Note: This interview originally ran back in July. We're re-running it now (with a few minor tweaks) because Blade Runner 2049 kicks large amounts of ass.
Back during this year's SDCC, I (along with a handful of other journalists) had the distinct honor of sitting down with one of my favorite working directors, Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Enemy, Sicario), who has just finished putting the final touches on Blade Runner 2049. Here's a guy who - as far as this writer's concerned - has never made a bad movie, a legit visionary. What did he have planned for the year's most secretive sequel?
He couldn't tell us much, but what he did have to say was very encouraging.
What gave you the confidence to do a sequel to a movie that's so beloved?
Denis Villeneuve: Three things. First of all, I had Ridley Scott’s blessing. That’s the first thing I asked once I said yes. There were some conditions. I wanted to be in front of him and looking into his eyes and saying, "Yes, you can do it." The second thing, the screenplay I felt had strong ideas in it. I’m not saying it was a perfect screenplay. I’m just saying that I understood why Ridley felt that there was potential to do a strong movie there. And the third thing was that I’d been offered a lot of movies in my life - big scifi movies - but I always felt it was dangerous to do those big movies because there’s a lot of pressure when you make (them). I said if I do it one day, it will be for something that is really worthy and really meaningful artistically for me.
(Blade Runner) is one of my favorite movies. I said to myself, "They will do it. No matter what we think, the studio will move forward and will make it." I don’t know if I’ll succeed but I know I will give it all my love and all my skills. I will work so hard. I didn’t want it to fall into the hands of someone that wouldn’t. I said, at least I will be passionate about it and give my blood to make sure it respects the spirit of the first movie. It’s a bit arrogant; I was afraid to see a sequel to Blade Runner but I said, at least if I do it, I will have some control over it. At least then I can blame only myself.
It seems like casting must have been crucial on this one.
The most important part of the film process is casting. You need strong actors. I’m a very different film director from Ridley Scott but it’s a thing that both of us have in common. We always aim for excellence with the actors in our casting; there’s no compromise. The casting I’ve done, one thing I’m sure of is that the performances in our movie are very strong. Very strong. I had the chance to do a massive casting around the world where I got to choose from among the best young actors.
One thing I love in the screenplay, there’s a lot of strong female parts. Femininity is very important in the second movie, just like it was in the first movie. So I had the pleasure to meet actors that sometimes are well known in their own countries but less known in North America sometimes, like Sylvia Hoeks and Ana de Armas and Carla Juri. Mackenzie Davis is in there, too, from Canada. Those young actresses are strong artists and they brought a lot to the movie. It was a long casting process.
Who's the secret weapon on this cast?
The four of them are the movie’s secret weapon, for different reasons.
If you hadn't landed Harrison Ford, would the movie have fallen apart?
It was the other way around! Harrison was there before me. The birth of the project was, the producers from Alcon were able to unfreeze the rights. Which was honestly like a master, high-skilled negotiation to get the rights back to life. They unfroze something that was very difficult and the first thing they did was approach Ridley. They said they’d love to do it with him and Ridley said, after 15 minutes, "Fly to London now." What Ridley told me was, when he did the original Blade Runner, he had the desire to follow Deckard’s and different other stories. It was a universe that was open, y'know, and you have a detective in the future. It was not necessarily intended to be one movie. The desire was there. It was just that so much shit happened with the first movie that it froze there.
They went to Ridley and they went to (screenwriter) Hampton Fancher and both of them had an idea to do a sequel that excited everybody, and the first thing they did once they got the idea was they phoned Harrison. At the early stage of screenwriting, they asked him because, without Harrison, there was no movie. Harrison said yes and they developed the script. Harrison was there before me. I didn’t go to Harrison; I had to be approved by Harrison, it's a different thing, y'know? Once I agreed to do the screenplay, I had to meet Ridley to hear from his own voice that he wanted me to do this. And then I had to meet Harrison - to be scanned by Harrison - to make sure I would be Harrison Ford approved.
One of the big things about the original Blade Runner is that it popularized this future-shock version of cyberpunk. The aesthetic imprint of it is all over the place now, everyone's done a Blade Runner-esque vision of the future. How do you plan to surprise people with this movie, aesthetically-speaking?
You’re putting your finger in the soft spot...is it a soft spot or a painful spot? It's a challenge. It’s a movie that has been so cut-and-pasted over the years that influenced sci-fi and all the movies -even Star Wars - are influenced by Blade Runner. So how can you go back to something that was so original but became a landmark? It was a long process to find the keys.
The keys were in the screenplay and the ideas of Hampton (Fancher) about how climate evolved. So, climate for me was a key because (portraying) climate means different kind of light. And that was something, with Roger Deakins, we explored those ideas and came back with something that we feel is deeply inspired by the first movie but slightly different. Let’s say that the first movie was made by a director born in England under the rain. The second one was made by a Canadian director that was born in snow. So the light is different. It took a lot of work to try to extend and project this universe into the future and try to find something that I hope will have some kind of freshness.
You mentioned wanting to stay true to the original spirit of Blade Runner. What did that entail? What was it you wanted to preserve?
There was a melancholia in the first movie, a nostalgiac feeling of loneliness and existential doubt. A kind of inner paranoia about yourself that I wanted to keep alive in the second movie. I wanted to keep the film noir aesthetic alive, as well - that was very important. And a certain kind of pacing, too, which I deeply love in the first movie. It's still made in the rhythms of (modern) movies, but I tried my best to keep that tension alive. Ridley told me that it touched him because I was able to extend that atmospheric quality that the first movie had.
There are multiple edits of the original film. Which one of those were you making a sequel to?
That's a good question. The thing is, I was raised with the first one. For me, there was one Blade Runner. At the time, there was no internet, there was no A.O. Scott. I remember seeing the first movie and falling deeply in love with it. It became, for me, an instant classic. Me and my friends were deeply in love with it. I remember a few months later reading a review of the movie that was very bad. I became so angry because I felt the critic was all wrong because he felt that the adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s novel was not right. I totally disagreed.
Later on I discovered what Ridley’s initial dream was and I really loved Ridley’s version, too. The thing is, the key to make this movie was to be in-between, because the first movie is the story of a human falling in love with a designed human being and the story of the (other edit) is the story of a Replicant who doesn't know he’s a Replicant and slowly discovers his own identity. Those are two different stories. I felt like the key to deal with that was in the original novel. In the novel, the characters are doubting about themselves, they are not sure if they are Replicants or not. For time to time, they’re running the Voigt-Kampff (test) on themselves to make sure that they’re humans. I love that idea! So I decided that the movie would be on that side, too, that Deckard in the movie is as unsure as we are about what his identity is. That I love, because I love mystery. That’s an interesting thing to me - not the knowing who he is or not - but the doubt (of it). Harrison and Ridley are still arguing about that! If you put them in the same room, they don’t agree. And they start to talk to very loud! So I sat in the middle like, "Welp..."
Would you say this Blade Runner's truer to Dick's novel than the original?
Haha, no, I will not go there. (Blade Runner 2049)'s main source of inspiration is the Ridley Scott movie. There are some little elements that are a wink to Phillip K. Dick, like...actually, no, I won't (tell you that). This would be much easier if you had already seen the movie.
There's a lot of secrecy surrounding this film, certainly moreso than any other project you've previously worked on -
Oh, it's insane. It's insane. At one point I was talking to someone in my crew, and I realized, oh, he hadn't read the screenplay. It's a movie that's designed on total secrecy, like a Star Wars movie or James Bond or something. The pressure of the internet, where every little spoiler goes viral...there's like an appetite to spoil the movies.
Did you enjoy working on something so secretive?
Haha, no. Two things: one, on all of my previous movies, you go and you do a movie and people don't really care (until it's done). No one was (eagerly) waiting for Sicario to get done. I didn't have to lock my copy of the script in a safe at night. Nobody cared! It was easy! I want the audience to see the movie knowing as little as possible.
Once I was on the jury at a film festival, and I watched every movie not knowing a thing about them, not even where they were from. You sit in a dark room and that's it - you don't know if it's a horror film or a comedy or if it's from Kazakhstan or the United States and the impact of that - in discovering a movie that way - is just so powerful. But (for most movies) people have seen a ton of images or trailers...two days ago my editor, Joe Walker, saw the (Blade Runner 2049) trailer and he was watching like (ed. note - Villeneuve puts his head in his hands and moans). And I was like, "It's okay, Joe, it's okay."
But it's hard. You work very hard to keep secret and create tension or surprise and then the marketing department just shows it all. I hope some day I will have control of that. I understand the importance of marketing and the needs involved but I wish we could sell movies without showing so much.
This is a much bigger movie than you've ever made, and you've got Dune lined up next. Is that something you're gravitating towards on purpose or is that just happening naturally?
It's happening naturally, but at the same time, I never, ever would've said yes to a project like (Dune) ten years ago. Each movie has its own challenges and I think it's natural - as a filmmaker - to be inspired to take bigger risks. My movies have always been bigger, one after another, from a technical point of view. Like, one of my favorite movies is Lawrence Of Arabia. To make a movie like that, you need a lot of knowledge and experience. I'm slowly walking in that direction.
Honestly, it's a blessing. If you'd told me ten years ago I was going to direct a Blade Runner sequel I would have laughed in your face. I would not have thought such a thing to be possible. But it happened naturally, and I had the time of my life doing this movie. To be working in that scope with these resources, to have the chance to build those sets, well (ed. note: here Villeneuve slips into Roy Batty mode) I've seen things...
There were some moments on set that I never thought I'd get to experience as a director. Never thought I'd have those toys, and get to use them live. And doing it live makes it real. There's a weight and a presence to it. Empire Strikes Back was much more impressive than the (Star Wars movies) with all the CGI. I'm not a big CG fan. It's a powerful tool, but it cannot just be that, y'know? We did our best to always try to use models and real vehicles, to shoot real landscapes and have actual life in front of the camera. A lot of the shots are done in-camera. Roger Deakins was our cinematographer, and he really had the mastery to recreate the images (I had in my head). I'm not saying I'll do it all my life, by right now I have the energy and desire that require these kinds of resources.
Did you keep anything from set?
There were, uh...some elements that I stole (laughs). Y'know, I have a lot of respect for directors who are doing sci-fi. I realized the amount of work required to do scenes in the future - to design all your clothes and all the little devices - it's quite an exciting but exhausting journey. My admiration for Ridley Scott just skyrocketed while making this movie. It's very difficult.
The original Blade Runner asks the viewer to think about how technology changes what it means to be human. Do you feel like you've made a movie where technology lets us be more empathetic to each other or more connected to each other? There's a lot of disconnection in the original. Do you feel you're closing a loop there?
No, unfortunately, I think that it’s an extension of the first movie. And what you describe is a lot of what science fiction is, exploring the human condition and our relationship with progress, or the unknown. But the DNA of the story I adapted from Hampton has the same thematics as the first movie, so we didn’t evolve in that regard.
Do you feel like technology can do that? Connect us more with each other?
No. I deeply believe it has to come from ourselves, inside, not from an outside device. That’s why sci-fi is so interesting.