‘Looper’ Writer-Director Rian Johnson on Making Joseph Gordon-Levitt Look Like Bruce Willis, Making Time Travel Make Sense

'Looper' Review
JGL brings back Bruce Willis' glory days in this great film.
JGL On 'Looper'
The actor gets into character as the young Bruce Willis.
. Making Time Travel MakeOf 2012’s breakout artists, Rian Johnson is probably the year’s most unassuming: protective though he is about his third film, the time-travel thriller Looper, on social media forums such as Twitter, he has contentedly left the spotlight for his two leading men Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

That said, the film’s remarkable performance at the box office – earning more than $166 million against its reported $30 million budget – has certainly attracted the young filmmaker some deserved attention, including several wins from critics’ organizations for Best Original Screenplay. As the film advances to Blu-ray, Celebuzz spoke with Johnson about the film; in addition to discussing the plusses and minuses of turning Gordon-Levitt into a young Bruce Willis, literally, he examined the meticulous attention to detail given to the film from critics and fans alike, and offered insights into how he applies his unique artistic sensibilities to different genres with each new project – including future ones.

Celebuzz: Looking at audience reactions to Looper during its theatrical run, there was a mixed response to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s use of prosthetics – some said that because the film is science-fiction, they would have simply accepted that they’re the same person. What prompted that decision?

Rian Johnson: Before we even knew who we were going to cast as the older guy, I just had it in my head that we would do something with makeup to bring them closer together. I totally get the argument that we could have gotten by without it, but for me, we’re making a sci-fi movie. This isn’t a drama where they’re playing father and son. They’re playing the same person, but in flashbacks. This is a science fiction film where it’s this big time travel concept where the same person is sitting across the table from themselves having a conversation.

And so, for me, it just felt like if you have that scenario, why wouldn’t you completely dive in and try and push it a little bit farther? I guess that was the main thing was the genre just kind of both allowed and to some extent demanded that we take the extra step. And I know it’s going to be more effective for some people than for others, but it’s something that I’m really glad that we ended up doing. And I hope on the whole it’s more effective than distracting. I certainly think it is. I really feel like when I watch the film I really enjoy the effect that it has.

CB: A little further to that end, Bruce Willis is so iconic. How much did you reverse engineer Joseph’s performance to a certain extent so that he was more like Bruce, and where did the two of them sort of talk about sort of meeting in the middle in terms of creating this character?

RJ: That decision came once we knew it was going to be Bruce. I mean, everybody knows what he sounds like — we’ve all obviously grown up for the past, whatever, 30 years watching Bruce Willis movies. We know on that very ingrained level, the same way that you know what your mother’s voice sounds like, you know what Bruce Willis sounds like. It’s so fundamental to all of us that have grown up in this culture. And so it just made sense to use that rather than fight that. And also for Joe who had this task of creating a character who you would then connect up as the younger version of another character, it gave him handholds. Those very recognizable things gave him kind of the equivalent of those rock climber handholds to grab onto, to give cues to the audience. So it just for a lot of reasons it made sense.

We briefly talked about, well, should we ask Bruce if he’s willing to do a little bit of makeup to bring it together? But I decided at the end of the day, again, personally you know what Bruce Willis looks like. Also, it was such a huge strain on the production even having Joe in the makeup chair every morning, that having another actor having to go through that would’ve just been logistically difficult.

CB: You’ve written a few pieces about the construction of this movie. Is there a finite amount you want to reveal about the logic or logistics of a movie, or are you happy to sort of clarify as much as possible about your movie?

RJ: It’s something I’m still figuring out. I’ll be very honest — I don’t know, and it’s something I’m kind of trying to figure out as I go. And I’m also trying to kind of feel it out and see what feels right day by day. And I don’t know, increasingly I feel like when I respond on Twitter or whatever form it may be to questions or “logic” in the story, I’m starting to wonder whether the need to respond is healthy. It’s tough when you spend a couple years of your life writing a script, and getting it as airtight as possible, and you know that with 90% of the questions that people are throwing out there, you know if they watched the movie again and gave it a little bit more thought they would realize what the answer is. It’s not like it’s an unknowable thing. And you know because you spent all that time baking it in there. And so all that makes it really, really difficult when that little thing pops up in your Twitter feed saying, “This movie made no sense because of X.”

I’m beginning to think more and more that I should just hold back from that. And maybe they’ll find issues with it, and years from now maybe they’ll see the movie again, or maybe they’ll have a conversation with a friend who will say this or that, and they’ll realize what the answer is to their question that way. And either of those are better than them just asking me and me just telling them. But I guess the big answer is just that I don’t know, and I’m trying to figure it out, and work it out. This is my first rodeo.

CB: Do you feel like there is a right or wrong way to sort of deconstruct a movie? Specifically, how much do you sort of think about emotional logic over writing maybe logistical logic, either as a viewer or as a filmmaker?

RJ: Ultimately I do believe that you’re trying for both. You’re trying for both of them to lock up, and when that happens, that’s when you really get it right. And ideally, every moment in your movie they both lock up. However, especially when you get into something as tricky as time travel, a great example for me is the first Back to the Future. The Polaroid moment where the family is disappearing from the Polaroid, that’s something that logically makes no sense whatsoever. If he was actually changing the timeline so that his family was—that version of it was not going to happen, that Polaroid would not still exist and they wouldn’t start fading out with like a soft PhotoShop edge. It makes no sense at all. But I think that maybe the answer is somewhat it’s okay for the moments where you’re going to rely on emotional or story logic to carry you over the action analytical logic.

But what I was going to say real briefly [was] I absolutely don’t think there’s a right and a wrong way to watch a movie. And even people who are watching Looper and saying, “That movie sucked because this logic, this logic, that logic,” I don’t think that’s wrong. I think that if that’s how you enjoy processing a movie, that’s how you enjoy processing a movie. And that’s your thing. And that also may be something where you keep processing it, and you may feel differently five years from now, you may not. But I don’t know, for me, one of the pleasures of the genre can be approaching it with that kind of analytical eye, I guess. I definitely wrote it to be more of an emotional ride than an analytical one, but I would never say that somebody approaching it one way or the other [is viewing something wrong].

CB: Particularly in thinking about your career going forward, what do you think of genre as a backdrop for the stories that you want to tell?

RJ: It’s much more that you come up with the grits of something that you want to talk about, and then it very naturally kind of finds its match up, I think, in the type of story that the wrapper for it. Or it’s more than a wrapper, it’s more like a puzzle piece interlocking with it that you realize, “Oh, and this will be served really well in this kind of world.” And obviously man, I love genre. But it’s never the place that it starts. It always does have to start with story and something you care about. And I guess wherever it starts, the more useful way of putting it is the genre always has to serve the story, and not the other way around, though that probably is a really obvious thing to say.

I think it’s particularly right now, a really exciting time to be working in genre. Because I think that especially for the kind of mainstream movies that I’m interested in getting more—the notion of doing something that reaches an even broader audience and works on a mainstream level, and still is interesting in the way that I find something interesting, and engaging in the way that I want my stories to be engaging. That is really exciting to me. And I feel like the really cool thing with genre, especially right now is culturally we, as mainstream audiences, have such a finely tuned knowledge of a genre. We have this shared language of all these genres. And it’s so ingrained at this point that it allows a conversation using that shared language to be really intricate and really interesting. And so when you go with the dimensions of the genre, and when you subvert them, you’re having a conversation with the audience. And I feel like we’re at a point now where even or maybe especially mainstream audiences have those expectations down so pat that there really is room to not just subvert them in order to fuck shit up, but to actually engage with an audience on that kind of meta level. So I think it’s a really exciting time to be working in genre as a filmmaker.

CB: Well, do you have a specific genre that you have not yet cracked? I mean, not even something that you would be in the future, but you’re just kind of like, “Somewhere down the line I would love to make this kind of movie, and I have not yet come up with whatever the idea is for that film.”

RJ: Oh my God, yeah, absolutely. I mean, a musical. I would love to do a musical at some point. It’s definitely not something that I’m working on right now, but I love musicals so much. And especially for a modern audience, a movie musical is kind of a tough nut to crack. But yeah, my God, there’s plenty. You name it. A western. I would love to do a comedy, a straight up comedy. Although, I’ve got to say right now, sci-fi is such an expansive genre; there are many, many different genres contained within sci-fi. And I’ve got a couple things I’m working on right now are in that kind of sci-fi universe. So it’s never motivated by thinking, “I would like to tackle this or that genre.” It’s got to be you come up with a story and it fits well with that genre — so go to it.

CB: Well, if you’re sort of at least thinking about or working on more sci-fi stuff, I wonder what the response to this movie or what you feel like the end result of this movie has taught you that you might be applying already to the conception of that movie?

RJ: I don’t know, that’s a really good question. It’s a really complicated question. Because on one level, the way that you absorb and then use criticism both good and bad about your own work is such a complicated thing. And you’d like to say, “Well, I don’t let it affect me, I just kind of keep telling my stories.” But the truth is, feedback on what you’ve done is going to affect you on some level. And it’s a complicated kind of web of reactions. But it’s also just kind of, I don’t know, you get the same complicated web of feedback during production and during post-production also, so everything over the past three years, I guess, feeds into it all. I’m giving a really vague answer here. I apologize, but it’s just a really complicated thing to try and define I guess.

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