Those familiar with the work of auteur Rian Johnson know that his third film Looper is also his third collaboration with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who had a cameo in The Brothers Bloom, and also starred in the director’s debut feature Brick. As Johnson and Gordon-Levitt sat down to speak with the press at WonderCon in Anaheim, they addressed what keeps drawing them together.
"I just love working with someone that has a real voice as a filmmaker,” Gordon-Levitt said. "There's lots of ways to make a movie, and let's be honest, most people -- most movies -- sort of follow a formula, and that can be pretty boring. But then you get certain artists who you can tell right away it’s one of their movies, and Rian is one of those."
"We did Brick together, and we stayed friends since then,” Johnson said, “so it's that combined with just that he's -- you guys know -- he's such a phenomenally talented actor and he's such a pleasure to work with. With Joe and with the other actors and with the crew, that's kind of the way that we work, you know? We're kind of slowly building up a little family of friends that we like making movies with and it's always been that way."
Gordon-Levitt noted there was an added incentive to his role in Looper. "He [Johnson] wrote this role for me, which has never happened to me before, that a writer actually wrote a role for me to act in, and that meant a lot."
Set in 2042, when time travel is illegal and available only on the black market, the sci-fi action thriller centers on a “looper,” or hired gun, named Joe (Gordon-Levitt) who kills people sent into the past by the mob. But when Joe recognizes one victim (played by Bruce Willis) as his future self, he hesitates, allowing his target to escape.
Because the role of Joe was written expressly for Gordon-Levitt, Johnson was asked why he cast Willis, someone who doesn’t resemble the actor, to play the character's future self.
"We cast Bruce in it and then we dealt with, ‘Okay, how do we figure this out,’ because as Kazu [Kazuhiro Tsuji] pointed out -- as our genius make-up designer pointed out -- they actually look very dissimilar," he said. "They don't look alike at all. So, our approach was, ‘Okay, you know what? We're going to pick a couple of key features. We're going to alter those.’"
The filmmaker admitted he was still nervous when Gordon-Levitt arrived on set the first day. "We had committed to this kind of extreme make-up, and I knew that it's not like we had totally transformed him -- so he looked like Bruce in Moonlighting or something -- it was kind of a hybrid," he said.
Soon after Gordon-Levitt began to work, however, all of Johnson's fears were put to rest. "It was kind of amazing how much of a transformation it was," the director explained. "Once Joe started not only doing the voice, and it's not -- the other thrilling thing about it for me was that it wasn't an imitation. He was creating a character, but it was a character that could be a young Bruce Willis. It was this amazing kind of high-wire act, really, that Joe was pulling off every day."
Because Looper is set in a future Kansas City, Johnson was asked to fill in some details about the film's universe. "It is definitely 30 years in the future. It's kind of dystopian,” he said. “Everything is kind of falling apart a little bit. But I think it's not as completely conceptualized as something like Blade Runner. It is a little more grounded, a little more down to earth."
"What I thought was really cool about this future was that it wasn't chock-full of shiny new toys," Gordon-Levitt added. "I thought it spoke really honestly to some of the dark truths about where our society is headed."
Fans of Johnson's films have been clamoring to see footage of Looper, and those attending the duo’s WonderCon panel were treated to an exclusive trailer. But Johnson was still asked about the secrecy behind the marketing of the film.
"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,” he said. “I mean, I click it, but then, I always know that when I see the movie, it's like, ‘Oh, I would have enjoyed the movie that much more if I hadn't known that.’ And so that's kind of the -- for me -- this is the first time working with a movie where there is that thing of, ‘How much do we give away?’ ‘How much do we tease?’ How much, you know? It's an interesting process."
Before the pair left for their panel, Johnson was asked if there was ever a moment where he considered having Gordon-Levitt play both the younger and older version of Joe. While the director admitted he had thought about it, he explained that he ultimately rejected the idea for two reasons.
"First, I think that a specific thing for me, I think aging make-up on younger actors never -- I don't feel like I've ever seen it completely work," he said. "The bigger thing, though, was a big part of the hook of the movie for me, or just emotionally [what would] pull me into it, was the idea of a young man sitting across from an older man who is himself, and you can make someone up. Joe is a fantastic actor, but there is just something about a span of 25 years between two people that you can't fake."
"And there's no way that I could have delivered something -- a performance -- delivered the character that Bruce did," Gordon-Levitt said. "Bruce is magnificent in this movie."
Looper arrives in theaters Sept. 28.