Ever since Rian Johnson completed his feature directing debut, 2006’s twisty high school noir Brick, he’d had two things bouncing around his brain: (1) the desire to work again with Brick‘s star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with whom he’d maintained a friendship; and (2) plans to expand an idea he’d had for a sci-fi short he’d never made — about Mob assassins called “loopers” who kill targets sent back from the future — into a viable full-length movie. “It wasn’t long after we finished shooting Brick that he told me about this time-travel idea,” says Gordon-Levitt. “Then about two years ago he showed me a draft of the script, and I loved it.”
It helped that Johnson wrote the film with Gordon-Levitt in mind. His character, whose name is even Joe, is a looper forced to “close his loop” by killing his final target: himself, only 30 years older (played by Bruce Willis). In addition to the hooky setup, Gordon-Levitt says he was drawn to the underlying philosophical premise: “What would happen if you could talk to your older self?”
Initially, Gordon-Levitt suggested playing both the younger and older Joe, but Johnson kindly shot him down. “Yeah, that was my vainglorious self,” the actor says with a chuckle. “I’m really glad that Rian did not do that, because the movie is so much about the difference between an older man and a younger man.”
Once Willis signed on — so quickly that the film’s foreign financing immediately snapped into place (“That was very freakish,” says Johnson. “It’s not supposed to be that easy”) — the director faced a different problem: His two Joes looked virtually nothing like each other. So the director turned to makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji to transform Gordon-Levitt’s face for the entire film into a younger version of Willis’, using contact lenses and subtle prosthetics that took about three hours to apply each day. Even Tsuji, who’d worked on such makeup-reliant projects as Hellboy and Planet of the Apes, had initial misgivings. As Johnson recalls, “His first reaction was ‘No, I can’t do this, they look too different.'” The director certainly knew he was taking a risk. “If it hadn’t worked, if it had looked goofy, we would have been so screwed,” he says. Another gamble? Picking which elements of the film to splurge on. With only a modest $35 million budget, Johnson had to make some tough decisions about how to build the film’s dystopian world, opting for crucial CG effects, souped-up vehicles, and location shooting in Shanghai. “I found my job was largely just pulling everything back,” he says. “It was always ‘Let’s do less, let’s have it be more grounded.'”
The same can’t be said for the way the actors keep talking up the film. In March, Gordon-Levitt told WonderCon attendees in Anaheim, Calif., that Looper is “the one [film of mine] I’m most excited for audiences to see.” In May, Willis told Esquire, “It’s better than anything I’ve ever done.” And Emily Blunt, who plays a badass farmer whom Joe encounters as he hunts down his future self, declared it “the best movie I’ve ever been a part of” at Comic-Con last month. “I realize that sounded very absolute,” Blunt says now. “[But] I feel more than anything that people are going to be quite stunned by it. This is not like anything I’ve seen.”
Actors are supposed to say nice things about their upcoming projects, but that kind of over-the-top praise is rare. “It makes me feel really good that they feel good about their work,” Johnson says. “That’s about the furthest I can process it.” He’s clearly unaccustomed to his films catching this much advance buzz. “Obviously, everyone knows Die Hard is the best thing Bruce Willis has done,” he says, so “push those expectations way, way down.” Yippee-ki-yay?