Brow Beat

Is the Looper Score Better Without the Movie?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper

The principal job of a film score is, of course, to enhance our experience of what we see on screen. But some scores invite a secondary evaluation on their own terms, and Nathan Johnson’s music for Looperthe time-travel action thriller starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt—is one. While a number of my Slate colleagues found Johnson’s percussive, industrial sounds unpleasant (or at least unremarkable) in the theater, they agreed that the composer’s unconventional and meticulous approach warranted another listen.


In the videos below, Johnson explains how much of his score is built from “found sounds,” many of which he captured with a field recorder while accompanying his cousin, Looper director Rian Johnson, to the set in New Orleans. With digitally modified commercial-fan buzzing, revolver clicks, and car door slams in your sonic arsenal, who needs a snare drum? In keeping with the rhythmic force of the soundtrack, Johnson also created a number of new percussion instruments from hardware store materials and other everyday objects.


Johnson’s custom sound foraging and composing took over a year to complete. Why go through all this trouble when Hollywood is full of orchestras just waiting for the next stack of traditional sheet music? As the composer told WQXR’s David Garland, “the instrument that you’re writing on dictates a lot of what you end up with.” To create a new sound, you have to start from new materials; if you want to evoke the unhinged mood of a dystopic future, a pleasantly familiar piano just won’t do.

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