The new science fiction adventure “Looper” bears the unmistakable imaginative signature of its maker, writer-director Rian Johnson. But it arguably exists because of one man: Bruce Willis.
“Looper,” a smart, stylish drama that combines serious themes with slick effects, features many accomplished actors, among them Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels. But it’s Willis’s involvement that made the modestly budgeted independent film possible. “The instant that you have Bruce Willis attached to a science fiction movie you’re off to the races,” Johnson said this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Looper” was the opening-night film. “The reason the movie got made was because Bruce signed on.”
In an artistically pure world, casting a film means finding the right actor for the right part — a convergence of means and ends (not to mention salaries and budgets) that results in the Platonic ideal of the filmmaker’s vision. More than ever, though, casting has become a crucial part of the business side of movies, from courting financial backers and distributors to gleaning free publicity in an increasingly expensive marketing environment. As Johnson himself admits, the quality of Willis’s performance was the last thing on the minds of investors whom the film’s producers approached to underwrite its $60 million budget.
“There is that unfortunate side to it, when you’re dealing with this business model, where there are horrible, horrible lists that no actor should ever lay eyes on, which lists their name and their foreign value,” Johnson said. “They reduce these actors to a number . . . based on what their previous movies have made box office-wise. So there will be these huge names that are just legends and extraordinary actors, and you’ll say, ‘What about this guy?’ and they’ll say, ‘No, he has no value.’ ”
These rules of the road became controversially clear this summer when it was announced that Zoe Saldana would play Nina Simone in a coming biopic about the late jazz singer. The choice created a firestorm among bloggers and commenters, who were aghast at the idea of Saldana playing a woman to whom she bears little physical resemblance. Shrewd observers of the industry, though, recognized that Saldana is one of a few actresses of color with the box-office pull — real or perceived — to get an independent production off the ground.
When big Hollywood studios prepare to adapt comic books or teen-novel franchises, they’ll often go with unknown actors in the roles, reserving their big-bucks spend for special effects and marketing and hoping that finding the next Daniel Radcliffe or Kristen Stewart will provide a publicity bump in itself.
But for filmmakers who work independently, with a fraction of a blockbuster’s budget, a big-name star has become more crucial as the industry has globalized. Just as guns, explosions and special effects are understandable in any language, Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp and Richard Gere are just as recognizable in Beijing as in Biloxi.