Before he made his debut with Brick, his award-winning 2005 film noir set in a high school, director Rian Johnson already had the idea for Looper down on paper.
“It was a three-page script for a short film that I ended up never shooting,” he says. “I wrote it about 10 years ago, and it had been sitting in a drawer for a while — just the basic sci-fi premise of the mob in the future sending people back in time to be executed by hit men in the present.”
After directing the 2008 drama The Brothers Bloom and two episodes of TV’s Breaking Bad (including the controversial Fly), Johnson finally got to make his time travel adventure, and the central idea remains intact. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who also starred in Brick) as Joe, a hit man living in Kansas in 2044. Time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but it will be in the future. When the mob wants to execute an enemy, the target gets sent back in time to a cornfield, a bag over the head to conceal identity. Joe is waiting there with a shotgun.
It’s dirty work but easy and profitable, until Joe’s latest target shows up: An older version of himself (Bruce Willis), who has for some reason been sent back for execution.
One of the many twists of the time travel genre that Looper explodes is the notion laid out in countless previous films: If someone were to travel in time and meet themselves, the resulting paradox would cause the universe to implode.
Instead of wasting screen time explaining away the repercussions of such a meeting, Looper disposes with the holes in its plot in a quick scene at a diner in which the two Joes decide not to dwell too much about the impossibility of their situation.
“I should point out that we’re not the first movie to do this,” Johnson says with a laugh. “In Back to the Future 2, old Biff and young Biff met each other, and the world didn’t end. So there’s that.
“But yes, when I was writing the scene, I was figuring out how to tame this time travel element and not let it take over the movie. That’s why I’m so in awe of movies like Back to the Future or Primer or 12 Monkeys, any movie that figures out a way to deal with time travel, because it’s a real beast, and it has so many repercussions. I was frustrated for a while, until I decided all that stuff doesn’t matter. You get to a point in the narrative where to stop and explain all this stuff would be so cumbersome. Hopefully by that point, the audience isn’t thinking about those things anyway. So having Bruce tell Joe, ‘I don’t want to talk about time travel, because then we’ll be here all day drawing diagrams and stuff’ takes care of it. I also think people have seen enough time travel movies by this point that they’re very savvy.”
Even during the editing process, Johnson says he cut out several scenes involving the mechanics of time travel (which was instantly deemed illegal the moment it was invented). Test audiences were able to make the necessary leaps in logic to follow the story and not be confused by the idea of a young man trying to chase down and kill his older self.
“It’s a tricky balance,” Johnson says. “On the one hand, you want to make a movie that doesn’t overexplain itself. My favorite movies are always the one where you have to work a little to keep up with them. That’s part of the pleasure of a good movie.
“At the same time, it was very important for me to have everything make sense. I didn’t want Looper to be a puzzle box movie. I wanted this to be much more of a ride. That’s why it’s so much fun to work in established genres. They give you a kind of pre-built chess board to play on. And they give you rules that both you and the audience already know. That gives you a lot of leeway, not just with the time travel stuff, but also action-movie logic.”
There is a lot more to Looper than a simple chase film — we haven’t even mentioned the telekinesis yet — but one of the most startling things in the movie are what Willis’ Joe will resort to in order to change the past so he no longer needs to execute himself, including a shocking act most stars of his caliber would never agree to perform, even if it happens off-screen.
“I totally expected there to be a big discussion with Bruce about that scene,” Johnson says. “But the only discussion we had was how excited he was about the extreme places this character went to. He wasn’t apprehensive about it, and he wasn’t protective of his movie-star image, either. I think that’s part of what turned him on to the project — the rawness and the desperation of his character. He’s really a great actor, and he was 100 percent into the role. Thank God I was able to talk him into doing that!”
Gordon-Levitt spent three hours in the makeup chair each morning donning subtle prosthetics and make-up to help him resemble a younger version of Willis. The effect is initially startling — you know it’s Gordon-Levitt playing the part, but he looks so different — but it ultimately helps sell the illusion that the two men are playing the same man.
The actor says he remembers Johnson talking about Looper with Johnson as far back as the filming of Brick and being intrigued by the moral complexity of the piece.
“He wrote the part specifically for me, which is the first time someone has done that,” Gordon-Levitt says. “The first time he showed me a draft of the completed script was two years ago. Normally you get the script a few months before shooting, so it was unusual to be involved with a movie like this from such an early stage. It’s a really smart story about how violence begets violence. People do horrible things, but it’s never actually as simple as good guys and bad guys. Real life is much more complicated than that.”
But although the actor was excited about his role and reuniting with his director friend, when Willis signed on Gordon-Levitt really went over the moon for Looper.
“When I heard he was going to do it, I was thrilled, because he is so perfect for it: A guy who is 30 years older than me but believes he could still beat me in a fight! There are probably not that many 60-year-old dudes out there who could beat me in a fight! But he could do it. Maybe.”