Writer/director Rian Johnson first wowed audiences with his 2005 debut feature Brick, a sharply stylized modern film noir starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He has since followed up with his acclaimed second film The Brothers Bloom and also directed key episodes of television's Terrier and the award-winning Breaking Bad. Back on the big screen with his third film, Looper, Johnson ups the scale a thousand fold, creating a complex world of time travelling assassins full of conflicted and incredibly layered characters. The groundbreaking sci-fi drama stars Emily Blunt (Your Sister's Sister) as Johnson's leading lady, a tough spitfire and protective mother combo.
In between time loops, Johnson and Blunt took time to chat with Buzzine's Emmanual Itier about Looper's inception, style, and working alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis.
Emmanuel Itier: Emily, Rian Johnson's previous work (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) has been renowned for its nuanced writing. What did you think the first time you read the script for Looper?
Emily Blunt: I was completely stunned by it; you know, just kind of flabbergasted. I think I'm so programmed as an actor to reading scripts that feel a bit formulaic, you know, and you feel like sometimes you read the same script over and over again. And so I read Looper, and I just felt it was just breathtakingly original and it was so well-written, and it was complex, and it had this cool sci-fi element, but yet it was really emotionally profound. So I was blown away by it.
EI: And you play an intriguing character in the overall story: What drew you to this role?
EB: Well, I liked the toughness, the strength, and the independence, you know, and also the loneliness. I kind of responded to that. I was moved by her relationship with her son and what that must be like to feel like it's just you against the world. And she's so isolated out there, and I was interested to kind of get into that mindset of what that must be like, that loneliness, and that starkness and that quiet. You know?
EI: You spend most of your time in scenes with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. What did you discover about him and his acting style?
EB: Well, Joe is so much fun; he's goofy and sweet, and we always had a laugh in the evening when we had dinner. But during the day, he was very focused and reserved. And he looks so unrecognizable that I think, in a way, the prosthetics had a sort of internal effect on him, too. I think he would look in the mirror in the morning and not recognize who this person was, so he kind of became someone else during the day. It was amazing.
EI: Having now spent some of your life thinking about time travel - would you do, it you were able: Would you dare to change anything?
EB: Oh, I don't intend to - I mean it's a question that everyone asks on this movie, but I don't like to dwell on the past. And it may be that I feel like I'm in a happy place right now, so I wouldn't want to change anything because I think everything leads you to a certain place. You know, I believe in that, that things are fatalistic, and you end up where you're supposed to end up through the choices you make. So I don't know if I'd change anything. Maybe I'd feel differently if I was sad or depressed right now - I'd blame it on some past mistake...
EI: You've been in a run of excellent films, and it seems like your taste in roles is expanding and maturing. Has your approach to acting changed since you first began?
EB: Yeah, I would say yes. I think, when I first started, I would sort of nervously over-prepare and really, really learn the lines until I was blue in the face. You know, I'd just sort of practice, and rehearse and rehearse, and agonize over them. And now, I feel like my approach is a bit - is way more relaxed. I learn the lines, but not that well, because I like the openness of a scene and what potential... what could happen. So I think in that way, I trust that it will just kind of happen and I like the surprise of not quite knowing how a scene is going to go. You know?
Emmanuel Itier: With your third cinematic work, there doesn't seem to be any clear emerging pattern within the topics of your films just yet. What was the inspiration behind creating a sci-fi film? Or was it simply based on your experience as a time traveler?
Rian Johnson: It was, actually. Can you not tell I'm from the future? You can see the implants in my eyes. [Smiles]
No, I wrote the idea for it about 10 years ago, actually; a long time ago, and I wrote it just as a short script, like a three-page script, to make as a short film. I never ended up shooting it. But I was reading a lot of Philip K. Dick novels at the time, so I think that had something to do with it. I was just in a headspace of all these sci-fi ideas, and this thing just kind of... wrote it down and it was there.
EI: You could have used one actor, with prosthetics, to portray both the younger and older Joe. What made you decide to use two actors, and how challenging was it to make Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like two version of the same man?
RJ: It was a big challenge. I mean I spoke with Joe briefly about him playing both parts, and aging him up and doing special effects of both parts for Joe. We considered that very briefly, but I felt very strongly, first of all, that it's always problematic when you age a young actor up, even if the makeup is flawless. I feel like if you know what that young actor looks like, you can always see through it.
But also, just thematically, the movie is so much about a younger man sitting across from an older man and having that connection, and you can't get that with a green screen... you know? You need another actor, and you need an actor that has that experience and has the years to actually stare down that younger man. I think you can see that. That's important.
EI: And that actor was Bruce Willis, an cinematic legend in his own right. You worked with Joe in your first film, Brick, but Bruce Willis is an entirely new experience: How was he different from other actors you've worked with?
RJ: I guess what was most unexpected was just how much he was like other actors I'd worked with. In other words, once we got on set and we started working, the fact that he was 'Bruce Willis', and the fact that he was, you know, this action star hero I've been watching in movies since I was a kid, all of that vanished and went away and I was just working as a director with an excellent actor. He just completely committed to the parts. He was fearless in terms of going to the dark places the character needed to go to, and he held nothing back. So for me, it was a tremendous experience working with this man who is, like you said, a legend. But he just instantly came to the level of the film and was like, "Let's do this. Let's tell this story."
EI: Since you've spent the past few years writing and creating stories about time travel... if you could go back in time, perhaps meet your younger self, what would you do?
RJ: Right now, I can't complain. I figure I could only screw it up if I went back. I'm getting to make movies for a living with Bruce Willis. I feel like I would go back and say something stupid to my younger self, and when I came back to the present, I would find myself living under a bridge somewhere. I would totally mess everything up. I think I would rather go to the future. I'd rather go 100 years in the future to see what the cars look like, see the new technology, see the new iPhones...
EI: And what do you see in the future for yourself?
RJ: Oh, for myself? Man, if I can just get another movie made, I'll be happy. If we can fool them again, get money for one more... We're like bandits, "Just let me do one more job."
'Looper' opens in theaters nationwide on Friday September 28, 2012.