Looper: Visual Style and Action

For the look of the film, Johnson turned to director of photography Steve Yedlin and production designer Ed Verreaux.

The film is set in the near future – a choice that allowed Johnson to thread the needle between science fiction and grounded reality.  “I wanted it to be set far enough in the future that we could do a couple of fun things, but not so far ahead that we couldn’t have a grounded world that you recognized,” he explains.


“The future is a pretty bleak place,” Johnson continues.  “Everything is a bit broken down; people are still driving cars from 2010 that they have had to keep up for 30 years.”


“The description that Rian likes to use is ‘theatrical realism,’” says Yedlin.  “That sounds like an outright contradiction, but because Rian and I have worked together for so long and talked about it, it really did mean something specific – the lighting, the feel of the sources, it’s all based on something realistic but it’s theatrically heightened.”


“We didn’t want a completely destroyed future or a completely shiny and wonderful future, either,” says Verreaux, the production designer.   “It’s a future where things didn’t go well – the economy fell apart, major manufacturing stopped.  That’s why all the cars in our movie are 30 years old; there are a few special new cars for the uber-wealthy, but everyone else is driving old cars.


“The idea was that the look was derived from sociopolitical change, rather than technological change,” Yedlin explains.


“We always knew that it wasn’t going to be ‘Tron,’” says Stern.  “We were going to a kind of retro-future, and also a future that’s been tagged with a bit of urban blight.  The slat bike is a perfect example – it could be a World War II motorcycle, but it’s also futuristic, which gives it a unique look.”


Even with that, though, Johnson took a decidedly low-tech approach.  “Rian likes to do everything in-camera, practically, that he possibly can,” he says.  “There are a few CG background elements, but most of the CG in the film is wire removal, rather than adding elements.  Even for the slat bike, we put a real bike on a rod, with the rod connected to a truck – we’d just paint out the rod.”


As for the design of the time machine itself, Johnson and Verreaux looked to history.  “Rian showed me a picture of the very first atomic bomb, which was called ‘The Gadget,’” says Verreaux. The bomb has a retro-futuristic design, a tangled mess of wires and cables and boxes surrounding a large sphere.  “As soon as I saw that, I knew what I needed to do.  We went for a retro, simplified, down-and-dirty look.  The important thing is to get across the idea that the time machine works – beyond that, it’s more important to focus on the narrative of the movie.”


“It was important that the time machine look pieced together, like it didn’t cost a lot of money to make it,” says Bergman.  “It’s not glossy, it’s junky.  They’ve just barely been able to make it work – that’s all.”


Most of the film was shot in New Orleans, but for two weeks, the film also shot on location in China. “Originally, when I wrote the screenplay, the sequence was set in Paris.  We were going to fake it in New Orleans – not ideal, but something you can pull off with movie magic,” says Johnson.  “But then, our Chinese distributor made us an offer: what if we could shoot some of this in Shanghai?  And the more I thought about it, the more sense it made for the story – Joe romanticizes Paris, but China is a place that a young man would go to in the future.  Not only that, but it’s fun – instead of faking Paris, we got a real Shanghai.  It was a no-brainer.”


Endgame Entertainment brought in the Chinese distributor, DMG Entertainment, to be a partner on the film.  Seeing the emerging market of China, they saw the opportunity be ahead of the curve and present a futuristic vision of the country in the film.  “It worked because it completely made sense for the story Rian was telling,” says Stern.  “We had a chance, both in the movie and behind the scenes, to break new ground and to show something that has never been seen before – even in China.”