The Insane Things Joseph Gordon-Levitt Did to Become Bruce Willis in LooperS

You've already seen how Joseph Gordon-Levitt's face was altered to make him look more like a younger version of Bruce Willis for the time travel movie Looper. But that's just the most visible part of the process that Gordon-Levitt went through to transform himself into Willis. When we sat down with Gordon-Levitt and writer/director Rian Johnson, they told us all about the secret to becoming Bruce.

Spoilers ahead...

We were lucky enough to join Gordon-Levitt and Johnson as part of a roundtable interview here in San Francisco. We'll also have exclusive interviews with both men next week, before the film comes out. And in the course of our discussions, we found out just how committed JGL was to becoming a young version of the Die Hard star.

"Looper was probably the most transformative of any movie I've ever done," Gordon-Levitt told us. His "whole character" is based on Bruce Willis, and he was determined to go beyond a simple Willis impersonation. Said Gordon-Levitt:

The Insane Things Joseph Gordon-Levitt Did to Become Bruce Willis in LooperS

I studied him, and watched his movies, and ripped the audio off of his movies, so I could listen to them on repeat. He even recorded some of my voice-over monologues [from Looper] and sent me that recording, so I could hear what it would sound like in his voice. And then just getting to know him and spending time with him and letting it seep in. It's a really, really fascinating way to become a character. That's always my favorite thing, is to transform, become somebody else. If I see a moment that reminds me of myself I always feel like I messed that up.

The transformation process was "pretty one-sided," added Rian Johnson. "Joseph wrapped himself around Bruce. There wasn't a lot that went the other day. Joe could start getting to work pretty early, before he even met Bruce." But he wasn't trying to channel the real-life young Bruce Willis, but rather to create his own younger version of the current Bruce Willis.

The Insane Things Joseph Gordon-Levitt Did to Become Bruce Willis in LooperS

"One thing that I think was really smart that Joe did was, he didn't look at Moonlighting episodes," said Johnson. "He didn't look at the first Die Hard. He didn't look at Bruce when he was Joe's age, he looked at him today. He watched Sin City quite a bit. He watched his recent films. That seems like a slight distinction, but I think that was really critical. Because he was basing his performance on Bruce today, instead of imitating Bruce as a young man. He was creating a new a new character, whom you could buy as the Bruce that's on the screen, instead of doing an imitation of what Bruce was actually like when he was younger."

The Insane Things Joseph Gordon-Levitt Did to Become Bruce Willis in LooperS

Also, Johnson said that working with Bruce Willis was exactly like your dream of what working with Bruce Willis would be like. He was cool, but totally focused and committed to working on the part. "He was entirely in it." Johnson was nervous at first, because he'd grown up watching Willis' movies, but after Willis showed up, the nervousness dissipated and he was just working with a great actor.

The China thing

You've probably heard that Looper is a U.S.-Chinese co-production — the Chinese company DMG funded part of the movie's budget, reportedly on the condition that some scenes be filmed in China and Chinese actor Xu Qing be given a supporting role. (A similar deal was struck for Iron Man 3, though it's run into trouble.) And in fact, Looper seems to hint that in the future where time travel has been invented, China is an ascendant superpower. So we had to ask Johnson: Did he feel like he was putting a pro-China message into his film in exchange for funding?

Johnson responded:

The Insane Things Joseph Gordon-Levitt Did to Become Bruce Willis in LooperS

Not at all... Not a word of the script was changed, except just a find/replace where we replaced "Paris" with "Shanghai." It's exactly the same — except that well, we added that one line, that joke that Jeff Daniels makes [about how he's from the future, and he knows that Joe should go to China], just to justify it.

What happened was, originally there was that sequence where [Joe] goes off to Paris. That montage, where we see his near future. Because we didn't have the money to go to Paris to shoot, we were faced with the prospect of faking Paris in New Orleans — and as someone who loves Paris, that kind of put a dagger in my heart. That's when DMG, our Chinese distributor, said, 'Look, if you change it to Shanghai, we can actually bring you over here for a few weeks to shoot in Shanghai.' And so, I thought about it, and I realized that for a scifi movie, if we're going to have something that shows the farther future and is a little more scifi-feeling, in many ways Shanghai fits that more than Paris does. There's something more romantic about Paris, but this actually makes sense to me. And there's nothing else in the script [that was changed] except the setting.

Chinese audiences will see a slightly longer version of that montage, showing Joe changing from Gordon-Levitt to Willis in Shanghai — but it's not the full-length version. According to Johnson, that sequence was originally twice as long, and he kept cutting it down further and further for pacing reasons, losing a lot of the stuff featuring Xu Qing as Bruce Willis' wife. "The U.S. cut is my cut of the movie," added Johnson. "The shorter version works better." But you may see the longer version of that sequence on the DVD — especially if Johnson can get the music clearances to include the Chopin Étude that he wanted to use as music for it.

The origins of Looper

Looper started out as a three-page script that Johnson wrote for a short film, years ago. It was very voiceover-driven, and was essentially the opening monologue of the film, followed by a foot chase through the city after Joe's older self appears, while the voiceover continues and Joe talks about the moral conundrum he's facing. "At some point, I will put the [script] on the Internet," said Johnson. "I won't put it up now, because it does spoil the ending." A lot of the basic themes are there, but not the second half of the movie.

The Insane Things Joseph Gordon-Levitt Did to Become Bruce Willis in LooperS

"When I wrote that short, it was right when I had discovered Philip K. Dick, and I was in the middle of blowing through all his works, so my was kind of steeped in that," said Johnson. He also always thinks about Ray Bradbury, who's "the master of that thing that I always love most about scifi": using science fictional concepts to "amplify a very human emotion, a very human theme, to get to something that's going to leave you crying at the end of it." The film's also inspired by The Terminator, for obvious reasons — but it also owes a lot to the Harrison Ford movie Witness.

Johnson repeated something he's said before: that Looper is not a film about time travel, it's a movie that uses time travel to set up a situation that then plays out. At the same time, he didn't want to use that as an excuse to be lazy about the time-travel aspects of the film. As he explained to us at Comic Con, he spent a lot of time figuring out the rules for how the universe deals with time travel paradoxes. He didn't want to explain the rules, or have a "chalkboard scene" — but you can see them playing out in the film.

And at the same time, "I wouldn't say it makes sense," Johnson admitted. "No time travel movie makes sense, if you look at it hard it. But there was a consistent set of rules that we stuck to."

The Insane Things Joseph Gordon-Levitt Did to Become Bruce Willis in LooperS

In fact, when he showed the script to Primer director Shane Carruth, Carruth told him, "Well, to some extent, you're taking this magical approach to it," in terms of showing how things that affect a character's younger self immediately impact his older self. But once you take that leap into slightly "magical thinking," the film does stay consistent with it. "We're taking a linear, experiential view of the time travel as it's happening."

The meaning of Looper

Adds Gordon-Levitt, "Looper is a drama about what you would say to your future self if you could have that conversation, and obviously you can't have that conversation in real life."

Johnson said that when Young Joe looks at Old Joe, he's not seeing who he's going to be — he's seeing who he was. Young Joe sees Old Joe as his past, because he represents a kind of selfishness and expediency that Young Joe is trying to outgrow. Even though Old Joe claims to be motivated by love, he's still the self-centered guy, willing to murder people to hold on to what is his, that Young Joe is at the start of the movie.

The Insane Things Joseph Gordon-Levitt Did to Become Bruce Willis in LooperS

The only really unselfish character in the movie is Sarah (Emily Blunt) who is willing to sacrifice herself for her son — and her choices have a huge impact on Young Joe, said Gordon-Levitt. Meeting Sarah is what enables Joe to break the endless cycle that Looper is describing. "If everyone just looks out for themselves, you just get this perpetual loop of everybody pointing fingers, and everybody blaming each other, and everybody killing each other. And it takes an act of selflessness to maybe break that."