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Looper: how an international independent came together

Screen’s US editor Jeremy Kay talks to director Rian Johnson, his producer Ram Bergman and producer/financier Jim Stern about how they packaged the film and how China’s DMG came on board.

Box-office hit Looper opened in second place at the North American box office and Sept 28 and grossed $20.8m in its first three days. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a hired gun who wrestles with a whopping existential dilemma when he’s assigned to kill an older version of himself dispatched from the future.

Looper is a true product of the independent space. Jim Stern’s Endgame Entertainment financed the film, China’s DMG came on board as co-financier and FilmNation handled international sales. FilmDistrict distributes in the US in partnership with TriStar Pictures. Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt also star.

When did you get the idea for the screenplay and how did everything play out after you wrote it?
Rian Johnson: It was before Brick [2005] and I was frustrated trying to get money to make Brick, so I shot a few short films on video. Looper was one of the ones I’d written but never ended up shooting and it sat in a drawer for eight years or so. I picked it up after The Brothers Bloom [2008].
Ram Bergman: After Brick played Sundance people asked Rian what he wanted to do next and he was talking about Bloom and Looper. He was really pitching Looper and every studio wanted to buy it in the room. But I told Rian to write it and then we’d think about selling it: that way we’d control it and control our destiny, which is the way we’ve always done things. We showed it to Jim [Stern]. We got the sales agent [FilmNation] and began pre-sales [in Cannes 2010] based on a promo with a voice-over that Joseph recorded before we even shot the movie. We sold it to the US a year later in Cannes.

The movie is about a lot more than people might think.
Jim Stern: It’s both romantic and quite moving. What I love about this movie is it’s a character film that uses sci-fi; it’s not a sci-fi film that uses character. That’s a rare bird. I had the great fortune to produce The Brothers Bloom and I am great friends with Rian and great, great friends with Ram. When they were satisfied with the script they brought it to me and said if I wanted to do it we’d do it.

You shot in New Orleans in early 2011 and slotted in an eleventh hour trip to China after Endgame approached their friends at DMG during pre-production to co-produce. Why did that come about?
Rian Johnson: “It was a section of the film that was originally written to be in Paris, but we didn’t have the budget to go to France, so I was faced with the prospect of faking France in New Orleans. So when DMG came to us with the prospect of setting it in Shanghai and said they could pay, it made all the difference.

The cast is top-notch and works together seamlessly - and that’s quite a honker on Joseph’s face.
Rian Johnson: I feel I had the best seat in the house watching Joe work. He had to spend three hours in make-up each morning for the nose and it was hot and itchy but he couldn’t scratch it and he couldn’t eat when he had that thing on. Bruce was fantastic and Emily is one of those actors I’ve wanted to work with for a long time. We have this group I’ve been working with on several films for a long time and Emily fitted in well.

Jim Stern: We had Joe and made the offer to Bruce and he went for it and I held my breath that it would work with Bruce and Joe playing the same guy. Then Emily came along - she is one of the one of the great actresses of her generation. Ram is the best producer I have ever worked with, so it’s Ram’s production and I am thrilled to be part of it.

Ram Bergman: We clearly have a great time working with Jim and he has been a great, great partner for Rian and me. I hope we can repeat this. He did what he said he was going to do and he came through.”

Looper marks the first time Endgame has committed its new p+a money to a production, splitting costs with the domestic distributors. It’s a big step.
Jim Stern: This is a real inflection point for the company. It’s a larger film that fits into the kind of thing we do really well, which is elevated material. I’m as excited about the company as I have been since I launched it in 2003.

How do you feel about the independent space and what’s next for Rian Johnson?
Rian Johnson: It seems to me now is a particularly good time to make the kind of mid-range movies we make. Maybe it’s time to do a two-person, one-room drama [laughs]. I have a couple of ideas and am weighing things up right now. I love the storytelling that sci-fi allows you, where you can use these big ideas to explore everyday themes. I might stick around in that world for a while.

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