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‘Blade Runner 2049’: How Editing Created Its Challenging and Uncompromising Dreamscape

Despite its weak opening, director Denis Villeneuve and editor Joe Walker made a hypnotic, immersive journey well worth taking.

Blade Runner 2049

“Blade Runner 2049”


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Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner” sequel honored and expanded the world of Ridley Scott’s original, with no small help from the narrative skills of Joe Walker, his go-to editor since “Sicario” and “Arrival.” The sequel is more complex than its predecessor; at 163 minutes, it’s a long, slow, and poetic journey, which didn’t connect with enough moviegoers in its opening weekend ($32.7 million). For those with the patience, the payoff makes it all worthwhile.

Creating a Dreamscape

“Denis often said to me that the movie should be like a dream,” said Walker (who earned an Oscar nomination for “12 Years a Slave”). “There’s something in the unconventional pacing of the film that tries to do that. Tension is maintained, but it’s stretched, allowing time for the audience to really immerse in these landscapes, not to let events pass mechanically by.

“This is a world that is like a patient etherized upon a table  on K’s [Ryan Gosling’s] rooftop you see adverts of faces in repose and you hear a woman’s gentle, hypnotic voice calming the population into sleep.”

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In this world, 30 years after the first movie, blade runner K tries to solve a mystery that leads him back to former blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford). Crucially, the investigation also throws K into an existential crisis. And, once again, humanity is linked to memories, which also links “Blade Runner 2049” to “Arrival.”

The challenge for Villeneuve was maintaining this hypnotic dreamscape while still keeping it fast enough for today’s audience. “When we viewed the first assembly, it was broken down, because of its length, into two halves,” Walker said. “The break, just at the point before K goes on the run, always felt like way more than an arbitrary convenience for viewing the cut. It seemed to mark a genuine part two.”

Both halves start with an awakening — a giant eye opens the movie  — and then a revelatory jolt. “In this second part, K has come through an initiation and his desires have changed,” Walker said.

Part of that initiation includes a bizarre visit to a young scientist, Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), who makes memories for replicants. She lives in a sterile-looking glass room and we view her work as imaginary dreamscapes. “There’s a strange sense of somebody being secluded like that,” Walker said. “It’s like a glass egg.”

"Blade Runner 2049"

“Blade Runner 2049”

What Walker found interesting was quite a selection of takes for Gosling when K goes to Ana’s lab to analyze a particular memory. “And in that moment there was one outstanding take and it’s the only one where he just loses it,” Walker said. “He kicks the chair across the table. And I thought it was so impactful because he’s played it down so much.

“And I was trying to get into the pacing, a sense of form about how to go on. At that moment, it just flips for him. He’s in trouble and he’s a renegade and he has to leave. And that’s how the story’s in two parts: Before that moment and after that moment.”

The Holographic Funhouse

But the most difficult scene to edit involved K playing a game of cat and mouse with Deckard in a Las Vegas showroom surrounded by holographic icons. It’s the perfect metaphor for this world of artificial experience and ersatz nostalgia.

“That was the longest part of the editing process,” said Walker. “It went on for about five or six months. There were storyboards and previs: Elvis glitching, Liberace playing, and Marilyn Monroe doing stuff. And we had to get it to a stage where they had music that they could run the lighting to. And the original plan was there was a cacophony of music. And Deni’s first rough thing that he did on his computer was heavy glitching between Elvis tracks, a hard punk kind of feel.

"Blade Runner 2049"

“Blade Runner 2049”

“He wanted something that was jarring and we ended up layering different types of music with the showgirls coming in and out and the go-go dancers suddenly cutting in. It was just enough so that we could shoot second-unit material, not only the music but the choreography and the lighting. And it all had to be in continuity.”

But then Villeneuve viewed the assembly and realized that the holographic funhouse had to be massively recut. It didn’t fit within the “Blade Runner” universe. It was more about the atmospherics than the manhunt.

“We pared down the number of show-off hologram effects, dumped the music, and made it about the lighting. And we had a sound designer, Theo Green, working with sound editor Mark Mangini and they restored something creepy and tense. And the music comes in and blasts like a speaker popping to life for a few seconds.

Blade Runner 2049 Harrison Ford

Harrison Ford in “Blade Runner 2049”

Warner Bros.

“It plays much more to the story point, which is that Deckard’s turned this light show on in order to have the advantage over K.”

It’s part of the bridge that connects the two “Blade Runner” movies. “Again, all the characters are striving for some kind of connection,” Walker said.

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