In “Looper,” this year’s dose of existential quandary set to science fiction aesthetics, Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”) directs Joseph Gordon-Levitt as one version of Joe, an assassin who finds himself marked to kill or be killed by his older self, played by Bruce Willis. The multi-faceted experiment in genre tackles themes as multifarious as the corners of the human psyche, and Intermission was lucky enough to pick the brains of director Rian Johnson and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Here the two reflect on just a sampling of the questions “Looper” raises.
On moral ambiguity
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (JGL): Joe’s not a hero; he’s sort of a lost soul and low on the totem poll making his money. I like that about him, that at the center of an action movie is not a particularly admirable guy.
There aren’t really good guys and bad guys in “Looper,” and I like that ‘cause I think in real life there aren’t really good guys and bad guys. Even though it can be fun in a movie to root for the heroes and the villains, in real life I don’t think anyone is black and white; everyone’s some shade of gray, and I think it’s particularly intriguing to cast Bruce in that light. We’re used to seeing him as a hero, and everyone thinks that they’re doing the right thing. And I love that because that’s how human beings really operate.
On identity and self-suppression
JGL: I studied [Bruce Willis] and watched his movies and ripped the audio off of his movies so I could listen on repeat. He even recorded some of my voiceover monologues and sent me the recordings so I could hear what they would sound like in his voice. Letting it seep in is a really fascinating way to create a character and become somebody else. That’s always my favorite thing, is to transform, become somebody else, and if I watch a movie and I see a moment that reminds me of myself I always feel that I messed that up. I want to see somebody different. The premise of “Looper” really poses a unique challenge in that way, and I had to really transform. “Looper” is the most transformative of any movie I’ve ever done.
JGL: [Rian] really is one of my dearest friends in the world. So to get to work with someone that’s your friend like that is rare, and a pleasure. It just makes it fun.
Obviously there’s differences between “Brick” and this one. [“Looper”] is a much bigger-scale movie, and he and I have both grown and done a lot of other things. But I think the similarities are more striking than the differences. Even though this is a big action sci-fi movie, we still were just making something we thought would be cool. There was never any desire to cater the story to commercial market research nonsense. And that’s a real testament to him, that he just tells the story that he wants to tell because he would want to. He never talks down to his audience. Speaking of Chris [Nolan, director of the recent Batman trilogy], that’s something they have in common, Rian and Chris. They never talk down to their audience and they’re never afraid to challenge their audience, and I think that’s a big part of why people love Chris’s movies and a big part of why people will love “Looper.”
On time travel
JGL: It’s pretty simple, the time travel in “Looper.” It’s a movie that uses time travel, but it’s not about time travel. And I like that. Most of my favorite sci-fi is that way. It can be fun to watch the sci-fi movies that are more about the shiny objects, but I think the best sci-fi for me is the stuff that uses it as a springboard to get at the really basic human questions.
A lot like “The Dark Knight Rises” is a drama—it’s a superhero movie but it’s ultimately a drama—“Looper” too is a sci-fi movie but it’s ultimately a drama. It’s about what you would say to your future self if you could have that conversation. And obviously that can’t happen in real life, so Rian uses the genre of sci-fi and the device of time travel to dramatize that question. That’s really its place, and beyond that it really gets out of the way.
Rian Johnson (RJ): The model I really looked to was “Terminator.” Especially the first—that movie is so deft with its use of time travel it’s easy to forget it’s a time travel movie, and that’s a great example of how time travel lights the fuse and then steps back. The situation time travel has created is what drives the film until the end.
I’m a big sci-fi fan myself. I’m a big time travel nerd; I love time travel movies. I didn’t want to use those marching orders to myself as an excuse to be lazy with the time travel element of it. I did spend quite a bit of time coming up with what my rules were for how the universe dealt with time travel paradoxes and what the particular logic of this was gonna be and coming up with a system that was very—I cant say it makes sense; no time travel movie makes sense if you look hard enough at it—but that was a consistent set of rules that we stuck to for it. And then it was a matter of disciplining myself to not explain those rules but to just show the effects of them.
My hope is that even though we don’t have a chalkboard scene where we describe the rules for 20 minutes, my hope is that if you’re really into that you can take a look into the cause and effect, take a look at how it plays out, and reverse engineer and realize there is a net underneath these of a thought-out system. “
RJ: There’s nothing I can point to with the directness the way that [author Dashiell] Hammett was to “Brick.” When I wrote that short, it was right when I discovered Philip K. Dick and I was in the middle of blowing through all of his books. My head was kind of steamed in that. Also, in a general sense, Bradbury for me, as the master of that thing that I love the most about sci-fi—where it uses a concept like this, it uses this kind of magical construct of this phony technology of time travel to amplify a very human emotion or very human theme to get to something that’s going to leave you crying at the end of it.
One movie I studied that I owe more to this movie than to any science fiction is “Witness” with Harrison Ford. That movie is just masterful the way it keeps the tension up even when they get to the farm. I studied and diagrammed that script and tried to figure out how they did it.
On the future
RJ: There’s no cushion, there’s no middle class—you either have your stack of silver or it’s straight to the bottom of dangerous destitution.”
JGL: That’s that endless cycle that the movie’s describing. If everyone just looks out for themselves you sort of get this perpetual loop, everyone pointing fingers and everyone blaming each other and everyone killing each other, and it takes an act of selflessness to break that.