Johnson, Gordon-Levitt tap physical and visual film techniques

Courtesy PhotoOn the set: Director Rian Johnson

Courtesy PhotoOn the set: Director Rian Johnson

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s debut feature, “Brick,” a brainy detective story set in a high school, was celebrated for its potent, rhythmic dialogue.

In his new film, the ingenious sci-fi time-travel movie “Looper,” he tries a different approach.

“I love playing with words, and I love watching actors talk, but I wanted to pull way back on the verbosity, to see if I could say more with less,” says Johnson, who was recently promoting the film in The City with star Joseph Gordon-Levitt (also in “Brick”).

Attracted to roles requiring physicality, Gordon-Levitt says, “Hollywood movies are very close-up centric, which is fine. Who doesn’t love a close-up? But I find that often times those wider shots where you can see an actor’s whole body can often be the most expressive.”

Preparing for “Looper,” Johnson and Gordon-Levitt studied Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” a film in which space, stillness and silence create drama. The central, peculiar image in “Looper,” a violent flash, follows a significant silent period that keeps viewers waiting.

The movie is set in 2042, a time when loopers — Gordon-Levitt’s character, Joe, is one — are hitmen. Gangsters from 30 years in the future send victims back in time, and the loopers dispatch them instantly.

Bruce Willis co-stars as the older Joe, who travels back in time.

Johnson hired makeup master Kazuhiro Tsuji to make Gordon-Levitt look like a younger Willis, though Kazuhiro at first called it a terrible match.

“We knew that we weren’t going to get it all the way there with makeup, so we didn’t try to,” Johnson says. “We made a couple of adjustments. It’s nose and lips and eyes; 90 percent of it is Joe’s performance,” says Johnson, adding, “You’re asking the audience to make a leap. At some point you’re saying, we know and you know, but hopefully this story is worth you taking this leap.”

Mostly, Johnson was concerned with striking the right balance between brains and fun. In attempting the elusive task, he most often referred to the original “Terminator.”

“If it can be a fun ride, but also have this idea that sets the action in motion and then gets out of the way,” he says, “that’s the brass ring we’re all reaching for.”

artsJoseph Gordon-LevittLooperMoviesRian Johnson

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