Q&A: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and David Koepp Give Us a 'Premium Rush'

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of "Inception," "The Dark Knight Rises" and now "Premium Rush," has become something of a human 8-ball. Looking over his filmography, we're hard pressed to find a movie we don't love; if he's in it, all signs point to great.

Likewise, his "Premium Rush" director David Koepp is the man behind some of our favorite things. As a director, he brought us 1999's terrifying (and psychic-approved) ghost story "Stir of Echoes." As a writer, his contributions are even closer to our hearts: "Spider-Man," "Jurassic Park," "Mission: Impossible" and more.

Given their tendency to make movies we really like, we'd expect the intersection of Gordon-Levitt and Koepp to be something special -- and it is. Sitting down with the star and director of "Premium Rush," we discuss the secret world of bike messengers, the mechanics of smashing through a cab window and whether David Cronenberg was right to say that "The Dark Knight Rises" could never be real art.

Bike messengers are an elusive sort -- unless you know one personally, you never think of their home base, how they get their assignments. Like that trope about never seeing baby pigeons, it feels like bike messengers are born the moment they cut in front of your car. How much research did you need to do to understand their community?

Premium RushDavid Koepp: Oh, a fair amount. When [co-writer John Kamps] and I started, we mostly just did Internet research -- some research; you don't want to be overwhelmed by it, because you're not making a documentary. You want to, like, have your own ideas, and make something up because it's usually better. But then after a draft or two, you start to check, okay, now let's make sure we have the characters right, the way they talk is accurate, you know, get some more ideas. Then we started meeting bike messengers. Squid was the first one. This guy, Kevin Bolger, who's a really well-known bike messenger who we'd come across on the Internet, we found him. You start interviewing people and listen to them, and when they let spill some great piece of tech talk, you write it down without them looking, so they don't get self-conscious.

Did those real snippets make it into the script?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Some of the vocabulary, like "urban food log," "refurbery."

DK: Were you often getting unsolicited advice on how to do stuff?

JGL: It wasn't unsolicited. I solicited advice. It's really interesting, the minutiae of how somebody does something. I remember the first day, we were like, "The bag -- this seems like it can't be the way the bag works, right?" And we said, "Well, let's ask a guy." So the guy said, "Flip it around, hit the thing, da da da da da, that goes up, zip it again, flip it back." It's like a very specific five-motion thing.

And for the next 20 minutes while they're lighting, I'm off in the corner, just like doing it again and again and again.

You did a lot of training for this. Were you already a bike rider?

JGL: You know, like anybody, I rode mostly when I was a kid ... a normal person bike rider, and I think I got to a place when I'm like, I would still call myself normal, but a pretty confident normal bike rider at this point after riding every day, all summer here.

This whole f**king movie is on a bike; even the scenes where you're learning about the boyfriend and girlfriend's relationship, even that's on a bike. So I knew I'd have to be on a bike for 10 or 12 hours every day, and I didn't want to have a whole film crew wait for me while I caught my breath, so [the training] was, you know, a lot about stamina.

DK: All the actors on bikes had to really get in great shape first, because you gotta be able to make it through the 10 to 12-hour day, and you have to act. So you know, a 10 to 12-hour day of acting is tiring. Put in absolute physical exhaustion by the end of that, and, you know, that's a lot to deal with.

JGL: And August. In New York, man.

Premium RushDK: August in New York, incredibly hot. The only time I ever saw you get tired, I said was once, and it was on the Harlem Hill… like the fifth time. And when people ride around Central Park, you gear up for the Harlem Hill once. [Laughs]  But imagine, "Cut. Good. Let's do another one of those."

JGL: I remember take one of that. Something happened, and it didn't really work with the camera. The timing was off, and a lot of it was unusable. And I said, "You guys." I was like, "You know, we can't just keep doing this." [Laughs]

You had a number of specialized stunt doubles doing most of the truly scary stuff , but with the exception of the time your arm fell off, was there a part that was actually frightening?

JGL: It was all scary. It should be scary. You know, going fast, 20-some times faster miles an hour.

DK: You guys just have to trust just every stunt rider, every AD who's going to prevent people from crossing, like your fate is so in other people's hands. The thing about the crash is, though ... when they happen, they're a split-second. [Laughs] I wish we had it [on film].

JGL: But it probably wouldn't look as cool if we actually shot it, if it was actually on film then it did.

DK: No, real crashes look kind of comic, usually. [Laughs]

JGL: I wish we would've seen it. I remember watching back to the take, and it is funny, because I leave frame, and then you hear...

DK: The most horrible sound. I'm sure the crash was a drag, don't get me wrong. Sitting in the air-conditioned van, you watch him leave frame, and you're like, "Where'd he go? Where'd he go?" And now the walkie-talkies start to go crazy, and then you hear it because they're wearing body mics.  I could hear him ... smash into the back of the cab, and it sounds horrible. It's pretty bad when you're trying to get to see what you've done to your lead.

It sounds hilarious, you guys! So, we do a feature called "Top 5/Bottom 5," where we list the five best roles and five worst roles of an actor's career -- even the greats have a few lemons -- but we had to drop yours. We were really struggling even to come up with a bottom two.

JGL: Awww. That's nice.

How are you pulling that off? There are very few missteps on your resume, if any.

JGL: Thank you. There's some, going back, but um … I certainly wouldn't tell you about them [laughs]. It's a pretty intuitive process, picking the projects that I want to get involved with. I think the first and foremost, most important thing, even more important than the script, is having a real connection with the filmmaker. You know, I really liked the script, I liked the character, but it wasn't until we met and talked about how we wanted to do it and just got to know him, "Oh, he's a smart guy. I like him." That's, to me, really the most important thing. Cynically, I guess I could also say that I made money on TV, so I don't have to support myself, and that helps, because I don't factor money in at all.

We spoke to David Cronenberg last week about "Cosmopolis," and in the course of our conversation, he mentioned that the "Dark Knight" movies are "still Batman running around with a stupid cape," though he praised "Memento" as genuine art. You've had the benefit of working with Christopher Nolan on a critically acclaimed film ("Inception") and "The Dark Knight Rises." Did it feel different to you from within?

JGL: No. No, he was clearly approaching both with equal dignity and artistry, and I think they're both great movies.

DK: I've heard David Cronenberg's incontinent. Have you? [Laughs] I wish him luck with that.*

* In case it doesn't come across in text, that was definitely a joke.

Also check out: 'Premium Rush' Is a Superhero Movie in Disguise