 years into the past where a hitman waits with orders to kill them. Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a hired gun who finds his life on the line when the mob decides to send his future self (played by Bruce Willis) back to be killed.
Joined by Looper's female lead, Emily Blunt, at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, Johnson and Gordon-Levitt talked about reuniting, Bruce Willis, prosthetics, and having a strong female character in a sci-fi film.
Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Emily Blunt Interview:
What did you study or do to play a younger Bruce Willis?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "I think the thing I focused on most was his voice. Why? You know I find the voice is what I look for first and foremost with just about every character I play. I don't have an answer why. And Bruce was really accommodating and open and collaborative in helping me do that. He actually, he recorded himself reading some of my voiceover lines so that I could hear how he would sound saying them, which I thought was really cool. But mostly it was just hanging out with him, getting to know him, having dinner, talking about music or anything else was probably what was the most useful in trying to get a sense of what I was then going to portray."
Are either of you a science nerd?
Emily Blunt: "I'm definitely not a science nerd, I'll say that. That was not my forte at school. It's funny, I read about 30 pages of the script and I was already on the phone to my agent. I hadn't even gotten my character and I was like, 'Get me this movie,' because I loved it so much. But I did read it a few times before I met Rian so I could have some kind of fairly intelligent pitch for why I wanted to do the movie because it's so rich in complexity and conceptually it's so exciting, but also emotionally it is too, and so I think I needed a few reads of it, for sure."
Can you expand on that? Why did you love the character so much?
Emily Blunt: "Well, I mean to be honest, I think it's the same for a lot of actresses, that you look for female roles that aren't objectified, that aren't simplified, that aren't simply the reactionary role to a male - to a fantastic male role. And I think that it's harder to find that in these more sci-fi movies. And this had such a singular voice; this character had such a singular voice, you know? She had a really rich past in which for me to delve into. She's a really tough cookie, tough nut to crack. And I enjoyed the nuances and really the complexity of that part. And it was a challenge to me because I do look for that now. I try and mix it up as much as possible. But I really look for asking myself that question, 'Oh my God, how am I going to do this?' That's what I aspire to every time I take on a new role."
Did you always have Joseph in mind when you were thinking about this movie?
Rian Johnson: "Yeah, I wrote the part for Joe. I wrote the script with Joe in mind. We had stayed friends since we made Brick together and we had just both been dying to work with each other again and thank God he said yes!"
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "And also it's worth adding that's a real honor. That's never happened for me before, that a writer wrote something for me. It is really exciting, especially coming from him."
Emily and Joseph, if you could go back in the past like in the movie, what single event would you like to erase?
Rian Johnson: "Take note of all the recording devices before you answer this question."
Emily Blunt: "I'm passing it to Joe."
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Me? No, the answer is no. I would not want to erase anything."
Rian Johnson: "That's a good answer."
Emily Blunt: "I'm going to agree with him. I think that, I don't know, it's very hard to pinpoint something because then that would have a knock on ripple effect to everything else. Things happen in the way they usually should. I'm a pretty fatalistic person."
Joe, it seems like you're in an action phase of your career. Is that a genre that appeals to you and was it overwhelming to do so many in a row?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Well, then there's 50/50 which has some pretty thrilling action sequences as well. [laughter] But, no, I have a pretty eclectic taste in the movies I like to watch and also in the movies I'm inspired to work on. I don't think action for action's sake is so fun, but when it helps tell the story I love doing a good fight scene. Some of my favorite fight scenes I've ever done are in Brick actually, which had no money, no "scale" but were just really cleverly thought through and executed by Rian. It's also worth noting Steve Yedlin who shot Brick as well as Looper. So, yeah, we had a great time doing the action on Looper and I think they're really fun to watch, these action sequences."
Joe, because your character is confronted with himself and the bad things he's done, does he have to pay the ultimate price?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Well I guess one answer I could give is I think violence begets violence and I don't think a way to solve any sort of conflict is with violence because nothing ever ends up solved that way."
Rian Johnson: "That's a big part of the movie is the notion that in many ways the movie's about this thing you see in action movies but unfortunately also under a light this notion you can solve a problem by finding the right person and killing them. And the very title of the movie, Looper, the notion that that kind of thinking creates a self-perpetuating loop and what can we do as human beings to break that. I mean this sounds kind of very highfaluting, but these are some of the things that we, hopefully, wrestle with a little bit in the movie."
Emily, did you draw on anything from The Adjustment Bureau for this?
Emily Blunt: "I feel like The Adjustment Bureau is a very different movie and different experience, so I wouldn't necessarily say that I drew anything from that to work on this. The characters were vastly different, so I usually start from that basis as opposed to conceptually. I usually start from the person I'm playing, so I would say no. But I do feel that even though I didn't grow up being a big sci-fi fan or comic books or superhero fan, I felt myself definitely gravitate towards these movies that have a high concept and yet they're giving you a moral dilemma within that. I think it's interesting to see real people contend with a very high concept. I think that's what I'm drawn to with both those movies."
Rian, how does Joseph connect to these characters of yours?
Rian Johnson: "One of the connections I notice with working with you with Brick and this is just how in some ways and this is just how I've noticed you work, is that you talked about a little approaching the character first to kind of looking at some of the exterior stuff with the character for Brick, finding that voice and finding the costume of the jacket and the posture, hunched over, kind of this protective posture. And then with this, obviously, literally putting a new face on. The physical transformation informing the internal one a little bit."
What was the one question each of you had after reading the screenplay?
Emily Blunt: "I think when I first met Rian, I think one of the first things we talked about, because the character, my character, has a certain amount of, I think, mystique and ambiguity to her and I think that when we first met we talked about the backstory and where she came from and why she behaves in the way that she does. So that stuff is the first interest to me when I first take on a part."
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "I think this might sound really typical 'actor-y', but I think the first thing I wanted...I don't know...I seem to remember asking about like, 'All right, how did he grow up?,' and stuff like that because his situation, his present life, is very well illustrated in the screenplay itself. He does talk a bit about his past. I remember that, like saying, 'Yeah, okay cool,' just trying to get a better sense of who he is and where he comes from and what his life was like before we meet him."
Joseph, you filmed in China. Can you talk about your experience there?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Sure, yeah, there's a part of the story in Looper where the character moves to China and we went to Shanghai for 10 days. And it was a really wonderful experience. I mean, to be honest, the first thing that comes to mind was the food, but that's boring. What I was really struck by was I could call it like an optimism? There's just a lot happening there and it feels like people are really excited about the future and feel enabled to do things and that they'll happen and that things change; whereas I feel like there might be a bit of an attitude in this country that nothing's changing, there's nothing I can do. There's these big powerful forces that control everything and nothing changes. I know I'm making sweeping generalizations, but that's kind of what you asked me to do, so... But I really did, and I found that exciting and invigorating and I can't wait to go back to China and get to see more of it because we were only in Shanghai. I'd like to see Beijing and I'd like to see some more out of the way nooks and crannies, too."
Joe, what was it like and what were the differences in working with Rian between Brick and this film? How has he evolved?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Good question. Well I think everything was just easier. I mean, look, he had quite a confident hand directing Brick and I've seen a lot of the shorts that he made proceeding Brick that allowed him to do that. But I think after Brick and after The Brothers Bloom, and now doing Looper, I was working with a seasoned filmmaker that I'm an enormous fan of his. I think that this movie is the one on which he had the lightest touch. And I mean that which isn't to say that he was in any way uninvolved or aloof. It's like judo, if you know which way the current's going you can kind of use it to your advantage. I don't know, that might be obscure. But it's sort of like, this might be a weird comparison, Jackie Brown to me is the Quentin Tarantino movie in which he has the lightest touch and I love Jackie Brown. I also love Kill Bill where it's like saturated with Taranino-nish, but there's the difference there. And I think Looper, you can definitely very much tell that it's a Rian Johnson movie, just like you can tell Jackie Brown is a Quentin Tarantino movie. But it feels like he knew how to really let it all blossom as it does."
Rian Johnson: "I'm blushing."
Emily Blunt: "Your ego is now out of control. You were a very nice, humble man."
Rian Johnson: "I don't even need to try anymore."
Has your appreciation for how difficult it is to be a director changed recently?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Oh yeah. Well he's referring to I just directed a movie that I wrote called Don Jon's Addiction. We just finished shooting like two weeks ago and we're starting to cut it, and I do think that having a 2011 where I worked with Rian and then Chris Nolan and then Steven Spielberg, I couldn't ask for a better year leading up to directing a movie for the first time. And those three directors actually do have a lot in common. And Rian is obviously less known than Chris and Steven at this point, but I think when all is said and done, they'll actually be three directors that are regarded in very similar fashion."
It's been great watching your career unfold from Third Rock From the Sun to Mysterious Skin to now. Can you tell us something about the experience and how it took you a while develop as an actor?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Well, you know when I first finished doing Third Rock From the Sun and wanted to do movies, no one wanted to put me in their movies. Which is understandable enough, I can understand how that might be distracting to have a kid from Third Rock From the Sun in your movie. And there's three movies and therefore three directors that I really think I owe a lot to for allowing me, sort of taking a chance on me when I was trying to make that transition: one is Jordon Melamed who made Manic, one is Gregg Araki who made Mysterious Skin you mentioned, and the third is Rian who made Brick. And I think those are the three movies that then when other filmmakers saw them they started thinking, 'Okay, maybe e's not only the kid from Third Rock From the Sun.' And I don't know - why did you think you could put the kid from Third Rock From the Sun in your movie?"
Rian Johnson: "Sorry? Who were you in Third Rock From the Sun? I don't even remember."
Joseph, what was it like when you saw yourself with Bruce Willis' face and how did everyone else react?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Yeah man, that's one of the highlights of the whole thing was Bruce seeing me for the first time and tripping out a little bit. He's a sweetheart, he's also like it's hard to rattle him; he's seen a lot and he's an understated man, you know what I mean? So to get any reaction out of him is pretty exciting and I remember him like doing [a double take] just like that, and it was so thrilled about it. There was also one point where we were shooting one of our scenes together and just in between takes just really quiet, he's like, 'You sound like me,' and I was like, 'You're f**king right I do!,' quietly. I didn't let him see me do that."
Emily Blunt: "I remember when I first met Joe, I arrived on set and no one told me he was wearing prosthetics or maybe I'd been told and I hadn't remembered. It was my first day and they said, 'Would you like to meet Joe?' I was like, 'Yeah, sure.' So we go in his trailer and I'm staring at him probably oddly because I couldn't figure out why looked nothing like how I imagined. I was like I know what Joe Levitt looks like and that is not it. And then I started to have kind of a brain melting experience of thinking, 'Oh my God, I am not speaking to Joe Gordon-Levitt, I'm speaking to his stunt man.' Someone put me in the wrong trailer and I'm sort of telling this guy all about my character. It was very strange and I came out and I was like, 'He looks really different.' And they were like, 'He's wearing prostethics.' And I think it's a great credit to the prostethics guys for coming up with something so realistic. He looked disarmingly different and not fake. It was amazing, really."
Rian Johnson: "My favorite was when your parents were on set and they were even freaked out by it."
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "It was interesting. My mom said, 'When you stand next to me and I don't look at you, you're like yourself, you're like who I know. But then as soon as I look at you, you're not my son anymore.' She was a little disconcerted."
* * * *
Looper hits theaters on September 28, 2012.