Fortunately, transformation is something that Gordon-Levitt loves, and he rose to the challenge. As the director told us, "Joe really loves transforming himself into the part. Working with him on 'Brick,' one of the first things we found was the voice, this really flat accent, listening to a lot of Tom Waits. Joe really finds his foothole into characters by finding these exterior things. The jacket he wore in 'Brick,' stuffing his hands into the pockets to create this shell. So doing a physical transformation is, in my experience, part of how he works. And this was the opportunity to do that on a grand scale. But in addition to the mimicry involved, he's giving a real performance, and creating a real character, who isn't young Bruce Willis, it's a character believable as a young Bruce Willis. But it's completely Joe's character, and I'm really excited for people to see the movie as a whole."
Unusual for a film of its profile, "Looper" was made and financed independently, with Sony and FilmDistrict acquiring the film for the U.S. a year ago. As Johnson explains, his existing relationship with the financiers gives him a good deal of freedom. "Endgame Entertainment financed it, and the way they work is that we pre-sell the foreign, based on the cast and the script, and then they cover the gap in financing. Sony are putting it out, but they picked it up after it was done. So we were just dealing with Endgame, and the guy who runs Endgame, Jim Stern, is a filmmaker himself, we have a great collaborative relationship with him, and it's not at all like we're approaching a board of directors or something."
What this did mean, however, is something that's likely to become more common over time; the film was partially shot in Shanghai to help attract Chinese financing and distribution, and Johnson confirmed reports from a while back that the country will get a slightly different version of the film. "There's a scene in the film that takes place in China, that we actually went over to Shanghai for. It's a sort of montage sequence, a sequence unto itself. We went over there and shot for two weeks and cut this sequence, and then during the normal course of cutting, everything gets trimmed down. So in the finished film, the final sequence is about half of what we originally had in there in the original cut, and it works best as the shortest version. But our Chinese distributor asked if we'd be cool having an earlier version of that sequence in the film, which is a little longer and you see a little bit more of China, just for a Chinese audience. It was still my cut of the sequence, it was just an earlier cut, which had a little bit more in there. And just that specific sequence. And I didn't see any harm in it, but the American [cut] is in my mind the stronger one."
And while that scene probably won't be seen on the DVD, there'll be plenty of material for the home video relase: "There's a lot of deleted scenes on the DVD, nearly an hour's worth of stuff, stuff I was really proud of, that we cut just in trying to get the movie as tight as possible. I don't think the original China montage is there, though."
The film's finally hitting theaters at the end of September, although it's been virtually completed since the start of the year. We asked Johnson if the distributors had hung on to the film to capitalize on Gordon-Levitt's role in "The Dark Knight Rises," but the director suggested that wasn't the major reason: "There's that, but more so than that, we wanted to avoid summer, 'cause there's all these huge movies. It made sense for a lot of reasons."
As for what's next (you can read more about that here), Johnson did helm another episode of "Breaking Bad" for the fifth season that got underway last night. Don't go to him for spoilers on how it might end, though: "One of my favorite memories of this episode I did," Johnson told us, laughing "was sitting around the monitor with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, arguing with them about how we thought the show was going to end." That episode will be on in a few weeks, and you can catch "Looper" in theaters on Friday, September 28th.
-- Interview by Jeff Otto