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Blast From the Past

Joseph Gordon Levitt

When was the last time you saw a movie that made you say “Wow!” with the wide-eyed, not-yet-jaded glee of a six year old?

What was it for you? Insane special effects? Narrative trickery? Deep and resonant emotion? The perfect ending?

I was 6 1/2 years old — at that age, the 1/2 is very important — when Back to the Future came out in theaters, and I remember seeing it with my father. The movie floored me — the whole thing. Marty’s relationship with Doc as well as his own father (Crispin effin’ Glover!), the effects, the music, and the clever but somehow believable (what kid didn’t want a flux capacitor?!) way time travel was dealt with. The movie was perfect. It still is. The spectacle and ambition and humanity (Michael J. Fox is a pint-size hero everyone can relate to) are a perfect argument for popcorn films. It’s all such a fun ride that it’s easy to take for granted how elegant the storytelling is — the narrative bumps are hidden and lost in a wash of DeLoreans and gigawatts and Huey Lewis.

As I grew older, I discovered different pleasures in science-fiction films as wide-ranging as Blade Runner, Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, The Thing, The Fly, Brazil, Metropolis, Children of Men and World on a Wire.

With each of these films, I felt more alive and inspired or claustrophobic and terrified, stunned by venereal horror or tricky physics or just spectacle — gorgeous, improbable, spectacle. Science fiction explores the parameters of our imagination and provides us both new images and the speculative pseudo-science that might even inspire the next generation of actual scientists (how many of Asimov, Bradbury, Sagan, Dick, Huxley and Orwell’s prophecies have proven to be remarkably conceivable — if not attainable?).

As a genre, science fiction explores the rewards and pitfalls of unbounded curiosity and has a unique ability to create actual, internal time-travel — we can feel like we are children again. That is a rare gift most of us would happily pay $15 for.

Looper, Rian Johnson’s ambitious and resonant new film, made me say “Wow!”

Repeatedly.

Looper is built on an exceedingly high-concept time-travel premise, but its real coup is a gloriously believable world where the hi-fi (flying motorcycles) co-exists with the lo-fi (much of the film’s action takes place on a 1950s style farm). The film makes incredibly specific and sometimes hilarious predictions that create a world unique to itself; in the future, a Mazda Miata is considered a “cool” retro car, drugs are administered by an eye-dropper, and while a considerable part of the population possesses a superpower, they can only use it to levitate coins (generally used in service of impressing women at bars). And, oh yes, time travel exists, but it’s controlled by criminal syndicates who use it to send their enemies to the past — where they’re promptly executed.

Wow.

Much like Johnson’s earlier films, Looper has a fantastic cast, including Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, newcomer Pierce Gagnon (who gives one of the finest child performances in years), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who sports prosthetics as the young Willis and has developed into a commanding everyman action star in the seven years since he starred in Johnson’s teen-noir, Brick. The film’s action is resolutely grounded, and the logic-puzzle plot is tight, gaining depth and emotion as the film builds to its surprising yet inevitable ending.

Looper is ultimately a film about purpose and sacrifice, and while the time-looping plot is cool as hell and the gadgets are well-crafted and plausible, it is the beating, struggling heart of the film’s flawed but relatable hero that offers the most inspired and hopeful vision of the future.

Looper is released through TriStar on September 28.

 

Tell me about the origins of the film and how it began?

I wrote it originally as a short film, this two-page short back before we made Brick. It was essentially the voiceover and the premise, and then a very quick playing out of that premise. I wrote it as a short but we never shot it; it just sat in a drawer for 10 years. A couple of years ago, these bigger themes ended up attaching themselves to it in my head, and it seemed like something to do next. I was looking for something very tonally different from [The Brothers] Bloom — more gritty and more focused.

When these ideas come to you, are you always aware of the genre boxes, like science fiction, that you’re either going to embrace and transcend?

Well, yes, but phrasing it that way makes it sound like it’s like a calculation and it’s much less that. It’s strange to talk about because right now I’m in the middle of figuring out what the next thing is going to be, and it’s such a weird process. It really is just like fishing. You’re just waiting for something to snag you and drag you. And you know when it hits, but you don’t know where it’s going to come from or what it’s going to be. The mixing of genres combined with some bigger theme is something that gets me excited, but it’s definitely not something I think of in those terms when I’m sitting down to write. It’s much more about the bigger questions and how everything plays into those. That’s what really gets the writing process going for me — not the genre, not the world, not an idea of visuals or anything. It’s a theme or central question that hooks me. And then, what is exciting about genre, the visuals and all that, is how those things can hook directly into that theme and pull it out in ways that are surprising.

I read that you have referred to the film as “grounded in science fiction.” I don’t know if there was a lot of thought into that specific articulation or if it just came out. But I mean, is there a distinction you would draw between “grounded in science fiction” and something broader?

Well I was probably referring specifically to the visuals of the world. What I mostly meant is that it’s very near future, and design wise, I found that my job throughout the design process, working with all these incredibly talented people who would give us design examples for hover bikes and future cars and buildings, was to pull everybody back. There’s a sci-fi aesthetic that’s kinda taken root [in films today], and to me the interesting way of doing something a little bit different was to say, “Well, let’s pull it much more down to earth, and instead of coming up with this crazy, sleek design for a hover bike, let’s make it look more like an old Triumph Motorcycle, and use real parts.” I realized the big thing, especially when you’re doing a movie set in the future without a huge budget, is that you have to deal with street signs and cars. And so, with the cars, it was, okay, well, let’s think of them as like, the Yank tanks in Cuba, where people had to make these cars from 30 years ago last throughout the years and retrofit them in different ways. So it is more about trying to ground [the world] in some believable grit as opposed to coming up with a bright and shiny future world. Although, I love movies with shiny, future worlds, but this wasn’t that, you know?

The vintage car, that was a Mazda Miata, right? When I saw it, I laughed out loud. Such an uncool vintage car.

The idea was that 30 years from now this would be [the hero’s] idea of a Triumph or something. What’s funny, though, is that recently, for the first time and much to my shame, I watched MacGruber, and they do the exact same joke. It was after our movie was done, and I just buried my head in my hands. Or maybe it’s a good thing, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a “great minds think alike” thing.

This is a famous, much-repeated story about Blade Runner; instead of trying to create a world of the future, what was really transgressive about the film was that it was Downtown L.A. circa 1980, but with contemporary Hong Kong grafted onto that and that it embraced the past details, the cool and the uncool, the very blasé.

Have you seen the second Back to the Future movie recently? There’s this café called, like, Café ’80s, and it takes awhile to wrap your head around what the gag actually is. In the movie, present-day stuff was presented as if its nostalgia from the future. But now that we’re 20 years out from it, it just looks like an ’80s nostalgia café. It’s a strange head game that ends up happening, but, yeah.

Your production designer worked on Back to the Future Part II, didn’t he?

He worked with Spielberg a lot. He worked on Raiders, he worked as an illustrator on E.T. Ed Verreaux, he’s a really cool guy.

What was that collaboration like?

It was great. You know, we really had to stretch our dollar. [Laughs] It’s not like this was like a tiny little indie movie or something, but for the scope that we were trying to pull off … I guess you never have enough money for the scope you’re trying to pull off. Ed did a fantastic job of rising to the challenge of making a lot out of a little. All the stuff I said before about presenting a really grounded world, he completely gave into that.

When you were envisioning this logical, near-future world, did you ever give in to the child inside of you and do a “Wow, I’ve never seen that in a film before!” moment?

There were [those moments], although less so with this movie than I would’ve thought. When I was writing the script, I was trying to be really brutal with myself and keep the narrative tight, the characters tight and to use less dialogue than I was used to using. I still think there’s probably too much dialogue in the movie, [Laughs] but trying to say more with less, trying to keep the spine of the thing totally solid from front to back, that was probably the challenge for me. I was so wrapped up in that — it wasn’t the world or the toys or the sci-fi elements that were driving me. And I say that as if it’s something, like, noble. It’s not. It was just, that’s where my head was at with it, you know? Where it was a problem was when we started pre-production. I think [the designers] assumed I had some grand vision for this world in my head, and I really didn’t. I didn’t know what the world looked like. And so, it was saying what I just said to you: “Let’s try and make this a grounded world.” And then it was working through each piece of that with the design team. I mean, there are a couple of cool pieces of tech in the movie, but there’s definitely no Minority Report screen. For me, that was never really the point of this one, you know?

I was at a reading where the novelist Denis Johnson was asked about how he structured his stories. He said something like, “I like words. I just try to follow the words and I just try to be the wind and blow the words. And I trust that my subconscious is just organizing the damn thing, but I’m not always aware of it. Maybe not completely.” With something like this, where the logic has to be so tight, is there any more porous logic? Where you just explore?

It’s the opposite of that, basically. I mean, that sounds like heaven to me. I would love to write like that. I would love to write a novel and just have the freedom to go on that. Or, I’d love to be talented enough to be able to do that with a feature. I heard the Coen brothers write that way. They just start at page one and then go and figure it out as they go along. I have to have a game plan going into it. I’m not that good. I have to spend a year scribbling in notebooks and extensively outlining. Maybe to a fault, I outline to the nth degree. I have to know how everything locks together. I gotta know where everything is going and why. I gotta know the stuff deep, deep, deep, deep down into its bones before I can sit down and start typing anything. Also, I hate sitting in front of a computer writing. I write my first drafts in these little smaller-size Moleskines in longhand. And my first editing pass is typing that into the computer. But that’s the last 10 percent of the process. I mean, really, I’ll spend a year, a year and a half sometimes, outlining, sketching scenes, drawing little pictures and figuring the whole thing out.

Rian Johnson with Joseph Gordon Levitt on set.

Rian Johnson with Joseph Gordon-Levitt on set.

Did you know you’d have Joseph Gordon-Levitt when you wrote the script?

I wrote it for Joe. He was a part of the fabric of the thing. So we knew we had that element. I always thought we’d cast an older actor and then bring them closer with makeup. That was always my plan. Joe made a real strong pitch, because he’s an ambitious actor, to play both parts [using makeup]. I was strongly against that for a couple reasons. First of all, I don’t think age makeup on young actors ever works. Maybe in Little Big Man, but that’s basically a latex mask.

That’s exactly what I was thinking.

Believably bringing someone up 30 years, even if it’s great makeup and terrifically executed, if you know what that young actor looks like, you can always see straight through it. And I think digital aging and youthening and face altering is an atrocity. I’ve never seen it not look like poo-poo. I don’t understand people who are excited about it. So I knew it had to be prosthetics, at least at this point. And the other bigger element, though, was I knew we had this centerpiece scene in the diner. And I felt for that and for the movie as a whole, there’s something about the gravitas of having an older actor in that part that you just couldn’t duplicate — a young man can’t fake it. Having him stare into the eyes of someone that he’s actually a little intimidated by, like Bruce Willis — there’s something about that that the audience is going to feel, I think. And so, we cast Bruce, and then had to figure out the makeup from there. We had a fantastic makeup artist, whose name is Kazuhiro [Tsuji], and he is a wizard. He’s a younger guy from Japan. When we first approached him about designing this makeup, he looked at Bruce and looked at Joe and said, “No, it can’t be done. Their faces are too dissimilar.” He didn’t want to do it.

And how did that make you feel to hear that?

Horrible. Terrified. And so, basically I told him, “Look, we know we’re not going to make Joe look like a young Bruce Willis. Let’s just pick a couple of features and just bring them up a little bit closer, just give the audience something to grab onto. It’s more about giving Joe a foreignness.” And so, he concentrated on the nose, upper lip and lower lip, and then adjusted the eyebrows a little bit. And then gave Joe blue contacts. And that ended up getting it. I was really pleased with the result, but still, it’s terrifying in terms of how audiences are going to react. It’s rolling the dice in a big way, slapping some shit on your handsome lead actor’s face, [Laughs].

I recently read the L.A. Times story about your shoot and going to China. Can you tell me about that?

Well, when I originally wrote the script, there was this sequence that was supposed to be set in Paris. [Joe’s character] actually went to Paris. And because of our budget, we were going to have to fake Paris in New Orleans, which we could’ve pulled off, but it wasn’t going to be ideal. And we talked about, “Well if we snuck, like, an MOS camera over there and it was just me and Joe and a couple of people and we just stole some footage on the streets or something?” And then, this opportunity arose with our Chinese distributor where they’re like, “Well what if we could actually up this to a co-production, and we can shoot this stuff in Shanghai?” The more I thought about it, the more it made sense in the context of the story that Shanghai and China would be the place that a young man would go to in the future.

And he wants to go to Paris.

He romanticizes Paris, but at the end of the day he’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to Shanghai.” And we got a ton more production value by going to Shanghai and shooting for two weeks. It became a no brainer. And so, the other element of this is DMG, our partner in China, is this great company run by this really interesting dude, Dan Mintz. They’re going to release [the film] over there in a very big scale for the Chinese market. In trimming down the movie, there was a lot of stuff that ended up getting cut out from that China sequence. They asked if we’d mind doing a version for the Chinese market that puts some of it back. And, you know, the American cut is my cut of the movie. I think the American cut is a much stronger cut, just as a film. But I think the stuff that we put back in [for China] is really cool, and it’s more of China. It’s another scene between Bruce and his Chinese wife, and that’s a dialogue scene that the actress is wonderful in. So it’s all good stuff that I’m happy somebody’s going to see.

Did you always know that there would be these two versions?

No, this was suggested in post. And like I said, I didn’t see the harm of it, and I was happy that somebody would be seeing this footage. It’s weird. It’s interesting.

What’s your working relationship like with actors on a set? People you’ve worked with before like Joe and then new actors?

It’s different actor to actor. Part of the job is figuring out what each actor needs and how you can best serve them. The first step is building that bond of trust both ways, I think. With actors, it’s essential both that you trust them, that everything they’re doing is because it’s right for the part and right for the movie and right for the moment, and it’s important they trust you, that you aren’t going to make them look stupid, that you know what you’re going for and that there’s a plan. And once you get that bond and trust, it really is just about honesty. I said I wanted to be brutal with myself in the writing phase in terms of keeping it all tight, and I didn’t want to let myself off the hook on set either.  I wanted to have actors who were going to challenge me if a moment didn’t feel honest. I wanted to “stress test” every moment in every scene in the movie. And if something didn’t feel right, let’s talk about it. Let’s figure something else out. Emily [Blunt] definitely does that. I mean, she wasn’t difficult in terms of pushing you on every little thing, but if something didn’t feel right, she was going to tell you.

Tell me about Pierce Gagnon. His is one of the best child performances I have seen in years.

He is an amazing actor and an amazing kid. Our New Orleans casting director found him in Atlanta, where he lives with his family. He’s been in a couple of things, but not really anything big. He would come in and it wasn’t like with a lot of kid actors where you would kinda get one line and then work on the next line and then work on the next line. He would sit down and he do a three-page dialogue scene all the way through and nail it. And then, you would give him an adjustment for, like, halfway through the scene, and he would do it again with that adjustment and nail it. And in between takes, he was a five year old. It’s not like he was an adult in a kid’s body. He was five. He was jumping up and down, and the trade-off was, he would do it three or four times and then he would get antsy and would be wondering how many more times we had to do this. Which is great because he’s actually a healthy five year old in that regard. But it was just so completely unlike any other experience I’ve ever had with a kid actor before, and I can take no credit at all — he just completely brought it. His mom, who is lovely and wonderful, works with him — I think that’s the secret of it. The kid knew the script and she would talk to him about the scenes, like, “Okay, you remember? You’re on the farm. You’re with Sara and now Joe’s coming in.” She dealt with him the way you would talk to an actor about a scene. It was really extraordinary, really amazing. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Where do you think that comes—I mean, it’s probably hard to answer, but Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, Dakota Fanning in a number of things — it can’t be craft in the way that an adult has a craft and a discipline. What is that thing that they have at that age?

Joe was a kid actor, and the thing he always says is, “Kids can act and people tend to forget that and think you have to trick kids into giving a performance.” And so, I think just as simple as that, the same way it is with an adult, someone can either act or they can’t. I really believe that. And you can tell whether they can act or not by putting a camera down and having them walk across the room. You either believe them or you don’t, instantly, like that. It’s incredible. It really is binary in that regard. There are some actors who are more interesting than others, but in terms of you can either do it or you can’t, I really think it’s a black-or-white situation. It’s the same way with kids, I think. Pierce can act. I’m going to be very, very curious to see whether he keeps doing it or what.

So how do you spend the next three months until the release? What’s your life?

Sweating. [Laughs] No, I don’t know. I’m trying to get my head back into writing. It’s tough. It’s always weird transitioning out of one thing and into another. It’s especially tough when the thing you’re transitioning out of is in that period of stasis, you know, where it’s just kinda waiting [to be released]. I just want the thing to be out there in the world, but yeah, I’m trying to get back to writing, which I hate. [Laughs] Writing’s terrible.

Have you done enough now that you know how long it’s going to take? Is it going to take a couple of years?

I have no idea. I hope not.

Are you in the Moleskine period?

I am. My producers have been saying, “Let’s try and write the next one fast, while Looper is being put out there.” The “strike while the iron is hot” type of thing. I’m slowly realizing I might not have the ability to jam it into gear and churn something out. And I’m slowly realizing that might be fine. I would rather take the time it takes.

Would you consider an adaptation or directing someone else’s script?

I would love to. I would love to just find a piece of material that I connected to and was ready to go. I had so much fun making Looper, and I wanted to be making another one right away. I didn’t want to wait another couple of years. And so, I said [to my agents and producers], “Yeah, show me scripts. Let’s find something.” And I read a lot of stuff, a lot of really good stuff. I read a lot of stuff that was probably better than anything I could write. But I realized reading it that what gets me going is starting something from the very seed of it and seeing it through all the way to the end — telling my own stories, for better or for worse. You know, I realized at least right now that’s what I’m in it for, you know? So that is just what it has to be.

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