In the American filmmaker Rian Johnson's forthcoming science-fiction movie, Looper, a time travel plotline means that audiences will be able to see two versions of the same character together. When the ageing Joe (Bruce Willis) circa 2070, gets sent back 30 years, he confronts the man charged with the task of murdering him; his 2040-era self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who naturally hesitates to kill himself.
That sense of déjà vu, of seeing two versions where there is supposed to be only one, may be exacerbated for audiences when Looper is released locally on October 11. While Australia will see one version of the movie, based on the original American edit, a different edition of Looper will screen in China.
During production Johnson needed to set a portion of the story in a foreign city, and his initial choice was Paris. But when the Chinese distributor heard about his decision, they suggested that Johnson shoot in Shanghai, which not only suggests a futuristic metropolis, but also made the shoot into a co-production, which had positive financing implications. Johnson, who was making science-fiction without a blockbuster's budget, agreed.
Subsequently, during the post-production process, Johnson trimmed down the Shanghai scenes for reasons of length, but the Chinese distributor asked for them to be reinstated, for release in that territory. Johnson, as he recently told Filmmaker magazine, liked the scenes – they illuminated one of the main characters, and there was a strong performance by a Chinese actress as the wife of Willis' Joe – so he agreed. Looper would have more of China, and it will run longer in China.
There have long been different versions of films released around the world. It's often the case, for example, that a successful movie is tightened up in terms of running time for release in foreign territories. But what Looper suggests, and which appears more likely as China and India bring vast audiences into newly built multiplexes, is that film shoots will take different regions into account on the level of script and shooting.
If a director is already making a movie, such as Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, that shifts between IMAX and 35mm, is it that much of a stretch to earmark different scenes for different countries? There are certainly already precedents: another independent sci-fi production, 1995's Johnny Mnemonic from visual artist Robert Longo, ran longer in Japan, where there was great interest in the presence, alongside Keanu Reeves, of revered Japanese actor and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano (Hana-bi, Zatoichi) in a supporting role. In the Japanese edit, Kitano was more like the co-lead.
Films are increasingly made for a worldwide audience, as opposed to America and a handful of other English-speaking nations including Australia, and the casting process has already become a global process. Taking that a step further, with the filmmaker's support, and tailoring movies for different audiences may well be the next step for what is already an artform with unprecedented global reach. By the next time Spider-man is rebooted, he may be flying across different skylines in different edits, or the same scenes may be shot twice, with an American and a Chinese actress playing separate versions of the same object of his adolescent desire. The possibilities, and also the risks, truly are endless.