‘Looper’: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rian Johnson are a tight team

Aug. 31, 2012 | 11:37 a.m.
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Writer-director Rian Johnson, left, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the set of "Looper." (TriStar Pictures)

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left, and Bruce Willis in "Looper." (Alan Markfield / TriStar Pictures)

It’s late afternoon on a sweltering day in Hollywood, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and writer-director Rian Johnson have just finished recording the DVD commentary track for their upcoming sci-fi mind-bender “Looper.” Legs are being stretched. The tray of guacamole and chips sitting on the console remains largely untouched. Thinking about the recorded conversation, which will surface when the movie arrives on home video a few months after its Sept. 28 theatrical release, Johnson laughs and offers: “At a certain point, you realize you’re just sitting here lifting up the veil, ruining the movie for everyone.”

josephgordonlevittrianjohnson Looper: Joseph Gordon Levitt and Rian Johnson are a tight team

Rian Johnson, left, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Given the intricate world and fantastic ideas contained in “Looper,” audiences might appreciate a small peek behind the curtain. The movie takes place in the bleak future of 2047. Time travel has not been invented — but it will be in 30 years. And then it will be outlawed. But that won’t prevent the mob from using it, employing assassins in 2047 called “loopers” to kill targets sent back from the future.

Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a triggerman who is OK with his job until the day a target appears whom he recognizes as his future self, 30 years older and looking like, yes, Bruce Willis. Whether Joe can close the loop and kill his older self is one of several outlandish hooks the movie uses to explore a host of very relatable feelings and situations.

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Johnson shared the idea behind “Looper” with Gordon-Levitt as their careers bloomed in the wake of their first collaboration, the schoolyard film noir “Brick.” That movie, born from Johnson’s love for Dashiell Hammett‘s hard-boiled detective stories and written the year after Johnson graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1996, won widespread acclaim after premiering at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

“I remember that very first screening at Sundance, sitting there in the Racquet Club Theatre, giving each other hugs at the end of the movie because the audience was digging it,” Gordon-Levitt tells Johnson.

“It was like winning the lottery,” Johnson remembers, “though I was probably hugging you because it was over. Showing your movie to an audience … it’s like your kid doing a piano recital. ‘Just let it not fail. Please.’ ”

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in Rian Johnson’s directorial debut, “Brick.” (Steve Yedlin / Focus Features)

Johnson spent eight years trying to get “Brick” made, ultimately raising the $450,000 budget from family and other investors. Even then, after countless, frustrating dead ends, Johnson still hadn’t found the actor to play the film’s lead character, the adolescent Sam Spade stand-in, and was “sweating bullets” that his debut film’s financing would fall apart yet again. A late-in-the-game lunch with Gordon-Levitt solved that problem.

“Not only to find someone,” and Johnson stops and tells the actor to cover his ears, “but to find ‘The One.’ I got really lucky.”

“I loved the script, but I saw a ton of potential pitfalls,” Gordon-Levitt remembers of that initial lunch meeting. “I wouldn’t say I was grilling you .…”

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Rian Johnson, left, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Johnson: “You were grilling me a little bit.”

“I like to ask a lot of questions,” Gordon-Levitt said. “I remember with ‘Brick,’ we got together several nights in a row for you to go over every scene in the script.”

Johnson: “We had so much energy then!”

“And so much time just to have these sorts of inordinately long conversations,” Gordon-Levitt said.

Spending time with this pair, you quickly realize why the guacamole and chips remain untouched. Both Gordon-Levitt, 31, and Johnson, 38, are film geeks, dyed-in-the-wool true believers who pepper their conversation with references to Joel and Ethan Coen and Alfred Hitchcock and the joys of camera positioning. They’re cerebral but in a friendly, inclusive way. Inordinately long conversations on anything and everything are the order of the day.

With “Looper,” their talks didn’t focus much on the story’s time-travel element, which the movie explains and then disposes of during an opening voiceover from Gordon-Levitt. What really intrigued the pair were the technical and narrative challenges inherent in the actor playing a younger version of Willis.

Gordon-Levitt initially asked to play both parts. But Johnson believed the story needed an older actor to convey a sense of life experience essential to the character. When the older Joe first meets his younger self and tells him to “shut your child mouth,” the line required a certain weight that age brings. Signing Willis was a coup but also created a dilemma because Willis and Gordon-Levitt look nothing alike.

Johnson hounded veteran makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji for three months, trying to convince him to take on the job of making Gordon-Levitt’s face resemble that of his older counterpart.

Remembers Gordon-Levitt: “The first time we met with him, he showed us a picture of the two of us next to each other and explained technically why our faces are just terrible matches.”

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left, and Bruce Willis in “Looper.” (Alan Markfield / TriStar Pictures)

Tsuji eventually relented, creating a prosthetic that subtly altered Gordon-Levitt’s profile. Now when the two Joes first meet and sit across from each other in a diner booth, their faces are similar enough not to be jarring. And their conversation — though not of the inordinately long variety — begins to explore the film’s tantalizing idea of what it might be like to talk with your older self.

But “Looper” can’t be pinned down to a single premise. Ultimately, the film asks its characters and, by extension, its audience to consider what things are worth holding on to in hopeless times. The answers change before the closing credits come up.

Johnson is currently writing a couple of projects, though none, as yet, contain any characters named “Joe.”

“When we work together again, I’ll actually change your name,” Johnson tells his friend, laughing.

“I cannot wait,” Gordon-Levitt replies.

— Glenn Whipp


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9 Responses to ‘Looper’: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rian Johnson are a tight team

  1. Mike Jevons says:

    JGL is not a movie star. that's why they had to get BW in order to get financing or so it seems. he is a very good actor but looks like a little boy and thus lies the problem with this film. no one wants to grow up to be JGL.


  2. PistonsFan says:

    Speak for yourself, Mikey.

    JGL is thoughtful, intelligent, well-read, innovative and extremely talented.

    Many people wouldn't mind growing up to be him.

  3. Well Read says:

    JGL is not only an actor that intelligent people appreciate, but he is an actor's actor. He can play any character any time and do it superbly. I will go watch any movie he is in just on his name alone and I don't say that about many actors. I want to grow up to be him and I'm a girl!

  4. Abe Cole says:

    Cool, I plan on making several on Tuesday. Wish me luck!

  5. They neglected to do something to make their ears match, their lobes that is. That's the only major difference I could notice when they were sitting across from each other. Willis has detached lobes, Hewitt has connected ones. Oops.

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