The movie Looper, written and directed by Rian Johson and staring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, came out today. It’s fantastic! I really liked it, I will definitely go see it again and probably post about it again at least once, (maybe deciphering the ins-and-outs of the time travel), but–I do have a nit-picking criticism. I almost feel like I should apologize for insisting on pointing out this flaw, because I really truly loved the movie otherwise, but this is probably the only negative thing I will say about it, and it is a topic that I am passionate about–the accurate portrayal of my beloved home state in film.
*Very insignificant and mild spoilers ahead*
Text overlaying an opening scene tells us that Looper is meant to take place in “Kansas, 2042.” Wikipedia claims the city that the main character lives and works in is Kansas City, which I don’t remember hearing specifically mentioned in the film, but I would agree it’s a likely hypothesis. (It pretty much has to be Kansas City or Wichita). You may remember from this post that I am proud to have been born and raised in Kansas, and still enjoy living here to date. I’m always excited when people in Hollywood remember that my state exists, but I feel compelled to point out that what you saw in Looper was not an accurate representation of Kansas.
I’m referring primarily to the stuff growing in all the fields that border roads and that several characters escape into at different points. At first glance, I assumed it was corn. That’s not what Kansas is primarily known for, it’s not what I think of when I picture the local farms, (wheat! It’s endless fields of wheat!), but yeah, corn grows here. (We produce more wheat, grain sorghum, cattle, and sunflowers than corn, as you can see in this official 2011 Kansas Agriculture report.)
However, upon closer inspection, it turns out the fields are sugar cane. Emily Blunt’s character, Sarah, refers to “my cane fields” more than once, which is the main clue, but if you compare these screenshots I captured from the trailer with images of both corn and sugar cane, you can clearly see that they are the later.So, it’s sugar cane. The reason that is problematic is sugar cane does not grow in Kansas. (See p. 21 of aforementioned recent Kansas Agriculture report. Sugar Cane needs a warm, frost-free climate, and Kansas temperatures swing between extremes, over 100˚F in summer and below 0˚F in winter). It is, however, grown in Louisiana, which makes sense considering that’s where most of the movie was filmed. What doesn’t make sense is filming a movie in one state, prominently featuring crops that could not survive the climate of a second state, but then labeling the setting as the second state. I know movies aren’t often filmed where they are actually supposed to take place, and I know those decisions are often based on what locations offer the best tax incentives, but I wonder how much of this kind of mistake is just laziness.
When Rian Johnson wrote this (excellent) script, why did he choose Kansas as the setting? Was there a significance to it, or was it just a random Midwestern state? The height of the crops (being tall enough that people could run and hide in them) seemed important since it was featured more than once–did Johnson realize that most of the crops in Kansas don’t match that description, or did he not actually research the area after he decided this story happened here? Was Kansas even considered when they were scouting production locations? Once they decided to film in Louisiana, with sugar cane fields, why not just change the setting? (I suppose the expectation of regional accents might complicate that a little).
Look, I’m thrilled that Johnson chose to set his story in Kansas, and I feel like I can claim it in some way, the way that some Hutchinson residents feel like they can claim a special connection to Superman. But it appears to me like there might have been other script changes made based on the location they ended up shooting, specifically the exchange between young Joe and Sarah, when he says she might as well burn her fields since they are dried up anyway, and she counters, “not gonna happen.” I wonder if those lines were in the original script in that way, or if they were added on site based on how the fields happened to look while they were filming. That leads me to another question, though–did the script originally call for Sarah to refer to her farmland as “cane fields”?
As I see it, there are a few possible explanations. Firstly, perhaps Rian Johnson originally wrote the script with another type of crop or a non-specific crop in the fields, and they changed it or specified to “cane fields” when they ended up shooting in Louisiana. Perhaps he just didn’t do any research on what Kansas is actually like, and based the imagery for his story on an amalgamation of rural America informed by geographically scattered references. Perhaps, perhaps, Johnson knew that sugar cane cannot grow in Kansas’ current climate, and the inclusion of it in this futuristic Kansas setting indicated that significant climate change was another thing to set the 2042 world apart from our present one, along with limited telekinesis, hovercraft technology, and of course time travel.
You might think it’s unreasonable for me to spend so much time and energy harping on a seemingly small detail like what kind of crops are in a fictitious movie. Believe me, I’m very aware that I’m nit-picking, but hear me out on two things–First, farming is some people’s entire life, many people that I know personally, and we all benefit from it. I can’t count how many times I’ve driven past the billboard that reminds, “One Kansas Farmer Feeds More Than 128 People + You!” I didn’t grow up on a farm and the incorrectness of the crops still jumped out at me on the first viewing. I just think making an effort to portray Kansas’ agricultural landscape accurately would be more respectful of the people who spend their lives putting food in your grocery stores and restaurants.
Second, I know it is a fictitious story, but if you’re going to set your story in a real place, why don’t you research that place and make it an accurate portrayal? The internet makes this ridiculously simple to do. Like, I didn’t know that much about growing sugar cane when I sat down to type this post, and now I know all the interesting things in this article, and how it was introduced to the South, and I’ll definitely be able to spot it right away without a google-image comparison next time I see it. That education took less than an hour. There’s really no excuse to make a major mistake like featuring a plant that doesn’t exist in your supposed setting!
Okay, having concluded my factual and reason-based rant, I have to reiterate once again how much I overall really, really loved Looper. I mean, I won’t be able to help noticing the out-of-place sugar canes every time I watch it, but they really aren’t very important to the story itself. The story could have taken place anywhere, as far as I’m concerned, which is part of the reason why I’m still so confused as to why they didn’t just change the setting to suit the footage better. What special connotations or meaning does setting a story in Kansas have to the general public? Or is it really that people who don’t live in the “fly-over states” can’t tell them apart? It’s *possible* that the inclusion of sugar cane was intentional, to hint at the climate change I theorized about earlier, but it requires assuming that everyone knows enough about agriculture to pick up on that. I have too deep a mistrust of movie accuracy, (based on too long a history of blunders, particularly when it comes to Kansas), to believe this was not a mistake without more definitive evidence.
You know, this is actually not the first film with a Kansas setting to star Joseph Gordon-Levitt! A few years back I netflixed The Lookout, and as I recall it’s also a really good flick. I didn’t take notes at the time, but my memory is that it looked, for the most part, very much like Kansas, (especially the highway scenes), but the dialogue made clunky over-reference to the fact that that was the setting. It’s not natural to refer to an everyday given, like the name of your state, so often and so obviously in conversation. I’ll have to re-watch it to get specific quotes.
Oh, and one more thing about Kansas and Looper–Joe’s safe combination is “6742.” Those are the first four digits of a handful of ZIP codes in Kansas, so was that an allusion to the fact that Joe’s character was originally from one of the small towns with a 6742- address? If so, that would be really cool, but it would also indicate that somebody did do some Kansas research, so then why the inaccuracy of the sugar canes? Unless the “climate change” theory is right, but if that were the case I think they would have mentioned it more explicitly.
Still a great movie!
**update** Saw the movie again last night and noticed several little futuristic things that were not explicitly mentioned, like solar panels on the roof of the farmhouse and on the hoods of several cars, and a tube connecting the exhaust pipe and gas tanks of cars like they had some way to re-use the fuel. So, it’s possible that the sugar canes growing in “Kansas” were supposed to be another unspoken piece of this futuristic setting, (although I’m still not sure whether people who don’t live around here would pick up on it, and I’m not wholly convinced, without some sort of indication to the contrary, that this isn’t just another example of Hollywood getting Kansas wrong). If it’s on purpose, that has to mean, as I said, extreme climate change. And another question would be, who’s growing the food? What are people eating? Or is a lack of food one of the reasons there’s so much cavalier violence and so many vagrants?
If the sugar canes are intentional, I think it might make a case for the unnamed “city” to be Wichita rather than Kansas City. It’s further south, so the climate would be a little warmer and less likely to frost, (deadly to sugar cane). Also, if we go with the theory that Joe’s safe combination is a partial zip code, the small towns that it could refer to (Beloit, Bennington, Beverly, Brookville, Bushton, or Canton) are all either west (or just barely east) of highway 135, which could be followed south straight to Wichita. The safe combination could be a reminder of some happy memory, of one of the places Joe and his mom stayed before she gave him up, or maybe the last place they were together. Fun fact–Canton, KS has two water towers humorously labeled “hot” and “cold”; that might be something a kid would remember! Wichita might also fit better with the story in the film, since it is more immediately surrounded by farmland whereas Kansas City is surrounded in suburbs. (But it could be they just never showed Joe driving through neighborhoods to get to his designated kill spot.)
I’m curious what other people think: is the sugar cane in Looper a mistake, or was it intentional?