By Junsui Films | September 2012
The legendary Production Designer talks exclusively to Junsui Films about the challenges of designing a noirish dystopian world, blending time travel with emotion, and tells us all about his latest film, LOOPER…
Junsui Films: What were your first impressions of the Looper script?
Ed Verreaux: I was already a fan of [writer/director] Rian Johnson’s previous films, Brick and The Brothers Bloom, so of course I was interested when my agent told me about the script. As soon as I read it I knew I wanted to be involved.
I’ve worked on several futuristic, sci-fi projects during my career [E.T., Back to the Future 2 & 3, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Contact] so I’m fairly familiar with the genre, but I had never come across anything quite like Looper before. I was very intrigued.
JF: As a production designer what was your initial reaction to the ‘time travel’ narrative and how did your previous experience in the genre help prepare you for the challenge of Looper?
Sometimes there’s a lot of explanation required on how time travel works in a story to get the audience ready for the shift into the 4th dimension. With that often comes a lot of cool props. Take Doc Brown’s DeLoren for example in Back to the Future. A lot of the fun is Doc explaining how he has a nuclear reactor inside his car hooked up to The Flux Capacitor, and that’s how time travel is possible. You need to know all about how it works because all those elements become story points sooner or later during the film[s].
Although time travel is part of the central premise to Looper, the story is really about the emotional conflicts of young and old Joe and the actual wherefore and why of time travel isn’t as important. Aside from getting a quick glimpse of the time machine [modelled after the first atomic bomb "The Gadget"] there isn’t any exposition on time travel at all. Looper was so tightly written there wasn’t any second guessing in that regard. It moves so quickly that there wasn’t any time to get caught up in questioning the premise. If you weren’t going with it after sixty seconds, you weren’t going with it at all.
I was really drawn to the originality of the concept as well as the emotional conflicts of the characters and ultimately the redemption of the protagonist. Perhaps not the happiest of endings, but hopefully one that will make audiences think.
JF: How extensive was your research process and how much time were you given in pre-production to develop and test ideas?
We did a lot of scouting in Louisiana and as luck would have it, found the farmhouse at the very beginning. It wasn’t ready to film by any means and we had to gut the entire structure and essentially rebuild it to work for the story. I was in New Orleans for about three weeks scouting and reporting back to Rian with my findings.
During that period I was also doing on-line research for all things futuristic, especially household and consumer based items as well as personal electronics. I also did a first pass at what the vehicles might look like, doing several sketches and sending them to Rian for his input and feedback.
Rian came down and we continued scouting while doing initial set drawings for construction, as well as continuing to develop the look of the world we wanted to create. The design process was an ongoing element of the project all the way through to our time in Shanghai at the end of production.
JF: Operating in such a saturated sub-genre were there any particular films or visual styles you were keen to avoid when designing Looper?
The basic idea of the film was a dystopian future where the structures of our civilisation were still there but almost all progress had stopped with the financial melt-down of 2008. I likened it to Havana, where all material progress stopped with the revolution, all the buildings are crumbling and falling apart and everyone is driving around in cars made in 1958. There was still a society with structure but it had definitely begun to unravel at the edges. Most of the middle class had become homeless and merged with the lower class so that there were only two groups, the uber well-to-do at the top and the majority living at the bottom. So this world hadn’t unravelled to the point of being a Mad Max situation but it wasn’t a Blade Runner world either.
We had to tread a fine line where there was just enough futuristic elements to let you know that time had moved forward but not in a positive newer better tomorrow sort of way. So, just as now, everyone has some sort of personal communication device because they’re all disposable and extremely cheap, but they all live under a bridge or on the street. Imagine the homeless in America right now and then multiply that by say 80% of the population. People are still surviving but everyone is in a whole lot worse shape financially bar a very select few.
JF: Tell us a little bit about your collaborative process with Rian and how you set about designing the world of Looper.
When I first met Rian I showed him several images I felt conveyed the general look of the film as I saw it in my first reading of the script. Rian agreed in general with the direction I had shown him and we started from there. I would find a location I thought might work, the farmhouse for example, and send several angles to him with maybe a photoshopped rendering as to how it might look when filmed. He would respond with his notes and we would go from there. Or he would send me images for something he liked and wanted me to include.
We also sat down and mapped out several sequences with geography showing where things would happen and in what sequence. It was a very interactive collaborative process with many others being brought into it as time went by.
JF: With the film’s central characters so intensely and emotionally motivated how important was it for you as a production designer to serve that emotion through your visual design?
Hopefully, the design helps to serve the narrative and create space for the characters development without being overbearing or getting in the way. The look of the world where the action takes place is essential to the story development, so in that way the design is integral to the storytelling. I mean imagine how much different the story would have been had it all taken place on a tropical island or somewhere in the Middle East.
JF: What was the inspiration behind the gadgetry used in the film, most notably the Blunderbuss and Gat weaponry, as well as the unique spin on the hover-bike?
All three were directly from Rian’s imagination. He had very specific ideas about what he wanted and James Kroning, our prop master, worked with Rian and myself in producing the Gatts and Blunderbuss.
I did several early sketches of versions of the Slatbike as well, and then Ron Mendell, our vehicle coordinator, began to develop it in a 3-D design program. Ron was in L.A. doing this as well as supervising the construction of all the modified vehicles and would send design modifications to us on a daily basis.
That way Rian could make the choices he wanted. Ron ultimately followed all the vehicles including the Slatbike back to New Orleans where he supervised their operation during production.
JF: Tell us about your time on set and some of the more difficult obstacles you had to overcome during the shoot?
The most difficult obstacle, without a doubt, was the sugar cane. In the original script the farm is sitting in the middle of a corn field somewhere in the Midwest. The predominant crop in southern Louisiana is sugar cane. There are no corn fields within five hours of New Orleans. The budget wouldn’t allow for a distant location like that so we had to make a change and allow that the house was surrounded by sugar cane instead.
The location house was in the middle of miles of cane fields which was fine but the cane is usually harvested in fall and lays dormant over the winter. Since we were scheduled to film in early spring, we needed a supply of standing cane so we had a greens crew tending last years crop all winter, trying to protect it from wind, rain, frost and all the varying weather conditions of a Louisiana winter.
By the time filming commenced, the cane was in such poor condition that we had to paint it with vegetable dye and prop it up with poles and netting hidden from camera as well as extend it digitally.
JF: Having worked on a number of high profile projects, including the likes of Jurassic Park 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand, how did working on an independent feature like Looper compare to that of a studio film?
Each picture and production situation is unique. They all require a lot of effort and dedication by many people and good, bad or indifferent, they’re all hard to do. I really enjoyed working on Looper. Although the budget was considerably less than other films I’ve been involved with that was part of the challenge for me, to work with a limited budget and still make it look great. Because of Rian’s very finished and completely realised script, as well as his clarity and vision as a director, there weren’t any big changes or surprises that can often accompany such complex projects. That made our progress a lot smoother.
Looper is out now.
©All images and illustrations copyright of Ed Verreaux & Jon Nell (& the respected production companies as listed) and are displayed here with the Production Artist’s full permission.