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Q&A: 'Looper' writer-director Rian Johnson

September 26, 2012|Matt Pais, @mattpais | RedEye movie critic

 “I can imagine a young actor having a leading role in this big action movie saying, ‘What do you mean? You’re casting me but you want to change my face?’” says Rian Johnson of his awesome sci-fi thriller “Looper,” for which Joseph Gordon-Levitt endured daily three-hour makeup sessions. “Absolutely zero of that with Joe. That’s actually specifically what he loves, is vanishing on screen.”

The writer-director says their well-established working relationship and friendship (since the two collaborated on the fantastic “Brick”) helped the filmmaking process. “It maybe gives you the confidence and gives you the foundation to take some creative leaps that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to take, knowing that your friends have got your back,” he says. “Knowing that if you’ve got something like this, where you’re asking your actor to put on another actor’s face, they’re going to say, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”

In “Looper,” opening Sept. 28, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) must chase down his future self (Bruce Willis) after failing to follow through on his assignment as a looper—and assassin tasked with killing people from the future.

At the Peninsula bar, 38-year-old Johnson talked about the likelihood of time travel, writing for Gordon-Levitt and accidentally referencing “The Terminator.”

In “Looper,” time travel is illegal. If time travel were discovered tomorrow, what do you think would be the result?
I hope it would be instantly outlawed. [Laughs.] Although I guess it didn’t really work in the world of the movie. I started actually researching the scientific reality of time travel and where we’re at with it when I started writing.

Like if we’re almost there?
We are not almost there. We are nowhere close to being almost there. It’s fun to talk about, but when you look into the science of it, the things we’re getting really excited about are sending a subatomic particle back in time a millisecond. Which is really fascinating, amazing stuff, and it’s cool, but in terms of writing a time travel story, it was very useless.

I can see you pitching, “It’s a movie about a subatomic particle.”
Exactly. “He’s a regular guy!” From a moviemaking point of view, what you study is not time travel; what you study is how other stories use time travel. So you watch time travel movies, you read time travel books and you try and figure out how they manage to take this very complicated concept and tame it into the fabric of the narrative and have it serve the characters and story and not the other way around.

You wrote this part for Joseph. How did that shape the role?
Well, there’s nothing of Joe in this actual part. Thank God. My friend Joe is a completely opposite person than the character in this movie. So it didn’t shape the part in that way. Besides just wanting to work with my friend, it made a lot of sense to me because I knew the part was going to require a total transformation on the part of the young actor. I knew no matter who we cast as the older actor, the young man was going to have to wrap himself around that older man’s persona. And Joe, that’s his bread and butter. That’s what he loves to do, and that’s what he’s really good at. He loves to disappear into a part, to use the external to really find the internal and vanish inside of that. This was that on a big, big, big scale.

How tempted were you to cast Morgan Freeman as the older Joe and say, “Make it believable”!
“Make it work. Go for it, buddy. It’s all on you.” We obviously had to get it so we could get it close enough without it being ridiculous. That having been said, we set ourselves a pretty impossible task casting Bruce Willis. I was really excited about it because he’s a fantastic actor and he’s Bruce [bleeping] Willis, but really they couldn’t look more dissimilar. So in that way we had quite a conundrum on our hands. So we kind of placed our chips on, yeah, we’re going to do a little bit of makeup, it seemed like it would be fun, and hopefully would help a little bit at least doing some subtle adjustments using prosthetics to his face, but the big thing was trusting that Joe could pull it off with his performance. I think that’s what makes it tick.

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