Kept in the Loop: Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis talk about Looper

While attending the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, Trevor Hogg participated in the press conference for Looper…

“We were here a few years ago with our film The Brothers Bloom [2008] but to be given the honour of opening this festival is a real privilege,” states filmmaker Rian Johnson during a press conference held at the Toronto International Film Festival for his science fiction thriller Looper (2012).  “I wrote it as a short film that I never ended up making about 10 years ago.  I remember telling Joe [Gordon-Levitt] about it when we were at Sundance with Brick [2005].  I had been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick at the time so I was steeped in that moment with a lot of sci-fi and the idea sprung in.  What appealed to me about it was using this weird magical thing of time travel to setup a human situation.  For me, Ray Bradbury was a master at using an outlandish sci-fi thing to do something that stabs you in the heart and leaves you sobbing at the end of a short story; that’s what great sci-fi can aspire to and in this situation I saw the potential to try to do that.”  The role of the protagonist Joe, a mob assassin who must kill his older self, was created with a particular actor in mind.  “I wrote the part with Joe in mind.  Bruce [Willis] was the first part that we cast in it and I was thrilled that Bruce was interested in doing the movie for a lot of reasons; he’s a tremendous actor first of all and the fact that you are Bruce Willis.  But then we had to deal with the fact that these two look nothing alike; that led to a whole process involving makeup and Joe’s performance to pull it off.”

“For me I studied his movies and took the audio from some of his movies and put them on my iPod so I could listen to them,” remarks Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  “Bruce recorded himself doing some of my monologues and sent me the tape so I could listen to that. It was all useful but I think the most important thing for me was getting to know him.  Hanging out, having dinner and talking about whatever, that’s where I learned what I wanted to do.”  A suspension of disbelief was required to make the relationship believable.  “It seemed like an impossible task to try to act with someone who is supposed to be the younger you,” notes Bruce Willis.  “It is so hard to look at someone else and go, ‘Oh, yeah.  That’s me.’  You have to believe it.”  Exposition was kept to the minimum.    “Our model was much more about the first Terminator [1984] in terms of time travel, setting up a situation, being about the characters and where do you get to with it,” says Rian Johnson.  “The end of the movie is not so much a puzzle resolving, hopefully, it’s an emotional place that we get to.”  When I mentioned that the movie reminded me of Rio Bravo [1959] meets Damien, the filmmaker laughed.  “I like that.  That’s going on the poster.  Especially, the back half it takes a turn into Western territory. There is a little bit of Shane [1955], there’s a lot of Witness [1985] in there.  It feels good to me to look for inspiration outside of a genre; that’s a way of putting in new blood and keeping it fresh for me.” Johnson acknowledged the horror element and adds, “Its fun to see how much stuff you can mix into the soup and still have it feel all like one piece.”

“In its bones Looper is about the self-perpetuating loop that occurs when the solution to a problem is, ‘Let’s find the right person and kill them,’” states Rian Johnson.  “It’s not something we’ve glossed over in terms of a theme; it’s something that is at the heart of this film.”  Violence is a subject that needs to be address.  “One of the things that film is good at is taking some of the darker stuff that we’d prefer not to look at and taking a mirror and shining it back on us.”   Bruce Willis agrees.  “Violence is one of the hard, bad things that exist in our world not just in films.  It exists everywhere.  To take one thing out and say, ‘We shouldn’t have violence in films.’  It would be like taking any other emotion out of it.”  In regards to the vision of the future portrayed in Looper, Johnson observes, “There’s nothing in this film that feels too far future.  It is also a world where the middle class has gone away; it’s all either people with money in the clubs or destitution on the streets.  For me, that was a function driving the story and these characters are all characters who are doing everything they can to hold onto their little piece of the pie.”  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a self declared optimist, has no problem in portraying a destitute future.  “Movies can serve as a great warning and a mirror,” states Gordon-Levitt.  “I like when a movie has something to say like that and can point out certain things that maybe we don’t notice everyday about our world or about ourselves. That’s the purpose of telling stories.”

“When I watch a sci-fi movie especially one like ours that doesn’t have a huge budget the first thing I look at is how they deal with the cars,” reveals Rian Johnson.  “When you go into the future you realize that is the big expensive thing you can’t get around it.  You have to figure out what you’re approach is going to be.  Our approach was we said, ‘Okay, let’s have it be everything is falling apart so that the cars in our world are the big Yankee tanks in Cuba where they’ve had cars from 2010 had to make it through like 30 years.  They were retrofitted with other engines and layered solar panels on the top.”  China was chosen over France for financial reasons.  “There’s a sequence in the film set in China which was originally set in Paris.  It’s not so much that I think China will be better than Paris; it’s more that we didn’t have the budget to go to Paris.  We were faced with faking Paris in New Orleans which I’m sure you can appreciate would not have been terrific.  You’d paste in the Eiffel Tower on the background.  Our Chinese distributor stepped up and said, ‘If that sequence is set in China we could be a co-production.  You can come to Shanghai and film those scenes.’  Once that happened I was like, ‘Okay, it makes sense for that sequence to be set in China.’ We got the opportunity to be shooting in Shanghai as suppose to shooting in the French Quarter with the green screen up; that’s what led to the decision.”

“It’s a smart script,’ states Bruce Willis.  “It doesn’t compare to anything else which is a science fiction film.  I’m excited to be here and to be able to talk about it.”  When discussing what he looks for in a movie, Joseph Gordon-Levitt remarks, “I want a fun time but I also want something we get to talk about when it’s over.  I don’t want to be walking out of the cinema like, ‘Okay, cool.  What are we going to eat?’  I like to have something to have a conversation about, something that I’ll keep thinking about for awhile.”  Gordon-Levitt feels fortunate to have an acting career.  “I’m so lucky and grateful to get to do what I’m doing right now.  Getting to work on the projects I’m truly inspired by, to get to work with people who I care about and connect with.  I can only hope that I keep doing it as long as I can.”  As for taking part in the festival as a member of the audience, the performer believes, “This is a festival filled with cinephiles.  This is my third time at the Toronto Film Festival, and it doesn’t have the air of glitz and glamour as much.  I really like that about it.  It’s more about the films and I doubt I’ll get treated in a weird manner.  I’ll probably go, watch a movie and have a great time.”


Looper Press Conference photographs courtesy of George Pimentel.

If you want to learn more make sure to visit the official website for Looper and read our TIFF movie review.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.