It has taken 35 years to move Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner universe 30 years into the future, but the day that many people thought would never come does indeed arrive this Friday with the release of Blade Runner 2049. While the three-time Oscar nominated director is not manning the helm this time out, as the executive producer of this latest effort, Scott’s shadow continues to loom very large in the dystopian world of 2049 Los Angeles.
In fact, Denis Villeneuve, who has taken over the director’s chair this time around, refused to become involved unless Scott anointed him. “I wanted his blessing. I walked into the room and said, ‘Give me your blessing and if you don’t, I walk out and I’m not doing the movie.’ There was no in-between for me,” says the French-Canadian director, who received his own Oscar nomination for 2016’s Arrival. “Blade Runner was a director’s movie,” Villeneuve adds. “The imprint of Ridley was very powerful and it inspired so many movies that came after, and that was the big challenge: to go back there with fresh eyes.”
The vision is indeed fresh, including the film’s star Ryan Gosling, who was all of two years old when the original Blade Runner stormed into theaters in 1982, but there are still members of the old guard represented. Harrison Ford is back in his iconic role of Rick Deckard and Blade Runner scripter Hampton Fancher again wrote the new story and script (along with screenwriter Michael Green).
Ford notes that Blade Runner has never been far from his mind over the past three decades: “I’ve thought about it frequently,” he admits, “because I’ve been reminded how many filmmakers took inspiration from that film and how it defined a certain kind of visual storytelling and how strongly the effect of the film has been on our culture, and on my life.”
For Fancher, putting together a new story in the saga came with a few starts—and ultimate stops—over the years. “Throughout the Eighties, sometimes Ridley [Scott] would give a call and say, ‘What do you think? Do you have any ideas? Maybe we should do something.’ That kind of thing happened a couple of times and I did have some ideas. I flew out to L.A. maybe twice to have meetings and we thought about going ahead, but then the rights were very confusing, so nothing ever happened.”
Ah, those pesky rights; the bane of a producer’s existence. The long and winding road that producers took trying to get this sequel made eventually reached its destination, but, sadly, original producer and Hollywood legend Bud Yorkin did not live to see it come to fruition, passing away in 2015. His wife and production partner Cynthia Sikes Yorkin notes that the ultimate journey took more than a dozen years. “We started over 12 years ago trying to get the rights untangled with a partner who was reluctant to see anything happen with Blade Runner after so many years, so we had to talk him into that first which took quite a while.
“We finally got the rights straightened out and we were able to pursue it,” she continues, “and it was very important to us as a producer-team to find people who were sensitive to and would uphold the integrity of the film and bridge that mythology in a meaningful way.”
Enter producers Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove, who ultimately took the reins and brought it all to fruition while noting the importance of not straying from what made the original film such an influential sci-fi classic. “It’s very helpful to protect the legacy of a film if the artists involved in the original film are part of the continuation of the story,” states Kosove. “It’s a real source of pride that Ridley and Hampton and Harrison, who were the geniuses behind the original film participated in this. We felt that was an important component to giving us the best chance at protecting the legacy and the universe that the first film had created.”
And part of that legacy has to do with creating monumental sets rather than relying on CGI and green screens. “It was so important to us to try and make the very best film that we could and we knew that entailed putting Denis and Roger Deakins [cinematographer] in the best position to achieve that art,” explains Johnson. “Part of that is real sets, real props, and the care and the love and the specificity that went into every little detail of the film.”
“What is so special about the movie that Denis has made is the humanistic quality of the film,” adds Kosove, “and there’s a lot of components that go into that: it’s the extraordinary performances of the actors, it’s the script that Michael and Hampton wrote. But, also, it’s being able to live in a real universe with real sets and real physical props, which brings the ability to improvise and what-not, as opposed to working within a green screen environment, which is an important component of how Denis creates the very humanistic movies that he does.”
The key ingredient in getting started with the project for the film’s director was getting Deakins, the 13-time Oscar nominated cinematographer, involved as early as possible. “The big difference with this movie is that I brought in Roger very early in the process,” says Villeneuve. “We started having working sessions in Montreal for months with two storyboard artists and we drew the whole movie and designed the movie together. The screenplay was giving us hints at what the world would be but we had to get more specific. In those Montreal sessions we defined the laws from a sociological point of view, an economic and geo-political point of view, the climate, the architecture, everything was designed in those early sessions with Roger. I really made the movie with him all the way from day one. I owe him a lot.”
The ultimate sets that were created were so impressive that the film’s stars were the ones who were star-struck. “The sets for all of us were very overwhelming,” says Sylvia Hoeks, who plays the memorable character Luv. “I remember before we went on to a new set, we’d ask each other: ‘What do you think this next set will look like?’ And every time it was so overwhelming. It would be something you wouldn’t expect. You felt like your own fantasies were so cliché in a sense [laughs]. For me, it was very important to understand this Blade Runner universe that Denis and Roger [Deakins] and [production designer] Dennis Gassner had created.”
Gosling echoes his colleague’s sentiments, recalling the sets built during the production in Hungary. “These incredible craftsmen in Budapest were building these environments. It just instilled a great amount of confidence in me and I felt very challenged by it, and excited by the opportunity.” Ford agrees, “A picture is worth a thousand words and when you get on a set where a lot of thought has been put into the visual aspects of that scene, you feel a support and you know what you don’t have to do. You have to be there for the other characters and service the story, but so much is done in a visual way that it certainly encourages your confidence.”
When it comes to the story of Blade Runner 2049, screenwriter Michael Green admits to being initially a bit “terrified” about the gig. “The idea of working on Blade Runner is absolutely playing with fire,” he says, “but it was exciting to have the chance to take something that Hampton had written and to work alongside Ridley and then Denis was a privilege. It’s a fortunate thing when you know who you’re writing for and you’re trying to please those two artists, because if they tell you that you did something wrong, you did something wrong. And if they say you did something right, you can sleep well [laughs].”
For Villeneuve, it was all about the script. “I will say that the one reason I said, ‘yes,’ was the screenplay. What Hampton had brought as ideas and what Michael Green brought together, there was necessary space for a director to bring his own imprint. I revisited all the drafts from Michael and the very early draft from Hampton, and they became my bible. The idea that as human beings we are programmed by our background and by our education, and how can we get free of that.”
Gosling notes that the original film had such a significant impact on him as a child that he was happy to see the new film carry the themes of the original. “When I saw [Blade Runner], I was 12, and it had been out for like ten years. What’s interesting about that film is not just the experience of watching it, but how it stays with you. At 12, I wasn’t asking myself what it meant to be a human being [laughs], but subconsciously those seeds were planted.
“But the question I asked myself after that and looking at the screenplay was, ‘Is there a story to be told here? Does it stand on its own? Is there something useful in here?’ Then I read a script that was a love letter to the original film, but also very much its own thing,” he goes on to say. “It was respectively carrying out the narratives and themes of the original, but, at the same time, introducing its own conceptual ideas that were massive in scale but also intimate and personal and emotional. This is an experience that’s unique to Blade Runner and a wonderful opportunity for me to be a part of something very unique.”
Working the character of Rick Deckard into a storyline that takes place 30 years after we last saw him was a topic of conversation between all involved as Villeneuve explains: “One of the toughest things for me was bringing back Harrison’s character. But to my great relief Harrison wanted to be part of the creative process right from the beginning, and to help me. I needed collaboration and a dialogue, and that dialogue evolved through time. In the beginning, there was uncertainty about how we bring him back to life. What would be his mental state having been away from our eyes for 30 years?”
“There was a period of questioning, as Denis indicates,” says Ford. “How much of the story to tell about the last time you saw Deckard and when you see him now, and what condition we find him in? And I found it a real pleasure to work with Denis’ imagination and have him respect the process, and I think we ended up in a place that really serves the film well. I was looking for an opportunity to extend the audience’s understanding of the character to be part of the telling of the story, but the whole of the story had to be something that I really wanted to be involved as well; not just my part. I saw that potential and I was also anxious to work with Denis and Ryan.”
While we’re only a few days away from audiences around the world visiting the future world of Los Angeles in the year 2049, for the filmmakers it’s been a long time coming. Perhaps producer Sikes Yorkin put it best when she said: “[Blade Runner 2049] is such an exciting ride that it will be talked about long after people leave the theater. I’m just very, very pleased that the dream of my late husband and myself came true, and that the dream of this team has come true in such an amazing way.”
To wrap things up here and get you caught up on what has been happening in Los Angeles between 2019 when we were last there and 2049 where we are heading this Friday, director Denis Villeneuve brought together three separate filmmakers to create a trilogy of shorts designed to fill in that 30-year gap. We have brought them all together for you here. Study up, we're only days away!