Until now, Rian Johnson was chiefly a purveyor of smart, niche-specific films that took established genres and generated new ideas from them. Although he’s outwardly doing the same thing in his new film, “Looper,” Johnson is aiming at a much larger canvas, re-enlisting frequent collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt as well as bona fide movie star Bruce Willis for a time-travel movie that hopes to be as thoughtful as it is thrilling. Johnson and Gordon-Levitt premiered the first theatrical trailer for “Looper” Saturday at WonderCon in Anaheim, Calif., and then spoke to press about the project’s conception, development, and execution. In both cases, the director and actor are on the cusp of much bigger things, but both together and individually they possess poise and intellect that keeps their ambitions as forward-thinking as their films.

Speakeasy caught up with Johnson and Gordon-Levitt to discuss the film.

At this point, how much of the movie is totally finished?

Rian Johnson: It’s done — finished. There’s no way we can [mess] it up now. Or fix it, I guess. One of the two.

How would you characterize the partnership you have built?

Johnson: Loving.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Romantic. Ah, I just love his movies — the way he makes movies. A lot of movies kind of get made by formula and are sort of indistinguishable one from the next, but occasionally there’s a filmmaker that you can just tell right way, that’s that filmmaker. And he’s one of those. And it was an honor to be in his first one, and it’s an honor to be in his third one. And he wrote this part for me; no one’s ever written a part for me before, and that meant a lot to me that he would do that.

What does that tell you about how Rian sees you?

Gordon-Levitt: That he sees me as a killer.

Johnson: A stone-cold killer.

Rian, did you take anything from knowing Joe?

Johnson: No, in terms of the character it can’t be any more different than Joe. Joe is like the warmest, most wonderful human being on the planet. And the killer, like [Joseph] said, has a lot to learn in life and, but I’ve been wanting to work with Joe again since “Brick.” We just stayed friends, and getting to see him pull off such an interesting challenge in terms of the role and specifically in what it called for was pretty amazing to watch.

And what was that?

Johnson: Because it’s a time travel movie, Bruce Willis plays the older version of him, so we basically had to figure out a way to sell Joe as a young Bruce Willis. And that was prosthetics — three hours of makeup every morning — and it was a performance which is this incredible kind of high-wire act of acting where Joe is doing Bruce, but at the same time he’s creating a unique character, and so it’s not imitation. He has the Bruce voice, but it’s kind of amazing to watch — I’m not going to do justice describing it. It’s something you really have to see in the context of the movie.

So it’s not like a “Moonlighting” version of Bruce Willis?

Johnson: No, that’s the weird thing. It’s your own character that you created, but at the same time you see that character and you believe in the movie that could be a younger version of the Bruce you’re seeing on screen. This is the first time we’ve heard that piece of information.

How much of that is automatic in the movie and how much of that is a surprise to what the viewer is going to experience?

Johnson: Uh, it’s just part of the plot, I think. We don’t do any kind of mechanics – it’s just something that I hope we sell and you buy.

What kind of conversations did you have with Bruce about playing the same character at different life points?

Gordon-Levitt: It was more just kind of hanging out and spending time together. We didn’t really need to talk about it explicitly. I watched all his movies and would take the audio out of his movies and put them on my iPod so I could listen to them over and over again, but by far the most productive part of the preparation process was just hanging out…having dinner, talking about music, whatever, getting to know him. Time travel is an interesting subject for films because of the emotional beats it often produces.

Can you talk about how they might be unique in this film and how you put your unique stamps on this genre?

Johnson: Well, any time time-travel is part of a story it’s kind of this beast. It’s really from a writing standpoint a problem. Because time travel never makes sense, and unless you’re Shane Carruth, who I think actually knows how time travel works, the best you can do is kind of this magic trick where you distract the audience narratively from the fact that it actually doesn’t make sense. And so for me that was a really fun challenge — how do you have time travel be an element in the movie but convince the audience not to think about it so deeply to where they’re ignoring the movie because they’re thinking, but wait, this, but wait, that. And so the approach we took is okay, these guys are assassins basically who use time travel as part of their job. So we’re just going to be with them. They don’t know how this stuff works, they don’t know the science, they don’t care about grandfather paradoxes and all the complexities of how it works or how it doesn’t. They’re showing up every day, a guy is appearing from the future and they’re shooting him. That’s their job. And so we stick with this kind of worm’s-eye view of it and that way we can get away with not answering a ton of questions on the blackboard halfway through the movie.

Did any other movies help inform this one?

Johnson: The first “Terminator” was a model for me on how to deal with time travel, because it uses it very succinctly in the setup and then gets out of the way for the characters and the action to take you through. And we very much followed that model in this movie.

Gordon-Levitt: For me, it wasn’t so much about the time travel, because the character is not really thinking that much about it. I would say it’s more “Goodfellas” or something like that — that character of a criminal, a hard guy, someone who has to kill people for a living. I mean, what does that do to somebody, to have to pull the trigger every day and be that person?

How did the project begin?

Johnson: I wrote a short film that I never ended up shooting like ten years ago and I had been talking to Joe about it ever since around the time when we finished making “Brick.” It kind of grew out of that, and I wrote it after we made “The Brothers Bloom.”

What other collaborators are you working with behind the scenes? Is your cousin doing the music as with your other movies?

Johnson: Yeah, my cousin, Nathan. It’s so cool. He took this tape recorder out to New Orleans where we were shooting the movie and found all these sounds and then sampled them and slowed them down 3000 percent, and basically using all these unconventional sounds built up a score that has kind of the of an orchestra basically so its this very huge action movie score but the sounds that you’re hearing are just foreign to your ear. It’s really a cool, cool score. [And] our cinematographer [Steve Yedlin,] I’ve been best friends with since college. And that’s very much the way we like to work — to find people we love hanging out with and slowly build up a family that we make movies with.

Having done this movie after “Inception,” coming into a movie with so much complexity – do you have questions yourself?

Gordon-Levitt: I ask lots of questions. You can ask Rian and Chris [Nolan] too because my job as an actor is to understand the filmmaker and the film that they’re making. Because even though it looks like an actor is giving the performance, what the actor actually has to do is give the filmmaker the ingredients to then construct a performance in the editing room. And so I feel like my job is to understand as best as I can what the filmmaker has in mind and then provide those ingredients that they’re looking for. So yes, I ask lots of questions.

What were some of the big questions you had?

Gordon-Levitt: That was a long time ago. What were some of the questions I had? I’m trying to think of how to answer that question without giving away too much of the movie. It was more a thing of, you don’t have to worry about this, don’t think about that. The thing about this movie is, and I think kind of what we’re talking about less today, because this is the very first time we’re introducing the premise to anybody so we’re really focusing on the premise, is that this is actually quite a profound character drama. This is no mere time travel action movie. It satisfies one’s desire for that, but sort of like how Nolan will make a big action movie that’s so much more than that, and that’s actually really rooted in a character drama, and I hesitate to make that comparison because they’re two very different filmmakers, but most of the conversations Rian and I would have is about this person, this guy, his past, his feelings, because where the story ultimately goes is what its about.

Can you talk about what surprised you the most as far as the direction the story went?

Johnson: That’s a very good question because you do start something thinking, I’m taking it here, and then at some point it has to take on a life of its own and you see where it’s going. But at the same time, once you kind of figure out what’s driving you about the movie and what actually you actually care about in it, that’s still the thing that drives you through to the end. And so I think it’s more surprising actually going back and looking at the scribblings and notebooks that I had about this movie ten years ago and seeing how much of a straight through-line there is through what ended up on screen at the end. That’s what’s really shocking, but it makes sense because usually there’s something really simple and really basic that starts you off on the journey and that’s hopefully going to be on screen at the end.

Stylistically, what inspired you?

Johnson: In terms of the world? Well, just because there’s so much going on in the movie in terms of the characters and the action and the plot, I really wanted it to be a ride that just kind of shoots you through from the beginning to the end of it. For me it was a lot less about world-building. So the world in it is a very grounded world. It’s a very gritty, near-future world, and so it does have some futuristic elements in the way that society is kind of broken down in it. But for me, it was less about science fiction world-building than it was about just creating an environment that made sense in terms of where these characters were.

“Brick” is fairly complex for a mainstream audience. With this film you’re reaching a bigger audience — so did that enter into it at all? Should it be as challenging a film as “Brick?”

Johnson: I was very encouraged by “Inception” in that regard, just because “Inception” is a much more complicated movie than “Looper,” I think, and seeing how fearless Nolan was in terms of making it and how it was a great movie that had some complicated stuff, but the storytelling was solid and it took you through it and audiences really responded to it. And when I go the movies these days, what I put a premium on is a movie that surprises me — a movie that does something I’m not expecting. A movie that, a movie that doesn’t just you know, take A to B to C to D but that shakes it up a little bit in whatever way it can. And there are huge movies that do that, there are smaller movies that do that, but those are the ones inevitably that I end up excited about coming out in the theater. So I wasn’t thinking about that while we were making it and now that specifically, maybe I’m fooling myself but I’m not, I’m not worried about it.

Gordon-Levitt: That’s one thing that Chris and Rian have in common is that neither of them pander to some fictitious dumb audience that, let’s be honest, I guess corporate Hollywood seems to talk down to and assume that audiences are dumb. Chris doesn’t make that assumption, and neither does Rian. At no point are there any conversations about thirteen year olds’ short attention spans, or some of those conversations that you hear happening amongst more, sort of like, by-committee, corporate-produced movies. The conversations revolve around telling the best story. Like Chris always says, I just want to make a movie that I would want to see. And I think Rian is kind of the same way.