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How Looper Made Joseph Gordon-Levitt Look (& Sound) Like Bruce Willis


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Looper went to great lengths to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like a younger Bruce Willis. As the film that broke Rian Johnson into the cinematic mainstream, it's no surprise that Looper was an ambitious and innovative undertaking. The premise focuses on Joe, a hitman who executes gangsters sent back from the future. As one of the titular "loopers," Joe will one day need to kill his future self, at which time he'll pick up a bumper payday and live out the rest of the days in pleasant retirement. Problems arise when future Joe has other ideas about his demise. Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays the present-day Joe in Looper and the future version is played by Bruce Willis.

As a regular proponent of practical effects, Johnson avoids using CGI wherever possible in Looper. The film's telekinesis shots were achieved with wires, the hoverbikes were mostly lifted using trucks and the out-of-season cane fields were propped up on-set, rather than in the effects suite. This is especially admirable in an age where digital effects are not only becoming more common, but are being used for the most minor of details - and not always with the intended result. Henry Cavill's lack of mustache in Justice League is a prime example of a misguided facial touch-up grabbing the headlines. In a similar vein, some productions might be tempted to digitally de-age, digitally age or otherwise manipulate an actor's face in order to achieve Looper's effect of younger and older versions of the same character.

Although Rian Johnson briefly considered digital effects to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like Bruce Willis, the decision to go practical was swiftly made. This involved attaching prosthetic pieces made by make up guru Kazu Tsuji to Gordon-Levitt's face in a 3-hour daily process. After taking casts of both actors' faces, Tsuji constructed a pair of lip pieces (upper and lower) and a nose attachment to be the main additions to Gordon-Levitt's profile. The actor's ears were also pulled further back, and he had to wear both false eyebrows and blue contact lenses. Looking like Bruce Willis was only half the battle; Gordon-Levitt also had to sound like his on-screen future self. This was achieved purely through practice, with Willis making recordings of younger Joe's lines so Gordon-Levitt could match his tone and inflection and, as one might expect, the young Joe actor studied Willis' more recent films (Sin City mainly) in order to nail the mannerisms.

The prosthetic effects created several problems both on-set and behind-the-scenes. As well as somewhat hindering Gordon-Levitt's ability to express emotion, there was an incident while filming the sex scene between Joe and Emily Blunt's Sara where the passionate kiss between the pair dislodged Gordon-Levitt's false nose. While the effects team were imploring the actors to be more gentle with each other, Johnson was pushing for an intense lock-up, requiring a tricky balance between practicality and artistic vision. While some might assume contact lenses would be the easiest part of Joe's facial ensemble, the blue coloring actually created several problems. Blocking out dark brown eyes (Gordon-Levitt's natural color) with a fake lighter blue required the thickest and most uncomfortable of lenses. The blue also fades over time, which necessitated multiple sets throughout filming. According to Johnson in Looper's DVD commentary, the fading of Joe's blue contact lenses is actually visible in the film.

Johnson and the Looper team didn't actually see the Gordon-Levitt-Willis next to actual-Bruce-Willis until the pair shot their first scene together (their meeting in the diner), so it's remarkable how well the effect works. Views on the prosthetic adjustments were definitely mixed, with some finding the subtle resemblance uncanny and others merely deeming the make up acceptable. However, most of the criticism comes from how unnerving it can be to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt looking completely different, yet being unable to point out why. The effects themselves are seamless and the similarities to Willis are clear without being overbearing in the way digital remodeling might've been. Gordon-Levitt's redesigned face can certainly look odd for those familiar with actor, but this is a feeling that fades as the film progresses and even for viewers who don't completely buy Gordon-Levitt as a young Willis, it's impossible to imagine Looper could've done a better job considering how different the two actors look in real life.


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