Illustration by Mark Goerner

The future is an interesting place to design. The future according to Looper is especially interesting for its dystopia that you can reach out and touch. The film takes place, for the most part, about three decades from today in a world that looks familiar—and feels like a reasonable outcome of various current events.

I really dug the flick, and I wanted to know more about Looper’s vision of the future so I reached out to Ed Verreaux, its production designer. You’d know him by his work: the Back to the Future movies (art department), the Indiana Jones movies (art department), Blue Chips (art director), Contact (production designer), Mission to Mars (production designer), Starsky & Hutch (production designer) and Monster House (production designer).

He generously answered a number of questions beginning with a few about the workflow of a production designer.

Ed Verreaux

Your resumè as an illustrator is pretty remarkable: Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Poltergeist, The Color Purple. Is illustration still a core element of how you begin to design?

ED: Yes. I spent a lot of time as an illustrator before I became an art director and ultimately a production designer, so illustration is part of my process. I usually don’t have time to do a lot of fully rendered illustrations myself so I’ll do thumbnails or small sketches to begin with. On some projects where there’s a big art department, I’ll hand these off to illustrators to render and further develop. It’s a collaborative effort, and the illustrators usually contribute ideas to make the image better or more relevant to the image of the world being created.

On Looper, since our budget was small there weren’t funds for an illustrator to do set illustrations. I did several renderings, both Photoshop and hand drawn, of the farm house as well as some of the other sets. I also did a lot of sketches on the look of the vehicles, starting with sketches by me and ending with digital renderings of the slat bike and other vehicles by Ron Mendell. There were illustrations done for some of the hero props like the guns, hand electronics and flat screen displays.

Which collaborators (director, cinematographer, art director, prop master, costume designer, etc.) are most integral to what you do during pre-production?

ED: The glib answer would “All of them” and depending upon the project that’s true more or less. On Looper I was primarily involved with Rian Johnson and James Kroning, the prop master, during the initial phase of designing the weapons etc.

Of course the art directors are essential in the pre production phase because of all the logistical planning and distribution of tasks that are required to accomplish the work. Sometimes interaction with the costume designer is critical, especially in cases where there are special efx costumes like space suits or flying rigs but I didn’t have any space suits to deal with this time.

In what way(s) do you leverage input from actors to design a film?

ED: Usually that information will come through the director who has been preparing with the actors.  They might have a particular idea about something concerning their character as it involves a set or location. Rian and I spent a lot of time talking the sets and location through and he was very specific about what he wanted. We did rehearse in Joe’s apartment while it was under construction.

Sketch of Looper farm set b/w production still

How are you typically engaged in production and postproduction?

ED: Somebody once said, “It’s a business of change”.

The job’s not over ‘til principle photography finishes because something’s always coming up. The art department always has to keep on preparing the next set/location in the schedule. When the filming starts, all the sets and locations aren’t finished. Often times there will be several sets on one stage that are filmed over the course of production where one set is filmed, then struck while another is being built painted, dressed, lit, etc. and put in it’s place. All of this is going on while the film company is filming elsewhere, moving back and forth.

That’s where the scheduling, logistics and planning of the art department are so important. In the original script, Joe was going to go to Paris but halfway through pre-production that was changed to Shanghai. So three weeks before the end of principal photography in Louisiana, I flew to China to begin scouting there. Meanwhile the art directors stayed behind to keep things moving forward.

The vision of the near future that Looper gives us is very assessable. Much of what we see feels like 3-4 logical steps away from where we are today. To what degree was that sensibility outlined in Rian Johnson’s screenplay. To what degree were you tasked with dreaming it up?

ED: When I first met Rian, he clearly outlined his vision of the dystopian future. The idea was that the financial meltdown of 2008 never recovered and things just kept on getting worse and worse to the point that the middle class was soon almost all living out on the streets with the homeless and that there was only a very small upper class of uber wealthy. All mass production stopped that’s why all the cars except those of the few are older with fuel retrofit systems attached. So this future, while not a Mad Max or a Book of Eli scenario wasn’t Bladerunner either. There was a government and a civilized structure, only that everyone except a very few was a whole lot worse off. Imagine Havana where all the cars are vintage 1958 with a lot of parts from other cars but everyone has a smart phone because they’re ubiquitous and as cheep as a candy bar.

The consumer electronics in Looper have really simple form factors. Clearly the software and the interaction design are the things. Did you enlist any industrial or interaction designers to help create the clear window smartphone and desktop machines?

ED: No.  Rian was very clear in what he wanted the hand electronics to feel like. Everything had a simplified utilitarian quality. In a world where resources are stretched to a minimum there isn’t a lot of time for embellishment or design frills. Only the ultra-wealthy can afford such luxuries.

Sketch of Looper car b/w Looper hoverbike

What was the thinking for making all the transportation—solar panel cars, hoverbikes and trains—so horizontal?

ED: This is a world that is stagnant, it has stopped moving forward, it has stopped looking upwards but is just trying to get by from day to day. Even the crime boss lives in a hole in the ground. When Joe gets to China everything is on the rise. China has flourished and is moving vertically…upwards.

The loopers use really elegant eyedroppers to do recreational drugs. Can you talk about the design of the droppers?

ED: I’ll have to refer you to our prop master, James Kroning who was responsible for creating all of that.

I was struck by the contrasting weaponry used by the loopers and the gatt-men. The loopers use crude looking tools built to eliminate human error while the gatt-men use beautiful, iconic tools that require their users to become master craftsmen. That’s an interesting statement on the evolving relationship between man and the objects he creates. Apart from that, it conjures the contrast between Back to the Future 2 and Back to the Future 3. Did you find yourself visually referencing any of your previous film work to create the Looper world? If so, which films were most prominent in birthing Looper?

ED: In the world of Looper, loopers have a specific job that requires that they don’t miss, so their weapon—called the blunderbuss—is a don’t-miss-at-short-range weapon. Loopers don’t hold the same respect as gatt-men so their weapon is different, less elegant, cruder. The blunderbuss’ inaccuracy plays a specific function throughout the entire film. Loopers have a limited shelf-life, expendable after 30 years. Gatt-men are longer-term, lifetime employees. They have a respect that loopers don’t. You might say that the elegance or lack of elegance indicates status so the gatt-men are higher on the totem pole.

As I mentioned earlier, we were staying away from previous films about the future because they didn’t have anything in common with our project. I don’t see much in common between BTTF1-2-3 and Looper other than the time travel aspect.

The Back to the Future films were upbeat light comedies, optimistic cheerful and fun, with time travel as an integral part of the story. There was a lot of exposition on the mechanics of time travel and the time machine because it was central to the various convolutions that the story took and added to the complex comedic situations. The world of BTTF was bright and upbeat and even when things were at their worst, there was an optimism that all would be okay. In the end everything does turn out all right and we’re happy for all the incredible fun, turns and twists we enjoyed during the ride.

Looper is a dark, noir story about a not so distant dystopian future with a central character trying to find meaning. Time travel is central to the story but we don’t spent that much time on the mechanics because it’s a given, time travel is a reality available to only a very few. As old Joe says to young Joe in the diner:  “I don’t want to talk about time travel shit, because we’ll start talking about it and then we’ll be here all day making diagrams with straws. It doesn’t matter.” In the end it’s about young Joe’s realization and his ultimate sacrifice to prevent another tragedy. I guess you could say that everything works out in the end but it isn’t a happy ending.


All images supplied by Ed Verreuax. All sketches by Mr. Verreaux unless otherwise noted. (Top image by Mark Goerner.)