On the surface, the idea of making a sequel to Blade Runner would seem unthinkable. Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film (adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) was, whether you are a fan or not, a unique, almost one-of-a-kind experience that became a massively influential cultural landmark and aged into classic status over the course of the past 35 years. It would surely be the height of arrogance on the part of any studio or producer to try and replicate that (so to speak), and any filmmaker looking to ascend that edifice of expectations and pre-conceptions would inevitably be doomed to failure.
But this is Hollywood, where no idea good or bad lies dormant for very long, and a sequel, titled Blade Runner 2049, is bearing down upon us. That’s where Denis Villeneuve comes in. The seemingly fearless French-Canadian director and writer has been building a body of work over the last few years that is provocative, challenging, visually sumptuous and often thematically disturbing, ranging from his breakout drama Incendies to last year’s exercise in hard science fiction, Arrival. The often stunning imagery in his recent films (thanks to his collaboration with genius cinematographer Roger Deakins) and his clear understanding of the sci-fi genre make him, on paper, an ideal candidate for this.
As Den of Geek sits down with Villeneuve in a downtown Los Angeles hotel suite to discuss the film, we ask if directing a Blade Runner sequel was either intimidating or a challenge he wouldn’t want to pass up. “It was both,” he admits. “At the beginning, I was frightened to the core. Before I read the screenplay, my first reaction was I thought this was very exciting that Ridley Scott wanted to do it (Scott produced the new movie), but at the same time, I was thinking, ‘Is it the most fantastic bad idea of all time?’ There’s a trend to revisit all those classics. I wasn’t sure until I read the screenplay. When I read the screenplay I understood what the idea was behind it and saw the potential to make a great movie.”
Villeneuve was intrigued by the prospect of making a movie — based on the screenplay submitted by original Blade Runner co-writer Hampton Fancher and Michael Green — that expanded upon the themes of the first film. “There was very strong ideas in the screenplay,” he says. “I said, ‘Okay, I get it.’ It’s not a regurgitation, it’s not recycling something. It’s really approaching it from a different angle with the same kind of poetry. That’s why I felt compelled (to do it). It took me a while before I said yes, because it’s such a huge responsibility. But at the same time, it made sense, from an artistic point of view, to take that risk. I had done some movies that were giving me the privilege to maybe be part of this project, and I was ready to risk everything because artistically it made sense.”
Making Blade Runner 2049, for Villeneuve, was in a way like coming full circle for the director; like so many filmmakers and enthusiasts, the original film was a touchstone for him. “At the very beginning of my journey as a filmmaker, the birth of the idea of being a filmmaker was around the year when I saw Blade Runner. It was really one of the movie that made me say, ‘Okay, I want to be a filmmaker.’ The way of telling a story, the power of a director, they’re all linked with Blade Runner. So, for me, it was a circle, you know? If I cross the street tomorrow and a car hits me, then I will be in peace, because I will have done something that I was dreaming to do since the very birth of the idea of being a filmmaker.”
Taking the job presented a different kind of artistic challenge for Villeneuve as well, in that he was working for the first time in an existing universe and not one he was creating on screen for the first time. “That was the toughest thing,” he says with a small laugh. “Do you dream from the dream of someone else? How can I take Ridley’s vision, Ridley’s world, and make it my own? It’s all about giving yourself permission. To enter in the church with the paint. But I had (Ridley’s) blessing, which was the key. It was a process to find my own voice in this world, but I had the time to research and think about it. I also had strong allies, and one of them was Roger Deakins. Right from the start, I brought him my ideas and he helped me to shape those ideas and protect them through the process.”
In addition to Scott and Deakins, Villeneuve says that his stars — Ryan Gosling as the blade runner known only as K and Harrison Ford returning to the role of Rick Deckard — also made significant contributions to his vision for the movie. “Both of them were strong collaborators from a storytelling point of view,” he says. “Something I’ve discovered is that not all actors are good storytellers, but both of them are very conscious of storytelling — not from an ego point of view but really for the sake of the movie, and they helped me a lot to bring their characters to life.
“I would say that I felt a huge responsibility to bring back Rick Deckard,” he says. “I felt that Harrison was more than willing to collaborate, was more than willing to bring ideas, to brainstorm with me…Harrison was really protective of Rick Deckard in the first movie, so to feel that he was still as passionate as he was, and that he was ready to help me to bring him to life, meant the world because that was one of the biggest challenges.”
Saying that he felt like a “guardian of the legacy of the first movie,” Villeneuve says he saw his role as keeping Blade Runner 2049 as close as possible to the spirit and thematic concerns of the original. Those themes are also espoused (somewhat differently) in the book by Philip K. Dick, and with both the sci-fi movies he’s done coming from literary sources (Arrival was based on a short story by Ted Chiang), we ask Villeneuve if he grew up reading in the genre.
“Yes, yes, yes,” he affirms. “I will also say graphic novels were very important in my youth, and there’s a lot of very strong graphic novelists from Europe, from Belgium and France, like Bilal, Mœbius, Druillet, Mézières, Edgar P. Jacobs…they constructed those beautiful visual universes. I was raised with those, and I realized as I was talking with Ridley that he had the same references. They’re less known or unknown in America, but Ridley being from England, we shared the same references. A movie like Arrival was definitely inspired by those authors.”
Both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 deal with pivotal moments in the future of the human race, but Villeneuve doesn’t necessarily see that as a subject he consciously wants to explore in the sci-fi genre. “I prefer the idea of approaching the border of the unknown,” he suggest. “The idea that you are in contact with something, that you don’t have the answers and it raises existential questions. That something is outside of our knowledge or our zone of comfort with science. That’s what I would say.”
Villeneuve’s next project may be a new film version of the classic sci-fi novel Dune, in which the emergence of a superbeing brings about the potential to effect massive changes not just on the desert planet where the story is set but throughout the galaxy. If it goes forward, it will be Villeneuve’s third straight sci-fi adaptation and one with the same ambition and sweep as Blade Runner 2049. “I would love to do it,” he reveals. “It’s the birth of the project right now. I’m just drawing and Eric Roth is writing the screenplay right now. If the studio and I agree on it, then it will happen. If we don’t, then I’ll be sad (laughs). But yeah, I would love to make that.”
Blade Runner 2049 is out in theaters Friday (October 6).