With “Blade Runner 2049” playing on the big screen (where it must be seen in all its glory) amid debates about mismarketing and spoiler phobia, director Denis Villeneuve was relieved to be able to sit down and talk openly about making the movie — with a few well-placed spoiler alerts.
Like “Life of Pi,” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” along with its main Oscar rival “Dunkirk,” critically hailed “Blade Runner 2049” pushes the state of motion-picture making to its apex. And the Academy — from the picky directors branch and the crafts to actors with a fondness for long-overlooked Harrison Ford — should reward the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 “Blade Runner” with multiple nominations. (The original landed just two craft nods.)
I’m not the only one who came out of this complicated two-hour, 43-minute smart sci-fi epic with plot questions (some of which are answered on Wikipedia); that’s one reason it’s stumbling at the box office. But I was delighted to slake my curiosity about just how the filmmaker made this sequel to the Ridley Scott cult classic his own by collaborating on the stunning visuals with his long-time cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner.
Like Oscar-winner “Arrival,” with “Blade Runner 2049” Villeneuve fashioned a cerebral, complex and visually sumptuous narrative that is not easy to parse. Scott’s advice was, “Leave room for mystery;” he took that to heart. He recognizes the “privilege” of making an expensive art film — even if he says Alcon producers Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson pulled back on the scale of the movie as originally written by Hampton Fancher (“Blade Runner”) and Michael Green (“Alien: Covenant”). This is one situation where cinephiles can revel in the movie’s many wonders, even if Alcon and Sony (with remake rights, Warner Bros. released the movie in North America) never recoup their $185 million negative cost.
Here are nine things I learned about “Blade Runner 2049.”
1. Original Philip K. Dick adapter Fancher gave the movie its heart and soul.
French-Canadian Villeneuve, who was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar for “Incendies,” started out writing his own screenplays, but when he moved to America he decided that Hollywood screenwriters were better than him.
When he first read the “Blade Runner 2049” screenplay, he found familiar themes as well as beautiful surprises. “There is potential to do cinema,” he said. “Other things, you say to yourself, ‘That I can’t do, that’s something for Ridley Scott.’ I understood he could pull it off, but I have to do something different. That’s where the process of changing the screenplay starts.”
The director worked closely with Green before heading to Montreal with Deakins to create storyboards. “When you storyboard, you rewrite,” said Villeneuve. “A lot of images are stronger than words. Hampton wrote a little 80-page short-story musical that was the heart and soul of the movie, it was the source of my inspiration. The way I transformed the movie was to go back closer to these pages.”
2. Montreal meets Los Angeles.
At first, Villeneuve hewed close to the 1982 “Blade Runner.” “I was thinking about the movie a lot,” he said. “Every time I was making a scene or a shot or talking to actors or to Roger, I was trying to stay in contact with the presence of the first movie. I’d never done that before in relationship with another movie. The good news is, I’m so different from Ridley.”
But Villeneuve decided to make Los Angeles his own by introducing cold weather and snow. “The idea of winter for me was how to approach this project to bring something intimate to the aesthetic of this world,” he said. “I know winter a lot. I know when there’s snow how the light looks, the wind, the behavior of people, the way they talk, walk, think. It’s something very intimate. It was one of the ways I was able to bring that closer to me.”
3. The Pinocchio factor
K (Ryan Gosling) is an efficient, well-trained LAPD blade runner and 30-year-improved replicant who seeks out old-style replicants for extermination. The love if his life is Joi (Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas), a “Her”-style holographic woman who only appears in his apartment — until he installs an emanator in order to be able to take her out with him.
Villeneuve shoots the couple’s first foray outside on the roof in the rain so that it feels tactile, earthy and real. It was written as a sex scene, but the director amended that. “They are both kids,” said Villeneuve. “I wanted this scene to be romantic, but not erotic; there is eroticism in it. She’s a projection of him, we get that she’s supposed to say things that he wants to hear. She’s Jiminy Cricket, whispering in his ear. She’s a representation of his desires, and by having her character — something that is not from nature, walk out for the first time and experience reality and discover nature — that had the potential to make a beautiful scene.”
Of course, the question of whether K is a replicant, or the child of a replicant, or of Deckard — who could be a replicant — haunts the movie. Like Pinocchio, as K clutches a toy horse with his birthdate on it and questions the origins of his own memories, he wonders: Could he be a real boy? His quest in the movie is about finding his own identity.
4. The replicants are immature
Gosling has a cocky confidence as a policeman, but also has a chip on his shoulder as a second-class citizen and sexual neophyte. Villeneuve sees the replicants as “beautiful in their vulnerability and lack of experience,” he said. “They have the power and strength and intelligence of an adult, but they don’t have experience. They are a bit clumsy from an emotional point of view.”
The director loved working with Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks as replicant Luv: “Sometimes you feel that she doesn’t respond with the right emotional answer to the right situation,” he said. “She has too much emotion, or doesn’t know how to behave. K is trained as a police officer; he has to have a certain kind authority. He’s basically like a canine dog who is trained to bark and be strong, but in front of his owner, he becomes weak.”
His human boss, played by Robin Wright, flirts with him, but she isn’t the woman who introduces him to sex. “I like the idea that the only time he has been touched in his life was to get punched,” said Villeneuve. “That’s why the scene with [replicant prostitute] Mackenzie Davis made sense to me. That was the first time he was getting touched softly by someone. It’s a new sensation for him to get touched, not by violence.”
5. The three-way sex scene marked the film’s most daunting technical challenge.
K is making love to Joi for the first time by means of the replicant prostitute who stands under Joi’s holographic image. “For the first time, he will do something like a man,” said Villeneuve. “He will become a man. In his psyche, he wants to have her but can’t touch her; he wants to make love to her for the first time for real, so both hands of the women are touching his hands. It’s the first time he has affection like that, but he’s like a beaten dog.”
The scene marked a serious achievement for the VFX team, as Villeneuve wanted the actors to have freedom to move around. “We did choreography with the actors repeating exactly what the other one was doing,” he said. “After that, we scan both bodies in CG so both actors are in 3D and they merge. I wanted to feel like it was analog technology, not digital, with a photographic feeling. I wanted to feel the presence of the other woman: one is in love and the other one is there for a job, with different emotions. But the prostitute is being kissed by someone in love, she’s falling in love with so much affection going on. There’s a lot of things happening in this scene.”
6. Yellow was the warmest color
For the first time in his career, the filmmaker had a budget that allowed him to wholly control his filming environment — in this case, taking over several massive studios and warehouses in Budapest, Hungary. “We were creating the sets,” he said. “We took all the stages. It doesn’t happen often you have that chance.”
The movie is threaded with the color yellow. “It’s linked with dreams of childhood and pure childhood desires,” Villeneuve said, “the idea that the character would follow the yellow brick road of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ That color, I read a long time ago, is linked with madness. It’s a subconscious point of view, not something you are supposed to understand: it’s something you receive and feel.”
The blind villain Wallace (Jared Leto) is also associated with yellow. “He’s at the heart of that desire about childhood,” said Villeneuve. “He wants to create life; he has the same kind of crazy desires about early life.”
In one extraordinary, yellow-bathed scene, Wallace examines a full-grown female replicant being born, emerging from a gooey sac. This was a departure from the original screenplay.
“I felt that I needed something a bit more radical,” said Villeneuve. “It’s a very delicate scene. I had to make sure that it will not be an explanation of how replicants are made, but more like a sacred moment about the birth.”
It was important not to explain to the audience “where the replicants are coming from,” he said. “I wanted to show the brutality of their birth, what does it mean to be an object. They are like a new iPhone. That scene was about how they are not treated as human beings. I insisted to do that violence, to see how Wallace considered them. He’s a manufacturer.”
Extending the “Blade Runner” film-noir motif of slatted venetian blinds, Villeneuve encouraged Deakins to go wild with Wallace’s massive tower headquarters, with its dramatic bands of yellow light. “Wallace’s towers were like temples,” said Villeneuve, “a bunker designed to survive 10,000 years. He keeps the memory of his company there without windows because he is blind — the sensation of light that moves in front of his eyes like a pattern.”
The Wallace scenes gave perfectionist Deakins permission to escape from his loyalty to realism. He shot on the standard Arriflex digital camera, Alexa, because 65 mm would be less sensual and too computer-crisp. “‘This time, you can play God and create your own rules,'” Villeneuve told Deakins. Still, Villeneuve said, “he’s always in a bit of pain. He has to be Deakins on every shot, basically.”
7. Villeneuve’s favorite set was Las Vegas
So how do you create Vegas in a “Blade Runner” universe? “I wish we had the freedom like in the ’60s when Fellini was creating a crazy architecture,” Villeneuve said. “Then came the idea of these gigantic erotic statues that will be from the Garden of Sensuality, from that time when Vegas was about gaming and sex too, of course. As a film student, I visited Cinecitta and saw the sets of the Italian masters. I never thought I’d have the chance to create something crazy like that, with a dreamlike quality. You have the impression at this moment that the character is between both worlds. Dennis Gassner did those statues.”
Of course, the huge broken face on the ground references the iconic last shot of the original “Planet of the Apes.” (“Let’s have our ‘Planet of the Apes’ moment,” Villeneuve told Deakins and Gassner.) The director gave Deakins Antonioni’s “Red Desert” as reference, and was also inspired by seeing the Sydney Opera House enveloped by a red dust storm. As the filmmakers researched atmospheres and density, including one of the pollution fogs in Beijing, Scott called Villeneuve from Beijing and told him, “‘You should be here, it’s ‘Blade Runner’ right now.'” Said Villeneuve: “I knew we were on the right track.”
In one stunning San Diego scene on a slag heap of garbage reminiscent of “Wall-E,” Gosling’s LAPD cruiser is harpooned and brought down. “We tried with every shot to be in relationship with something real — clouds, landscape,” said Villeneuve. “In maybe 99% of the shots, there is always something real, whether the vehicle or the landscape, so it’s not in full CG world.”
8. Next up: He stops.
Soon, Villeneuve will tackle remakes of two other big-scale epics: the Frank Herbert sci-fi classic that defeated David Lynch, “Dune,” and producer Scott Rudin’s long-in-the-works “Cleopatra,” based on the Stacy Schiff non-fiction opus (not the Elizabeth Taylor version that almost bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox). But first: a nap.
“I want to just sleep, and take the month of November to think about what happened over the past six years, reflect on that,” said Villeneuve. “I have some projects, but I said to everybody, ‘I want to work, but I don’t want to start prep.’ It’s a privilege to work at that rhythm, to be in contact always with the camera, I deeply loved it, but you are always in the present time, then you shoot another movie. I need to watch movies, read books, and cook for a while before I jump again.”