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“Looper” director Rian Johnson talks time travel, genre-bending, and capturing the essence of Bruce Willis

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How do you hunt your future self? That’s the question posed by “Looper,” the new time-travel blockbuster from writer/director Rian Johnson, who first made a name for himself with the brilliant high-school noir mashup “Brick.”

In “Looper,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a hired assassin in the year 2042, tasked with dispatching the mob’s enemies after they’re sent back in time and disposing of the bodies in the best hiding spot of all: the past. However, when Joe discovers that his future self (Bruce Willis) will be his next victim, things take a time-twisting turn that puts Joe, his future self, and everyone around them into the middle of an explosive chase that could change the present and the future.

IFC had the chance to sit down with Johnson for a brief chat about “Looper,” keeping track of Joe’s timelines, and why it’s so easy to believe Gordon-Levitt really is a younger version of his veteran co-star.

IFC: My first question for you is the one that everybody seems to be asking: How did you make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look so much like Bruce Willis?

RIAN JOHNSON: We had a really talented makeup designer, Kazuhiro Tsuji, who’s just a brilliant guy. But when we first showed him Joe and Bruce next to each other and told him what the challenge was, he basically said, “You can’t do it. It’s impossible.” He refused to do it. I had to pester him for a few months to get him to agree to do it. Because Joe and Bruce, they look so dissimilar. He showed me their faces and diagramed them out and said, “This is why they look different: their head shapes are different, their eyes are spaced differently…” Eventually, the way I won him over was I told him, “Look, we’re not going to try to make Joe look like Bruce in ‘Moonlighting.’ We’re just going to pick a couple of key features and nudge them a little closer to Bruce.”

IFC: Yeah, there’s definitely this confusing moment when you first see Joe, because you know what he looks like normally, but certain features of his face are very, very different…

JOHNSON: Yeah, it’s the nose, and then the lips and brow… We put these very uncomfortable contact lenses in Joe’s eyes, too. But it was all prosthetics. None of it was CG, it was all practical makeup.

IFC: I was particularly impressed by how much Joe sounded like Bruce — his inflection and general way of speaking were spot-on.

JOHNSON: Really, at the end of the day, if Joe feels like Bruce, it’s mostly because of his performance. It’s the voice and the mannerisms. He really dialed it in so that it doesn’t feel like a Saturday Night Live impression. He really captured the essence of Bruce. [Laughs]

IFC: One thing with time-travel stories that I’m always fascinated to know more about is how you, as the writer of the film, kept track of the different timelines and who needed to be doing certain things at certain times to make it all work out, and so forth.

JOHNSON: I did kind of diagram it out. The truth is that the diagram is fairly simple, though. If you step back and look at it, there’s really only one alternate element, and that’s Old Joe’s timeline. Other than that, it goes along in a completely linear way. I made it a little easier on myself than I could have with a time-travel movie. That was intentional, though. I’ve mentioned the first “Terminator” film before in terms of looking at a movie where time travel sets a situation going and then gets out of the way and lets that situation play out. That was the intention here, too.

IFC: Yeah, it felt like you were speaking to the audience at one point in the film when Joe and Bruce are discussing their characters’ timelines and how the actions Joe’s character takes affect Bruce’s character, and Bruce basically just says, “Stop thinking about all of that stuff. You’r just going to make your head hurt.”

JOHNSON: Yeah, I hope it’s speaking to audience, and to a certain degree speaking for the audience, too. Hopefully that’s where the audience’s head is at when we get to that point. As interesting as this stuff is and as many questions as we have in our heads at that point, we don’t want to see a 20-minute scene where he explains all of the time-travel rules in the movie. At least, I hope not. But at the same time, I’m always nervous because I’m a sci-fi nerd myself. I’m nervous that the line you mentioned is going to make people think we didn’t take the time-travel element of the movie seriously. Because I really did. I came up with a set of rules, and I can’t say that they’d hold up if you dig into them deep enough, but I had a set of rules that were consistent and that we applied to this story. And we showed the effects of those rules instead of having a scene where we explain them.

IFC: You have this great knack for superimposing one genre over another, or rather using the tone and setting that’s typical to a certain genre as the storytelling vehicle for a different genre. It was most obvious in “Brick,” but we see it again here in “Looper,” with the ’50s tone of Joe’s future world and the use of those “Blunderbuss” guns and so forth. Where does all that come from?

JOHNSON: I think when you’re working in a specific genre, it’s always nice to look for influence outside of that genre. It just infuses everything with a breath of fresh air and keeps it interesting for you. With sci-fi, a genre I’m such a big fan of, I grew up watching all these movies and I kind of know “Bladerunner” is going to be in there somewhere. I know that “Star Wars” and “Back to the Future” and “12 Monkeys” will all be in there and seep in naturally. So I try to push that out of my conscious mind and look for influences that are a little more far afield. In the beginning, I was looking at the [Jean-Luc] Godard films and the French new-wave films for the kind of loose anarchy of how these guys live their lives in “Looper.” But the back half of the movie probably owes much more to the film “Witness” than any science-fiction movie. For me, that’s always a way to keep things fresh and interesting: looking outside the typical range of inspiration.

IFC: You’ve mixed and matched so many genres at this point, so is there a genre you still haven’t worked in that you’d like to play around with?

JOHNSON: A musical would be fun to do. Joe has to do a musical, whether I do it with him or not. He needs to be in a proper musical. The truth, though, is right now I’m in the middle of coming up with ideas for the next film, and a lot of the things I’m coming up with are still in the sci-fi world — just vastly different from “Looper.” There’s such a breadth and range of what you can do there, and there are so many storytelling possibilities that sci-fi affords you. I had a lot of fun working with that in “Looper,” so I might actually stick around there for a little bit longer. I’m also a big Agatha Christie fan, and I have a whodunit idea that could be a lot of fun. I’ve got stuff all over the map.

IFC: What about television? I was pleasantly surprised to see that you directed some episodes of “Breaking Bad” a while back…

JOHNSON: Yeah, I did that and an episode of my friend Ted Griffin’s show, “Terriers.” It’s fun to do stuff like that when you’re a fan of it. So if something else presented itself that was awesome like that — the equivalent of Vince Gilligan knocking on my door — that’s hard to down. He’s Heisenberg, after all. [Laughs]

“Looper” opens Friday, September 28, and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt. Look for our review of “Looper” on IFC.com later this week.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.