What Happened to Looper?

We take a deep dive into Rian Johnson’s time-travel classic, Looper, which marks a highlight in Bruce Willis’s later filmography.

Time travel movies are tricky things to pull off. You want the science in your story to make a certain amount of sense, but you don’t want to put so much effort into your timelines that you start to confound the audience. If the tale being told is compelling enough, the viewer won’t feel the need to pick apart every single detail. When it comes to Looper, a terrific example of the time travel genre, director Rian Johnson said he didn’t want the audience to feel like they were doing homework. Johnson got it just right, since Looper works on its own terms, doesn’t condescend to the viewer, and uses the time travel conceit as a clothesline upon which it hangs the really important things, like its characters and the drama they’re tangled up in.

The clock is ticking and we’re going to try to get through this before someone closes all of our loops, so join us as we find out WTF Happened to Looper.

Looper started life as a short film written by Rian Johnson not long after he completed work on his feature film debut, Brick. Johnson had been reading a lot of books by Philip K. Dick, the influential author whose works inspired movies like Blade Runner and Total Recall, and Johnson found himself similarly influenced by the writer. With his Brick leading man Joseph Gordon-Levitt in mind for the main role, Johnson initially pictured Looper being no more than a few minutes long, but the short film never came to fruition and Johnson put it away to work on his sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom.

After the completion of Brothers Bloom, Johnson was once again drawn back to Looper, only this time envisioning it as a feature. Having told Gordon-Levitt about it during a trip to Sundance, Johnson ended up bringing his actor on board as producer as well. Johnson worked on the script for a year and a half, fine-tuning it so that when it was ready to shoot, the screenplay would be in tip-top shape without the need for sudden alterations. But before going out to pitch their project, Johnson and Joseph made a brief proof-of-concept short to help sell what “Looper” would ultimately look like. Using clips from other movies such as Seven and Blade Runner, some rough sketches and a voice-over recorded by Gordon-Levitt, the Looper clip-o-matic trailer effectively gave producers a vague idea of the tone and style Johnson was attempting to achieve. Incidentally, Looper ended up on the 2010 edition of the Black List, which compiles all the best-unmade scripts in Hollywood. Brothers Bloom also made an appearance on the list in 2006. 

looper bruce willis

While Looper was officially announced at the Toronto Film Festival in September of 2008, it would take two-and-a-half years to go before cameras. Eventually, Johnson found Looper a champion in the form of Endgame Entertainment, the production company that had financed Brothers Bloom. Fortunately for the director, this meant he didn’t have to go through a typical development process; once Endgame signed on, the film was off and running and ready to cast the rest of its ensemble. 

As you’re no doubt well aware, Looper has two actors play the same role. Young Joe, the protagonist of the film, was always going to be played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but intriguingly there was a discussion, however brief, of having Gordon-Levitt play Old Joe as well. With that in mind, the idea of “aging up” Joseph via CGI was toyed with, but Johnson ultimately decided it wouldn’t look convincing enough so that idea was scrapped. Johnson’s first choice for the role of Old Joe was Bruce Willis, and the script was sent to the legendary action star for his thoughts. Johnson liked the idea of an icon such as Willis, known for playing everyman heroes who save the day, tackling a role that would see him, shockingly, on a mission to assassinate young children he suspects might grow up to be the villainous “Rainmaker” that rules the underworld in the future. Willis said yes to the part immediately, which put further wind in the film’s sails as it now had two legitimate movie stars involved. 

To play the tough female lead, who doesn’t appear in the film until approximately an hour in, the script found its way to Emily Blunt, then not exactly known for playing badasses the way she is today. That aspect of  the part appealed to the actress, who was so impressed by the script that she went to the meeting with Johnson bound and determined to convince him she was right for it. According to Blunt, it was one of the best screenplays she’d ever read. 

Paul Dano too seemed to want to strong-arm Johnson into giving him a role in the movie. When Dano found out Looper was ramping up production, he basically went straight to Johnson and inquired if there were any parts for him. Dano was given the small but intense role of Seth, who only has a handful of scenes early on but makes a definite impression in that small amount of screen-time. 

joseph gordon levitt looper

One of the trickiest roles to fill was that of Cid, the son of Emily Blunt’s Sara. Cid is an adolescent with the very special gift of telekinesis but also a very bad temper, which sometimes results in object – or people – exploding. Johnson auditioned dozens of young actors but eventually landed on five-year-old Pierce Gagnon, who auditioned for the part about six separate times before Blunt told Johnson that he was the right kid for the job. What impressed Johnson and the cast about Gagnon was that he approached his part just as any adult actor would, proving to Johnson that he was not just some little kid who had to be coddled but a professional who was up to the task. That said, when late in the movie Cid finds himself covered in blood, young Pierce was apparently not at all pleased with being doused in the sticky substance, and those tears you see being shed are quite real. 

As for the mob boss from the future who the Loopers answer to, Jeff Daniels was brought on specifically because of how good his chemistry was with Gordon-Levitt in Scott Frank’s thriller The Lookout.

Filming on Looper took place in Louisiana in early 2011; for the urban sequences, New Orleans was used – with matte paintings added to help bring it into the future – while the film’s second-half farm location was found in Thibodaux, a small city 50 miles south of New Orleans. Unlike the fairly quick shooting schedule of 19 days Johnson had for Brick, “Looper’s” shoot lasted a lengthy 50 days from start to finish. Notably, the diner scene in which both Old and Young Joe confront each other took three days alone to shoot, and Johnson recalled that the amount of film utilized in just that sequence was more than all of the film used on Brick

To help Gordon-Levitt get into the zone, mentally and physically, as a young Bruce Willis. the actor watched Willis movies where Bruce was in his 50s, Sin City specifically, because he didn’t want to do an impersonation of a younger Willis. To further help him out, Willis even recorded some of Young Joe’s dialogue so the younger actor had an even clearer reference to work from. Gordon-Levitt would listen to Bruce’s voice on his iPod for days, the better to get his vocal cadences just right. Eventually, Bruce would compliment Joseph on how convincing his performance was, which naturally thrilled his young co-star. 

But there was still the matter of making Young Joe look like he’s going to grow up to be Bruce Willis. After the idea of using computers to assist in the aging was swatted away, the decision was made to apply make-up to Gordon-Levitt. The actor called upon legendary make-up artist Kazu Hiro, who’d transformed Gordon-Levitt into the Cobra Commander in G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra and more recently won Oscars for The Darkest Hour and Bombshell. The make-up process was quite extensive, requiring Gordon-Levitt to sit in the make-up chair for about three hours every day he was on set. The make-up was very delicate and required Gordon-Levitt to not move his face too much; in fact, he couldn’t even eat regular food, instead thriving on smoothies during his time on set. The nose in particular was so sensitive that during the love scene between Joseph and Emily, it began to fall off, making it rather difficult for the two actors to kiss convincingly. 

So transformative was Gordon-Levitt’s new appearance that Emily Blunt didn’t even realize it was him when she first met him. When she was first brought to Gordon-Levitt’s trailer, she was surprised to be greeted by a man she thought was the actor’s stunt double. She quickly realized it was Joseph in full Young Joe make-up. 

Blunt had to go through something of a transformation herself, as she was required to learn how to convincingly chop wood, as it’s something Sara would likely do every other day. Blunt had logs delivered to her L.A. home where she would chop at them day in and day out, effectively bulking up and resembling a woman who had to tend to her land by herself. While actually shooting those scene, Blunt injured her shoulder pretty badly, but kept hacking away even while in serious pain. 

looper poster

Johnson wanted as many of the film’s visual effects to be practical, so all of the vehicles in the film were specially built just for the film, like the Hover Bike that was attached to a film truck via rod, giving the appearance of flight. When characters are using their telekinesis to lift quarters from their palms, that’s a practical effect too. One of the film’s standout moments comes when we witness what Cid is truly capable of after he lashes out in a rage at an ex-colleague of Joe’s. While it may look like CGI, all of the objects in the room, as well as actor Garrett Dillahunt, were raised up by wires. Similarly, both Emily Blunt and Bruce Willis were raised on wires out in the middle of a field for the movie’s climactic showdown. Fittingly, that was Bruce’s last day on set and Emily’s first. 

As for the time travel unit itself, which we get only a few brief looks at in the film, it found inspiration in a most unusual place: the nuclear bomb built by Robert Oppenheimer. As you’ll see in the film, the machine and the bomb, often referred to as “the gadget,” share an uncanny resemblance. As an aside, it’s amusing to listen to Johnson talk about Oppenheimer while sitting next to Emily Blunt during the film’s audio commentary, some ten years before the actress would play Kitty Oppenheimer in Chris Nolan’s epic

After shooting was completed, Johnson got to work editing the film. Even though he’d gotten the screenplay as tight as he thought it could be, the director still found himself tinkering with Looper heavily in the editing room, shortening or deleting a large number of scenes. At the end of the day, there were at least 17 scenes edited out of the film but that can be seen in the supplemental features section of the Blu-ray. 

In May of 2011, only a few months after wrapping production, Looper was picked up for distribution at the Cannes Film Festival by FilmDistrict after a major bidding war amongst several major studios. Later that year, FilmDistrict set up a test screening in Los Angeles, which was meant to be a secret but still ended up attracting several members of the online press. Overall, the reviews out of the test screening were outstanding, building up a serious amount of hype for the film that was still almost a year from being released. But in that ensuing year, the fanboys and girls were salivating over the idea of a slick new time travel thriller that could rival the granddaddy of them all, The Terminator in terms of smarts and spectacle. 

The world got its chance to see what the buzz was about when Looper was released on September 28th, 2012, a couple of weeks after it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival (we were there!). The film opened well, earning $20 million from under 3,000 theaters, eventually grossing $66 million in the U.S. and $176 million worldwide, ensuring it was a profitable endeavor  considering its $30 million budget. It was a hit with critics, too, and it currently sits pretty with a 93% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. More important still was that it made its director a bona fide star in the movie community, and a couple years after Looper Johnson would travel to a galaxy far, far away with The Last Jedi.

Looper remains one of the most inventive and compelling time travel movies ever made; even if we could go back in time, we wouldn’t change a thing about it. 

About the Author

Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for JoBlo.com. He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.