I get the feeling no one wrangles Bruce Willis.
Most of the time when a publicist wants to organize an interview, everything is rigorously scheduled. I’ve had several phone interviews this week, and in every case, there has been a flurry of e-mails and phone calls ahead of time to pin things down, including in almost every case a pre-call call just to make sure I’m really where I’m supposed to be and the conversation is really going to happen.
I got an e-mail from Sony asking if I’d be interested in talking to Bruce Willis about “Looper,” and the answer to any query about whether or not you want to talk to Bruce Willis is, of course, “yes.” I sent back my affirmation and then waited for a follow-up.
A full day and a half later, my phone rang, and I answered, right in the middle of trying to talk my kids into putting on pants. It was post-school, and they have recently decided on an all-underwear policy when they’re relaxing after school, something I’m trying to discourage. In the middle of a debate that largely consisted of me saying things like, “I don’t know why! You just need pants!”, I picked up the phone, distracted and not expecting anyone in particular.
“Hi. Is this Drew?”
“Hi, Drew. This is Bruce Willis.”
I don’t think I’ve ever managed to turn on the program I use to record phone interviews quite as quickly as I turned it on, jumping over furniture to get to a spot where I’d be able to sit. I like to prepare for my interviews and rev up to the conversations I have with people. I had no opportunity to do this here, and so I just dove right into it.
We started by talking about “Looper,” of course. I asked him what his reaction was when writer/director Rian Johnson first mentioned the plan to have Joseph Gordon-Levitt use make-up to make himself look more like Willis, a major decision for any actor. “When I first spoke to Rian about it, we always knew that they were just going to try to take a minimal approach to it, and that we would never really get to it. It’s just enough that the audience can set it aside later. There’s just a whisper to it. ‘Cause you know that these guys really aren’t going to grow into each other. We never really made a big deal out of it. The idea was just to nudge it forward a little bit.”
I commented that this is the second heartbroken time travel movie he’s done, and they stand apart from most of the genre in the way they thematically use the time travel to give us a sort of x-ray of a character. There’s something similar in the way they show these men struggling to change fate. “Well, both scripts were really, really well-written, and really had their own time-travel math down. ’12 Monkeys’ in the first part of the film had this proposition that my character may be completely nuts, and then I found out about halfway through that I’m not nuts, and I’m going to have to work through this future. In this film, in the script, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character says, ‘Time travel is invented in the future, but nobody really made a big deal about it, and it was mainly just used by the gangsters in this very violent way in both futures.” He concluded by observing, “There’s a lot of similarity.”
I talked to him about how his character in “Looper” makes some decisions that may be motivated by his desire to save his wife’s life, but that they are despicable actions. He crosses an uncrossable line, something that is surprising given the sorts of heroic roles we’re used to seeing Willis play. “Completely uncrossable,” he agreed. “Highly uncrossable, but yet we did, and we always knew that was the direction we were going to go in.”
At that point, the conversation was interrupted by both of my boys bursting into the office, one of them wearing Hulk hands, the other wielding both Captain America’s shield and the Thor hammer. They were bellowing, and they dove into a chair, beating on each other with their various superhero implements. I asked Willis to excuse me while I hustled the boys out of the room and asked them to hold it down, and when I explained the interruption to Willis, he laughed. “It’s okay. I’ve got a baby in the house today, too.”
I went back to that moment where Old Joe tracks down the little boys he is convinced are going to grow into the Rainmaker, his enemy in the future, and how dark it is to see Willis stalking and killing children. I told him that there’s a moment where it feels like Old Joe breaks under the pressure of doing that.
“Yes,” he said. “Those were a couple of days in there… that one day, where you first see me step into that first kid’s backyard, that was a difficult day. I just had to set it aside and say, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do,’ and there’s something that I didn’t realize until I saw the film in Toronto. That’s how much people were prepared to set aside the really violent, sick things that my character does to try to save his wife in the future, and how much leeway was given to him. And how much romance is in that ending where Joseph does what he does in the last scene in the film, which kind of pulls the plug on us both. I’m trying to think of a way to talk about it without spoiling it.”
I observed that they’re huge choices these characters have to make, and I think the audience is willing to set aside some of his actions because the middle section, where we see the life he builds for himself in China, is so strong that it serves to really win the audience over to his side, no matter what he does. “It was a big surprise to see how many people were willing to say, ‘Yeah, you had to do that, and it was kind of a heinous thing, but we understand why.’ And by extension, what my younger character self does when he makes a right-now choice at the end of the film that no one could predict… that moment is more akin to a ‘Sixth Sense’ moment to anything else.”
I told him how much I love the way “Looper” takes a left turn halfway into the film and suddenly becomes a different movie than the one they’re advertising, and I told him how rare that is as a narrative experience these days when everything gets pre-digested thanks to trailers and marketing. “It’s hard to get a big surprise anymore, isn’t it? It’s hard to be like, ‘Oh, I never saw that coming.'”
Any discussion of “Looper” has to include a conversation about Pierce Gagnon, who plays young Cid, because it is a remarkable child performance. There’s such honesty to the way he plays some big emotional beats that it is almost eerie. “I agree. He’s got that adorable scene where he crawls back up in Emily Blunt’s arms and just holds her in his arms for comfort like a little child does. And then it’s so chilling that he does what he does, even as he still has that little kid moment.” I also mentioned a scene where Cid and Joe are talking at the kitchen table and trying not to be overheard by Emily Blunt’s character as a very real little-kid beat. “Yeah, he’s really fun and really smart, and that’s just great storytelling.”
One of the best parts of the larger “Looper” story is seeing that the opening weekend worked. People went and saw the film. And the numbers from their opening in China are even more impressive. It feels like this is the moment where Rian Johnson starts to buy the rest of his career with the performance of this film. “Yeah, and Rian’s got a lot to live up to now. I can tell you, he wrote that script, he conceived that whole thing, and he waited a year for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s schedule to work out. And I read it and I said yes to it the same day I read it. We didn’t change any of the dialogue. All of the dialogue in that film was in the same draft that I first read.”
So often, movie stars make decisions with large committees of people involved, so I love hearing stories this year about movie stars who make a commitment to a film based on the writing and right away. Tom Hanks took the role(s) in “Cloud Atlas” after one meeting with the Wachowskis, and Willis took this role the same day he read the script. That seems like the best possible use of movie star clout, signing on to something that’s not going to be easy to make and sell, allowing their box-office record to support the filmmaker trying to do something out of the ordinary. “Oh, thank you. I think so, too. I think the storytelling side of it went way beyond what I saw or what anyone else saw. I knew that I had a great character to play, but I didn’t know until I saw it with an audience a second time that I really got some of the real fabric of what Rian wrote and saw a year earlier. He really told a great story. It’s a great filmmaking experience, great for the actors to be involved in and great for the audience. That second half of that film is a pretty emotional 45 minutes.”
The other great Willis performance this year was in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” and I brought up to him the way that film also takes an unexpected turn towards the emotional in the home stretch, and how it’s that last few sequences that really made the film stick. “That snuck up on me, too. I had the same experience. I had no idea it would be so… emotional? Romantic? I’m not sure.” The majority of the film, everyone is so sad, so beaten by life, that it really doesn’t look like it’s building to a happy ending like that. “It didn’t really hold out that promise, and then it gives you that little curve ball at the end. It was so much fun to play.”
Before we wrapped things up, I decided I had to share with him my admiration for a film of his that seems deeply underappreciated, a performance that makes me laugh every single time I watch it, and I told him how much I like “Death Becomes Her,” the Robert Zemeckis black comedy. “Wow. Thank you. I like that one, too.”
I told him that one of my favorite moments in any screen comedy is one that takes place between him and director-turned-actor Sydney Pollack, who plays a doctor who is totally spooked by his encounter with the very-visibly-dead Meryl Streep, and Willis started to laugh at the mere mention of Pollack’s name. “I still quote one of his lines, when he’s bending her finger back. ‘Are you telling me when I do this..?’ Thanks, man, I had a ball with those guys. That was the very early days of digital filmmaking, too.” I observed that Zemeckis always seems to be right on the cutting edge of filmmaking tools, and how there were things in that film that it took other people a decade to catch up to. We wrapped up just by trading some mutual affection for Zemeckis and Pollack, and he thanked me for helping to continue to spread the word on “Looper.”
If you haven’t seen the film yet, you really should give it a try. Like any time travel film, it’ll drive you crazy if you let it, but it’s got such a great, beautiful, bruised soul that I find it hard to imagine anyone not being affected by it on some level.
“Looper” is playing now in theaters everywhere.