It was unbelievable. Jeff is about as good of an actor as you'll find in this business—he's one of the best actors alive. He's a theater cat, man; he runs his own theater company, and he's got his shit together. He shows up to set and comes very correct and very prepared. He's very aware of the process, because he's a pro—he's been doing this forever.
We had a couple scenes together where I'm really emotional. There's this really complicated father figure type of thing that I'm doing with him, and I'm very upset. It's funny, he was very stoic and doing his thing all day, and we got to one of the more intense scenes one day, and he very kindly said, "Listen, when the camera's on me, man, you don't have to go whole-hog. You don't have to let your flag fly. I've got it. My role is that I'm more together, and I can handle that. Save your tears." [Laughs.] And I said, "You know, that's not really where I'm at, buddy. I appreciate it but I'm just ready to do this. I don't care where the camera is, I've been preparing for this scene for a long time now. I don't care if I'm going to have tears in my eyes all day." I'd like to think that was where he finally said, "OK, wait a minute, this kid's got his thing going on—he is gonna go toe-to-toe with me. We are gonna do this dance, and it's gonna be serious."
In fact, that night, after that day of intensity and unrelenting emotional weight, he was leaving the set with his fedora and scarf on—he looked very classy. I was standing outside my trailer, smoking my cigarette, and he looked back at me and said, "Good work today, kid. I think we're in a good one." And I'll never forget that.
At one point, his character dismissively talks about how the subject of time travel can "fry your brain like an egg," and, later into the movie, Bruce Willis says, bluntly, "I don't want to talk about this time travel shit." It's clear that Looper is a film made by people who aren't as concerned with explaining the mechanics of time travel as they are with telling a compelling story with strong characters. Why do you think that was such an important point to get across?
I think that Rian had a very specific story he wanted to tell, and, of course, a big part of that story was this concept of the old and the young, the before and the after, and this thing that in real life, outside of movies, we can't do, which is reflect on the past, present, and future. These are things that interested Rian, and he said, "OK, how do you do that? You do it with time travel." But you say it and it's done. Looper is about investigating these relationships, as opposed to the science of time travel.
How he measured that out so perfectly is just another example of Rian being a masterful filmmaker. We did pay attention to all of that, though; there was a diagram made by Zack, Rian's cousin who does a lot of artwork for his film, and it's this beautiful timeline that diverges a few times when the timeline in the film diverges. Like, for instance, when Bruce comes back to the apartment diverges the timeline from when he goes to China. So we did have an idea of where we were.
But the other thing is, with the exception of Bruce and Joe, for the rest of the movie's characters, we didn't need to know about time travel. It doesn't change anything for my character. Once we started unlocking that, we realized, Wait a minute, none of this stuff is affecting us or why we're doing it, so let's sit on it and let people watch a movie and not a science project.
It's also a testament to the movie's effectiveness that, as you're watching it and getting pulled into the story and the lives of these characters, the issue of time travel basically falls by the wayside. It's not a major concern anymore.
Yeah, and that's the idea. You get into that drama and the last thing you want anybody caring about is the science. That speaks a lot to Rian really, really trying to maintain a sense of, "What's this movie about? Who is this movie about? What's the story here?" He was able to commit to that and get all of us to commit to that, so we could just shoot it like any other movie and not treat it like a physics experiment.
On your end, you normally work in the smaller-scale, independent genre movie world, yet what's cool about Looper, for you specifically, is that, at its heart, the film is essentially a smaller-scale indie genre movie. It just so happens that the budget is reasonably larger and a major company like Sony came in and picked up the distribution rights. Did making Looper feel any different for you personally?
No, this was, in my experience, no different than the experience we had in making Brick, except we had Bruce Willis on-board. [Laughs.] The costumes were fancier. We were shooting in myriad more locations. There were a few perks of having some money and having this high-concept thing, but, no, it was just like making a movie with my buddies.
There was no more or less margin of error—there is no margin of error. Really, that speaks more to Brick than it does to Looper. People say, "Hey, man, you've got these big movie stars and a lot of money on the line, it's a big opportunity. There's no margin for error." We didn't have a margin for error with Brick; we didn't have a margin for error when we had $40,000 and only three weeks to shoot it.
So that philosophy was just maintained. It's the same philosophy we had originally. In my experience, whether you're working on a $100,000 movie or a multi-million-dollar movie, there's no room for failure, the script's got to be tight, and you have to show up knowing your lines and ready to know what you're doing. If you do, then everybody has a good time. Everybody makes what they want to make, and you live forever. Talk about time travel, man—if you make a good movie that people like, that's time travel. People are going to be watching it and enjoying it long after you're dead and gone.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)