Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter explores the commentary track for Rian Johnson’s Looper, featuring the director and his two leads.
Rian Johnson’s Looper is a rare film for many reasons. The only thing rarer than Hollywood committing to a mid-budget sci-fi film is one featuring an original idea not based on an existing property. Even better though, the film is unafraid to go to some very dark places with some wholly unexpected events, and the result is a rewarding experience for filmgoers.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis star as young and old versions of the same character who come face to face in a fight for their separate but clearly connected lives. It’s smart, exciting, and challenging in the way no big-budget blockbuster could ever hope to be. Three of its key players sat down to record a commentary track for next week’s Blu-ray/DVD release, and we gave it a listen. Come along won’t you, and read what we heard…
Commentators: Rian Johnson (writer, director), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (actor) and a tardy Emily Blunt (actor)
1. Rian Johnson wanted the old-school Tri-Star logo but was unable to get it for some reason. He should have asked Ben Affleck for help.
2. One of Johnson’s pet peeves is when companies have long, 3-minute intros for their studio or production shingle.
3. The film opens with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (hereafter referred to as GL) face because Johnson wanted people to get used to it right away.
4. The power plant where the bodies get dumped in the furnace is the same building where they shot the future time machine scene. It was also a “safety nightmare.”
5. The diner was built specifically for the film’s use. Locals repeatedly stopped by asking when it would be open for business.
6. The blunderbuss is named for the actual gun, flared at the end, and familiar from Thanksgiving paintings.
7. Johnson watched a bunch of French New Wave movies including some by Jean-Luc Godard, because he wanted the loose, casual feel of people hanging out.
8. Paul Dano’s quarter scene in the car is done practically, not digitally, as is most every instance of things floating in the air. The field scene at the end is the obvious exception.
9. GL thinks that one day audiences will believe CGI, but for him it’s not there yet. Wonder what he thinks of 48FPS.
10. Emily Blunt arrives to the recording session eight minutes in, and she offers no excuses for her tardiness. I forgive her though because her accent makes me feel so good.
11. Several of Johnson’s family members appear throughout the film.
12. Nathan Johnson’s score receives immense praise from the trio, and Johnson shares his love of the composer’s use of found/manipulated sounds.
13. The man who plays Seth’s older self was a New Orleans’ extra, and when Johnson told him to sing any song he knew the man chose an LSU fight song. Hearing this, Blunt asks “What’s LSU?” She’s adorable.
14. Dano’s whimper goes over well, and Johnson recalls how they worked on the sound.
15. GL thinks Kid Blue’s (Noah Segan) entrance into the apartment is “the funniest moment in the movie.” They also note that while the character is bad with guns Segan practiced so much that he actually got quite good.
16. Jeff Daniels’ appearance prompts GL to recall their first film together, The Lookout, and Johnson shares that Daniels’ favorite element of the character is his wardrobe. It’s essentially a velvet robe.
17. “If there was one writing superpower I could ask for,” says Johnson, “it’d be the ability to see in the writing phase what’s actually not necessary.”
18. GL and Johnson briefly discussed doing his Bruce Willis-ized face digitally, but GL recommended his make-up artist from GI Joe to Johnson and they agreed to go practical instead.
19. The editor believed the scene where older Seth begins losing his digits, nose, and limbs would be cut for the final film. He was wisely overruled.
20. Every time Piper Perabo appears on-screen Johnson and GL say “Piper!” Strangely, I do the same thing.
21. The DP on Brick used to be a near-perfect hand-double for GL, but he’s worked so much since then that they’re no longer a match. “Are you saying I have dainty hands?” asks GL. Johnson and Blunt immediately say “Yes.”
22. The hand in the trapdoor scene featured “Lex, the bravest stuntman in the world” and a stunt that went slightly awry when the door actually slammed onto his hand.
23. The scene where GL falls from the alley balcony was filmed on his 30th birthday. He recommends it as something fun to do at your own party.
24. The alternate future scenes where we see Joe’s life progress after retirement was originally going to be in a futuristic Paris filmed on the cheap in New Orleans, but the Chinese distributor offered to finance the overseas filming if they set it in Shanghai instead. Synergy!
25. GL’s parents, Dennis and Jane, came to China and are glimpsed briefly in the first Shanghai scene.
26. Years ago Johnson was obsessed with a video game called “Trinity” by Brian Moriarty which told a story of the first atomic bomb test. That image stuck with him, and he incorporated it into the time machine’s design.
27. Johnson’s first and only comment on lens flare in the film is in regard to the various helicopters in the night sky over the city. He recalls watching a special feature on Blade Runner that showed some of the optical aircraft effects before the headlights were added. “Oh my god… it looks terrible. Those headlights just cover all ills, so I had them just go really heavy on the flare that was coming down from all the vehicles.”
28. There was no sugar cane during the shoot as it had all died. So everything visible there is dead sugarcane that’s been painted and propped up for filming.
29. The diner face-off between young and old Joe was filmed over three days, and more footage was shot during it than over the entirety of Brick.
30. Blunt asks if either of them ate the food on the table during the diner scene, and GL quickly replies “No.” Blunt recalls how she did during one of her first films for a scene featuring some kind of greasy food, and she regretted it almost immediately.
31. GL had to wear “the most uncomfortable lenses to turn brown eyes blue.” They noticed that the color would fade over a few weeks so they had to replace them periodically.
32. The scene where young Joe rides the air bike through the cane field gets some obvious grumbles and laughs from the trio leading Johnson to mumble “They can’t all be gems.”
33. Blunt had the prop department deliver wood and an axe to her for practice because she had never chopped wood in her life. “I didn’t want to chop wood like a sissy.” She also hurt her shoulder pretty bad so she might never chop wood again.
34. Johnson told Blunt to “go full Sam Jackson on this” for the scene where she threatens Joe in the cane field with her shotgun. The bit about cutting “you the fuck in half” is her agent’s favorite line.
35. As an introduction to child actor Pierce Gagnon who plays Cid, Johnson recalls a story the boy’s mom shared during shooting. Apparently, GL was doing some kind of non-acting work on set, and Pierce’s mother pointed out that “even though Joe’s the star of the movie he’s still working really hard and doing all this stuff, so that’s something for you to look at.” And Pierce looked at her really seriously and his face just fell and he said, “Joe’s the star of the movie?”
36. There was some debate that the scene where old Joe kills the first kid wouldn’t make the final cut, but it’s handled so tastefully and is so important for the character and film that it had to be kept. The scene following where he shows real anguish at what he’s done and why he’s doing it is a real showcase for Willis’ talent. Blunt gets goosebumps while watching.
37. Johnson and GL do the worst proper English accents ever heard in a commentary track.
38. The scene where a child’s hand suddenly slaps over old Joe’s mouth involved a random, terrified child scared of both the dark, night-time location and the fact that he had to touch Willis.
39. Gagnon did most of his takes “front to back” meaning he did them straight through like more experienced actors. Normally child actors have their scenes chopped up so they only have to recall short bits of dialogue, but he was able to nail it. On the flip side though he would only make it through 3 or 4 takes before getting antsy and needing to move on or leave.
40. The truck chasing old Joe in the alley was supposed to continue past the camera, but it accidentally slammed into a parked car and died.
41. Blunt recalls eating lunch with Gagnon one day with him sitting on her lap. “He kept trying to pull my top down. Eventually I asked ‘Why are you trying to undress me?’ and he went ‘Because I just want to see them.’” Blunt appreciated his frankness, and I’ve now noted that in case we ever meet.
42. Blunt and Johnson love Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
43. Garrett Dillahunt’s arrival prompts Johnson and Blunt to unload praise onto his acting abilities and sense of humor. Johnson talks about loving him on Deadwood while Blunt recalls how she couldn’t stop laughing watching Dillahunt drink a glass of water.
44. GL’s face prosthetics suffered most during the make-out scene between him and Blunt. The make-up artist asked her if she could “go gentler.”
45. Dillahunt’s death took a lot of explaining on Johnson’s part to get just right. “It couldn’t be gory, it had to look weirdly beautiful,” he says. “I kept describing it as a rose opening in slow motion to the effects guys.”
46. Much of the TK imagery at the end was inspired by Katsuhiro Otomo’s graphic novel, Domu: A Child’s Dream, about “a kid with telekinetic powers going ape shit.”
47. Gagnon hated wearing the fake blood all over his face so Johnson caked it onto his own face to show him it’s okay.
48. Johnson’s father plays the armory guy who Kid Blue checks in with when he brings old Joe back to Abe. His prized possession now is a photo of him covered with a bloody prosthetic and his arm around Bruce Willis. Johnson’s mother was also on set during the big shoot-out scene, but she was bored and hoping for some dialogue.
49. The finale where Blunt and Willis are suspended in the air was her first experience with wirework. “I was glad to break you in,” says Johnson.
50. The field finale took two weeks to shoot, and it was so hot every day that Willis would shade Blunt’s “pale skin” with a parasol.
51. Johnson pauses the end credits to check Twitter because he had asked his followers if they had any questions for GL or Blunt that could be answered during their commentary. One asks if there was pressure to film on digital cameras, and Johnson replies “No.” He happily shot the film on 35mm film and offers a brief defense of its superiority over digital. Someone else asks how long GL’s make-up took to apply, and the answer is three hours. Other questions include references to Shane Carruth, GL’s constant viewing of Bruce Willis’ movies to get his voice down, and GL’s brief fling with wanting to play both young and old Joe.
Best in Commentary
Johnson: “Fucking Kid Blue.”
Johnson: “No time travel in any movie ever makes sense. It’s complete balderdash, and it’s just a matter of tricking an audience into believing it makes sense.”
Johnson [to Blunt]: “You fall down a lot in this movie.”
Blunt: “Come on, she’s a chick. [laughs] It’s true! I never thought of that.”
Johnson: “That’s why I love commentaries. We get to ruin the magic.”
Blunt [singing, kind of]: “Frog booty call! Frog booty call!”
GL [same]: “Ribbit ribbit!”
Johnson: “We kept making jokes in the edit room that if we tested really badly and needed it to have a happy ending we were going to have the crop duster robot come through and save the day. Like him about to shoot her in the end and the robot knocks him out of frame.”
Looper is a fun film, and the commentary is equally entertaining. Johnson talks the most and fills the time with technical details, anecdotes, and a wealth of fascinating information. The two actors are a bit of a mixed bag though. Blunt is playful, impressed by the film’s stunts and effects, and inquisitive about the art of filmmaking (like when she asks what a matte painting is). Gordon-Levitt on the other hand is silent for much of the commentary. Johnson actually calls him out on it as it appears the actor was simply caught up in watching the movie.
The Blu-ray is a definite buy for fans of the film thanks to a ton of extra features including a whopping 36 minutes of deleted scenes and several behind-the-scenes featurettes.