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Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) walks away from an explosion in Looper Photo: TriStar Pictures

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Looper’s experimental soundtrack slapped then, and slaps even harder now

Composer Nathan Johnson on how he and cousin Rian found the film’s unorthodox sound

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10 years ago this week, Rian Johnson’s Looper burst into theaters with the sheer ventilating force of a blunderbuss shot.

The sci-fi action-thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, which follows an assassin forced to fight a future version of himself, was a far cry from the director’s past films like Brick and The Brothers Bloom. Looper would amass such critical and commercial success that Johnson would be offered the opportunity to write and direct the second installment in Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy.

There are many things to admire when looking back on the production of Looper, like the film’s sobering depiction of a dilapidated Kansas City slouching toward the future, Gordon-Levitt and Willis’ stark yet complementary portrayals of a repentant hitman at polar-opposite ends of his life, or a surprise breakout performance by Pierce Gagnon as Cid, a strange boy harboring an even stranger secret and a keen sense of maturity and comic timing beyond his years.

Bruce Willis (left) sits opposite of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (right) in prosthetic makeup in a roadside diner. Image: TriStar Pictures

A decade since the film’s debut, what stands out the most is Looper’s score, a collage of explosive and somber tracks pieced together from field recordings and eerie orchestral arrangements that combine into an experience undeniably and enduringly unique. For composer Nathan Johnson, finding the right sound for Looper meant wading through the uncertainty of organized chaos and experimentation.

“To me, it felt like stumbling around in a dark room looking for a thread that I could follow into the light,” Johnson told Polygon in an interview over Zoom. “I come much more from a melodic, thematic writing perspective when it comes to music. And Looper was just like, hours upon hours of recording crazy sounds. For the longest time, I didn’t even know if I had something that would be listenable as a score.”

That process of stumbling began early in the film’s production, when Johnson and his cousin Rian got together to narrow down the approach to the film’s score. Nathan recalled a moment where they talked about how to make Looper’s score distinct from their previous projects.

A behind the scenes photo of director Rian Johnson directing Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Paul Dano in a red Mazda MX5. Photo: Alan Markfield/TriStar Pictures

“I remember Rian saying to me, What if we go into a studio and like, push TVs off the roof and record the sound of a television smashing?’” Johnson says. “There was another moment where Rian was like, What if we did the entire score as one chord? and I was like, What are you talking about?

“Very early on, I realized he was thinking about this as a completely different approach to a film score.”

Those early discussions, combined with Nathan’s affinity for what he calls “microscopic sounds,” ultimately broke open the palate for what Looper’s score would become: a collection of songs orchestrated from “found sound” samples recorded in the midst of the film’s production.

“The thing that’s so fun about building samples,” Johnson says, “and it’s really the core of what I love about music anyway, is the idea of imperfection. So when you sample something with a field recorder, whether it’s a Marxophone or a slamming door or a treadmill, they’re all these little imperfections that get built into the sound.”

Of the 19 tracks on the Looper soundtrack, Johnson points to two in particular as his favorites, with the first being “A Day in the Life,” which accompanies the montage of young Joe going through his day-to-day routine as a Looper. To create the track, Nathan worked with Noah Segan, the actor who portrays Joe’s rival, Kid Blue, to record the hammer, cocking, and opening mechanism of his character’s prop revolver, referred to as a “gat” in the film. “I love using high-end things for snares that aren’t snares, like a loud crack. That one stands out to me as a really fun, rhythmic, percussive one.”

The second track Johnson highlights as a favorite is the final song on the soundtrack, “Everything Comes Around,” which plays during the climactic scene when Sara (Emily Blunt) is reunited with her son Cid. “In my mind, that’s the summary of the score as a whole, with the main theme coming back there played on the celeste,” Johnson says. As of this writing, the track has amassed over 1,200,000 listens on Spotify, making it the composer’s second most popular song on the platform.

Looper was a massive success not only for Rian Johnson’s career, but for Nathan’s as well. So much so, in fact, that the Austin-based print shop Mondo approached him with an offer to release the score as a limited-edition vinyl.

“Their concept was to do a gold embossed cover that was essentially the gold bars the Loopers get paid in,” Johnson says. “And then make these burlap sacks filled with holes blown out of the middle of them like they were shot with a blunderbuss.”

A product photo of a gold gatefold vinyl cover patterned after the gold bars from Looper, surrounded by a burlap sack with a blast residue hole cut in the center. Image: Jay Shaw/Mondo

Johnson is eager to note there’s a hidden feature on the vinyl of Looper’s score, and it relates to one of his favorite tracks. “There’s a locked groove in the middle of the record that just keeps playing forever,” he says. “It’s just a loop that will keep playing forever if the player is left on, and it’s the gat gun ‘drum’ sample from ‘A Day in the Life.’”

Looking back on his experience scoring Looper, Johnson admits much of what made his score so unique was letting go of “perfection” and following the flow of the process itself.

“It’s really easy 10 years later to look back and be like, That’s it; that’s how it was always meant to be,” Johnson says. “But that’s not the case. You’re in the midst of the work, you’re just flailing around and grabbing on to these gems that you occasionally unearth.”

And if Johnson were given a Looper-like opportunity to visit his past self, the one working on the Looper score? He was candid: “Don’t mess with the time loop.”

Looper is available to stream on Hulu.

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