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TIFF Interview: Noah Segan on Looper

Working with Jeff Daniels and Bruce Willis, outlining the film's multiple timelines and the backstory we don't get to see.

 

Looper has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. The third film by writer/director Rian Johnson, Looper is about hit men in the year 2040, who kill people sent back to them by gangsters in 2070. Sometimes their older selves are sent back to them, and Joe (Bruce Willis) escapes his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Also starring in Looper is a Rian Johnson regular, Noah Segan, who played Dode in Johnson’s first movie Brick and is another Looper on the trail of young Joe to stop him from ever becoming old Joe. We had a nice, long chat with a contagiously enthusiastic Segan last week for a preview of Toronto’s opening night film. Some mild action spoilers, but no plot spoilers, follow.

 

CraveOnline: I saw Looper and it’s f’ing amazing.

Noah Segan: Dude, I know. [Laughs] Actually I know because I don’t have a big enough part where I sound like a jerk if I say how good the movie is, but it kind of blows my mind that I snuck into this movie. It’s out of control.

 

How long have you been sitting on this?

I read a two-page short story called Looper right around the time that we made Brick.

 

An existing short story or one that Rian wrote?

Just something that Rian had written. I actually don’t know when he wrote it but he had sort of this collection of what seemed like bits and pieces that didn’t have a place anywhere else. He would actually put stuff online. He had a personal website before everybody had a personal website. And he would put stuff up there, poems and songs and little stories that he had, and one of these little stories was Looper. I remember sitting talking to him about it during I think rehearsals for Brick. So there was something there. Of course it was two pages. It was just a sort of vague skeleton of what we have now, but I guess technically we’ve been sitting on it for the better part of a decade.

 

When you finally got the script, how many times did you have to read it?

To understand it or to enjoy it?

 

I want to see the movie again, not because I didn’t understand anything, but just because it’s fantastic.

I don’t mean to brag but I think I got it pretty quick. Rian wasn’t hiding anything from us as he was writing. We’re just buddies. We’re all buddies, all the guys who make these movies together that Rian hires, so I think that we had a little bit of a leg up, a lot of us who were reading it for the first or second time, in that we had primers, no pun intended because of the other great time travel movie. We had primers, and I think [Primer director] Shane Caruth had primers, to sort of walk into it not completely blind. That’s the thing. I don’t have any perspective for what it’s like for people to watch this movie and jump into this world and this sort of specific philosophy with no background.

 

What was in the primer?

No, I mean to say as he’s writing he’s saying, “Listen, I’ve got this idea. I think I’m going to throw this in there and I think I’m going to throw that in there, these bigger concepts of sacrifice and generosity, how do you spin that into an action movie, into a sci-fi movie?” So when you’re having these kind of big picture philosophical talks as he’s writing, when you finally get a script, you know what you’re looking for a little bit.

 

What sort of time travel/what if talk was there on the set?

Well, we had our timelines. We had our timelines pretty solidly laid out. In fact, Zach [Johnson], who’s a cousin of Rian’s, he does a lot of artwork for his films, during preproduction made a timeline which I’m sure at some point will leak out and somebody will be able to sell prints of it or something. Basically he made a timeline where there’s two or three divergent timelines on top or on bottom, little icons representative of the scenes when things split. For instance, when Joe’s character falls out the window after he catches me stealing his stuff and there’s a divergent timeline because obviously his older self, Bruce, comes back and manages to save him. There’s a split there so we had a little bit of a blueprint for these various timelines and would be able to go back to it when we had to.

 

Obviously Joseph and Bruce are phenomenal in the movie, but what were your scenes with Jeff Daniels like?

They were pretty intense, man. I’m pretty much just the most pathetic, crying, sad, vulnerable dude in the world in those scenes. We shot those scenes over two or three days and after work every day, I had to call my own father and just check in and tell him I loved him. That was really, really heavy stuff, you dig? But Jeff is Jeff Daniels, man. He’s one of the best actors around. He showed up and he’s a theater actor. He’s obviously been doing this for a little while and he’s got his professional art super tied up. It is locked in. It is a clean machine so that works very well with how Rian and the rest of us work, which is we’re over-preparers. I don’t think he’s an over-preparer. He’s a preparer and that’s what he knows how to do from doing it so long. We’re kids so we’re still figuring it out but there were a few moments when we were working together when he noticed obviously that I was dealing with some pretty emotional stuff as we were working opposite one another, and he was very sensitive and very kind in saying, “Listen, when the camera’s on me, don’t worry about it so much. I can handle it. I’m coming from a different place. I don’t have to cry. I don’t have to get smacked around.” I didn’t need to do that. I’d been working on the material for so long that I was like, “All right, listen. I’m just going to do this all day.” I think when he saw that, that changed the gear a little bit in his head to go okay, wait a minute, this kid who I’ve never seen before in my life, he’s ready to have a hell of a day and so are the rest of us. All right, this is a good sign. In fact, I remember that night, he was leaving the set and I was leaving the set. He’s a very soft spoken, very stoic guy and he likes to sit and play his guitar in between takes, that sort of thing. But he looked at me that night after we had that big scene and as he was leaving he said, “You know we’re in a really good one, right kid?” And I said, “I think so.” He said, “Good job today.” It was a very heavy moment for me. I won’t lie, Fred. He’s made more than a couple movies. When he says we’re in a good one, you might want to trust him, you know what I mean?

 

What was the process of choreographing the fight scene in Joe’s apartment?

It was meticulous. That fight culminates with my character, Kid Blue, falling backwards into a safe that has been built into the floor. So what they actually did was they built the floor on a riser and then they had a bunch of stunt men underneath this hole and at the moment when my character flies back and falls into the hole, that stuntman rolled away and a second stuntman put his hand up, which is the hand that gets crushed by the door slamming down. So that had to be very well choreographed and obviously some great safety concerns to the crushing of a hand because the door had a hydraulic lift that as soon as the other guy, who was supposed to be me, falls backwards, flies into this hole, the other stuntman had to put his hand right up there and this hydraulic lift had to come up to make sure that it would just not totally crush the guy’s hand. There was this little three-inch lift that was hidden and then you wiggle your fingers to make it look like you got crushed. So that was pretty intense.

 

I didn’t even think of those little details. I meant the punches and kicks and throws.

Oh, yeah, the punches and the kicks and the throws, all that stuff whether it’s with Joe, whether it’s outside the diner, that stuff is a dance. It’s like anything else. It’s pure dance choreography. Even when we’re waiting in Abe’s office, when the kid and Joe are waiting for Abe and I’m spinning the gun and then I point it at him, all that is very well choreographed. When you start factoring in all these other guys and then anything where you can’t see where you’re going is a big deal on a movie set. So the two big stunts that I had that were sort of a really big deal for my stuntman, a guy named Andy, a really cool guy, to do were the fall backwards into this whole, because it’s a thing made of wood and metal and you’re falling backwards into it. If you’re off by a few inches here and there, next thing you know your head’s cracked open, right? So these guys are sort of blindly flying backwards into some hole and the other one was when Joe takes off on the slot bike and I’m running after him, and the pressure from the slot bike taking off pushes me into the side of the diner. That was another one of those, they had my guy on wires and they had to pull him back and he had to just fly backwards without seeing where he was going. All that stuff is really questionable. These guys, man, these stunt men, there’s a great line that Harrison Ford said about his stuntman on Raiders. He said, “Man, if he learns to talk, I’m out of a job.” because they know their sh*t.

 

When you ride the hover bike, what are you actually riding?

Oh man, so they build this bike thing. It’s not the most complicated thing in the world. What they did is they have a long piece of steel that can be mounted under the bike from any angle. When I say long, a 15 foot long piece of steel. That’s painted green so they can paint it out in the computer, and then they just attach that to the axel of a truck. Then they take off. You ride that. The way that the piece of steel is built and the way that it’s attached from one to another, from the bike to the truck, it has a little bit of sway. So it gives the impression that it’s not hanging from something, but rather that it’s being propped up which is what it would be if it’s actually hovering, right? It would be sort of propped up by the hover effect as opposed to a piece of steel. I remember when I first got on it to ride it, our producer Ram [Bergman] who’s a good friend of ours was very concerned. You know, here you go, you have an actor, a guy who’s in a bunch of the movie, we don’t want him to get hurt. He said, “Strap him in. Strap him in really hard.” Meaning put stuff on me so I’m strapped onto this thing. I still have to be able to move and function but he wanted me strapped onto it. And our stunt coordinator is a brilliant guy named Steve Ritzi, he looks at me and nods at the producer who’s the boos. Then he takes me aside and says, “Here’s the thing. If I strap you in and God forbid something happens, would you rather fall off or get dragged along?” I said, “I think I’d rather fall off.” He said, “Yeah, you probably would.” So I got to ride this thing a whole bunch of times just freewheeling. Of course the thing never really went that fast but it was pretty exciting.

 

Do you have a backstory for Kid Blue that we don’t see?

I was joking on Twitter the other day with Rian and a couple other people that one of our jokes is that Kid Blue is Dode’s Great Grandson, [my character] from Brick which I think is totally possible. I think Kid Blue is I guess not great, just grandson. Although those kind of people, it would be put past Dode to have a kid when he’s 16. There’s a joke there somewhere or at least it’s funny to say. Anyway, he’s Dode’s grandson. I’ve described it a couple times like this. Joe and The Kid have a lot in common. I think they obviously have a rapport. The way that we always spun it between Rian and Joe and myself may have both been orphans that Abe took in. One sort of took the Oliver Twist approach and the other one took the Artful Dodger approach meaning that The Kid ended up being the Artful Dodger to Abe’s Fagin, as opposed to Oliver Twist and being a bit more rebel and being a little bit out on the side like Joe is, not quite a company man. But again, much like in Brick between Brendan and Dode, there are some similarities between these characters. They juxtapose each other. There’s something just as dangerous and capable about Kid Blue as there is about Joe. He’s just missing a couple pieces to the puzzle to end up being a hero. He’s missing a couple pieces to the puzzle to be as good or as capable.

 

What else do you have coming up next?

I don’t know. [Laughs] I don’t know. I feel like I skipped a couple of steps by sneaking into this fancy party of Looper. It’s sort of a brave new world for me, pun intended. The future got here a little faster than I thought it would for me so I haven’t really had time to stop and think about what is next. I just want to make more good movies.

 

Isn’t it about the right time? You’ve been doing this about 10 years now, and you hooked up with a good director who’s on the rise and he brings you along?

I guess so. I guess that most people who start their career when they’re in their early 20s or just out of school, whatever the case may be, who put in the time, maybe do start to see results after 7-10 years. Maybe that is sort of what’s happening. I hope so. That’s what I would like to see happen. I just don’t know. After Brick and then after a couple other successful festival movies that I made like Dead Girl, I just figured that I was going to be this weird guy who made weird little movies that other idiosyncratic people saw and some of them enjoyed. Just figured I would keep doing that and paying my rent and whatever. I think the fact that Rian made Looper and everybody busted their hump to convince the powers that be that I was the right guy for the gig, and now that people are  seeing the movie and really liking it, I don’t know what that means. That is a whole new scenario which I guess at the very least maybe it means that there will be more opportunities to meet more people like Rian. Not that there’s anybody who’s really ever going to hold a candle to Rian but that would be the dream, to meet more people who have that same sensibility and try to make movies with them.

 

There’s so much going on in Bruce Willis’s scenes, did you get to meet him and really work with him?

I got to obviously meet him and work with him. He took this gig so seriously that I think he was in character quite often. There was a certain stoicism and seriousness with good reason that he had on a regular basis. At the same time, what was probably very attractive to him about doing the movie to begin with was, and this is wishful thinking on my part, is that to see what Rian has going on on a set, to see the family, whether it’s Joe or Me as far as actors he likes to work with, or Steve [Yedlin] his cinematographer, Nathan [Johnson] who is his cousin and his composer, Ram his producer. These are people who are all friends and we hang out and we’re neighbors and we have keys to each other’s homes and we see each other even when we’re not working. I think whether Bruce knew about that consciously or he just got that vibe, I think there was something very attractive about that and I would like to think that that’s something that is welcoming and that people want to be a part of. Even when it’s this really intense job that he had to do that was maybe a little bit outside of what we expect from him most often, we put him in a position where he was like, “All right, I can do it. I can feel comfy with you folks.”

 

I think you’re right, because he’s always been attentive to new filmmakers. He hooked up with Tarantino and M. Night Shyamalan.

Mm hmm, that’s true. That’s an interesting point you make, Fred, because I think that especially with Shyamalan and with Tarantino, much like Rian, those were filmmakers who were sort of at the cusp of discovering something about themselves and their style and an overall tone. The performances that he gives in both those films, in Pulp Fiction and Unbreakable, are very soulful performances, much like in Looper. Really dependent more on vulnerability and protection than on flexing muscles.