Joseph Gordon-Levitt may have scored plum (if all too brief) roles in the Christopher-Nolan-directed The Dark Night Rises and Inception, yet it's his old friend Rian Johnson who is truly in his corner. Their first movie, the 2005 teen noir Brick, relied heavily on plot and characterisation and won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Now with Looper they have managed to deliver a smart thriller for the mainstream, with stars like Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt also taking pivotal roles.
If I see myself in a movie and it reminds me of myself I feel like I haven’t done a good job.
“I was just really happy and grateful and excited for Rian that he was getting to do a big movie like this,” says Gordon-Levitt in Toronto, where Looper opened the recent Toronto Film Festival. “Rian has really become one of my closest friends ever since we shot Brick together in 2003. It feels great to work with a friend as you have a trust and a shorthand. My favorite thing about being an actor is transforming. If I see myself in a movie and it reminds me of myself I feel like I haven't done a good job. I want to see somebody else and Looper is the most transformative film I've done.”
Set in a futuristic gangland in the year 2042, 25 year-old Joseph Simmons (Gordon-Levitt) works as a looper for a Kansas mafia group and kills agents sent back from corporate headquarters in Shanghai in 2072. When he realizes the mob wants to close the loop by transporting back his 55-year-old older self (Willis), who then escapes, he must fight for his life as he tracks him down. There's also a second part to the movie, which involves a steely farmer Sara (Emily Blunt) who is hell-bent on protecting her unusually gifted child.
“We had been talking about the movie ever since we made Brick,” recalls Johnson (left), “and I knew Joe would have to wrap himself around whomever we cast as the older actor. Even when we cast Bruce Willis, I knew he could do it as Joe is one of those guys who has movie star charisma, yet at heart is a character actor. You're playing with the premise that this is the same guy and at the end of the day it's a sc-fi movie and it's asking you to take that leap of faith.”
With the help of pale blue contact lenses and prosthetics to enhance Willis's famous clenched jaw, Gordon-Levitt is able to offer a certain semblance to the Die Hard star. Still, Johnson's film has headier concerns.
Johnson : “It asks a fundamental questions : What would you say to your past self or to your future self if you could meet them and have that conversation? Looper uses the genre of science fiction and the device of time travel to dramatise that question.”
Would Gordon-Levitt like to meet his future self? “Yes, but I probably wouldn't offer any advise,” he admits with a chuckle.
The action scenes are vitally important to the complex story. “I storyboard everything at the beginning, planning all the shots,” explains Johnson. “I love action where you can tell what's going on. I don't like the shaky camera. I like the way Spielberg shot the action in Raiders of the Lost Ark, with thrilling, visceral camera movement where you can always see what's happening.
“I felt the freedom not to flinch from the violence --you see the gunshots, you see the blood going, you see all sorts of horrible things. I think the reason I had the confidence to do that was because I knew this film was building to a conclusion where it takes a hard look at the consequences of using violence as a problem solving tool. Does that work for fixing a problem by finding the right person and killing them? Or does that just create a bigger problem and a bigger self-perpetuating loop?”
The aforementioned resolution comes in the form of Blunt and her kid, played by an astounding five year-old called Pierce Gagnon.
Johnson: “The movie becomes about Emily's character and her relationship with her son and love that you can watch every trailer of the movie and not know that surprise until people read it in your piece! I love that in this sci-fi action movie everything ends up hinging on the relationship of a mother with her son. I love when you can take a genre movie to an unexpected place like that. It's a risk and I'm sure there are viewers who in this cool action movie won't like suddenly being on a farm, but it was a narrative gambit that for me was exciting.”
To see the British actress (excellent in the current release Your Sister's Sister) portray a sassy gun-toting Southerner is worth the price of the ticket alone.
“Joe's transformation is a more obvious one on the posters but Emily has just as big a physical transformation in this movie,” notes Johnson. “She showed up tanned and blonde and with this Midwest American accent that she got from Chris Cooper. In a way though, Emily transforms herself with every role and I'd wanted to work with her for years. She surprises you with every choice she makes on screen. Whether she's playing Queen Victoria or the American girl in Sunshine Cleaning there's something electric about her. I find my eyes magnetically drawn to her and it's very important to hook the audience in the second half of our movie. I knew Emily bought us that.”
Meanwhile Blunt, who is yet to have children of her own, had to share her scenes with an irascible five-year-old. “I loved Pierce and he is spooky good,” she says. “Rian had looked all over the country to cast that role as it's hard to find that kind of intensity in a kid of that age. He read eight year olds and he read older kids to see if they had it and he found this little boy from Atlanta. I remember when Pierce came in to read with Joe there was this feeling like he had frozen the atmosphere in the room. He just had it, whatever it is. You see it in its rawest most talented form in this little boy, who had no training or technique or whatever. He truly understood that he was playing a character and he understood that he wasn't being Pierce making faces.
"I hung out with him all the time. We would have lunch together and play games together and run around together in between takes if he was getting fidgety. I think the hardest part was getting him to stay for my close-up. He would do one or two takes and then nail it and then I would be, 'Ok, it's my turn' and he would be like, 'Do I have to sit for you?' And I was like, 'Yes, you do! That's the deal, that's how it goes, this is the game.' That was his problem. He just wanted to take off and he knew he nailed it, the little bugger! He knew he nailed his side so he was like, 'Well, I am done!'”