‘Looper’: Rian Johnson & Joseph Gordon-Levitt Talk Transforming Into Bruce Willis

Published 2 years ago by , Updated September 18th, 2012 at 8:57 am,

 Looper: Rian Johnson & Joseph Gordon Levitt Talk Transforming Into Bruce Willis

2012 – 2013 is shaping up to be one of the more interesting years for genre film offerings. As we enter the middle period of a summer stacked with big sci-fi and action films, we’ve still got a few on the horizon to look forward to, including Elysium and Cloud Atlas, among others. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in two of this year’s most interesting, and significant, genre endeavors: The Dark Knight Rises and Looper, genre-bending master Rian Johnson’s follow up to his freshman and sophomore films Brick (2005) and The Brothers Bloom (2008).

We’ve seen trailers and images from Looper that illustrate Levitt’s remarkable transformation into a young Bruce Willis, but with the film headed to  Comic-Con 2012, we are sure to see far more from this, one of my most anticipated films of 2012.

In order to whet your appetite for the Looper Comic-Con panel, take a look at our interview with the director and his muse, in which we discuss what tools the science fiction genre offers and affords a storyteller, Levitt becoming a young Bruce Willis, and art meeting commerce in Hollywood.

Johnson and Levitt met when the young star took the lead in Brick, a film-noir play on Dashiell Hammett detective novels, set within the context of  the drama, intrigue and angst that is contemporary high-school. The pair remained close friends: Levitt played a cameo role in Bloom and even inspired one of that film’s most creative and entertaining characters: Bang Bang.

The actor has a passion for clowning and took Johnson to see a Russian clowning troupe that was able to effectively communicate with completely non-verbal cues. Johnson, who wanted to stretch beyond his notable dialogue skills in his writing, was intrigued by the performance and decided to utilize some of what he learned from watching the troupe to construct Bang Bang, his mute, violent and frankly adorable lady con artist gang member in Bloom.

Having taken on both noir and the confidence scam sub-genres (where he focused less on the twist and more on the turn the characters would take), Johnson decided to try his hand at science fiction. Looper combines sci-fi, time travel, a gritty gangster film and fundamental questions about human identity. In the movie, the mob has discovered a way to eliminate targets by sending them back in time where hit men like Joe (Gordon-Levitt) await their arrival and immediately take them out, leaving no body in the future and no way to identify the body in the past. The only rule is: never let a target get away.

And so it is that older Joe (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time where he is forced to confront his younger self, who hesitates before killing him – a lapse young Joe (JGL) spends the rest of the film attempting to “amend.” This is a case of “kill or be killed” as we have never seen it before. The crux of Joe’s conundrum is, essentially, that he must kill and be killed.

Looper starring Joseph Gordon Levitt 570x379 Looper: Rian Johnson & Joseph Gordon Levitt Talk Transforming Into Bruce Willis

“That was what got the whole thing started,” Johnson explained.

“The idea that if you’re sitting across from your older self or your older self is across from his younger self, how would you react to that person? That basic question is at the heart of it. And that’s one of the things that sci-fi lets you do. It lets you, through these kind of big ridiculous premises, get at something very human. Because really what you’re talking about in that circumstance is that it’s like sitting across from your father. It’s analogous in some deep primal way to that relationship. That’s what my favorite sci-fi does. It takes huge ideas and then we get to something very specific.”

Johnson wrote the role of Joe for Levitt so when Willis signed on to take on the role of his older self, it became Gordon-Levitt’s task to transform himself into a younger version of the star. He spent two and a half hours in the make-up chair, having prosthetic pieces that would alter his physicality applied on shoot days, and he spent weeks ahead of time studying Willis, watching his films and listening to the cadence of his voice.

“Bruce was really helpful,” Levitt says.

JGL: “He even recorded some of my voice over lines and sent that recording to me so I could listen to his voice. But the most important thing was just getting to know him and hanging out with him, getting dinner and shooting the shit and taking this guy that I got to know and trying to construct a version of him. And it’s not an impersonation of him. I’m not a good impression artist. But I think I got a sense of him. It was definitely one of the more interesting challenges I’ve ever tackled as an actor. And I think I can say it’s probably my favorite performance of my own. That’s the thrill of acting, becoming somebody else. Transforming into a new person. I have a different face in this film, I look like myself but I also look like Bruce Willis. That’s fascinating to me to look in the mirror in the morning and see someone else.”

“It’s amazing to watch,” Johnson added.

RJ: “As a director of course, but also as a friend with someone you’ve known for almost ten years to look at him and see someone completely different. But also performance wise, Joe nailed it. It was really amazing to watch him create a new character that could have been Bruce Willis as a young man. The make-up took it part of the way there, but 90% of it is Joe’s performance and the way that he took on Bruce’s body language and elements of his voice – so much going on that’s technically incredible and so much fun to watch.”

Joseph Gordon Levitt in Looper 570x379 Looper: Rian Johnson & Joseph Gordon Levitt Talk Transforming Into Bruce Willis

Levitt continues to seek out varied and unique projects as he moves forward in his career – and, as noted, consistently collaborates with Johnson. The genuine friendship between the two is clear, but their professional collaboration appears to be one born of mutual creative goals.

“There are lots of ways to make movies, and let’s be honest, most movies sort of follow a formula,” Levitt says.

We live in an interesting time, however – one where filmmakers are endeavoring to bridge the gap between art and commerce (though we still see plenty of standard, formulaic fare). Christopher Nolan’s Inception (which Levitt, of course, co-starred in) is perhaps the most notable case of a success story in this attempt. But Johnson, to my mind, is a director who has all the tools and potential to reach that sweet spot, were he to take on larger-scale event films.

“He would be great at it,” Levitt agreed.

When asked if that is a direction he’d like to move toward, Johnson replied:

“Absolutely. Movies are such a massive endeavor that require so much so it has to be something that you really care about. In other words, I think that it would be bad to start off by saying, ‘I want to make an art house movie, or I want to make a blockbuster movie.’ That having been said, I think ‘Inception’ is such a great example of that. I think that the possibility to do something genuinely surprising is really there right now. I think that audiences are really craving something different right now, and something with a point of view, something that they can actually sink their teeth into and that has something on its mind. Not in a message sense. But …”

“That it’s about something,” Levitt fills in. “That it is not just there to try and get you to spend your thirteen dollars.”

“I feel like Barton Fink all of a sudden,” Johnson quips. “Cinema for the people!”

Inception production still 16 Looper: Rian Johnson & Joseph Gordon Levitt Talk Transforming Into Bruce Willis

Gordon-Levitt in 'Inception'

All joking aside, Levitt is actually no stranger to the idea of  ‘cinema for the people and by the people.’  His website HitRecord is a space where artists can share their films, stories and other creative endeavors. It’s like a virtual artists collective of sorts.

But with a wealth of films in various stages in the production pipeline, including one of this summer’s biggest films, we had to wonder if the actor ever feels pulled in one direction more than another.

“To me it’s just about doing what I like to do and working with people who also love what they’re doing. Whether you’re talking about Chris Nolan who is working on huge movies or people on HitRecord who are making little art projects at their houses, the spirit is kind of the same. It’s people who love doing it and that’s what I love, too. And also it’s cool to be in places like WonderCon and Comic-Con where people love the stuff so much that it’s inspiring them to be creative and dress up out of love for their favorite movies. I love that.”

Both Johnson and Levitt will no doubt be seeing and experiencing much of the aforementioned fan love at Comic-Con this week – so stay tuned to Screen Rant’s Comic-Con 2012 Coverage Page for the latest updates.

You can follow Looper on twitter at @Loopermovie and look for it in theaters on September 23rd.

Follow me on twitter @JRothC

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7 Comments

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  1. Slowly but surely this movie has grown on my must see list. At 1st I thought it was just going to be a simple action flick with a Sci-Fi twist but the more info & footage that I see I’m realizing it’s going to be so much more.
    I have no problem with action or Sci-Fi films that want to be just that, plain and simple. But I love films that are willing to combine those elements while exploring bigger themes and ideas. That’s when a film goes from I’ll catch it on HBO or Blu-ray and forget about it too seeing it in the theater, buy the Blu-ray and talk and comment about it.

    • Definitley check out his other films. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed — I am really looking forward to seeing what he does with Looper.

      Thanks!

      Roth

    • Definitely check out his other films. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed — I am really looking forward to seeing what he does with Looper.

      Thanks!

      Roth

  2. He looks nothing like Bruce Willis. At all. It looks like a bad make-up test for a low budget fight movie..

  3. JGL and Bruce willis are two of my favorite actors so i will definitly see this

  4. I’m sorry JGL had to go through all the hours of the makeup work, basically for nothing. It’s a total makeup fail. He looks nothing like Willis. I love watching both actors and will definitely see the film. Still, someone should have told the director ‘no’ about the ‘look-a-like’ makeup a long time ago. It’s the elephant in the room during interviews about the movie. They could have put tinted contacts on JGL and it would have been just as effective, and a lot less wax-figure-creepy.

    • Totally agree. The whole reason I’m searching for answers to, what the heck did they do to his face? He looks like a wooden Indian with lipstick. Distracts from movie.

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