The writer-director came up with the idea ten years ago after reading a lot of Philip K. Dick, he told the Hall H crowd last week. The concept: in the future when time travel is outlawed, the mob zaps hit men (called loopers) into the past to dispose of their victims. Johnson wrote the lead role for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who starred in Johnson's debut Sundance hit "Brick." He's a hit man who gets the assignment to kill his older self, played by Bruce Willis. "Joe is someone who is willing to throw themselves into this total transformation," said Johnson. "That's what he loves to do."
"It's time someone wrote a part for me!" Gordon-Levitt told the Hall H crowd. "They send me my future self to kill. Unfortunately it's Bruce Willis, so I am not able to kill him."
Gordon-Levitt was eager to play his mature self as well, but Johnson wanted an older actor who could intimidate him. When he landed Willis, Johnson had to find a way to make the two men resemble each other (see video interview below). "We added a little bit of prosthetics to Joe's nose and lips," he said. "His performance ends up selling it, he's doing the young Bruce. It's not just imitation."
Emily Blunt also gets involved. "I can't say too much about my character," she said. "She and her family get embroiled in this whole debacle because Joe is a pussy. She's tough, she's a bad ass, we live in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest." Johnson's script is "rich in complexity and the emotion is complex as well. He writes in a singular way, not derived from anything else you've ever seen, it's rare when that happens."
To prepare, Gordon-Levitt watched Willis movies, listened to audio on his iPod; Willis also recorded some of his voiceover lines. "The most I learned was hanging out with him," said Gordon-Levitt. "What's striking about Bruce is that he is actually a soft-spoken man. He doesn't want other people listening to him. He doesn't have to speak up. A lot of big macho guys talk loud, like they have to have a big presence in the room. A guy like Bruce isn't scared of anything, he doesn't have to raise his voice."
"Looper" is more like "Terminator," suggests Johnson, in that the "time travel sets up a situation with these characters and then gets out of way." Although the director had a bigger budget to work with than his last film, "Brothers Bloom" (also produced by Ram Bergman and independently financed by Endgame), the creative process was the same.
"'Looper' is a big action sci-fi movie," said Gordon-Levitt, "but I think the same sensibility remains. The important thing isn't the size of the budget or how many people see it, but the intention of the filmmaker. Rian loves movies, that's why he's doing this. Some movies get made and the goal is to make money, which is not as interesting as someone telling a story from their heart... And by the way, Chris Nolan has similar sensibility; he started with smaller movies and he maintains that sensibility."